Global Corporate Citizenship and the “Girl Effect”
Equal parts social movement, revival meeting, infotainment, and product launch, the Global Forum on Human Trafficking is held in the heart of Silicon’s Valley’s “Google-opolis” at Juniper Networks, a “Web 2.0” firm which specializes in the production of routers. Present at the Global Forum are some of the most important new constituencies in contemporary campaigns to combat sex trafficking, social actors who have circulated the issue beyond the range and capacities of the initial coalition of secular feminists and evangelical Christians who embraced it as their cause. These new constituencies include socially entrepreneurial business ventures such as Juniper Networks (who hosted the 2011 forum in order to promote its new “Free2Work” anti-trafficking mobile phone app), a new crop of “celebrity activists” such as Mira Sorvino and Demi Moore, and multi-national corporations such as the Gap, Exxon Mobil, and Manpower Incorporated.
While many analysts of transnational feminism have trained their eye upon the United Nations as the principle sphere of global feminist engagement, the surge in advocacy of socially entrepreneurial actors around questions of “women’s human rights” and new corporate commitments to “empowering women and girls” may prove to be equally consequential.
In what ways have moral and political mobilizations around questions of sex and gender been vital to the rise of neoliberal governance as well as to the ascendance of what Fassin (2011) has termed “humanitarian reason”? How has the rise of “global corporate citizenship” served to alter the terrain of sexual and gender politics? Michelle Murphy (2011) has demonstrated how agendas of population control, Western feminist calls for reproductive rights, and legacies of neo-colonial development congeal in capital-intensive campaigns such as the Nike Foundation’s popular video on the “girl effect,” which screened to great acclaim at the 2009 World Economic Forum. Building on Murphy’s analysis as well as other accounts of the neoliberalization of global gender politics, this paper draws upon ethnographic observations at the Global Forum and other corporate-activist venues to describe a brave new landscape of sexual and gender politics that social theorists have barely begun to consider. While resurgent alliances between feminists and evangelicals have been an ongoing preoccupation of critical scholarship on sex trafficking and other issues in sexual politics, equally pertinent to consider is both groups’ current robust partnership with a neoliberalized state apparatus.
Elizabeth Bernstein is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University. During the 2011-2012 academic year, she is also a Member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. She is the author of Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2007) and co-editor of Regulating Sex: the Politics of Intimacy and Identity (New York: Routledge 2005). Her current book project, Brokered Subjects: Sex, Trafficking, and the Politics of Freedom, explores the convergence of feminist, neoliberal, and evangelical Christian interests in the shaping of contemporary policies around the “traffic in women.”