With new awards, humanities, social sciences faculty to advance scholarship on freedom, sexuality

Prestigious awards from the Institute for Citizens and Scholars will allow assistant professors Elena Shih and Emily Owens to finish book projects on contemporary sex trafficking, and enslaved women in antebellum New Orleans.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Two Brown University scholars who study sexuality and freedom landed major Institute for Citizens and Scholars funding awards that will help them take their book projects to the finish line.

Elena Shih, an assistant professor of American studies who is an expert in human trafficking, labor migration and sex work, won the Mellon Emerging Faculty Leaders Award, which supports research by faculty who are dedicated to making their campuses more equitable and inclusive.

Emily Owens, an assistant professor of history and historian who focuses on race, gender and sexuality, won a Career Enhancement Fellowship, which provides junior faculty who are committed to diversity and inclusion with sabbatical stipends, professional development opportunities and funds to offset the cost of research travel.

The two scholars won awards that, according to the ICS, are ultimately intended to support faculty who hope to balance their research and career aspirations with a deep desire to serve their campus communities. But that’s not all they have in common. Shih and Owens are neighbors, fellow parents and close colleagues. And though their work may seem different on the surface, they say the subjects they examine — sex work, consent, power imbalances — are inextricably linked.

Following news of their awards, Shih and Owens answered questions about their research projects, commonalities in their scholarship and more.

Q: What projects will you work on with your award funding?

Shih: My book project is titled “Manufacturing Freedom: Trafficking Rescue, Rehabilitation, and the Slave Free Good.” It’s a global enthnography of the movement to combat human trafficking in China, Thailand and the United States. With this project, I’m exploring a lot of the complexities of the anti-trafficking movement that don’t get addressed very often. Unfortunately, the anti-trafficking movement has made the lives of many sex workers harder and has taken away a lot of their agency. And those who do want to extricate themselves from sex work often have to portray themselves in a particular chaste, feminine way to get legal help and to find other paid work.

Owens: My book is called “The Fantasy of Consent: Violence and Survival in Antebellum New Orleans.” It’s about the history of a slave market in which white men purchased enslaved women for sex, as concubines and brothel workers. When these men tried to “buy” women’s consent, society imagined these women as part of a deal or contract, and the laws of the time reflected that: They excluded enslaved women, and women who sold sex, from protection against sexual violence, making it impossible for them to file a rape claim. I’m writing about the violence these women encountered, the structures that facilitated the violence, and the creative ways they used the courts to their advantage, despite the fact that the system was set up to harm them.

“ We should work hard to move on from simplistic ideas about who is a victim and who is a criminal.  ”

Elena Shih Assistant Professor of American Studies

Q: How did you being working together after your respective arrivals at Brown?

Shih: We started at Brown at the same time, and we got to know each other because we’re both fellows at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

I try to be very careful about how the study of “human trafficking” is affiliated with CSSJ. Recently, it’s become quite fashionable to equate contemporary sex trafficking with historical racial slavery — for instance, calling human trafficking “modern-day slavery.” But this is incredibly dangerous and has negative consequences. It captivates people who feel guilt that their ancestors participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and moves them to speak out against trafficking, which unfortunately tends to displace interest and funding from understanding the history of chattel slavery and its contemporary racial legacy.

I think Emily’s and my work, taken together, highlights the problems and complexities of contemporary human trafficking while also providing historical context for it and reminding people that we are still grappling with the effects of racial slavery.

Owens: We have a collaborative CSSJ research cluster in the works that will be called Sex and Unfreedom. We initially came up with the idea because we found we were mentoring, advising and serving together on many students’ thesis committees, which showed the similarities in our research focuses. Once we both finish our book projects, we hope to launch that cluster and delve more into the ways our work intersects. 

Q: How does your scholarship overlap?

Shih: I think one thing we’re both doing is bringing forward stories of women’s existing survival strategies. In the early 2000s, the Global North, the United Nations and policymakers created a narrative about human trafficking and framed the anti-trafficking movement as a humanitarian initiative. But scholars have shown that what they really did was create a very narrow definition of who can be recognized as a victim of trafficking and who cannot. They excluded migrants, undocumented workers and people with any sort of criminal background, for example. And they turned to the market economy to “rescue” and “rehabilitate” these women, training them in things like jewelry-making and handbag-sewing so they could make so-called slave-free goods to be sold in the U.S. It implied this idea that we can buy somebody’s freedom. 

In my book, I’m asking: Rather than offering new, market-driven forms of rescue and rehabilitation for victims of sex trafficking, how do we shift this by looking at ways that women were already organizing? Like the women Emily is studying, how did sex workers find their own paths to freedom when the state wasn’t conferring it on them? 

Owens: Another site of convergence in our projects is that we both explore the particular ways women have to present themselves in order to be recognized as a victim. My work uses court transcripts to understand the lives of the women I study. What’s so striking to me is the way they made their arguments. They were so savvy. They knew exactly what kinds of arguments would or wouldn’t help them get more free. They couldn’t argue that slavery was wrong, or that a man beating up a woman was wrong, because they knew that wouldn’t sway anyone at the time. Similarly, in Elena’s work, you see sex workers being asked to perform a particular form of femininity, like taking a job making jewelry, in order to be presented as eligible for “rehabilitation.” Like the women I study in the past, marginalized women in the present are strategizing within, through and against a set of structures set up by people who are not fundamentally interested in seeing them survive and thrive.

I think ultimately we’re both arguing that laws, then and now, are structured in a way that makes it too easy to blame women for violence they’ve endured. To help us rethink sexual violence and how to respond to it, the first thing we need to do is to listen to women more and take women more seriously.

“ To help us rethink sexual violence and how to respond to it, the first thing we need to do is to listen to women more and take women more seriously. ”

Emily Owens Assistant Professor of History

Q: What are some potential solutions to the problems your scholarship is confronting?

Owens: As a historian, I have the option to say, “I talk about the past,” and not hold myself accountable to its possible impact in the present. I never meaningfully identified as an activist-scholar. But over the last few years, I’ve learned so much from Elena about the response side of this work. 

My work has shaken my faith in legal remedies to interpersonal problems. I’m not advocating against the function of rape law, but I am concerned that it doesn’t function well at all, and that our focus on “consent” isn’t working. There’s huge discourse in campus communities about what consent is and what it should be. A lot of it centers on how to retrain “our boys” so they grow up to be respectful sexual partners. Some of that work is brilliant, but a lot of it hinges on a presumption that it’s possible to create totally egalitarian situations in interpersonal relationships. I think the first step is to start talking about the power imbalances that exist in all relationships. The questions we end up asking in sexual assault cases — How much did she consent? Was it enough consent? How much did she want it? — keep coming back to this presumption that women are co-conspirators in violence that’s done to them. But the power that people gendered as men inherit in a patriarchal society doesn’t just go away because we want it to, or because they asked for sex in the right way. I’d like to see conversations about sex that presume power remains imbalanced in interpersonal interactions, and to try to create nonviolence, and mitigate harm, within that reality.

Shih: In my scholarship, I point to a failed vocational training program in Myanmar that taught former sex workers how to repair motorcycles on the road. It was a brilliant idea because it was a mobile business that was tied to local industry. But it failed because it was a “dirty,” not traditionally feminine kind of work, so it was hard to drum up support. We need to ask ourselves why we are only willing to support victims of sex trafficking via feminized forms of kitsch labor, like training to make jewelry or tote bags or silk pajamas. Let’s be realistic about the kinds of work these women can do that don’t need global non-governmental organizations acting as middlemen. 

The second solution is, we need to support people’s right to organize when their workplaces aren’t working well. Many women may choose sex work because they are familiar with the industry and it makes them a decent living. Let’s support organizing work that is already happening on the ground. I know supporting existing activism is less compelling to consumers than buying a pair of earrings that might “rescue” someone, but the former is ultimately more meaningful. 

Q: What impact do you hope your projects have? 

Shih: The anti-trafficking movement is so powerful. We are all complicit in curating and shaping it. Yet there’s a fear to look in the shadows and see where our money goes, what it supports. I hope I make people realize that there is no single fantastic solution to the problem of sex trafficking. We should not be satisfied with a company that tries to sell us goods with a savior video that has a neat narrative arc and an emotional soundtrack. We should work hard to move on from simplistic ideas about who is a victim and who is a criminal. 

Owens: I hope my scholarship begets more scholarship. As I’ve been turning the corner toward the end of this book project, I’ve realized there are so many resources I’ve had to create from scratch, like databases of all the rape laws that existed in the antebellum South, or maps, or other sets of sources. I decided recently to include a lot of these tables as appendices in my book, because I want to leave an easy-to-read breadcrumb trail for scholars who want to dig deeper into these resources. There’s so much left to learn about enslaved women in antebellum New Orleans that could help inform the way we think about consent and any number of other topics. These women are not done speaking — there is so much more we can learn from them.