Dreamcatcher. Directed by Kim Longinotto. New York: Women Make Movies, 2015. 98 minutes.

I Am Jane Doe. Directed by Mary Mazzio. Babson Park, MA: 50 Eggs Films, 2017. 99 minutes.

Reviewed by Erin C. Heil

Dreamcatcher and I Am Jane Doe take a victim-centered approach to understanding domestic sex trafficking. Both films illustrate the complexities surrounding this issue, offering a unique voice to address the players in the trafficking world, including victims/survivors, families of survivors, traffickers, and buyers.

Dreamcatcher follows the outreach work of Brenda Myers-Powell in her efforts to protect young women from sex trafficking in Chicago. A survivor herself, she provides first-hand accounts of the factors that make individuals vulnerable to being trafficked, specifically lack of familial support, runaway or throwaway status, addiction, and childhood sexual abuse and molestation. The film follows Brenda as she meets with victims, at-risk youth, and survivors. She also provides insight into the perspectives of traffickers as she collaborates with a former pimp, Homer, to speak at conferences and schools about his experiences.

The way this film portrays different dimensions of trafficking may ring familiar to students. Victims and survivors tell us what led them to the streets, and their experiences share a striking pattern of abuse that school-aged at-risk youth may also be experiencing. Students can think about the meaning of terminology, as “prostitution” and “trafficking” are used interchangeably throughout the film. This correlates with the criminalization of the victim that we see when trafficked victims are being convicted as prostitutes and could generate an interesting discussion as to how language affects the justice system. Dreamcatcher could be shown in courses across a variety of disciplines, including women’s studies, criminal justice, and social work. I would teach this film in conjunction with readings from Social Work Practice with Survivors of Sex Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation.1 I would also highlight victim vulnerabilities alongside articles like “Risk Factors for Domestic Child Trafficking in the United States.” 2 This film could also be paired with the Dreamcatcher Foundation website, which offers more information on outreach efforts to end sex trafficking.

I Am Jane Doe follows the legal battle against Internet-facilitated sex trafficking, specifically survivors who have sued Backpage.com, a known advertiser of child sex trafficking. Following the legal cases of J. S., M. A., and Jane Doe, the film examines how legal interpretation can impede justice for the victims and survivors. The Communication Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), section 230, which protects companies from being sued for things that third parties post, has consistently enabled Backpage.com to be found not liable for facilitating the sex trafficking of minors on the website.

I Am Jane Doe is a film about justice and reclaiming voices, highlighting the importance of victim protection in the age of online advertising and Internet communications. Students will be challenged to define justice and reflect on what civil rights we are willing to sacrifice to ensure justice for victims. Thus the film would be relevant to a variety of disciplines, including courses in criminal law, women’s studies, and social justice. I would have students consider civil liberties associated with the First Amendment and what they believe Internet providers should be held liable for. I would pair the film with the CDA section 230 so that students could interpret the legal wording for themselves. Given the timeliness of this issue, I would also introduce students to H.R.1865 - Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, which seeks to amend section 230 of the CDA. Students could then discuss whether or not they agree with this act and consider whether or not there should be any amendment to the CDA, and specifically this section.

1 Andrea J. Nichols, Tonya Edmond, and Erin C. Heil, ed., Social Work Practice with Survivors of Sex Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation (New York: Colombia University Press, 2018).

2 Lisa Fedina, Celia Williamson, and Tasha Perdue, “Risk Factors for Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in the United States,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 34, no. 13 (2016): 2653-73.

Erin Heil (erconle@siue.edu) is an associate professor of criminal justice studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She has published extensively on the topic of human trafficking, authoring the book Sex Slaves and Serfs, coauthoring Human Trafficking in the Midwest, and coediting Broadening the Scope of Human Trafficking Research: A Reader.