Identifying Gaps and Future Directions in Human Trafficking Research

Saturday, January 17, 2015: 10:00 AM-11:45 AM
Balconies K, Fourth Floor (New Orleans Marriott)
Cluster: Violence Against Women and Children
Symposium Organizer:
Celia Williamson, PhD, University of Toledo
BACKGROUND: Since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, there has been an urgency to provide information on trafficking victims and perpetrators, including estimates of the scope of the problem in the U.S. and worldwide. Undoubtedly, there are debates within the current discourse on human trafficking as well as significant gaps and deficiencies in the research. Forgoing quality, some estimates of the problem are questionable at best and based on weak methodology. In conjunction, many activists sensationalize human trafficking without recognizing the complexities of the issue. 

This symposium seeks to address four under-researched and problematic areas of human trafficking to build and improve the empirical body of research in this area: 1) Customers play an integral role in the business of sex trafficking and prostitution; however, they are rarely held accountable in courts or acknowledged in research; 2) In some regions of the world and in the U.S., sex trafficking in its most severe form may be controlled by gangs without the proper attention paid to the unique needs for recovery for women caught in and controlled by gangs; 3) research has been conducted on risk factors for women involved in prostitution that is similar to sex trafficking victims, yet one is deserving of rescue and support while the other is stigmatized.; 4) Flawed data has significant implications for policy and practice, including appropriate allocation of funds for anti-trafficking efforts. 

METHODS: Cross-sectional designs and individual quantitative surveys were used in the studies addressing demand/customers, gang-affiliated women in prostitution, and risk factors for women involved in trafficking. A systematic review was conducted to identify, analyze, and critique existing prevalence studies on human trafficking. Data collection sites for three studies included the large southwestern city of Phoenix and 5 mid-sized cities in Ohio. Researchers conducted descriptive statistics, chi-square, and t-tests. 

RESULTS: Overall, results critique the current landscape of the issue of sex trafficking and offer recommendations for future research on human trafficking. Results provide insight into the unique experiences of gang-affiliated women involved in prostitution and sex trafficking while providing a narrative on the need for social workers to shed misconceptions and labels when working with at-risk populations. In addition, characteristics of men who purchase sex are provided. The systemic review links the research themes together with an investigation of methodologies. 

CONCLUSIONS: To date, we cannot say with any level of certainty the exact number of individuals trafficked into the commercial sex industry. Activists and advocates are engaged in “rescuing” victims and neglecting similar at-risk populations, while a national dialogue about customers is nonexistent.  Future research, which may be several years away, should impose a stronger and more reliable methodology. Social workers should lead in the empowerment of all disenfranchised women. The acknowledgment and accountability of customers, or the demand side of the equation, is critical to effectively addressing sex trafficking. Attending to these matters increases the opportunities that both advocates and researchers will offer successful and meaningful work to address those who are vulnerable in the commercial sex trade.

* noted as presenting author
Customers: The Invisible Component of Sex Trafficking Made Visible
Tasha Perdue, MSW, University of Southern California
Exploring the Unique Treatment Needs of Gang-Involved Sex Trafficked and Prostituted Adults
Dominique E. Roe-Sepowitz, PhD, Arizona State University; Kristine Hickle, MSW, Arizona State University
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