Methods: This study employed feminist and qualitative methodologies through directed qualitative content analysis (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005) of 20 social work syllabi from accredited social work programs across the United States and 20 in-depth semi-structured interviews. Interviews were conducted with 20 social work instructors to inquire “what” and “how” they teach content related to the sex trades. Participants were recruited through targeted and snowball sampling strategies. Data from syllabi was coded using a data analysis template, while transcripts of the interviews were hand-coded line by line. Thematic analysis was then used to identify common themes.
Results: From my data analysis, I identified ten themes and four subthemes of what was both present and missing in the data. The overarching finding from this study is that there was an substantial emphasis on teaching social work students that cisgender women and girls in the sex trades are primarily victims of sex trafficking who can be helped by law enforcement and the criminalization of the people who traffic them. Further, I discovered a number of tensions between what faculty named as their teaching priorities and the course content used to teach students about the sex trades.
Conclusions and Implications: A substantial amount of content in social work courses focused on the sole victimization of people in the sex trades and how social workers can participate in efforts to prevent trafficking, protect victims, and prosecute traffickers. Concomitantly, there was a shortage of content that discussed the available (or lack thereof) resources for people leaving the sex trades. This is a significant omission given that there is minimal long-term housing available to “survivors of sex trafficking” and frequently those under 18-years old who are rescued are housed in Juvenile Detention Centers. Given the risk of perpetuating intersectional and gender-based violence through criminal consequences for women of color, poor people, drug users, trans and non-binary people, undocumented immigrants, and youth involved in juvenile justice and/or foster care systems involved in the commercial sex trades, social workers must be reflexive about how their social location impacts the desire to “help” people.