Abstract: Perceived Mutuality and Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: A Qualitative Exploration of Victims Trafficked By Friends (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Perceived Mutuality and Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: A Qualitative Exploration of Victims Trafficked By Friends

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Liberty Ballroom N, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Mary Twis, PhD, Assistant Professor, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX
Lynzee Gillespie, BSW, Student, Texas Christian University
Background and Purpose. Domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) is the commercial sexual exploitation of a minor citizen or legal resident within United States borders. DMST is of particular concern to social workers because it is a human rights violation that is rooted in the very racial and economic inequalities that social workers are ethically mandated to address. Previous research suggests that although DMST is often discussed as though it is a uniform phenomenon, traffickers may use different tactics and exploit different victim vulnerabilities depending upon their established relationships with those who are at-risk for trafficking. Despite growing attention to varied victim-trafficker relationship dynamics, little is known about how traffickers exploit victim vulnerabilities when victims perceive their traffickers as friends. The purpose of this study, therefore, is to explore how victim vulnerabilities may be associated with DMST victimization by a trafficker perceived as a friend.

Methods. This study utilizes the secondary case files of 66 domestic minors who were trafficked for sex by their friends in one state in the United States between 2012 and 2017. The mean age of the sample is 15.78 (SD = 1.03). The majority of the sampled DMST victims were African American (n = 27, 40.91%), followed by 16 White victims (24.24%), 16 Hispanic victims (24.24%), and seven victims from other racial backgrounds (10.61%). The study is conceptualized according to the principles of directed content analysis (DCA). The two authors conducted two rounds of coding before applying meta-codes to the case files. Triangulation of the data was achieved through the use of multiple sources and multiple analysts throughout the analytic process.

Results. The qualitative analysis reveals that DMST victims trafficked by their friends experience many of the coercive control tactics that may be common across victim-trafficker relationship types, but these particular DMST victims often felt and behaved as though they were in control of the trafficking situation. Their case files are marked by a perception of agency and mutuality—as though they believed that they could leave their traffickers at any moment they wished, and that their commercial sexual exploitation was to their benefit. Findings further suggest that victims trafficked by friends often display a desire to protect the interests of their traffickers rather than to leave the relationships. Finally, the analysis reveals that DMST victims trafficked by friends may perceive they have an ability to leave their traffickers at any time, but that emotional entanglements with their traffickers and with other women and girls involved in the exploitation make it difficult to do so.

Conclusions. The findings from this study highlight that DMST is not a standardized phenomenon, in which unsuspecting children are snatched and then commercially sexually exploited by an unknown perpetrator. Instead, traffickers may use manipulative tactics to establish coercive control over victims with whom they had a previous relationship. Traffickers who exploit their friendships with victims appear likely to emphasize victims’ perceived agency and the mutuality of the arrangement, while utilizing relationally-based coercive control tactics to strip away victims’ actual agency.