In sex trafficking research, survivors are typically in participant roles. Survivors thus have little authorship over ‘knowledgeable’ or ‘expert’ discourses of sex trafficking developed by academics, and little voice to contest how they are represented within such discourses. This is epistemic injustice, common to research on marginalized and oppressed populations, where academia names members from a particular group as the central subject of interest but yet deprivileges their first-person knowledge and excludes them from the intellectual grounding of the field. It is a type of structural violence contingent on power and class differences between academia and survivors of sex trafficking. Such violence reproduces inequalities and impoverishes academic knowledge. Redressing this violence necessitates survivor research – radical research conducted by survivors themselves where their standpoints as survivors are integrated into the research process, and they embody an erasure of the sociopolitical distinction between the ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’.
Based on the author’s (a survivor researcher) experience in conducting a year of survivor research on resilience in sex trafficking survivors, this paper reflects on the emancipatory and scholarly potential of survivor research as a key epistemology for knowledge production in regarding sex trafficking and other injustices related to structural oppression. It also discusses navigating the risks of survivor research in locating academia as a site of ontological resistance and social justice.
Survivor researchers foreground and interrogate experiential knowledge in context, moving reflexively between a critical understanding of their own experiences, the points of intersection and departure with others, and the interconnections and implications at broader social and theoretical levels, thus generating unique critical and practical insights. Nonetheless, these risks must be acknowledged and addressed: (1) potential influence of the negative aspects of academic culture, (2) essentialism and romanticizing of survivors’ experience, (3) being viewed as biased and parochial, (4) inequity caused by different survivors having different levels of privilege and oppression, (5) personal risks related to self-disclosure and dual identification as a researcher and survivor. Survivor researchers must incorporate anti-oppressive frameworks into their research to avoid privileging some survivors over others, co-opting, appropriating or debasing the knowledge of certain survivors, or diminishing the value of knowledge from non-survivors. Reflexive power analysis and accountability from the survivor community must be part of survivor research. Additionally, navigating the risks of survivor research and maximizing its potential necessities cultivating collaborations with diverse allies, continuously defining the location of survivor research within the larger ecology of research and praxis, and continuously engaging in inclusive inquiry and democratic discussion with other researchers to increase the material, relational, and conceptual resources needed to understand and address the historical and current sociopolitical realities regarding sex trafficking.
Conclusion and Implications
Survivor research represents moment of actualized change to the power structures involved in the research, and by extension, the wider systems impacting or impacted by research. Its potential for accessing and re-presenting survivors’ experiences in ways currently absent from anti-trafficking research and establishing transformative relationships between survivors and research institutions need to be further explored, refined and used.