In the last two decades, substantial media attention on the topic of sex trafficking has shed greater light on this significant global human rights issue. With the potential for large profit margins and minimal risk to traffickers, women and children are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking. With limited access to anti-sex trafficking services, (re)integrating into society can be especially difficult for females. With an epistemological framework of intersectionality, a qualitative study conducted among sexually trafficked female adults in the United States revealed several unique challenges to (re)integration. As women attempt to return to their families and/or communities micro, mezzo and macro factors can either advance or hinder their recovery process. Using interpretative phenomenological analysis, this study explored the meaning of (re)integration
as experienced by adult female survivors of sex trafficking in the United States and revealed major themes of (1) Personal Experiences of Trauma, (2) Becoming Advocates and (3) Post-traumatic Growth. Trauma and volunteerism can intersect in the lives of these women to lead to post-traumatic growth. Some of the participants shared that their healing did not begin until they started supporting other survivors and sharing their experiences. This is consistent with the work of Dr. Brené Brown (2010) who has said “Vulnerability is the core of the shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging [and] love.” For some of the survivors, sharing their experiences was an integral part of their healing journey. As stated by Herman (1992), “While there is no way to compensate for an atrocity, there is a way to transcend it, by making it a gift to others. The trauma is redeemed only when it becomes the source of a survivor mission (p. 207). Several survivors warned, however, that becoming an advocate prior to a necessary healing process was dangerous and could lead to further exploitation.
NVivo software was utilized in the analysis to organize the data collected from twelve semi-structured interviews and observation at a residential placement for trafficked women. A conceptual model derived from the data analysis demonstrates the dynamic nature of the healing process with four stages.
Implications for policies, future research, and social work practice include exploration of volunteerism and its effects on behavioral health issues, examination of post-traumatic growth and the elements that enhance it, culturally relevant services for those involved in the commercial sex industry, and trauma sensitive practices for those in recovery process. To ensure that survivors are not re-exploited in the public sector while attempting to give back, research studies examining survivor leadership and its effects on those involved needs urgent exploration. Trauma recovery for sex trafficking survivors should be further explored in terms of phases by adapting the stages of recovery after trauma by Judith Herman (1992). With the first three stages of recovery known as Establishing Safety, Remembrance and Mourning, and Integration and Moving on (Herman, 1992), an additional stage could include and place emphasis on Growth and Giving back.