Those who have escaped human trafficking can guide social workers who help other victims.
They’re mothers. They’re grandmothers. They’re social workers, lawyers, therapists. And they’re survivors of sex trafficking.
They’re also advocates in the anti-trafficking movement.
The former victims, many of whom entered “the life” in their teens and left years later, are telling their stories to Mary Twis, assistant professor and graduate program director in social work.
What she learns from these firsthand accounts may lead to more compassionate and longer-lasting social services — like job training, child care or help with housing — for other trafficked individuals who are seeking to change their lives.
In the U.S., discussions of sex trafficking are often dominated by policymakers, Twis said. “The people who tend to get crowded out of those conversations are the people who have actually experienced it.”
When Twis, a veteran social worker, studied the body of academic research that addresses trafficking, she found that little was based on empirical data culled from survivor accounts. Instead, most were conceptual papers or literature reviews.
In fairness, this group of survivors can be hard to study. Some survivors are not keen to participate in studies that could retraumatize them, and others “don’t self-identify as victims,” Twis said. “A lot of times, survivors say, ‘I don’t want to keep talking about this. I don’t want to be defined by this.’ ”
Determined to better understand the experiences of trafficked people, Twis and Kathleen Preble, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Social Work, developed a new interviewing method for a study published in Violence and Victims in 2020.
Their approach explores survivors’ perspectives on their lived experiences. It emphasizes the power of storytelling and recognizes that individuals’ experiences may relate to their particular combination of gender and race.
“It’s important that she is including the survivors’ voices,” said Andrea Cimino, a research associate formerly on faculty at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. “It’s imperative for researchers and practitioners to co-create anti-trafficking programs with survivors. Survivors know their needs best, and they should be the ones who are playing a central role in how we provide services to this population.”
As a foundation of the study, the researchers invited the women to reflect on their strengths. “We asked them questions about what [other] people could not see in them,” Twis said, “their deep, intrinsic strengths that could have helped them exit earlier.”
All seven study participants were women who had survived sex trafficking. Each had been out for at least two years, and each now advocates for other victims around the Midwest.
As the women relayed their experiences, Twis noticed that they used different language to describe coping strategies depending on which period of their lives they were referring to. When describing how they dealt with being trafficked, the interviewees used negative language. When discussing their exit, they used affirming language.
“They would talk about how they survived the streets by being manipulative and hustling and working over their johns,” Twis said. “But the words they used to describe how they made it out were being resourceful, being quick on their feet and always thinking one step ahead.”
Twis and Preble’s interviews revealed that in trying to leave a life of sex trafficking, women face three layers of barriers.
First come internal barriers. They must surmount what may be a lifetime of self- doubt, Twis said. “The trafficker has been telling them for years that they’re worthless, they’re stupid, they can never make it on their own.”
Next are the social barriers: They may have to escape a complex web of relationships. “They’re socially embedded in this trafficking world, and it’s not so simple just to leave,” Twis said. “Even if it’s dysfunctional relationships, that’s their social support system.”
The final barriers are systemic or institutional. Only at this step, Twis found, did the women encounter professionals like police or social workers. Yet the social services to help them stabilize and improve their lives are typically short term, limited in scope and underfunded.
One agency will often contract with another to provide piecemeal support, Cimino said. “A lot of times, the services are disconnected, so they aren’t these holistic, wraparound services.”
The implications of the findings? For one, Twis said, anti-trafficking workers could point out victims’ internal strengths to “help build them up from the inside.”
And social services seeking to aid trafficked women and girls need to be longer term and more comprehensive, Twis concluded. “If you’ve been in that world for 10 years and you have this history behind you, that makes it so difficult to establish yourself in a different world that’s putting up barriers at every single curve.”
BY JENNY BLAIR