Research Roundup: Native American Women May Be Vulnerable to Sex Trafficking

Photograph of a Native American teen girl.

As we continue to learn more about the reasons young people may be sexually exploited, some researchers say Native American young women may be particularly at risk.

VAWNet, an online resource of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, in 2011 reviewed the research on Native women and sex trafficking (PDF, 781KB). The authors of the review point to a 2007 analysis of police records in Hennepin County, MN, which includes Minneapolis. Native women accounted for nearly a quarter of the prostitution arrests that year—a percentage more than 12 times their representation in the county’s population.

The VAWNet report and several other publications over the past few years shed light on how Native women become victims and what might be done to help them recover.

How Sex Traffickers Victimize the Innocent

The VAWNET report looked at research from Minnesota, Alaska and Canada. Exploiters, the report’s authors say, typically recruit Native victims of commercial sexual exploitation in three ways:

  1. The exploiter poses as a boyfriend or friend, treating the victim with kindness and offering shelter. Then the exploiter coerces the victim to prostitute.
  2. Gangs or other pimps use violence, including gang rape, to force a woman or girl into prostitution, or they threaten to hurt the victim’s family.
  3. Traffickers target vulnerable Native women and youth who may be unable to recognize exploitation because of mental illness, substance abuse, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Compassion and Cultural Sensitivity

Recognizing sex trafficking of Native women as a problem, Minnesota advocates expanded a program for girls with drug and alcohol problems (PDF, 533KB). They aimed to reduce girls’ likelihood of being trafficked. Girls received case management, holistic health care and cultural education and learned to do traditional crafts. Staff educated youth about sex trafficking. They also helped each girl plan where she would go if she was in danger of being targeted by exploiters.

The program’s staff found that simply asking girls if they’d been traded for sex opened the door for them to talk about their experiences—even if they chose not to do so right away.

Similar to Victims of Torture

Victims of sex trafficking, whatever their race or ethnicity, often undergo years of physical, mental and emotional abuse. Like survivors of torture, rape and domestic violence, many sex trafficking victims suffer from PTSD, anxiety attacks and depression, say the authors of a paper on evidence-based mental health treatment (PDF, 121KB) for trafficking victims, published by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

The HHS authors found little research on what might help sex trafficking victims deal with their symptoms. But a number of evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, have been used successfully with similarly victimized people. Those therapies (after a complete psychological exam) are a good place to start when treating sex trafficking victims, the authors write.

Read the Articles

New Language, Old Problem: Sex Trafficking of American Indian Women and Children” (PDF, 781KB). National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse (October 2011).

American Indian Adolescent Girls: Vulnerability to Sex Trafficking, Intervention Strategies” (PDF, 533KB). American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2012).

Evidence-Based Mental Health Treatment for Victims of Human Trafficking” (PDF, 121KB). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (2010).

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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