Research Roundup: New Ways to Look at Youth Who've Been Trafficked

A tired young woman.

Last month, the Administration for Children and Families launched a new office that will spearhead its work to combat trafficking.

Meanwhile, researchers are trying to build greater understanding of the whys and hows of trafficking. Why are some young people at risk? Why is it hard to help them escape? How can service providers better address their needs?

The Connection to Dating Violence

Researchers Emily F. Rothman, Angela R. Bazzi, and Megan Bair-Merritt wanted to see how young women might become trafficked by an abusive boyfriend or girlfriend. They interviewed four survivors, ages 25 to 55. Three were African American. One was Hispanic.

All the women were first trafficked when they were between 15 and 17. All became involved because of a boyfriend or girlfriend.

The researchers came up with several themes from the interviews. The women said they:

  • Felt unattractive and unimportant.
  • Didn’t have role models for healthy romantic relationships.
  • Had been sexually abused.
  • Were flattered by their dating partners’ romantic gestures and became emotionally attached.
  • Got confidence from dating someone of “higher social status.”
  • Gained confidence by the fact that they could earn more than other exploited women.

Rothman and her colleagues point out that violent coercion isn’t the only reason young people become trafficked. Emotional need and psychological coercion have a big impact on some victims.

Why Victims Stay

A common theme in research about sex trafficking of minors is victims’ reluctance to leave or get help. Researchers Amanda West and Diane N. Loeffler wanted to know why.

Interviewing victims currently being exploited would be hard. So the researchers talked to 15 service providers from 12 agencies in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, and Utah. Five overarching themes emerged to explain why victims often don’t try to get help:

  • The idea that there are “good” and “bad” victims. Law enforcement often sees victims as criminals who contributed to their own bad situations. Youth might fear getting in trouble with the law and for that reason not go to service providers for help.
  • Feeling a bond to the exploiter. Victims, even when badly abused, often feel their exploiter is the only person they can turn to. They are shut off from others and highly dependent on their trafficker.
  • Not seeing themselves as victims. They don’t see themselves as needing help.
  • Not trusting service providers. Trust takes time to build with young people who have gone through extreme abuse and violence.
  • Not feeling empowered. Young people who’ve been exploited are heavily controlled by their traffickers. But they also have been in adult situations involving sex, drugs, drinking, and decisions children don’t usually make. The rules of youth services programs can be off-putting for them.

What Adolescent Development Theory Can Tell Us

Focusing on the idea that exploited minors are exploited because of their youth, Hadar S. Schwartz looks at trafficking through a child development lens. Teens are forming their identities, she writes. They assert their independence but still want and need their parents’ support and acceptance.

Traffickers/pimps often recruit girls who are experiencing this struggle, inhabiting the emotional void that is created by this natural distancing from parents/guardians. They provide an “easy” answer to the arduous, unnerving question of identity formation: “who am I?” In this way, girls can latch onto a new identity, a new self-image, one formed around their sexuality, the most salient aspect of their day-to-day life; as one survivor noted, “I see myself as a prostitute now.”

Traffickers also take advantage of the adolescent need for belonging, Schwartz writes. They create a “second family” in which the trafficker is “daddy” and other victims are “wives-in-law.” Many victims come from families with a lot of conflict and no models of caring, reciprocal love. So these new family structures can appeal to them strongly.

Schwartz argues that though their stage of development can put teens at risk for exploitation, it’s also an advantage. “[I]n contrast to adult brains, adolescent brains demonstrate considerable neuroplasticity and are thus more able to repair,” she writes. “The single most valuable strength that adolescents maintain is their ‘potential for change’ and growth.”

Read the Abstracts

“'I'll do whatever as long as you keep telling me that I’m important': A case study illustrating the link between adolescent dating violence and sex trafficking victimization." Emily F. Rothman, Angela R. Bazzi, and Megan Bair-Merritt. Journal of Applied Research on Children, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2015.

"Understanding Victim Resistance: An Exploratory Study of the Experiences of Service Providers Working with Victims of Child Trafficking." Amanda West and Diane N. Loeffler. Journal of Applied Research on Children, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2015.

"Letting Kids Be Kids: Employing a Developmental Model in the Study of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking." Hadar S. Schwartz. Journal of Applied Research on Children, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2015.

More from NCFY

Read our updated anti-trafficking brochure, “Bought and Sold.”

9-5 pm Eastern