What Promotes Resilience Among Female Survivors of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking?

A young woman.

The Psychological Experience of Child and Adolescent Sex Trafficking in the United States: Trauma and Resilience in Survivors” (abstract). Stacy J. Cecchet and John Thoburn. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, Vol. 6, No. 5 (September 2014).

What it’s about: Researchers Stacy Cecchet and John Thoburn wanted to learn what promotes resilience among young female survivors of sex trafficking. They recruited and interviewed six young women ages 18 and up, all of whom had experienced sex trafficking in the form of prostitution as a minor. Participants provided basic demographic information and spoke about their personal experiences before, during, and after their time in the sex trade. They also talked about the psychological effects of being a survivor.

Why read it: Domestic sex trafficking impacts thousands of young people each year, including many who have run away from home or are experiencing homelessness. Past studies have focused on sex trafficking statistics, definitions, and public policy, Cecchet and Thoburn write, but few examine its psychological impact. Understanding the effects of trafficking on those who escape—and the factors that contribute to resiliency—may help mental health providers as they seek to treat survivors and help them readjust to life in their communities.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The researchers uncovered a number of themes about how participants were recruited into sex trafficking, what they experienced once involved, and the factors that helped them leave their trafficking situation.

Traffickers recruit victims by preying on their vulnerability. Participants talked about recruitment the most, with common themes including their desire to feel loved, being in love with their trafficker, having a family member involved in prostitution, and experiencing prostitution in their neighborhood. Additionally, all six participants had experienced child abuse or neglect in the form of sexual abuse and/or an absent father. As one survivor explained, “It wasn’t that I had a bad mother, but I think it was because I had a missing link, which was a father and an understanding of relationships. I think that’s where I ended up with him, that’s how [my trafficker and I] got involved.”

Victims experience isolation and threats. Victims of sex trafficking experienced threats, violence, and abuse. All survivors described engaging in substance abuse to numb themselves against their daily lives and the resulting trauma. Unsurprisingly, participants experienced significant levels of separation from family, friends, and other supports, even after leaving their trafficking situation.

Many factors motivate victims to leave. Survivors cited a number of motivators for leaving their traffickers, including pregnancy and mental health concerns. Many survivors had lost custody of a previous child, for example, and/or been coerced into having abortions. Desire to keep their babies, wanting to provide better lives for their children, and refusal to have another abortion all motivated the women to exit their trafficking situation. Additionally, survivors were motivated to leave after experiencing mental health symptoms like numbness, flashbacks, depression, anxiety, and avoidance of traumatic events and related triggers.

All the women interviewed possess naturally resilient personalities, the authors write, evidenced by their desire to live, positive thinking, and motivation for change. The women still reported struggles achieving change and forgiving and accepting themselves, but several participants viewed those obstacles as part of the recovery process. As one survivor stated, “It’s one thing to survive. It’s another to overcome.”

Additional references: Look for more articles about sex trafficking and trauma in our research library.

Discover how to ensure emotional resilience in homeless youth.

Or listen to a young woman share her story of exiting childhood sex trafficking, including the people who aided her recovery.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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