The Need for Survivor-Informed Research to Fight Human Trafficking

1 November 2018
Survivor Authored

Lara Powers  | Survivor Engagement Advisor, Polaris
Nat Paul  | Policy Advocacy Chair, National Survivor Network

As with any efforts that aim for large-scale solutions to global social justice issues, strategies to address human trafficking must be grounded in data and evidence-based research. The anti-trafficking field faces the challenges of nascence, underfunding and limited access to data and research. The incredibly complex nature of the crime exacerbates the risks of ineffective and even counter-productive efforts that use anecdotal perceptions of trafficking as the basis of strategic interventions.

Survivor input, meaning data collected from those who have experienced human trafficking, is vital to any anti-trafficking initiative, from direct service provision to law enforcement interventions. Without survivor input we can’t know if our outreach and awareness campaigns meant to reach victims are going to be effective. We can’t know if our shelters and direct service programmes will uphold the standards of excellence achieved through culturally competent, trauma-informed care. We can’t know if our efforts to identify victims will reach those most entrenched and isolated. But, arguably, of most importance is the need for evidence-based research to inform anti-trafficking policy. When legislation is passed without due diligence and without the strategic sounding board that solid data provides, the best intentions can be counterproductive or even harmful to survivors.

Data from survivors must be part of anti-trafficking research, and survivors who are asked to inform anti-trafficking work must be paid for this work.

The recent passage of United States Senate Bill 1693, or the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA), which, among other things, took down Backpage and other online platforms for commercial sex, has brought with it incredible backlash for those in the sex trade, including for sex-trafficking victims. By shutting down online marketplaces, FOSTA-SESTA has pushed the sex trade onto the street and rewarded the middlemen (pimps) that can match sellers to buyers. These pimps often impose quotas on victims, with potentially lethal consequences where quotas are not met.

According to the findings of a US Senate investigation, Backpage officials actively participated in the trafficking of others by scrubbing its ads of sex-trafficking specific language to ensure they could be posted under the guise of consensual commercial sex. There is no question that there is a need for policies that hold corporations accountable for actively exploiting others for profit. However, any policy that impacts survivors must be fully informed. Research should have been conducted before the passage of FOSTA-SESTA on the effects the bill would have on independent sex workers, such as loss of income and increased vulnerability to homelessness. Research could have been done on the utility of a safety net to protect those most vulnerable from the fallout of the bill.

And yet, federal funding for anti-trafficking research specific to policy is exceedingly rare in the US, as is federal funding for anti-trafficking research in general. It’s far time we prioritize the direction of federal dollars toward anti-trafficking research. But funding research cannot be our only priority. Research practices in our field must be ethical. Research must empower those survivors who make it possible to collect data in the first place.

How do we do this?

Data from survivors must be part of anti-trafficking research, and survivors who are asked to inform anti-trafficking work must be paid for this work. As a field that ostensibly works to end re-exploitation, we have an obligation to prevent the rampant re-exploitation of survivors in the anti-trafficking field.

The data gathered through paid consulting opportunities to survivors not only strengthens our field, but provides a vital source of income to survivors, many of whom face significant barriers to accessing economically viable employment. A 2017 report released by the National Survivor Network found that of the 130 surveyed survivors, 72.7 per cent indicated that their trafficking-related convictions were a significant barrier to finding gainful employment.


UNU/Conference for Measuring Progress Towards Target 8.7 in July 2018.

Consulting work is highly conducive to individual trauma management practices. Rather than create staff positions which perpetuate tokenism and pigeon-hole survivors in roles in which they must regularly draw on their past, survivor consultants have control over how much, how often and on what subjects they would like to lend their expertise. Consultancies also offer flexible and often remote work options.

Expanding survivor access to consulting work also allows access to broader more meaningful data. Rather than learn from a handful of survivors who choose careers in the anti-trafficking field, having a large pool of survivor consultants for the purpose of data collection brings the broadest and most diverse range of survivor voices to the table. It also prevents the unethical practice of using survivors who are clients of a direct service programme to gather data, including by having the survivors in an anti-trafficking programme take surveys, participate in focus group discussion or engage in public speaking opportunities on behalf of the organization. Clients in a direct service programme are in the beginning stages of the healing process and the unequal power dynamics between service provider and client make ensuring empowered consent in this context difficult.

But in order to pay survivors to inform our work, we must have funding, and at present, there is very little federal funding specific to research, bringing us full circle in the topic at hand. We must prioritize research, we must fund it, and we must ensure that survivors represent the stakeholders who both provide and benefit from collecting the data we so desperately need.

Lara Powers is the Survivor Engagement Advisor at Polaris.

Nat Paul is the Policy Advocacy Chair of the National Survivor Network.

This article has been prepared by Lara Powers and Nat Paul as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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