Researchers tend to be both curious and risk-averse. Curious because we’re always looking for unanswered questions, and risk-averse because we don’t want to make mistakes as we try to answer those questions. These are generalizations, of course…but we researchers tend to be fond of generalizations, too. I believe it is the push and pull of curiosity and risk-aversion that gives many researchers heartburn about digging into the subject of sex trafficking.
On the one hand, there are many unanswered questions about sex trafficking in the United States and beyond. On the other hand, empirical studies on sex trafficking are difficult to design and carry out at the level of rigor with which most researchers are comfortable. As an applied sociologist (that means I conduct social research to help clients answer real-world questions), this kind of heartburn is par for the course. The way I think of it is this: is it better to sit back as a researcher and point out why a study cannot be done perfectly, or is it better to work around limitations and try to answer the question? When lives are at stake, I believe there is greater net risk in avoiding research just because the methodological limitations might preclude you from publishing the results in an academic journal.
I’ve been involved in quite a few studies over the years to better understand child sex trafficking, but things changed for me the first time I studied demand. Back when online classifieds sites were mostly unknown to the public, traffickers were some of the first to figure out that you could post an ad for pretty much anything you wanted to sell — including a person. You still can today, by the way. Once every couple of months I would review and sort thousands of crudely pornographic images collected from online sites. The images were far more grotesque back then compared to what they are today. It was nauseating to see four or five naked young females, each in different ads but obviously photographed in the same person’s garage. I went through this routine for several years and watched as more and more females were being offered for sale online.
Then one day a client asked how many people were buying these females. It seemed an important question because “supply” was clearly increasing online, so demand obviously was to blame in one way or another. But measuring demand was even more challenging than measuring supply, because as a U.S. society we seem to be more tolerant of seeing females sold for sex than males buying them. Instead of reviewing thousands of images of exploited females at a time, I was now listening to men as they were calling in and attempting to buy a female advertised online.
Suddenly I struggled to get to sleep at night. I was cold and distant with my wife. I was yelling at my kids. I got fed up with little things at the office that normally wouldn’t bother me. This lasted for weeks before I even noticed it was happening, at which point I blamed it on stress and vowed to be less of a jerk. That didn’t work, though.
It wasn’t until several weeks after we finished our first demand study that these symptoms started to go away and I realized what was really going on: I was experiencing secondary trauma as a result of having studied the direct traumatization of so many other people. Today I understand that trauma affects everyone differently, and that it can be insidious. While I could somehow withstand viewing thousands of dehumanizing photos of abuse victims, I responded quite viscerally to the sound of a man ordering up a child, like she was a box of pizza.
Today there seems to be much wider interest from the social research community in studying all forms of human trafficking than there was several years ago. Yet studies on demand are still few and far between—particularly empirical studies. I believe there are a few reasons why this is still the case.
First, it is important to realize that most research on social issues comes from either academic or governmental institutions. I suspect one day our federal government will invest in large-scale ongoing data collection on sex trafficking, just as it does today with gun trafficking, drug trafficking, and many other criminal activities. Today it does not, though we seem to be headed in the right direction.
If an academic researcher gets funding to research demand for sex trafficking, he or she then must face the realities of human subjects review boards. These boards are well-intentioned, but they can also stifle research innovation. I have seen boards require jargon-filled informed consent passages longer than this very article to be placed at the beginning of completely innocuous surveys. Now imagine what a board would want to see from a researcher who seeks to ask questions of a male engaged in trafficking. More often than not, my academic friends and colleagues say that their review boards would not allow such research to happen.
The other reason why I believe we don’t see more empirical studies on demand is that we aren’t yet comfortable as a society with who the perpetrators are. We often talk about child sex trafficking perpetrators as if torches and pitchforks are in our hands, right up until the perpetrator is Lawrence Taylor. The day she turns 18, and often earlier, we openly ponder whether or not she chose to prostitute herself. We essentially ignore the situation where a homeless adolescent male or female “stays with” a newfound acquaintance because the streets are just too damn cold to sleep on that night.
Here’s the thing: in order for there to be thousands of victims on the “supply” side, there must be many, many more perpetrators on the “demand” side. That means we know these perpetrators because they live in our neighborhood, go to our church, are friends with us on social media, and work in the same office as us. We’ve gone to dinner with them, celebrated holidays with them, and helped them when they needed it. We give them identities outside of their actions as perpetrators, yet we often fail to extend the same courtesy to those on the supply side whom we know by their labels as “prostitutes,” “whores,” and worse. The truth is, “we” as a society give perpetrators of sex trafficking the protection of anonymity, and that is the very reason why demand-side research is both challenging to conduct and terribly needed.