Supporting Survivors of Sex Trafficking

With the widely-reported sex crimes charges against Jeffrey Epstein, people are talking about sex trafficking and expressing outrage. We need to harness those conversations and that energy to work towards ensuring that our communities are prepared to respond to the trauma-related needs of sex trafficking survivors.

Here are a few lessons from a study involving in-depth interviews with eleven women who survived sex trafficking, which can be harnessed by communities to support sex trafficking victims and survivors:

Recognize the far-reaching consequences of trafficking as a betrayal trauma. Among the women interviewed, the most frequent trafficker was a family member or intimate partner, highlighting the role that betrayal by someone close plays in sex trafficking. Women commonly reported feelings of shame and alienation in relation to the trafficking. Thus, getting away from the trafficker may mean escaping abuse and losing a family member or partner at a time when women are alienated from other supports. 

Traumas that involve betrayal can have far-reaching health and social-relationship consequences (e.g., Gagnon, Lee, & DePrince, 2017). Post-traumatic feelings such as shame and alienation are linked with psychological distress (e.g., DePrince, Chu & Pineda, 2011). Thus, supporting women as they heal from the consequences of betrayal trauma, including as they build new social support systems, may be particularly important. Social support plays a critical role in coping with traumatic stress (e.g., Schnurr, Lunney, & Sengupta, 2004; Brewin et al., 2000; Ozer et al., 2003).

Recognize the cumulative impact of traumas beyond sex trafficking. The women interviewed described having experienced many forms of trauma, such as experiences of forced sex, witnessing other people being seriously injured or killed, robberies, and physical abuse. Cumulative trauma exposure is linked with more severe traumatic stress symptoms (e.g., Martin et al., 2013)

Build referral networks that facilitate connecting women with services to meet complex psychological and physical health needs, regardless of the services that agencies themselves provide. Trafficking survivors interviewed in this pilot study reported high levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression symptoms. When asked about sixty different kinds of physical health symptoms, women reported experiencing an average of more than 18 different symptoms over the last year alone. Women’s health can affect their ability to engage with services and providers, even for things that seem unrelated to health, such as legal services.

Design communications to anticipate potential attention and memory problems. Nearly all of the women interviewed reported being struck in the head in their lifetimes, including multiple blows to the head resulting from violence. All of the women who had been struck in the head reported losing consciousness and/or being dazed/confused as a result. Head injuries as well as posttraumatic symptoms (e.g., PTSD, depression) can affect attention and memory. As a result, being clear in communications with survivors may be especially important as well as taking opportunities to repeat information over time. For more on such recommendations, check out a recent article on attention and domestic violence from our team (Lee & DePrince, 2017).

Leverage interactions to validate and support survivors. Women in this pilot study echoed what we have learned from survivors of other forms of intimate violence about interactions with service providers. For example, women in this sample described things that law enforcement officers did that were validating, such as: 

  • Letting survivors talk
  • Believing survivors
  • Asking survivors what they need
  • Letting survivors know about resources
  • Saying things such as: “It takes courage to come forward”
  • Helping survivors feel protected and safe
  • Providing clear explanations of what to expect


Communities have a role to play in ensuring services are available and responsive to sex trafficking survivors’ trauma-related needs. Trauma-informed responses should take into account the potentially far-reaching psychological, physical health, and social-relationship consequences of sex trafficking. Agencies and providers can play an important role in conveying support for survivors and connecting them with resources.


Study Notes

Study Background: The Denver Justice Project was a pilot study designed to assess the feasibility of doing research on the trauma-related needs of women who had survived sex trafficking. Eleven women who had been  trafficked were interviewed by a woman-researcher. About half of women identified with one or more ethnic/racial minority groups and the majority had children; their average age was 37 years.
Study Limitations. The sample size was small. While results from samples with few people should be interpreted with caution, the findings are consistent with other studies from our team and nationally (e.g., Gagnon et al., 2018).
Acknowledgments: The study was funded by Campus Compact of the Mountain West (formerly Colorado Campus Compact). Thank you to community-and criminal justice-based agencies who assisted with participant recruitment. Thank you to student collaborators from the Traumatic Stress Studies Group, particularly Julie Olomi, Kerry Gagnon, Adi Rosenthal, Tejas Srinivas, Naomi Wright. This research has been presented at professional conferences and summarized in a past newsletter from the TSS Group.

Published by Anne P. DePrince, PhD

Author of "Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence Against Women" (Oxford University Press), Anne is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Associate Vice Provost of Public Good Strategy and Research at the University of Denver. She directs the Traumatic Stress Studies Group.

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