When sociologist Alexandra “Sandi” Pierce, PhD, met a handsome swimming champion her first semester of college, everyone told her he was a great catch.
He wasn’t. Once she married him, he turned out to be a violent
pimp who tortured her.
“We were a golden couple and looked like all-American kids,”
says Pierce. “But I was a private party girl; he would set me up
with wealthy men and obligate me to have sex with them.”
That kind of discrepancy between appearance and reality
is one factor that makes it hard to know for sure how many
women and girls are trafficked in the United States, according to
Pierce and other members of APA’s Task Force on Trafficking of
Women and Girls.
Trafficking — a human rights violation characterized by
economic exploitation of people via force, fraud or coercion —
is by its very nature clandestine, says Nancy M. Sidun, PsyD, the
task force’s co-chair and a supervising clinical psychologist for
Kaiser Permanente’s Hawaii region.
“Even people who are trafficked don’t necessarily identify
themselves as trafficked,” Sidun says.
Plus, trafficking takes many different forms, with both
domestic and foreign women and girls being sexually exploited
or forced to work in agriculture, domestic servitude, the nail
and hair-braiding industries and other venues. “There’s also
no one picture of who traffics,” Sidun adds. “It could be your
cousin, a total stranger or organized crime.”
These and other challenges have meant that the empirical
evidence on how best to prevent trafficking and treat survivors
is weak or even missing altogether. A new APA report may
The “Report of the Task Force on Trafficking of Women
and Girls” summarizes the scientific literature since 1980 on
trafficking, both of women and girls within the United States
and those brought to this country. The report aims to raise
psychologists’ awareness of trafficking, urge them to bring their
scientific rigor and research expertise to bear on the problem,
and offer recommendations for improving research, treatment
and other areas.
“It was surprising how little we actually know and how
much there still is to find out,” says Deborah L. Hume, PhD,
task force co-chair and an associate teaching professional in the
master of public health program at the University of Missouri.
“There’s so much research that needs to be done to address the
problem, even in terms of how many people are affected.”
“Programs for trafficking survivors are frequently working
with minimal resources, so they don’t want to spend those
limited resources evaluating what they’re doing, how they’re
doing it and whether it’s effective or not,” says Sidun. “There are
incredibly good-intentioned programs out there, but we don’t
know how effective they are or even how effective the anti-
trafficking movement as a whole is.”
For example, it’s still unknown how effective group therapy
is with trafficking survivors. While there is some evidence that
it is effective, says Sidun, there is also evidence that suggests it
could be counterproductive or even destructive for trafficking
“With domestic trafficking of adolescents, many times it’s
a stable of girls pitted against each other,” she says. “It’s a very
competitive, cut-throat environment, so working together
collaboratively and respectfully in group therapy may not occur.”
The report makes dozens of other recommendations,
• Delineating specific areas where more research is needed.
The report calls for interdisciplinary research that recognizes
the complexity of trafficking. It also urges researchers to
BY REBECCA A. CLAY