The Behavior Analyst’s Role in Increasing The Fourth P: A Critical Review of The Fight Against Commercial Sexual Trafficking

by Alisha Sanders, MA, BCBA

The year 2000 was pivotal in the fight against commercial sexual trafficking. The president signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the U.N. established the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking. (The State Department, 2002; United Nations, 2002) For the first time in history, government organizations recognized the epidemic of sexual exploitation that was sweeping across the globe. They clearly established this crime as: sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induce by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age. (The State Department, 2018) It is imperative to discern that although trafficking lies within the realm of prostitution, it is not a willing act upon the part of the victim. Overwhelmingly, 86% of sex workers claim to have been coerced into “the life” of commercial sex industry by another person. (Kellison,, 2019)

U.S. legislation primarily focused on three essential objectives; Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution. The Department of Justice made significant efforts to disseminate awareness to local law enforcement and judicial authorities across the country through annual reviews and pilot programs to improve victim identification assessments. This was a crucial component to identification of victims of trafficking (Weiner& Hala, 2008) Within the last 18 years government records indicate a substantial increase in arrests and prosecution of traffickers in the United States. The Department of Justice reported that from 2011 to 2015 the rate of referrals for prosecution of traffickers increased 82%. (2015)

Although this success has raised awareness of the scale of commercial sex trafficking within the American culture, many limitations continue to hinder further improvements in the areas of protection and prosecution. Victims have reported that many educators, nurses, doctors, and first responders have failed to recognize they are trafficked. Due to fear of physical and financial ramifications, many are unwilling to cooperate in identification of traffickers when they are identified. (Kellison, et. al, 2019: Clawson, 2009) More sobering is the percentage of victims who report they have returned to commercial sexual trafficking after emancipation from their captors. (Kellison, et al, 2019) This phenomenon has compelled victim advocates to gain a deeper understanding of environmental contingencies and barriers victims experience in order to reduce the propensity of re-entry into commercial sexual trafficking.

The University of Texas recently completed the most comprehensive study on commercial sex trafficking to date. It found poverty, unfettered access to the internet, history of abuse, level of education, access to shelter, and placement into foster care are substantial risk factors in the entrapment of vulnerable women, transgender people, and adolescents. (Kellison, et. al.,2019; Clawson, et. al., 2009)

It is evident to continue this fight a fourth objective must be established: Personalization. Society has failed to recognize the unique plight of the individuals trapped within this modern-day slavery. Countless victims endure violent physical assault, rape, forced substance abuse, isolation from family and friends, threats to family and friends, impregnation, sexually transmitted disease, and rationed provisions of food, showers, and beverages. (Kellison, et. al.,2019; Clawson, et. al., 2009) The long-term implications of these manipulation techniques are substantial. Many survivors are diagnosed with mental disorders such as PTSD, Stockholm’s Syndrome, depression, generalized anxiety and fail to thrive within the social expectations of daily life.

Grass roots efforts among religious sectors and non-profit organizations have established housing, education, substance abuse treatment centers, short term counseling services, and access to jobs. This is an essential component to reducing the barriers victims experience when applying for a job, preparing food, paying bills, finding shelter, caring for their children, seeking medical care, initiating sobriety, and removing themselves from “the life” of the sex industry. (Kellison, 2019; United Nations, 2002; Office of the Texas Attorney General, 2018; The State Department, 2018)

The one missing component of increasing Personalization within the current system is implementing long term trauma-informed care. Victims struggle to utilize socially significant functional skills in maintaining their quality of life. (Kellison, 2019) Legislators recognize this. The State of Texas recently appointed a Director of Sexual Trafficking and The United States House of Representatives passed the Put Trafficking Victims First ACT in February 2019. Both entities have established providing long term evidenced based trauma interventions for victims is vital and have proposed funding for pilot programs in this endeavor. (Office of Texas General Attorney, 2018; H.R. 507, 2019)

Behavior Analysts have a unique opportunity and responsibility to share our knowledge to reduce barriers faced by victims of commercial sexual trafficking. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and comparable third-wave behavioral therapeutic supports have been utilized as meaningful interventions for diverse populations (Powers, et. al, 2009; Dougher, Twohig & Maddes, 2014; Leoni, Cortis, & Cavagnola, 2015). More significantly, the validity of these interventions to reduce maladaptive behaviors and barriers within trauma victims have been replicated. (Mclean, Follet, 2016; Spidel, Dargineault, Kealy, & LeComte, 2018; Orsillo, Batten, 2005; Lucian, et. al, 2014). Twenty-one years ago, Friman, Hayes, and Wilson published a paper posing the challenge to Behavior Analysts to expand our understanding of emotion to implement interventions focused on reducing socially significant behaviors associated with anxiety. (1998) We have yet to meet that challenge.

There is very little research on effective interventions for populations affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, and commercial sex trafficking. (Burrows, 2013) Social advocates are demanding more. It is critical Behavior Analysts lend our expertise to this cause. We must strive to increase the quality of life for victims of commercial sex trafficking by expanding our research of ACT and comparable third wave therapeutic behavior supports. It is time to join the fight against commercial sex trafficking.


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