“Minding the gap” in the research on human trafficking for sexual
Rafaela Hilário Pascoal
University of Palermo, Italy, email@example.com
Abstract. Since the signature of the United Nations Trafficking Protocol in
December 2000 that human trafficking has been labeled as a transnational,
complex criminal phenomenon. However, despite the implementation of
international soft law instruments to tackle the phenomenon, human trafficking is
constantly evolving by the frequent changes of strategies, routes, types of
exploitation and methodologies applied by the criminal networks. This flexibility
of the phenomenon does not only difficult the implementation of effective
tackling measures, but it also demonstrates to be an obstacle to produce accurate
information on the subject (Cusick et al. 2009). Therefore, this paper aims to
analyse the implementation of qualitative research on human trafficking for sexual
purposes by 1) the identification of the obstacles on the research; 2) the
application of an ethical conduct during the research; 3) the problematic of the
participative observation method on the sexual exploitation.
Keywords: Sexual exploitation; Qualitative research; Participant Observation;
Ethical issues; Human Trafficking
Human trafficking for sexual exploitation purposes has proven to be
methodologically challenging due to the criminal nature of the phenomenon
(Brunovskis and Tyldum 2004; Zimmermann and Watts 2004). However, the
adversity on the academic research on human trafficking for sexual exploitation
has not only been verified due to the complex features of the phenomenon,
but also due to the moralistic perspectives and lack of delimitation of its own
80 • Romanian Journal of Population Studies • Vol. XI, No. 1
According to Siegel (2015) some researchers choose their data in order to
support their ideological position, especially in sexual exploitation, by ignoring
information that opposes to their moralistic preconceptions. For instance, this
issue has been debated from one side by the feminist anti-sex work lobby,
which affirms that prostitution is a violation of women’s dignity (Barry 1995;
Hughes 2002) and pro sex work feminist scholars that uphold for the rights of
sex workers (Kempadoo 1998; Doezema 2005; Augustin 2007). This
misconception of the trafficking’s definition and lack of common
understanding of human trafficking for sexual purposes has brought into the
academic literature on the subject, researches with an undefined focus group,
which includes not only human trafficking victims for sexual exploitation, but
also sex workers. Furthermore, the intentional gap on the definition of sexual
exploitation during the Travaux Preparatoires has permitted to each Member
State to adequate the Trafficking Protocol according to their National
Legislation on sexual work (Gallagher 2010). The implementation of this social
research was taken in Italy, in which voluntary prostitution is not considered a
crime, but is not either considered to be illegal, putting prostitution into a gray
zone in legal terms. However, pimping and sexual exploitation in Italy as well
as prostitution of minors are considered to be a crime. Therefore, the intention
of this article is not focused on the theories debating the sex work, yet, on the
research procedures on human trafficking victims for sexual exploitation and
the necessity of an homogeneous applied definition of trafficked victim1.
2. Qualitative research and the lack of access to the focus groups
Quantitative research on human trafficking tends to be noteworthy uncommon
(Gozdziak and Bump 2008), due to the lack of access of data as well as the
fluidity of numbers, being merely based in estimations. Furthermore,
quantitative research on human trafficking normally tends to be carried by
transnational institutions or governments through monitoring systems on
identified victims by monitoring the type of exploitation, gender, age,
nationality, etc… On the other hand, qualitative research has the ability to deep
the subject of inquiry (Denzin and Lincoln 2011). Therefore, in order to
1 Trafficking definition according to the Art 3 of the UN Trafficking Protocol: “the
recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat
or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse
of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or
benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the
purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the
prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery
or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”.
Transnational Family Research • 81
acquire data in qualitative research, investigators tend to access to specific
researching methodology such as interviews, group discussion, observations
and narratives (Snape and Spencer 2003). However, research on human
trafficking is known to lack from direct sources, since researchers tend to be
confronted with the lack of access to the target group (Berman 2003).
Furthermore, researchers tend to have access to the victim after the
exploitation period, since accessing to the victims is clearly unsafe (Brunovskis
and Tyldum 2004; Zimmermann and Watts 2004). However, protected victims
tend to provide sided information, since the women that provide information
are the ones who have been already identified as human trafficking victims by
the law enforcement agents and are normally aware about their exploitation.
The access to the victims is normally through mediators such as
organizations working during the protection phase of the victims. Despite the
facilitation on secondary sources, victims can produce “first-hand
information”, especially on the victim’s vulnerabilities during the recruitment
and the conditions during the exploitation period (Laczko 2005). However,
identified victims are in a vulnerable situation, especially traumatized after their
exploitation experience (Zimmerman et al. 2006), falling often into deeply
silence as a survival strategy (Brennan 2005). Furthermore, victims after the
exploitation period are often confused or traumatized, embarrassed or afraid
of menaces from the traffickers to them or to their families (Jordan 2002).
Interviewing victims after their exploitation period can expose more the
victims, as well as their families and friends to their exploiters or criminal
networks. Furthermore, victims can also be considered unreliable sources,
since they might be traumatized and attached to the traffickers. During the
investigation, victims were also generally verified to lack from core information
on the criminal networks or to still be emotionally attached to their trafficker
Due to the often impossibility of accessing human trafficking victims,
especially regarding protection measures by belonging to a vulnerable group,
many researchers apply the combination of purposive sampling and
snowballing in order to recruit participants to their research. According to
Maxwell (1997) purposive sampling is a type of sampling in which ‘particular
settings, persons, or events are deliberately selected for the important
information they can provide that cannot be gotten as well from other
choices’. Snowballing, instead, comes normally to complete the use of
purposive sampling, since it is easier that people who work on the related
subject indicate other potential participants that fit in the research (Singleton
and Straits 2005).
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During my research, I have applied purposive sampling with local stakeholders
that work against human trafficking passing from the third sector as NGOs
and institutions to law enforcement agents. The variety of participants working
in different fronts can provide different perspectives on the subject from the
criminal to sanitary, social aspect during and after the exploitation period.
Furthermore, these participants tend to regard the phenomenon from different
perspectives that provides a multifaceted aspect of the phenomenon. I have
also applied semi structured interviews, since interviews are a good
methodology due to its openness (Sarantakos 2005). Furthermore, semi
structured interviews facilitate a better interaction between the researcher and
the participant and the opportunity to deepen important aspects of the
research as well as the participants’ experiences (Gorman and Clayton 2005). It
is also important to use semi structured interviews to collect data, experiences
and the participant’s experience on the phenomenon (Arthur and Nazroo
Despite speaking directly with secondary sources by the application of
purposive sampling, where stakeholders working with human trafficking
victims are valuable source on the subject, we are still researching a very
sensitive subject and data that secondary sources sometimes can be reluctant to
provide. Furthermore, also secondary sources are also not able to provide
detailed information as human trafficking victims are, especially regarding to
the exploitation period. Despite the evident partial acknowledge of
information of secondary sources, it is much easier to obtain consent from
participants that work with human trafficking victims rather than the victims
themselves. Furthermore, explaining the study to the victims can demonstrate
to be challenging, especially regarding to the involved risks or explain that the
participant will not be publicly exposed (Kelly and Coy 2016)
3. Ethics and research on human trafficking for sexual purposes
Preparing the process of empirical research on social sciences has been
accompanied with the delicacy of ethical issues (Siegel and Roos 2016), being
strongly affected with ethical protocols (Haggerty 2004). New methods have
also been applied in the field of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, yet
the extension of this methodology has not avoided the concern with ethical
issues (Brunovskis and Surtees 2010). For instance, critics have been made
regarding the payment of women to participate in research (Maddy Coy 2006).
Furthermore, ethical conduct becomes a bigger preoccupation, when it is
related to human trafficking for sexual purposes, when victims are seen as
vulnerable and participative research is regarded as unethical (Siegeland Roos
Transnational Family Research • 83
2016). The complexity of researching such sensitive subject becomes difficult
to balance between the well being of the victims and the political agenda to
focus attention on this subject (Eastonand Mathews 2016). Safety, not only
regarding to the victims, but also to the researcher, should be also included on
ethical frameworks, especially while studying criminal phenomenon (Melrose
2002). Therefore, according to Kelly and Coy (2016) ethical issues should be
included in safety protocols where supervisors or colleagues should be
informed about the researcher location and study. In 2008 the UN Inter
Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) has launched a guide on
ethics on research on human trafficking where it recommends the researchers
to do “no harm” to the victims. The recommendation is based not only on the
safety issues, but also regarding to their emotional and psychological well
being, which passes also by avoiding invasive questions (Zimmerman and
Watts 2004) that can result in the so-called secondary victimization.
Another major issue on social research is the guaranteeing of
anonymity and confidentiality, especially when regarding to criminal research.
In fact, many researchers in some countries may be obliged by law to provide
information related to criminal activities (Siegel and Roos 2016). For instance,
many potential victims can be linked to illegal activities, such having an illegal
status on the territory or selling sexual services where prostitution is not
allowed (Kelly and Coy 2016). However, despite the access of researchers, law
enforcement tends to have more substantial information on the traffickers and
exploiters rather than the researchers. Therefore, the information acquired by
the researchers normally is not considered important to law enforcement
agents (Iniciardi et all 1993). Despite the unnecessary information disclosure
by researchers, it is well known that in order to tackle human trafficking,
stakeholders need to apply the rule of the four Ps (Prevention, Protection,
prosecution, Partnership). Therefore, more anti trafficking networks have been
established against human trafficking in Europe, which also includes the
partnership between the third sector and law enforcement agents. In the city, I
am developing my research, recently a mixed anti-trafficking network has been
established, by a previous informal contact that organizations working on
human trafficking had already with authorities.
In order to research on human trafficking for sexual purposes, the
methodologies as well as the research design have to be implemented
according to the access that researchers have in the field. Therefore, according
to Coy and Kelly (2016) before the first stage of research, investigators should
“research the local context, consult stakeholders on potential risks for the
researcher and participants, and how the presence of a researcher might affect
84 • Romanian Journal of Population Studies • Vol. XI, No. 1
relationships, including those of NGOs with partners and the communities
they work in”. This analysis will help the researcher to understand the access
and conditions of the participants in order to implement an adequate
Ethical issues regarding the research on human trafficking should be
regarded in every step of the research, not only while the researcher is dealing
with the participants, but also during the data treatment. For instance, in social
research informed consent is required, not only in order to inform the
participant on the use of the stories, but also to protect the researcher in case
the research can potentially harm the participant. However, written informed
consent tends to be very difficult to achieve, especially with participants
involved in sex industry (Wildt 2016). Therefore, according to Wildt (2006) and
also from my experience, the explanation on the participation of a research
project can be performed verbally.
Lastly, for the researcher, studying extreme violence situations and
abuse of human rights, as human trafficking can be psychologically and
emotional challenging. Not only due to the direct encounter with the victims,
but also due to the emotional work that the researcher has to do while in front
of the victims. This emotional gate-keeping can lead researchers into search
emotional comfort on their social network, by feeling the need to retell the
victims’ stories and difficulty in separating their self from their research
4. Participative Observation Method
Participant methodology has demonstrated to have both advantages and
disadvantages for the researcher (Siegel 2004), especially regarding to ethical
and safety issues. Furthermore, in outdoor sex work it has been demonstrated
to be provisional to arrange the possibility of participating research (Coy
2006), unless the researcher has the possibility to establish a long-term
relationship. This method requires chronological availability and patience, as
well as a well-designed strategy that not always target its aims. The application
of participative observation method can be emotionally and psychologically
challenging. However, this method provides a deeper knowledge into the
women’s lives that researchers cannot access through reading stories (Coy
2006). Furthermore, researchers can sharp their knowledge focusing on the
interested subject or create a context that permits to explore the subject of
Transnational Family Research • 85
For a research on motherhood during and after sexual exploitation, the author
has applied the participative observation method. The target group, which is
composed by Romanian women engaged on the outdoor sex industry has been
accompanied for two years, once a week, in which the author is part of the
street unit. The group provides hot and cold beverages and some food, as well
as the accompaniment by a cultural mediator to a doctor aware about the girls’
situation. The introduction on the volunteer group was made without any
difficulty, since the previous volunteers have already engaged in a trustful
relationship with the girls. In fact, trust is one of the key factors for accessing
real basis information (Kelly 2005; Siegel 2016), since the girls often are not
interested in telling the truth.
As mentioned before, one of the first dangers in researching on the sex
industry is to mistaken human trafficking victims and sex workers. In fact,
despite the experience on the sector and recognition of the indicators of the
researcher it was not easy to confirm the potential victims, especially because
many girls did not feel that they were victims (e.g. Siegel and Bovenkerk 2000;
Siegeland Yesilgöz 2003; Siegel 2005; Janssen 2007; Brunovskis and Surtees
2008). Furthermore, since many of them are victims through the loverboy
method, in which the exploiters are their boyfriends, they perceive their
violence as “domestic violence”. Therefore, the first encounters were mainly to
identify the potential human trafficking victims and the sex workers by the
application of some questions. In this case, despite that the majority of the
girls are located in the same place and they also know each other, since they
share the same nationality, three different categories were identified, separated
in three different groups.
First of all, a particular group was immediately identified as potential
victims of trafficking, due to their clothes, since that in low temperatures they
were still wearing shorts or panties. We also noticed that the women from this
group had to work for longer hours than the others. However, contradictions
were encountered, for instance, the same girl who has declared that she had to
stay working longer than the others on one day, on the next week explain to us
that she was having a headache and that she was planning to go home earlier.
These contradictions confused the street unit volunteers in doing a proper
evaluation of the situation of exploitation. However, the exploitation of this
girl was later confirmed by one police operation, where she was identified to be
abused by her boyfriend, one of the exploiters of the network. At this time, it
was obvious during the research period that it was extremely challenging to
possibly identify victims of trafficking, since the victims themselves did not see
themselves as victims. Furthermore, while involved in the loverboy method, the
86 • Romanian Journal of Population Studies • Vol. XI, No. 1
victims cannot perceive most of the abuse and in case they do perceive the
abuse, they tend to diminish its importance, therefore they will also not
mention it to the volunteers or to law enforcement agents.
A second group was identified to be potential victims of trafficking,
after some encounters. The evaluation was not based on their clothes, but
rather on their presence on the street while in adverse climatic situations, such
as rain. Furthermore, during the encounters, I posed questions to understand
the girls’ knowledge about the city or monuments, which they have replied
negatively. The girls also demonstrated to lack from social life, especially during
the summer, by never going to the beach. Another important indicator to
understand the level of exploitation of the girls was the time that they were
not going back to Romania. For instance, some girls, even with children in the
origin country have claimed with some sadness to be away from home for two
years. The demonstration of submission to an exploiter is also identifiable due
to the difference of behavior in presence of the controller, where normally the
girls tend to demonstrate to be more nervous and less willingly to talk.
Developing a participative observation method in the sex industry,
where potential human trafficking victims can be involved, requires a caring
minute strategy, not only regarding to the dangers involving the potential
victims, but the researcher itself. In fact, it is not difficult that in the trafficked
group, one of the girls is the controller, therefore, any conversation or question
has to be connected normally with their daily basis. When I entered into the
volunteer group, one of the first things that the other volunteers have
mentioned was the presence of potential controllers. These controllers often
are the inter-mediators between the exploiters and the victims and, profiting
from their experience on the sex industry they present to be a model to the
new girls (Lo Iacono 2014). Their role tend to be connected in controlling the
number of clients that the women have per night, their behavior and also they
normally alarm the exploiters in case of any problem with clients or the
presence of police. Furthermore, the girls do not see them as controllers, but
as friends that also do outdoor sex work. This perception was easily
understood, when during a police operation one of the controllers was
arrested and the girls have manifested their sadness in confront of her arrest.
Furthermore, the girls also demonstrated to be highly opposed to her arrest,
since she was considered “to be one of them”.
When I started to do research within the street unit, the establishment
relationship with the girls was easy, since the street unit was operating from
two years. Furthermore, being a religious group, the girls on the first year
though that I was also connected to a religious congregation. The girls that I
Transnational Family Research • 87
have accompanied through these two years have been mainly the same, yet
many have gone to other places and then came back. For instance, one girl has
promised us to leave the sex industry and come back to Romania, yet after one
year she has returned and explained that actually she was in London in indoor
prostitution. In fact, despite that the girls tend to maintain their place, it is
interesting that when they go home or decide that for a period they will go
abroad, they are immediately substituted for new girls. This happens especially
during the summer, when the girls go home for a month. When new girls
come, normally they are introduced by the controllers to the street unit
volunteers. However, when the street unit encounters new girls, who do not
belong to a group, it has been demonstrated that the contact is very difficult to
be established, since the girls tend to mistrust any new people that they
encounter. Furthermore, the new girls tend to do not understand and speak
Italian, unless they have lived in other Italian cities for a while. With the aim to
better understand the girls while they spoke among themselves I have also
started to learn Romanian, yet I am still not able to keep up with their mother
tongue spoken Romanian.
The access directly to the research subject provides not only
information on the women’s lives, but also their on their daily basis and social
networks. This information is often mentioned by the participants themselves
and it normally regards to their families and their lives back in the origin
countries also through the technology as Facebook and smartphones. Most of
the times, the conversation starts with only “how are you” and then the women
start talking and guide the conversation (Brennan 2005; Zimmerman and Watts
2004). In addition, through the participant observation method, the researcher
is able to understand the relation of the participant and his/her family. This
provides not only information of the family’s acknowledgment of the
involvement of the participant on sexual work, but also information on the
participants’ children. Furthermore, information is also provided on their
relation with the clients or with “friends” that wait all night for give a lift home.
However, despite that the women speak often about their families and social
contacts, the women tend to disclose small information regarding to their
boyfriends or love attachments in the destination country. This lack of
information on their love can be normally related with the involvement of the
boyfriends in illegal activities, as well as their own exploitation.
A last ethical issue is regarded to the encountered of extreme
exploitative situations, where there is clearly the presence of abuse. According
to Tyldum (2010) women that are identified as human trafficked victims and
left in their exploitative situation by the researcher lose their hope in being
88 • Romanian Journal of Population Studies • Vol. XI, No. 1
rescued. This attitude also shows an unethical behavior from the researcher, yet
in some situations of human trafficking even though victims are identified it is
very difficult to separate from their exploiters, since they are their boyfriends.
During my experience in the street unit, no physical sign of abuse was
encountered. Since their exploiters are their boyfriends, as previously
mentioned the women don’t talk about their love relationships, especially the
abuse they suffer, despite that in the same police operation abuse and violence
was reported. Therefore, with the aim to empower the women from their
exploitative relationships, the volunteers group has stated to include the issue
of love relationships and gender equality with the women, in order to
understand their perception on the subject. However, it is interesting that the
perception of men and relationships is not only connected with an exploitative
situation. In fact, the third group identified by the researcher, which is
considered to be sex workers, without the presence of an exploiter or pimp,
has demonstrated to have similar perspective on man and relationships. For
instance, the woman has the leading role on taking care of the family as well as
domestic tasks and man has the right to claim them. This vision on the gender
identity is shared as by trafficked victims as well as sex workers, yet on
trafficked victims their exploitative situation might be enhanced by violent
family background that normalizes abusive relationships.
Research on human trafficking sexual purposes has demonstrated to be
considerably changeling not only regarding to the lack of access of direct
sources, but also regarding to the involvement of the so considered vulnerable
groups. Therefore, research on human trafficking for sexual purposes requires
a strategy plan, not only to identify local stakeholders working on the subject,
but also to understand the best way to access the target group. The research
plan should include the participation of different secondary sources, by
identifying third sector and law enforcement that are normally identified
through purposive sampling and complemented by snowballing.
The application of participative methods on social research has
emerged a long debate on the ethical issues applied on the research, especially
when focusing on vulnerable groups such as human trafficking victims. For
instance, Siegel (2016) who is known for the implementation of participative
methodology in sex work and human trafficking suggests the application of
three rules such as: keeping distance from the respondents; clearly explain your
limits as a researcher; and never spread gossip that can harm. These rules are
definitely a key guide on the research on human trafficking for sexual
Transnational Family Research • 89
exploitation, yet they put an interrogation regarding to the confrontation of
the research and a potential human trafficking victim and denouncing an
exploitative situation. On the other side, as mentioned by (Iniciardi et all 1993)
the researcher’s information may not be relevant to law enforcement, yet this
ethical situation has been seen to be overcome when researchers are also
within anti-trafficking networks (Wildt 2016).
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