Thursday, May 7, 2015

Addressing Sexual Exploitation: Individuals

The final framework that I have seen to be vital for addressing sexual exploitation is one that focuses on individuals. This is the framework that teams that are working directly with survivors have to operate in.

It is this level that I have had the incredible opportunity to study closely over the last year, so I am very excited to share what I feel are the most important factors in an individual's recovery from sexual exploitation. These are also incredibly important to keep in mind for the goals of prevention and intervention, but most of my examples will draw from restoration projects, as these are where I have had the most experience.

Here is where I want to point out a huge lesson that I have learned on this journey. Sometimes the best thing you can do for an survivor of sexual exploitation is to just listen. At times, they won't want to share. At other times, they will. What matters, though, is that you are ready to listen - not hear what you expect them to say.

Beyond this, there are three important parts of an individual's experience that are vital for teams to assess and understand when taking on a case:



This is a component that cannot be overemphasized. A survivor's family situation is often part of the reason the original exploitation began, but family can also be the greatest tool in the healing process. Many times, the family of a survivor needs assistance and restoration just as much as their daughter, sister, or mother after intervention. Broken families lie at the heart of many problems in the world - including sexual exploitation. For this reason, teams should make it their highest priority to keep survivors with their family when possible, desired by the client, and safe. From there, case managers should consider the entire family their client - empowering and encouraging them to improve their lives and accept opportunities so that no one else has to be exploited.

Particularly in the collectivistic cultures outside of the western world, family is a crucial part of a survivor's recovery. When reunion with a biological family is not possible, finding a community that can act as family should be an absolute priority. Teams on the ground cannot afford overlook this piece of restoration.


I only have a surface level understanding of this component of an individual's recovery from sexual exploitation. However, I am excited to continue my studies and specialize in this facet of social work.

For now, though, I can say with certainty that the best programs I have encountered, that provide therapy in some form, do so from a trauma-informed perspective. Best practice in this field is the use of trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy by a trained professional. However, anyone on these teams who interacts with survivors of sexual exploitation must have an understanding of complex trauma and how it affects an individual.


Finally, something that surprised me about the teams that I encountered was their flexibility. Many were willing to adapt program time frames and structures for the needs of an individual. At first, I critiqued this, viewing it as a lack of organization or consistency.

Now, however, I see how important this is for those recovering from sexual exploitation. The restoration process is incredibly variable from person to person, and a rigid program does an injustice to the survivors. The most successful teams I encountered were willing to be flexible and creative in order to meet the needs of their clients. Sometimes these needs were practical - providing transportation to and from work - at other times they were met in the counseling room - covering topics that don't seem immediately pertinent to the therapist. It is this flexibility that allows teams to truly see change in individual lives.

If teams are not operating from this individual framework, the attempts at social change will most certainly fall flat. While larger changes within the culture and world are necessary, teams on the ground must always focus on the individual. If they do not, many teams that fight sexual exploitation begin to do more harm than good in the name of broad sweeping change - contradicting their original mission of promoting human rights for this particular population.

Remember, I have not said that no one should be pursuing this broad, sweeping change. I have simply said that this is not the job of grassroots teams. If every level of the pyramid I introduced can specialize in their framework, the work will be done more effectively and properly. Of course, this usually does not happen in reality. Check back tomorrow for my discussion about some of the challenges that have caused this model not to play out in the real world.



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