You are on page 1of 280

Studies of Organized Crime

Volume 13

Series Editor
Dina Siegel
Willem Pompe Institute, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
This series will publish theoretically significant books in two primary areas. One
is the political economy of organized crime and criminality whether at the trans-
national, national, regional, or local levels (focus on financial crime, political cor-
ruption, environmental crime, and the expropriation of resources from developing
nations). The other is human rights violations, particularly in Third World countries.
Manuscripts that cover either historical or contemporary issues of the above, utiliz-
ing qualitative methodologies, are equally welcome. In addition, we are particularly
interested in publishing the work of sophisticated junior scholars.

More information about this series at

Dina Siegel • Roos de Wildt

Ethical Concerns in Research

on Human Trafficking

1  3
Dina Siegel Roos de Wildt
Willem Pompe Institute Willem Pompe Institute
Utrecht University Utrecht University
Utrecht Utrecht
The Netherlands The Netherlands

ISSN 1571-5493
Studies of Organized Crime
ISBN 978-3-319-21520-4    ISBN 978-3-319-21521-1 (eBook)
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015955467

Springer Cham Heidelberg New York Dordrecht London

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
This work is subject to copyright. All rights are reserved by the Publisher, whether the whole or part
of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations,
recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or
information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar
methodology now known or hereafter developed.
The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication
does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant
protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use.
The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book
are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the
editors give a warranty, express or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors
or omissions that may have been made.

Printed on acid-free paper

Springer International Publishing AG Switzerland is part of Science+Business Media

To our children

This unique collection of essays explores an important dimension of human

trafficking research: ethical issues. The book covers a wide range of issues from
different vantage points, with a common theme of highlighting both best practices
and challenges in conducting research with human subjects involved, in some way,
in trafficking.
Some of the issues discussed in the book are generalizable to research on other
vulnerable populations that are involved in illicit, clandestine, and exploitative
work. These include the need to elicit respondents’ informed consent, guarantee
anonymity of subjects, confidentiality of identifiers, minimization of risk and harm
to both victims and researchers, and the thorny question of reporting victimization
to the authorities.
A topic tackled in some of the essays is the role of institutional review boards in
scrutinizing research proposals involving human subjects. Although no one would
question the legitimacy of these boards—given their role in preempting research
that might endanger subjects or cause them emotional harm—there are times when
they appear to operate with little expertise or sociological understanding, impose
impractical rules on researchers, or block a study entirely. When it comes to sex
work, many of these ethics boards seem to operate with a presumption of risks and
victimization, or even question researchers’ motives for conducting such research.
Even unobtrusive covert observations in an erotic bar, open to the public, may be
prohibited by a review board unless the researcher first gains permission from the
bar owner! In such instances, there seems to be little recognition of the practicalities
involved in the research enterprise.
It is well-known that such review boards can and do overstep their mandate,
especially when the research involves some dimension of sexuality. The standards
are quite different when boards assess research proposals involving nonsexual
labor, but one can argue that the same ethical standards should apply regardless of
the type of activity being studied.
The available research literature suggests that labor trafficking can be just as
traumatic and exploitative as sex trafficking. Trafficked fishermen, for example, can
be subjected to malnutrition, long hours of hard work, sleep deprivation, dangerous

viii Foreword

fishing methods, and an absence of health care for those who are injured or sick
and confined on a boat for weeks. A study of Bangladeshis who had been trafficked
outside the country for various kinds of nonsexual labor found that almost all of the
women reported that they had been subject to either sexual harassment or sexual
assault. Unlike many writings that ignore labor trafficking, this book includes
chapters devoted to this and to the ethical issues involved in researching it.
One of the trickiest issues is how a researcher gains access to those who exploit
others—the pimps, traffickers, and slave holders. Very little research has been
conducted on these individuals, and most of what we “know” about them comes
from descriptions by victims, the authorities, or NGOs—rather than the exploiters
themselves (an exception is a study based on interviews with a sizeable number of
incarcerated traffickers in Cambodia, by Chenda Keo and his colleagues, published
in The Annals in 2014). The lack of data coming directly from the facilitators and
managers has been replaced with portrayals that are a rather monolithic caricature
of those who profit from others’ labor, but some recent research (some of which
is described in this book) provides a more nuanced picture of such individuals.
This research suggests that pimps and traffickers range along a continuum, and
have various kinds of relationships with workers. One important question is how
“exploitation” is defined and operationalized in research and where to draw the line
between exploitation and contractual transactions where the worker benefits from
his or her labor.
A related issue has to do with the ethical challenges involved in data collection
from active offenders, in this case traffickers involved in ongoing criminal acts,
rather than ex-traffickers or those who are accessed in prison. What norms apply
when the researcher has direct contact with traffickers, pimps, or those who control
slaves? Would an institutional review board insist that the researcher report such
individuals to the authorities or would such individuals fall under the blanket
confidentiality protection for human subjects? And, apart from the position of a
review board on this question, is there a best practice that should guide researchers
themselves? While ensuring the anonymity of victims would be standard practice,
what about those involved in exploiting them?
It is unethical to cherry-pick data that supports a particular paradigm or
ideological position, while ignoring contrary data. Unfortunately, some researchers
do precisely that—privileging some data over others and drawing generalizations
based solely on the information that supports their preconceptions. This seems
to occur more often in studies of the sex industry than other labor spheres. One
problem is that it is difficult for anyone outside a research team to know whether
data has been concealed and whether the published results are a selective tip of the
iceberg. On the other hand, it is sometimes possible to detect a partial cover-up—
that is, when contrary results are presented but marginalized, explained away, or
buried in a footnote. I have detected this slanted type of data presentation in some
studies that I have reviewed.
Foreword ix

A final ethical issue that deserves attention involves the kinds of methodological
procedures used to gather valid data—particularly salient when one is studying an
illicit enterprise whose participants may have good reasons to conceal the truth or
to reveal only part of the picture. The obvious solution is for the researcher to build
rapport and trust with respondents prior to studying them, but this is sometimes not
possible and even when it is, it does not guarantee total disclosure by all respondents.
Victims may be fearful of retaliation from perpetrators if they say too much, and it is
not ethical to pressure them to do so. What this means is that researchers will have to
accept that there is likely to be some irreducible level of “error,” hopefully minimal,
in data gathered from participants in human trafficking and contemporary slavery.
But building rapport ahead of time and respecting the agency of the respondents can
help reduce the chances that any given study will be prone to significant amounts of
missing data or distorted narratives.

29 March 2015 Ronald Weitzer

 George Washington University
 D. Siegel et al.

1 Introduction: The Variety of Ethical Dilemmas��������������������������������������    1

Dina Siegel and Roos de Wildt

Part I  Sex Trafficking

2 Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching

Women Trafficked for Commercial Sexual Exploitation�����������������������  11
Helen Easton and Roger Matthews

3 Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice: Researching the Sex

Industry and Trafficking���������������������������������������������������������������������������   33
Liz Kelly and Maddy Coy

4 Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry:

The Ambivalence of Ethical Guidelines���������������������������������������������������   51
Roos de Wildt

5 Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work: A Triple Taboo������������������������������������   71

Dina Siegel

6 The Ethical Minefield in Human Trafficking Research—

Real and Imagined�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������   85
Sheldon X. Zhang

Part II  Labour Trafficking

7 Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’:

Researching Forced Labour Experiences Among Refugees
and Asylum Seekers in the UK�����������������������������������������������������������������   99
Hannah Lewis
xii Contents

8 Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant

Workers and Forced Labour������������������������������������������������������������������   117
Sam Scott and Alistair Geddes

9 Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with

Trafficked Persons�����������������������������������������������������������������������������������   137
Rebecca Surtees and Anette Brunovskis

10 Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human Trafficking Research:

Reflections on Research with Male Labourers from South
Asia in Singapore�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������   155
Sallie Yea

Part III  Child Trafficking

11 Getting What We Want: Experience and Impact in Research

with Survivors of Slavery������������������������������������������������������������������������   173
Zhaleh Boyd and Kevin Bales

12 No Love for Children: Reciprocity, Science, and Engagement

in the Study of Child Sex Trafficking�����������������������������������������������������   191
Anthony Marcus and Ric Curtis

13 Walking the Tightrope: Ethical Dilemmas of Doing

Fieldwork with Youth in US Sex Markets���������������������������������������������   205
Amber Horning and Amalia Paladino

Part IV  Organ Trafficking

14 At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers������   227

Monir Moniruzzaman

15 On Adopting Heretical Methods: From Barefoot to Militant

to Detective Anthropology�����������������������������������������������������������������������   249
Nancy Scheper Hughes

Index����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������  273

Kevin Bales Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation,

University of Hull, Hull, UK
Zhaleh Boyd Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation,
University of Hull, Hull, UK
Anette Brunovskis  Fafo, Oslo, Norway
Maddy Coy Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan
University, London, UK
Ric Curtis  Department of Anthropology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice,
New York, NY, USA
Roos de Wildt Willem Pompe Institute, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The
Helen Easton  School of Law and Social Sciences, London South Bank University,
London, UK
Alistair Geddes School of Social Sciences, University of Dundee, Dundee,
Scotland, UK
Amber Horning  Department of Sociology, William Paterson University, Wayne,
Liz Kelly  Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University,
London, UK
Hannah Lewis  School of Geography, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
Anthony Marcus Department of Anthropology, John Jay College of Criminal
Justice, New York, NY, USA
Roger Matthews School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research,
University of Kent, Canterbury, UK
xiv Contributors

Monir Moniruzzaman  Department of Anthropology and Center for Ethics and

Humanities in the Life Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
Amalia Paladino  Department of Criminal Justice, CUNY Graduate Center/John
Jay College of Criminal Justice, Social Networks Research Group, New York, NY,
Nancy Scheper Hughes Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology, Chair of the
Doctoral Program in Medical Anthropology, and Director of Organs Watch,
University of California, Berkeley, USA
Sam Scott  School of Natural and Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire,
Cheltenham, UK
Dina Siegel  Willem Pompe Institute, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
Rebecca Surtees  NEXUS Institute, Washington DC, USA
Sallie Yea  Humanities and Social Science Education (HSSE), National Institute of
Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University, Nanyang, Singapore
Sheldon X. Zhang Department of Sociology, San Diego State University, San
Diego, USA
About the Editors

Dina Siegel  is a professor of Criminology and chair of the Willem Pompe Institute for Criminal
Law and Criminology at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She received her PhD in cultural
anthropology at the VU University, Amsterdam. She has published on the Russian mafia, human
trafficking, legalized prostitution, underground banking, XTC trafficking, terrorism, crimes in the
diamond industry, and the role of women in criminal organizations. Her most recent books are
Traditional Organized Crime in the Modern World (with Henk van de Bunt), Springer, 2012;
Mobile banditry. East and Central European Itinerant Criminal Groups in the Netherlands,
Eleven International Publishing, 2014. She also published different articles on the position of sex
workers and on ethnographic research on prostitution in the Netherlands.

Roos de Wildt  is conducting her PhD research in cultural and global criminology at Utrecht Uni-
versity, The Netherlands and the University of Hamburg, Germany. She is studying prostitution
and human trafficking for sexual purposes in Kosovo. The aim of this project is to explore how war
and a transition process shape these phenomena. She conducted further ethnographic fieldwork on
the trafficking of Romanian women to Italy after Romania entered the European Union, the future
perspectives of youth in post-conflict Guatemala, prostitution in the Dutch municipality of Almere,
child trafficking in The Netherlands, and the closing of designated prostitution areas in Utrecht,
The Netherlands. After obtaining her Master of Science in cultural anthropology, Roos worked as
an international project manager at NGOs between 2007 and 2011, during which she was mainly
responsible for the implementation of projects in Central and Eastern Europe.

Chapter 1
Introduction: The Variety of Ethical Dilemmas

Dina Siegel and Roos de Wildt

Ethical issues have become an integral part of the process of preparing, conducting
and publishing empirical research in the social sciences. These days, students are
being trained in all kinds of skills and techniques for doing ‘ethical research’. The
research protocols include detailed instructions and warnings about potential risks
and harms and the dangers of manipulation and concealment. Such concerns about
the ethical aspects of social research are typical of our ‘risk society’ (Beck 1992)
and our ‘culture of control’ (Garland 2001). While the medical sciences in particu-
lar are rightfully considered to be the most risk-producing disciplines, the social
sciences are also strongly affected by research ethics protocols (Haggerty 2004,
p. 392). However, risk management, regulation and overregulation of research eth-
ics pose dangers to our ability to conduct research and produce knowledge. In the
words of Adler and Adler (2002, p. 42): ‘If you fundamentally shut down research
there is no risk to subjects because researchers will not know anything’. In order
to avoid such an extreme situation and to be able to continue doing research in
criminology and anthropology, especially where qualitative methods are involved,
scientists need to be alert to any obstacles, exaggerations or new regulations that
could hinder their fieldwork activities.
One of the purposes of this book is to discuss such risks and developments and
to analyse their effect on empirical research on human trafficking. Much research is
dependent on the researcher’s perception of the field situation at a specific point in
a specific context and on the relationship he or she has established with informants.
We will see a wide range of different attitudes towards the ethical questions in

D. Siegel () · R. de Wildt

Willem Pompe Institute, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
R. de Wildt
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 1
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_1
2 D. Siegel and R. de Wildt

fieldwork and the level of compliance with, and acceptance of, existing rules drawn
up by academic institutions. While some consider these ethical codes as taken for
granted and highly needed, others view them as abusive and as casting doubt on
the integrity, academic honesty and common sense of researchers, as if they are
‘bringing turbulence to the field, fostering personal traumas (for researchers and
researched), and even causing damage to the discipline’ (Punch 1994, p. 83).
The term ethics is derived from Greek words ethikos (ἠθικός) and ethos (ἦθος),
meaning habit or common belief. Questions asked centuries ago by philosophers
such as Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Kant and Nietzsche are still relevant today, es-
pecially with regard to our moral obligations, values and morality, as well as our
choices and freedom. Following Immanuel Kant, each act ‘involves an ethical
thought—namely that there are respects in which the choice is desirable, or worth
choosing’ (Danwall 1998, p. 4). Whatever choice is made, it seems that it has to be
in conformity with the prevailing ethical views in one’s community which refers to
the philosophical idea of normativity. Our ethical convictions are always related to
the attitudes, norms and values of the moral culture of the society in which we act,
in our case the academic community.
However, we find as much disagreement about normativity and ethical obliga-
tions among ancient philosophers as among modern scientists. The questions that
arise in this regard are: obligations to whom—to those who provide us with the
data, or to the people who approve our research proposals? What about the rights of
the respondents on the one hand and those of the academic researcher on the other?
Even more importantly: who decides what is ethical and what is not, and who has
the right to force their decisions on the entire research community?
The issues that always come up in the context of social research are harm, con-
sent and confidentiality. All three elements are usually present in research on human
The most discussed principle in this book is ‘First, Do No Harm’, primum non
nocere. The phrase is attributed to Hippocrates and considered to be part of the Hip-
pocratic Oath, although there are doubts about the correct translation from Greek
to Latin. In medical research real harm can be inflicted (Brandt 1978). ‘… in a
sense, we are still suffering for the sins of Milgram’ (Punch 1994, p. 89).1 Ques-
tions such as ‘when is the researcher actually doing harm?’ and ‘do one’s research
purposes justify all scientific means?’ came from the medical sciences and have
led to all sorts of regulations as a result of so-called ethics creep, ‘which involves a
dual process whereby the regulatory structure of the ethics bureaucracy is expand-
ing outward, colonizing new groups, practices and institutions…’ (Haggerty 2004,
p. 394). This ‘ethics creep’ has also reached the social sciences, where the term
‘ethics’ today refers to the ‘set of principles governing conduct’ (Wolfgang 1981,
p. 345). In fact, having contact with criminals, including interviews or participant
observation, has often been questioned by social scientists because of the potential
personal risk to the researcher (Sluka 1990; Ferrell and Hamm 1998) or the danger
of being considered ‘one of them’ (Sutherland and Cressey 1960, p. 69). In research

Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram (1963) conducted a series of controversial experi-
ments on obedience to authority figures.
1  Introduction: The Variety of Ethical Dilemmas 3

on human trafficking, contact with pimps or traffickers and even more so with ‘vul-
nerable victims’ is often viewed as unethical, regardless of the willingness of the
victims themselves to participate in the research.
As soon as informants show themselves willing to provide information, the re-
searcher faces the challenge of obtaining ‘informed consent’. Informed consent is a
delicate issue, especially in ethnographic research. In some situations it can become
unworkable, as consent often reduces participation (Punch 1994, p. 90). In many
cases researchers decide on the basis of their own interpretation of the situation and
their relationship with their informants (Adler & Adler 2002).
Privacy and confidentiality are equally worthy of ethical consideration. Being
dependent on informants who are willing to provide sensitive information about
human trafficking, many researchers feel the need to protect their informants from
criminal justice actors. The Canadian researchers Lowman and Palys (2001), for
example, provided full confidentiality to their informants in the sex industry, were
prepared to go to jail to protect their sources and even put pressure on their univer-
sity and national research councils on this matter (Israel 2004, p. 731). Researchers
in many countries can be legally required to disclose their information, especially
in regard to criminal activities. The extent to which they can offer confidentiality to
their respondents depends on the local legal context and on the balance they strike
between promises to guarantee privacy and the legal ability to do so.
As we will see in the upcoming chapters, ethics protocols should not be equated
with absolute, watertight measures. Social research is first of all human research:
It is conducted by human beings and its subject matter are also human beings. To
understand the phenomenon of human trafficking we need to interact with victims,
offenders and other (allegedly) involved actors. Like medical practitioners who
cannot diagnose and treat patients from a distance, anthropologists and criminolo-
gists need to communicate with the persons involved in order to gain insight into
criminal acts. Ethical research can only be based on the researcher’s interpretation
of correct and honest behaviour and ethical regulations should not be allowed to
restrict scientific research. There is no room for taboos in the social sciences and
researchers should not be made to feel threatened or intimidated by the moral deci-
sions of others with a different interpretation of ethics.
In this book which is based around the theme of human trafficking (i.e. traffick-
ing for sexual services, human organs or labour exploitation), the reader will find a
wide range of perspectives on ethics in qualitative research. The contributors have
all conducted research on one or another aspect of this area and have had long-term
interaction with informants (either in the form of interviews or participant observa-
tion). The authors were asked to analyse their experiences with an emphasis on the
ethical dilemmas they faced in the course of their research. Some of these dilemmas
had to do with research methods such as gaining access to the field, finding gate-
keepers or introducing the research topic; other authors faced problems in obtaining
permission to enter the field at an even earlier stage because of bureaucratic re-
strictions imposed by their universities or other institutions. The institutional back-
ground, personality, reputation and expectations of the researcher—all these aspects
play an important role in regard to ethics. Each contribution to this volume focuses
on a personal description and analysis of the issues at hand. The result is a rich col-
4 D. Siegel and R. de Wildt

lection of different approaches and views on various ethical dilemmas and creative
individual solutions. This brings us to the core question of this project: What does it
mean to do ethical research among vulnerable or criminalized people in general and
on human trafficking in particular?

About This Book

The first part explores ethical dilemmas in research on sex trafficking and the sex
industry at large. Roger Matthews and Helen Easton discuss the way in which re-
search on those who have been trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation can
become a balancing act between gathering and presenting robust evidence about
individual women’s experiences and ensuring the physical and emotional safety of
the research subjects. A further balancing act involves progressing fieldwork and
analysis at a reasonable pace, while also being reflexive and taking care of one’s
personal responses to the subject matter. Drawing on their own research on the sex
industry in the UK, Liz Kelly and Maddy Coy approach ethics as a process. They
stress that ethical issues are continuously raised and explored both in the field and
when working with data. Kelly and Coy furthermore explore the potentials of the
‘positive empowerment’ approach developed for doing research on violence and
abuse to problematize notions of ‘sensitive topics’ and ‘vulnerable groups’ in rela-
tion to the sex industry and human trafficking.
Roos de Wildt argues that guiding principles such as ‘do no harm’, informed
consent, anonymity, confidentiality and clarity about the role and responsibility of
the researcher can advise researchers on the sex industry on how to deal with cer-
tain situations. Yet, following the general guidelines is no guarantee to successful
research and imposing these guidelines on researchers can hamper research prog-
ress. The ambivalence in their practical applicability is discussed through concrete
examples from ethnographic fieldwork on prostitution and human trafficking in
Kosovo and Italy. Dina Siegel discusses one of the greatest taboos in criminologi-
cal research: Ethnicity. She focuses on obstacles to doing research on prostitution
among specific ethnic groups and the response of various moral entrepreneurs to
unwelcome findings. Instead of avoiding the topic of ethnicity, Siegel argues for
affirming the freedom of academic inquiry, the independence of criminological re-
search from political agendas and the basic assumption that real science does not
shy away from the ethnicity taboo. Based on his personal experience in research on
human trafficking, Sheldon Zhang questions current institutional efforts ubiquitous
in American academia to police and censor mundane and ordinary research activi-
ties. Zhang suggests that a fundamental lack of confidence in human agency and
the personal integrity of researchers have given rise to unfettered concerns over
possible violations of ethics in field research.
Ethical concerns in research on labour trafficking are explored in the second
part of this volume. Hannah Lewis considers the methodological challenges and
1  Introduction: The Variety of Ethical Dilemmas 5

ethical implications of undertaking a qualitative study of experiences of forced

labour among refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. She discusses negotiating
access and the ways in which illegality affects research. Forced labour is a term
circumscribed by understandings of involuntariness, lack of choice and coercion.
However, as Lewis contends, it is important to avoid dehumanizing people as needy
while recognizing their needs. Sam Scott and Alistair Geddes argue that the domi-
nance of standardized ethics frameworks is problematic since qualitative and quan-
titative research involves individuals making flexible and context-specific ethical
judgements which do not always align with standardized ethics frameworks. Scott
and Geddes interrogate the distinction between achieving ethical research on paper
(institutional ethics) and actually defining and ensuring ethical research in practice
(individual ethics). Rebecca Surtees and Anette Brunovskis argue in favour of pro-
viding referral information when conducting research with trafficking victims as a
means of preventing and mitigating harm. At the same time, they highlight the ob-
stacles in identifying assistance options and offering referral information to respon-
dents, both in terms of the actual existence of services and their appropriateness and
desirability for respondents. In outlining a feminist methodology for research with
populations of trafficked persons, Sallie Yea reflects on a study with South Asian
male migrant labourers in Singapore, drawing on considerations that have the po-
tential to achieve more in-depth and ethically appropriate research outcomes. These
considerations directly address the notions of trust and rapport which Yea recog-
nizes pivotal for successful in-depth research with people who have been trafficked.
Part three discusses ethics in child trafficking research. Zhaleh Boyd and Kevin
Bales explore the process of conducting interviews with trafficking victims that
identify as transient minor sex workers. They state that human trafficking research
is important but no more important than protecting victims of trafficking. An hon-
est and in-depth exploration of all possibilities for harming a participant in the
course of the research process is, therefore, the key to maintaining an ethical study.
They specifically argue in favour of allowing people who can be legally labelled
as slaves or enslavers to determine the terminology that is used to describe them
and to use that terminology as a starting point for discussing how it is similar to
and different from the letter of the law. Anthony Marcus and Ric Curtis conducted
empirical research on the lives of minor sex workers in New York City and Atlantic
City, New Jersey. They describe their struggles to adhere to contemporary laws and
research protocols governing child sex trafficking that dictate reticence, aloofness
and avoidance by adults who are not licensed authorities or trained professionals.
In contrast to this regime of fear and avoidance, Marcus and Curtis argue for the
‘personhood’ of mature minors and the need for a science that is ethically engaged
with that personhood, rather than built around protecting their childhood and in-
stantiating their victimhood. Amber Horning and Amalia Paladino further explore
the role of researchers conducting ethnographic fieldwork with young sex workers
and pimps in New York City and Atlantic City with the view of a ‘world turned
upside down’. They generate a discussion on researchers’ ethical dilemmas and
6 D. Siegel and R. de Wildt

moral obligations, especially in sex marketplaces where official world rules may
not make sense, and explore ethical conundrums related to themes of constrained
agency and coercion.
The final part is on ethical dilemmas in researching organ trafficking. Monir
Moniruzzaman discusses his ethnographic research on living organ trafficking in
Bangladesh and on the sellers who sell their body parts to get out of poverty and pay
back their multiple microcredit loans. Moniruzzaman faced tremendous difficulties
in gaining access to this extremely ‘hidden population’. When all his avenues were
exhausted, he employed an organ broker to locate organ sellers which raised major
ethical challenges. Nancy Scheper-Hughes closes the book with a discussion of the
‘heretical methods’ she uses to get to the bottom of the puzzle of medical crimes
in known hospitals and clandestine clinics alike. She examines what is required to
‘make public’ a hitherto invisible social and political issue. One way is to surren-
der ethnographic data, ownership and authorship in collaborations with journalists
who can put the issue and one’s research findings on the front page in ways that
anthropologists can rarely do. Scheper-Hughes leaves the reader to consider ethical
dilemmas that transcend ethics protocols.


Adler, P., & Adler, P. (2002). Do university lawyers and the police define research values? In Van
den W. Hoonaard (Ed.), Walking the tightrope. Ethical issues for qualitative researchers. To-
ronto: Toronto University Press.
Beck, U. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity. London: Sage.
Brandt, A. (1978). Racism, research and the Tuskegee syphilis study (Report no. 8). New York:
Hastings Center.
Danwall, S. (1998). Philosophical ethics. Boulder: Westview Press.
Ferrell, J., & Hamm, M. (1998). Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance and field research.
Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Haggerty, K. (2004). Ethics creep: Governing social science research in the name of ethics. Quali-
tative Sociology, 27(4), 391–414.
Israel, M. (2004). Strictly confidential? Integrity and the disclosure of criminological and socio-
legal research. British Journal of Criminology, 44, 715–740.
Lowman, J., & Palys, T. (2001). Limited confidentiality, academic freedom and matters of con-
science: Where does CPA stand? Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43(4), 497–508.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of abnormal and social psychol-
ogy, 67(4), 371–378.
Punch, M. (1994). Politics and ethics in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln
(Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 83–97). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Sluka, J. (1990). Participant observation in violent social contexts. Human Organizations, 49(2),
Sutherland, E., & Cressey, D. (1960). Principles of criminology. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.
Wolfgang, M. E. (1981). Confidentiality in criminological research and other ethical issues. Jour-
nal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 72(1 Spring), 345–361.
1  Introduction: The Variety of Ethical Dilemmas 7

Dina Siegel  is a professor of criminology and the chair of the Willem Pompe Institute for
Criminal Law and Criminology at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She received her Ph.D.
in cultural anthropology from the VU University, Amsterdam. She has published on the Russian
mafia, human trafficking, legalized prostitution, underground banking, XTC trafficking, terrorism,
crimes in the diamond industry and the role of women in criminal organizations. Her most recent
books are Traditional Organized Crime in the Modern World (with Henk van de Bunt), Springer,
2012; Mobile banditry. East and Central European Itinerant Criminal Groups in the Netherlands,
Eleven International Publishing, 2014. She has also published different articles on the position of
sex workers and on ethnographic research on prostitution in the Netherlands.

Roos de Wildt  is pursuing her Ph.D. research in cultural and global criminology at Utrecht
University, the Netherlands and the University of Hamburg, Germany. She is currently study-
ing prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes in Kosovo. The aim of this project
is to explore how war and a transition process shape these phenomena. She conducted further
ethnographic fieldwork on the trafficking of Romanian women to Italy after Romania entered the
European Union, the future perspectives of youth in post-conflict Guatemala, prostitution in the
Dutch municipality of Almere, child trafficking in the Netherlands, and the closing of designated
prostitution areas in Utrecht, the Netherlands. After obtaining her Master’s of Science in Cultural
Anthropology, Roos worked as an international project manager at different nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) between 2007 and 2011, during which she was mainly responsible for the
implementation of projects in central and eastern Europe.
Part I
Sex Trafficking
Chapter 2
Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of
Researching Women Trafficked for Commercial
Sexual Exploitation

Helen Easton and Roger Matthews


Producing accurate estimates of the nature and extent of human trafficking has
proven difficult. Official estimates are highly speculative, vary considerably de-
pending upon the source and have been the subject of much policy and academic
debate (Cusick et al. 2009). Key to resolving these debates is the need for robust
evidence about the experiences of people who have been trafficked; however, re-
searching hidden, vulnerable, stigmatised and marginalised populations is known to
be methodologically and ethically challenging (Cwikel and Hoban 2005).
While there is a growing body of research literature about human trafficking,
much of it suffers from a lack of methodological transparency (Kelly 2005). There
is also an overreliance on secondary sources (Andrees and van der Linden 2005).
Primary research faces considerable methodological challenges, particularly in re-
lation to problems of access, which affect the representativeness of samples, low
response rates, and the reliance on proxy indicators or secondary information about
actual cases rather than detailed personal testimony. Women who have been traf-
ficked for commercial sexual exploitation experience a particular complexity of is-
sues that renders research with this group sensitive and the participants vulnerable.
Studies of women’s experiences are further complicated by the diversity of traf-
ficking contexts, by traumatic responses to their trafficking, by their involvement
in the criminal justice system as victims and witnesses and by their often uncertain
immigration status.
According to Liz Kelly (2005), it is imperative that trafficked victims’ voices are
heard as discussions about human trafficking are often played out in the context of

H. Easton ()
School of Law and Social Sciences, London South Bank University, London, UK
R. Matthews
School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 11
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_2
12 H. Easton and R. Matthews

debates about prostitution. Within these exchanges, trafficked women’s voices be-
come marginalised. For those who have experienced violence, trauma and traffick-
ing, silence is and becomes a survival strategy (Brennan 2005) as often their future
safety and inclusion within their own communities require that they remain silent
about their experiences (Kelly 2002; Bales 2003). A key challenge for research into
trafficking therefore is the difficulty of balancing the safety and wellbeing of vic-
tims with the political need to draw attention to the circumstances and needs of
trafficked people.
Research with victims of human trafficking is, however, alive with ethical and
methodological challenges. As Zimmerman and Watts (2003) explain:
The degree and duration of the physical danger and psychological trauma to an individual
is not always evident. In some cases risks may not be obvious to the interviewer. In other
cases, dangers may not be apparent to the woman. (Zimmerman and Watts 2003, p. 5)

Indeed, their recommendation on conducting interviews with trafficked persons is

to ‘treat each woman and the situation as if the potential for harm is extreme until
there is evidence to the contrary’ (Zimmerman and Watts 2003, p. 5). On the other
hand, research on traumatic, emotional and sensitive topics has frequently shown
that emotional displays such as crying can be cathartic or empowering and may
cause minimal harm when handled well by researchers (Goodrum and Keys 2007).
Furthermore, research with people who have been trafficked also shows that the
research process while predicted to be risky and harmful to participants can often
be empowering (Cwikel and Hoban 2005).
The fifth principle of the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s (2012)
Framework of Research Ethics also urges: ‘Harm to research participants and re-
searchers must be avoided in all instances’. This statement, written as an impera-
tive, suggests that to the ethics committee no amount of harm is acceptable (Ham-
mersley 2014). Studying victims of trafficking therefore leaves researchers with
a conundrum: there is a need for research, researching victims of trafficking has
much potential for harm, but the harms may not be known immediately or to the
participants themselves.
How then can it be guaranteed that even with the greatest consideration to eth-
ics, the research study will do no harm? Should we research victims of trafficking
at all? And what of the need to gather information to protect others still at risk
of the harms of human trafficking? And where does our role as researchers start
and finish? Such questions relate to the ethical concepts of distributive justice and
beneficence (Cwikel and Hoban 2005). Distributive justice is the concept that an
ethical decision may be the one that allows the greatest benefit to the largest number
of people (Beauchamp and Childress 2012). Beneficence is the pursuit of benefits
from actions in balance between risks and costs. This principle requires that ethical
decisions consider the immediate participant, but there is also debate about whether
the interests of other parties, such as those potentially at risk in the future, should be
considered. Researching trafficked persons could therefore be considered an act of
beneficence and distributive justice despite the potential but unpredictable harms it
poses to participants.
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 13

Qualitative research with those who have been trafficked and sexually exploited
has largely relied on feminist research methodologies, which challenge mainstream
methods and privilege certain practices. Such methods challenge the positivistic
notion that individuals are determined by their physical and social characteristics.
Instead, the focus is on acknowledging and examining the participant’s experience
and emotions as a way of understanding their motivations and interests, creating
emotionally sensed and embodied knowledge (Hubbard et al. 2001; Game 1997).
Feminist research practice does not try to eliminate bias but rather embraces sub-
jectivity and recognises that the production of knowledge about the world is situ-
ated, partial and specific. Feminist research therefore aims for ‘conscious partiality’
rather than adopting a detached or value-free approach (Harraway 1991).
While there is much debate within feminism about what constitutes feminist
methodology (Bowles and Duelli Klein 1983; Harding 1987; Stanley and Wise
1983; Gelsthorpe 1992), central to a feminist approach is the idea that the research
process involves a relationship between the researcher and the researched and that
the researcher plays a role in the joint production of knowledge. Consequently, it
is necessary for researchers to consider their effect on the actual process of the
research at all stages from the initial conceptualisation, through fieldwork, data
analysis and reporting. This requires the consideration of issues beyond race, class
and gender such as the values, principles and assumptions of the researcher to bring
these into consciousness in order to assess their contribution to the research. Engag-
ing with research in this way creates its own particular ethical challenges, many of
which are discussed further throughout the chapter.

The Research Studies

This chapter draws on two recent studies conducted by the authors and details some
of the ethical issues that arose in connection to these studies. Both studies adopt-
ed feminist methodologies. The first was a study commissioned by the Scottish
Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The study aimed to gather de-
tailed evidence about the experiences of women trafficked into commercial sexual
exploitation in Scotland (Easton and Matthews 2012) in order to contribute to a
wider Inquiry into Human Trafficking in Scotland (Equality and Human Rights
Commission 2011). The fieldwork for the study included in-depth interviews with
trafficked women currently supported by the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alli-
ance (TARA); semi-structured telephone interviews with representatives from key
agencies addressing human trafficking in Scotland; secondary analysis of data held
by these agencies; and a documentary analysis of victim statements provided by the
police, lawyers and the UK Border Agency. Central to the research was an examina-
tion of each victim’s experience of being identified as a victim of trafficking as well
as the barriers victims experienced as part of the identification process and their
experiences of the services that they encountered in Scotland. Pre-existing profes-
sional relationships with TARA enabled collaboration and consultation that allowed
14 H. Easton and R. Matthews

access to participants and the early and rapid identification of ethical and practical
issues. Ethical approval for the study was obtained from the London South Bank
University Research Ethics Committee.
Of the 35 women on TARA’s caseload, 26 were identified by practitioners as
suitable participants. Of these, ten agreed to be involved. Women were selected
to participate if it was thought they were sufficiently resilient, that is they were
not currently in crisis, they were able to make an informed decision about their
involvement and its possible consequences and they had resources that they could
draw on for support. The women involved in the study ranged in age from 21 to 33
years with eight of the ten women in their early 20s. Nine of the ten women came
from Africa (Nigeria, Gambia, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia) and one from Latin
America. Four of the women were trafficked directly to Scotland, while five were
trafficked to London and one to a city in the northeast of England. Of the six traf-
ficked to England, two were also exploited in Scotland. The remaining four women
arrived in Scotland having fled to Glasgow to escape their traffickers or to seek asy-
lum. English was not the primary language of any of the women interviewed. None,
however, requested or required an interpreter, although arrangements had been
made through TARA should these have been required or desired by participants.
The sample of women was representative of the overall caseload in most respects.
All of those who participated had experienced being moved, deceived, controlled
and exploited. The trafficking routes, methods of control and consequences of their
experiences were all representative of the overall caseload. There were some dif-
ferences in relation to the nationality of the women interviewed; however, they are
largely representative as the overall caseload is predominantly non-European Union
(EU) women, mostly from Africa, particularly Nigeria.
The second study was a large longer-term study of 114 women exiting prostitu-
tion. This study was funded by the UK Big Lottery Fund and involved a partnership
between London South Bank University and Eaves, a UK organisation that works
to address violence, including sexual violence, against women and girls. The study
aimed to develop an understanding of how women exit prostitution, including a
detailed assessment of how exiting differs for women involved in different forms
of prostitution. The research aimed to identify barriers to exit as well as the moti-
vational, situational and social factors that contributed to exiting. A key concern
was identifying the services and supports which are most needed by women leaving
prostitution and recovering from sexual exploitation. The study included a subsam-
ple of eight trafficked women receiving support to recover from their experiences
of trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation through Eaves’
Poppy Project. The women involved in the study came from the Czech Republic,
Nigeria, Lithuania, Thailand, Slovakia, and the Ukraine and were located in saunas
and brothels, in on-street prostitution, in flats and private residences, in clubs and
hotels, and in strip clubs and lap-dancing venues. Four women had prior involve-
ment in the sex industry before being trafficked to the UK.
While the EHRC study had not involved the use of interpreters, some of the
women in this study opted to use an interpreter in order that they could best express
their views. Interpreters used in the study were drawn from a pool of interpreters
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 15

already familiar with the types of issues experienced by women who had been traf-
ficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, having been involved in interpreting
for Eaves service users in the past (Zimmerman and Watts 2003; Cwikel and Hoban
Ethical approval for this study was obtained from both the London South Bank
University Research Ethics Committee and the Central London (Camden and Is-
lington) National Health Service (NHS) Research Ethics Committee. A research
advisory group was also convened to provide external guidance and consultation
particularly in relation to the moral and ethical dilemmas that might arise across
the course of the research. The group consisted of ten members including special-
ist practitioners, academics, members of the Metropolitan Police Service and local
government policymakers.

Working with Gatekeepers: Access and Ethics

Of primary concern in both studies was the potential harm to participants during and
after the interview process, particularly in relation to the questions and concepts ad-
dressed. In the study of exiting, draft research instruments were circulated for com-
ment and feedback to women who had exited prostitution and extensive pilots were
conducted (Goodrum and Keys 2007). The main issues emerging were in relation to
the language used to describe women’s experiences. The women consulted felt that
to talk of prostitution or sex work might be particularly problematic for those who
had been trafficked. It was through this feedback that a decision was made to thor-
oughly outline to each participant the nature of the study and the types of questions
that would be asked and to then ask the women what terms they would prefer to
use to refer to their experiences (Brennan 2005). Over the course of the interviews,
this process became much more organic with researchers explaining the aims of the
research and the position held by each of the research organisations and following
the woman’s lead in relation to her own labelling of her experiences.
The process of piloting the research instruments was ethically complex but in-
valuable for the progress of the research. In this study, the researchers were new
to interviewing victims of trafficking face to face. We were conscious of the need
to protect participants from harm but struggled to understand how best to do this.
The link worker, while very experienced in this regard, had not previously been
involved in empirical research. Therefore, in the early days of the research a num-
ber of questions emerged: How did we interview women about such sensitive and
personal issues without causing them harm through possible retraumatisation? How
would we respond to emotion in the interviews? Was all emotion harmful? How did
we deal with our own emotions during the interview? And after? Would any aspects
of involvement act to counteract and possibly balance the risk of emotional distress
for women participants? And finally, how do you balance the need for robust re-
search evidence to inform policy and practice with the individual needs of women
who have been victims? These were all issues that we addressed during the course
of our research and which are discussed below in more detail.
16 H. Easton and R. Matthews

Working in collaboration with the Poppy Project, we piloted our research instru-
ments with two women who were identified by support workers as relatively stable
(Brennan 2005). The pilot interviews included one participant, two researchers (the
lead researcher conducting the interview and an Eaves researcher observing) and
the link worker who had expertise in relation to the experiences of women who had
been sexually exploited. The pilot process was discussed with both participants as
part of the process of informed consent. The approach adopted was an attempt to
balance a range of competing demands within this research setting and is a strategy
other researchers in this field have adopted (Brennan 2005). The lead researcher
aimed to pilot the research process and train researchers, the observer to develop
skills and the link worker to support the trafficked woman and inform the ethical
conduct of the study more widely. Following both pilot interviews, each participant
was asked if she wanted to comment on her experience of the interview process.
The research team later met as a group to debrief and discuss key concerns with
the research advisory group. The researchers were aware that the approach taken
to piloting the initial interviews might influence the power relationships within the
interview but felt it was necessary to ensure that future interviews were conducted
as ethically as possible and with the best interests of all participants taken into con-
The Scottish EHRC study, on the other hand, drew on the expertise of key stake-
holders to assist with the construction of the research instruments. In this case, the
research instruments were circulated at the commencement of the project to practi-
tioners and stakeholders working with victims of trafficking. Central to this process
was a renegotiation of methodology. While the project had been commissioned by
the EHRC with a view to using face-to-face interviews to gather detailed experi-
ences from women victims of trafficking who had experienced commercial sexual
exploitation, this approach was challenged from the outset by those working with
victims. Practitioners from TARA were of the view that the women who would be
interviewed had already provided detailed accounts of their trafficking either to the
project itself, to the police, to legal representatives acting on their behalf or to the
UK Border Agency. It was argued that reinterviewing them about these experiences
when they had moved on emotionally was potentially unethical as it was likely
to cause distress and would also be likely to lead to reluctance among women to
participate. As a way of countering both of these potential barriers, it was agreed
with TARA that the details of women’s experiences could be gathered from formal
statements rather than requiring them to provide another account of these experi-
ences (Zimmerman and Watts 2003). Therefore, rather than asking direct questions
about their experiences of being trafficked, face-to-face interviews focussed instead
on women’s experiences of support services and the National Referral Mechanism,
giving them scope to talk about their experiences connected to this if they felt able
to do so.
Practitioners from TARA volunteered to identify and locate these documents,
and they were securely couriered to London for inclusion in the study. While it was
initially intended to include the documents of women other than those who partici-
pated, this proved problematic as consent was required to access these documents,
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 17

and tracking down all victims who had accessed the service proved difficult. It was
also quite time-consuming to locate these documents even for a small sample as
they are not stored in a central location but rather with the agency or organisation
where they were taken. Although a useful strategy to minimise the need for women
to relive traumatic experiences, this was not straightforward. Such statements are
often prepared following hours of detailed interviews by professionals. They there-
fore provided much more detail than would have been gathered in one-off inter-
views. This level of detail was frequently traumatic for the lead researcher, particu-
larly when combined with interview recordings and transcripts that documented the
emotional impact and lasting effects of these experiences.

Harm to Participants

Our early encounters within both of these research projects highlighted the potential
harm that participants might experience as a result of fieldwork. Therefore, as a
first step in developing our research with victims of trafficking, we reviewed both
the British Society of Criminology’s Code of Ethics for Researchers in the Field of
Criminology (2006) and the available research methods literature about conducting
sensitive research with vulnerable populations. The core ethical principle within
the Code of Ethics is that the physical, social and psychological well-being of a
research participant must not be adversely affected by their involvement in the re-
search. The Code of Ethics further explains that the researcher must also be aware
of the possibility that the research experience may be a disturbing one, particularly
for those who are vulnerable.
In addition to the vulnerability experienced as a result of the emotional and
physical health consequences of their trafficking (Zimmerman et al. 2006), victims
may also experience a range of personal, social and economic vulnerabilities that
predate and perhaps contribute to their trafficking (Easton and Matthews 2012).
Women who have been recovered from traffickers are also often vulnerable through
their participation in legal processes such as seeking asylum or acting as trial wit-
nesses, through their indeterminate status with official agencies or due to the risk of
re-trafficking or retaliation from exploiters. These factors often interact and exac-
erbate the other underlying vulnerabilities these women experience. As one woman
explained during her interview:
Oh god, it’s terrible. Sometimes you feel like jumping out of the window. If it wasn’t for my
son I would just end [begins crying]…. There’s no future for us, even because of my son I
would think about killing myself. I would be able to kill myself but I can’t do this to my son.
He has his own life to lead. It’s just too much…even to eat. You can’t eat sometimes. You
want to eat, I can’t eat. You can’t sleep in the night. Sometimes when the door knocks you
are afraid. When a letter comes for you I don’t want to open it. It’s just too much. It’s ter-
rible. The experience with the Home Office is terrible. I’m always afraid. You don’t know
what will happen. (Interview, Scottish EHRC Research, 33 years)
18 H. Easton and R. Matthews

Research examining the experiences of those trafficked for sexual exploitation is

also of a sensitive nature. As Sieber and Stanley (1988, p. 49) suggest, sensitive
research is research where ‘there are potential consequences or implications, either
directly for the participants in the research or for the class of individuals represented
by the research’. Research has also been considered sensitive if it engages with a ta-
boo topic, such as sex or death (Farberow 1963), or due to the sociopolitical context
or ‘situation’ within which it occurs (Rostocki 1986; Brewer 1990). Lee and Ren-
zetti (1990) also recognise the potentially sensitive nature of research where there is
a threat or risk to those studied related to the collection, storage or dissemination of
data collected during research. Regardless of how it is defined, research on sensitive
research topics has been widely accepted to be challenging for researchers and, as a
result, a site of methodological innovation (Lee 1993).
A cursory examination of the literature suggests therefore that victims of traf-
ficking are likely to be a highly vulnerable group with complex circumstances,
and the topic itself is highly sensitive as it relates to issues including sex, gender,
violence, exploitation, organised crime, trauma, mental and physical health issues,
immigration, asylum and criminal justice processes (Lee 1993; Sieber and Stanley
1988; Farberow 1963; Rostocki 1986; Brewer 1990; Lee and Renzetti 1990). It is
likely then that the research will be alive with ethical and moral dilemmas con-
nected to all or some of these factors.

Informed Consent

A principle central to the ethical conduct of social research is the need for freely
given informed consent. The Code of Ethics indicates that consent to participate
should be informed, voluntary and continuing and that researchers need to check
that this is the case and to explain to participants that they have the right to withdraw
without any adverse consequences. It further suggests that particular consideration
and attention must be given to this aspect of the research when working with ‘vul-
nerable’ people.
Central to the principle of informed consent is the need to explain to participants
the limits of anonymity and confidentiality so that they are clear under what circum-
stances their information may be shared or identity become known. For example,
legal or professional duties and obligations, which might override a researcher’s of-
fer of confidentiality such as the reporting of particular crimes (such as terrorism or
treason) or safeguarding issues affecting vulnerable adults or children (University
of Brighton undated). Working closely with support organisations also potentially
creates circumstances where researchers feel obliged to share information with
practitioners. The limits of these situations were not clear from the outset of our
projects; therefore, a number of strategies were put in place in case the need to share
information arose.
As a starting point in both studies, we gave detailed consideration to our in-
formation sheets and consent forms, circulating drafts to obtain feedback from
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 19

practitioners, key stakeholders, members of advisory panels and ex-trafficked or

prostituted women. In both studies, we provided considerable information for par-
ticipants about the nature of the study, the funders, the theoretical framework that
we had adopted, the research process, how information would be gathered and
stored, how anonymity and confidentiality would be maintained and so on. The
information sheet was provided to key workers who could discuss the research
with each participant in advance of our meeting where they would sign the consent
form. Women in effect gave verbal consent to their worker prior to meeting with
the research team. As this was a condition of our accessing women through both
the Poppy Project and TARA, we took time in the start-up phase of the research
to consult with and explain our research to key workers who were going to refer
women to the study.
Both studies also included a section where the participant could sign to agree that
information would be shared with their support worker or other agency. As women
involved in these studies were accessed in connection to support services and often
reported distressing circumstances to the researchers, it was felt that there needed to
be a process where the researchers could be clear about the limits of their capacities
and responsibilities. As we were interviewing participants in the same premises, of-
ten in the same rooms, where they had received counselling or support, we also felt
it important to be explicit with participants that we were not trained counsellors or
support workers. We therefore agreed that if a woman presented to the researcher as
particularly vulnerable or chaotic, disclosed suicidal feelings or discussed possible
self-harm, for example, at the end of the interview the researcher would ask her if
she would like any support. Only with her permission would information be shared
and a note was made on the consent form that a referral was made, to whom and
why. The research team also made the decision that the only time a referral would
be made without a woman’s explicit permission was when she was considered an
immediate danger to herself or if a child was at risk of harm. This, however, was not
straightforward as there are differences in how researchers determine what consti-
tutes a risk of immediate danger or harm to a child (Williamson et al. 2005). Fortu-
nately, referrals of this nature were not needed in either study due to the thorough
screening and joint working with support services.
A further consideration in relation to informed consent is related to women who
might attend interviews while intoxicated on drugs or alcohol, who might present
with mental health issues or demonstrate traumatic responses to initial screening
questions as this might limit their capacity to provide informed consent. It was
therefore our policy that interviews where the researcher was not confident that
the participant was in a position to take part were immediately concluded. While
this was not encountered in either of these studies (probably due to the screening
of participants by support workers), past experience had told us this might occur.
It was also our policy to check in with women who became upset to see if they
were able to continue. Despite many women showing emotional responses, none
decided to conclude the interview early. Studies of trafficking victims report that
some interviewees find speaking out about the past empowering, cathartic and use-
ful for gaining perspective (Manz 2002; Cwikel and Hoban 2005; Brennan 2005).
Indeed, even crying or distress is not always a reason to terminate an interview.
20 H. Easton and R. Matthews

What is most important under these circumstances, it seems, is the researcher’s

response and how this contributes to the course of the interview and knowledge
construction (Goodrum and Keys 2007).

Building and Maintaining Trust

People who have experienced trauma frequently report difficulties rebuilding trust,
often struggling in interpersonal relationships (Schauben and Frazier 1995). Re-es-
tablishing trust is crucial to a victim’s recovery and resettlement. Trust is therefore
an important aspect in both practice and research with victims of trafficking and is a
key determinant in the amount and quality of information provided to key workers
and researchers (Kelly 2005).
Women in both of our studies reported experiencing issues with trust. One inter-
viewee from the Czech Republic described how as a young teenager she had been
sexually abused by a member of her family and taken into state care. She then fled
the care setting only to become homeless and begin selling sex on the street. While
on the streets, a man befriended her and took her home to his wife. For several
weeks, the couple fed her and gave her a home. After some weeks they told her
that they could find her a job in England, but instead, they trafficked her into com-
mercial sexual exploitation. As she explained, these experiences have had a lasting
impact on her capacity to trust:
I always think that people will be there to use you in a different way…very hard to trust
people…as soon as I get a little trust for people they do me harm…sometimes I want to
keep things to myself and keep myself to myself because people always end up messing me
up and I feel bad and it makes me feel that I don’t want to trust anyone …no matter how
much I try I can’t trust… (Eaves Exiting Research, 33 years old)

Another woman explained in detail during the interview how she felt about partici-
pating in the research and the concerns she had about remaining anonymous:
…no matter how you try and move on that thing, or no matter how much I try to blank it out
its always going to be there. The stigma is always going to be in my head and the fact that
before [my support worker] told me to come and see you, she said you would look at my
case. I was like ‘What!? Why does she have to look at my case?’ It makes me feel like now
the whole world is going to know about stuff that’s happened to me… (Interview, Scottish
EHRC Research, 21 years old)

This woman’s response highlights the potential pressure women might feel to be
involved with research if they are contacted through support services. This is a
potential challenge to the ethical conduct of research with trafficking victims or, in-
deed, with other vulnerable populations. This was something we addressed from the
outset of the research through the involvement of key workers, and opting for agree-
ment from participants at several stages of the process. While this woman expressed
her anxiety, she had developed a significant amount of trust with her key worker.
She was informed both by her key worker (on two occasions) and by the researcher
that her participation in the study was voluntary and that she could withdraw her
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 21

involvement at any time without losing any of the support that she had been receiv-
ing. Although assured by her key worker that the research was entirely confidential
and anonymous, this woman was still fearful of public exposure and the shame and
consequences that this might have. For her, this made trusting in the process of the
research difficult but something that she felt able to persevere with, perhaps unlike
other women who chose not to engage in the study. Interviewing victims outside of
the support setting would not have been possible for us within the scope of these
studies. Nor would it have been an approach that we would have wanted to adopt.
While it may significantly reduce the possibility that women may feel coerced into
being involved, it is not likely to eliminate this altogether as women outside support
services may feel that through co-operating with researchers, they may also find
some opportunity for support. Interviewing victims of trafficking outside support
programmes would also increase the possibility of physical or emotional harm to
participants who are already vulnerable due to their circumstances and is therefore
something that would have important ethical implications.
The participants’ lack of trust had two main implications for our studies. First,
there was reluctance among women to participate for fear that they would be abused
or exploited in some way. Second, it affected to a large extent the interview process
and therefore the data that was generated (Kelly 2005). We took some very practi-
cal steps to improve women’s trust in us as researchers. We ensured for example
that women were interviewed in safe spaces where they already felt comfortable.
In both cases, this was in interview rooms within the services where they were al-
ready receiving support. These services provided secure, anonymous, women-only
spaces, where women were safe from their traffickers and therefore felt more at ease
(Herman 1997).
We were also very conscious of the need to build rapport in order to gain access
to detailed accounts of their experiences. Having good rapport is necessary as a
respondent’s perception of the researcher has an influence over what they feel able
to say (Manz 2002; Andrees and van der Linden 2005). Good levels of trust and rap-
port mean greater access to important details and information that is useful for our
understanding (Kelly 2005). However, there are large differentials in ethnicity, life
circumstances, social status and power between the researcher and the researched,
and these differentials further intersect with women’s lack of trust making the build-
ing of rapport difficult (Andrees and van der Linden 2005). Researchers unlike sup-
port workers also usually have very brief contact with interviewees and therefore
do not have the opportunity to develop trust and rapport over time. A number of
strategies have been outlined in the literature to improve rapport within qualitative
research. One of these is matching researcher and interviewee characteristics in or-
der to minimise power differences and encourage empathy. While some trafficking
researchers have adopted such strategies, in this research it was not feasible (An-
drees and van der Linden 2005). For both studies, we used only female interview-
ers. This helped reduce the power imbalance and supported women to feel safe and
more able to engage about their experiences of sexual violence perpetrated against
them by men. Trust and rapport were also developed with participants through our
close working with support services and key workers with whom they had already
established trusting relationships.
22 H. Easton and R. Matthews

We also took care with the terminology we adopted when explaining our re-
search as support workers explained that the women to be interviewed considered
themselves to have been systematically abused or raped rather than involved in
prostitution or commercial sex. We therefore avoided using terms like prostitution
and sex work. We took care also not to refer solely to women as ‘victims’ or ‘survi-
vors’ as we were aware that the women’s experiences of trafficking and exploitation
differed vastly and that they consequently had different ways of understanding their
circumstances and recovering (Andrees and van der Linden 2005; Zimmerman and
Watts 2003; Kleinmann and Kleinmann 1997; Brennan 2005; Matthews 2014).

The Experience of the Researcher

Until quite recently, discussions of research ethics have focussed mainly on examin-
ing the impact of research on the research participant rather than on the researcher
(for example, Lee 1993; Scott 1998; Cannon 1989; Rowling 1999; Grinyer 2005;
Gilbert 2001; Cambell 2004; Rager 2005; Hubbard et al. 2001). Increasingly, how-
ever, researchers examining sensitive and emotional topics such as bereavement
from murder and abortion (Goodrum and Keys 2007), foetal abnormality (Lalor
et al. 2006), breast cancer (Rager 2005; Cannon 1989), suicide (Fincham et al.
2008), child prostitution (Melrose 2002), rape (Cambell 2004) and sexual abuse
(Scott 1998), for example, have begun to reflect on and document their own expe-
riences within the field and beyond. Scholars such as these have begun to address
the methodological and ethical issues that emerge when qualitative studies examine
such sensitive and emotional topics.
Much of the focus of this methodological literature has been on how researchers
experience the research process, how they engage with and construct ‘emotionally
sensed knowledge’ (Hubbard et al. 2001) and how they identify and manage the
emotional fall-out from their studies and protect themselves from harm (Coles and
Mudaly 2010). This literature has responded to developments in psychotraumatol-
ogy, which has examined the effects on therapists and counsellors of working with
survivors of, for example, violent crime, genocide, war trauma, childhood abuse
and torture (Danieli 1988; McCann and Pearlman 1990).
The therapeutic literature reports that those working with trauma may become
overwhelmed and that they themselves may need help to cope (Figley 1995; Pearl-
man and Saakvitne 1995; Wilson and Lindy 1994). Such research has uncovered
Professionals who listen to reports of trauma, horror, human cruelty and extreme loss can
be overwhelmed. They may begin to experience feelings of fear, pain and suffering similar
to those of their clients, and to experience similar trauma symptoms, such as intrusive
thoughts, nightmares and avoidance, as well as changes in their relationships with the wider
community, their colleagues, and their families. (Sexton 1999)

Two key concepts within this literature are vicarious trauma (McCann and Pearlman
1990)—the effects of which extend beyond the individual therapeutic relationship—
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 23

and countertransference (Freud 1958)—the effects of which are noted within the
therapist/client dynamic.
Vicarious trauma refers to the ‘the transformation of the therapist’s or helper’s
inner experience as the result of empathic engagement with survivor clients and
their trauma material’ (Pearlman and Saakvitne 1995, p. 31). According to McCann
and Pearlman (1990), ongoing exposure to traumatic material will over time affect
a therapist’s or worker’s sense of self in the same ways that it affects an individual
by eroding one’s frame of reference, identity and worldview. In general, those ex-
periencing vicarious trauma experience disturbance to their basic schemas, for ex-
ample their trust in others and their belief that the world is a safe place (Schauben
and Frazier 1995). Other symptoms of vicarious trauma include a ‘decreased sense
of energy; no time for one’s self; increased disconnection from loved ones; social
withdrawal; increased sensitivity to violence, threat, or fear—or the opposite, de-
creased sensitivity, cynicism, generalised despair and hopelessness’ (Dane 2002,
p. 29).
Vicarious trauma affects different people in different ways. It can be triggered
by a one-off exposure or through repeated exposure to different incidents and is-
sues (Coles and Mudaly 2010). Such trauma is often cumulative, having effects
across settings within the client/therapist relationship but also in other client rela-
tionships and beyond into other aspects of the therapist’s professional and personal
life. Those affected by vicarious trauma often experience the signs and symptoms of
their clients, for example, therapists might start to experience anxiety, depression or
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms as well as a disruption of their self-
protective beliefs about safety, control, predictability and attachment. They may
also become a helpless witness to clients’ self-destructive or suicidal behaviour.
Vicarious trauma may also manifest itself in the therapist’s cynicism, despair and
loss of hope (Pearlman and Saakvitne 1995).
Researchers conducting qualitative research with those who have experienced
trauma often describe experiencing ‘vicarious traumatisation’, where they experi-
ence feelings of terror, rage and despair similar to those of their participants (Beale
and Hillege 2004; Melrose 2002; Alexander et al. 1989; Kleinmann and Copp
1993). Researching vulnerable people about sensitive and emotional issues means
researchers are routinely exposed to emotionally distressing information (Coles
and Mudaly 2010). The qualitative interview in many ways resembles a therapeutic
relationship and is therefore a location where vicarious trauma is likely to occur
(Birch and Miller 2000; Coyle and Wright 1996).
The interview is not, however, the only place where such experiences can have
an impact (Renzetti and Lee 1993; Kelly 1988; Burman et al. 2001; Liebling and
Stanko 2001; Melrose 2002). The process of qualitative research means research-
ers potentially have repeated and ongoing contact with traumatic material when
conducting interviews, transcribing interviews, checking transcripts, analysing and
coding data and then writing up and presenting findings. Traumatic material can
also have a cumulative impact on the researcher with each research phase bring-
ing the trauma back to life and potentially exacerbating the original emotions as
researchers re-listen, reread and rethink these experiences (Woodby et al. 2011).
24 H. Easton and R. Matthews

As has been identified within the therapeutic literature, the experience of vicarious
trauma can often extend beyond the boundaries where the trauma was originally en-
countered. Researchers who have heard particularly distressing events often report
being left with the emotional ‘fallout’ for extended periods of time, or feeling like
their participants live on inside their heads after the research has ended (Goodrum
and Keys 2007; Kleinmann and Copp 1993; Johnson and Clarke 2003).
Analysing and writing up the findings of the Scottish EHRC project while pre-
dicted was unexpectedly harrowing as the literature in this area tends to concentrate
on the distress researchers experience while conducting in-depth interviews rather
than at other points within the research process. Warr (2004), for example, suggests
that participating in face-to-face fieldwork engages the researcher in a form of on-
going, intellectual imagining that has within it the potential to harm the researcher.
It is further suggested that relying only on transcripts can water down the embodied
voice of a participant, removing ‘layers of meaning’ and stripping away the ‘sense
of struggle, despair, or resilience’ of the participant (Warr 2004, p. 581). However,
this was not the experience of the lead researcher who experienced the detailed
secondary research data as rich with layers of meaning and at times very distressing
(Fincham et al. 2008).
The following is an extract from the victim statement of one of the women who
was interviewed as part of the Scottish ERHC research that the lead researcher
found particularly difficult.
I was kept in a room with my daughter. The door to my room was always locked and I was
not allowed out. There was a room attached to my bedroom with a toilet and a shower.
[Trafficker] said that I should look smart as it is money I have to make. There were soaps
and deodorant and things like that in the bathroom part. When men came [trafficker] would
unlock the door and take my daughter away from the room, she would also tell me to get
myself ready….When the men came in the room they would tell me what they wanted. I
just did it because I had to…While I was with these men I could hear my daughter crying in
the other room. It was terrible. When the men were finished they would use the bathroom
and then leave. I never saw any money. (Victim Statement, Scottish EHRC Research)

The above extract from the victim statement presents the facts of the woman’s cir-
cumstances with the detached and unemotional style of legal testimony. Presented
in this way with reference to the normality of domestic products such as soap and
deodorant, the statement conveys little emotion and masks the trauma this woman
experienced. However, when triangulated with the full victim statement, the inter-
view transcripts and recordings, it provided an emotionally and factually rich ac-
count of the experiences of this woman and her child. This data and the data of nine
other women made a lasting impression on the researcher and left her with much to
‘imagine’ about the personal and emotional experiences of women who have been
trafficked (Warr 2004).

Protecting Researchers from Harm

The constraints of time, budget and geography in this study meant that in the face
of these disturbing accounts it was difficult to incorporate many of the ‘self care’
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 25

strategies recommended by other researchers (Coles and Mudaly 2010). For ex-
ample, in lieu of being able to make formal arrangements about supervision, from
the outset of the study it had been arranged that the fieldwork researcher would
primarily debrief and receive support from TARA practitioners in Glasgow and
that the lead researcher would debrief with the lead academic through existing line
management arrangements. However, in the midst of the data analysis, when the
emotional impact on the lead researcher was greatest, it was recognised that the
lead academic was unable to fulfil this role. This was primarily because he had
not had the same exposure to the process of the research or the research data (Warr
2004). This was compounded by the personal and professional dynamics that ex-
isted within this relationship. As a woman a generation younger and line managed
by the male lead academic, the lead researcher did not feel comfortable discussing
the enormous personal consequences of reading and hearing about serious sexual
violence and exploitation—the distancing she felt in her intimate relationships, her
lack of interest in sex, her feelings of hopelessness and her need to talk about what
she had heard and read with others. While the researcher was able to draw on her
existing personal networks for support, this experience reinforced just how impor-
tant it is for researchers investigating sensitive and emotional topics to be prepared
for wide-ranging and long-lasting impacts and to plan for this eventuality within the
research strategy.

Countertransference and Emotionally Sensed Knowledge

The concept of countertransference has also been applied to the research setting
(Cannon 1989 in Fincham et al. 2008). Countertransference has its beginnings in
psychodynamic therapy and refers to the reciprocal impact that the client and the
therapist have on one another (Freud 1958). While there are a number of differ-
ent definitions of countertransference, the key principle is that the therapist has
their own responses and defences against the range of experiences of the client that
might include rage, fear, grief, sadness, anxiety, horror, agitation, self-doubt, confu-
sion, shame, nightmares, intrusive images, somatic reactions, sleep disturbances or
drowsiness (Danieli 1988; Pearlman and Saakvitne 1995).
According to Wilson and Lindy (1994), avoidance and over-identification are the
two main defensive therapeutic countertransference reactions. Avoidance reactions
include the therapist’s denial, minimisation, distortion, counter-phobic reactions,
detachment and disengagement of empathy. Over-identification reactions result in
the therapist idealising the client, becoming enmeshed or providing excessive advo-
cacy for the client or feelings of guilt due to the therapist’s perception that they were
unable to provide adequate assistance. Pearlman and Saakvitne (1995) suggest that
countertransference can help therapists to gain understanding of clients by provid-
ing information that trauma survivors may not be aware of.
Emotions and personal reflections on emotion have been largely unwelcomed
within criminological research. With the exception of feminist criminology and
some cultural criminology (e.g. Katz 2002), emotion has been frequently viewed
26 H. Easton and R. Matthews

as a problem for the researcher to overcome or something peripheral to the main

object of study (Wakeman 2014). In general, there has been a rejection of feminist
principles of research within criminology. Such principles are considered a chal-
lenge to traditional ways of working, are not considered academic and are even
considered self-indulgent (Wincup 2001; Wakeman 2014). While there are a few
notable exceptions, emotion, and particularly researcher emotion, is largely absent
from the literature.
The role of emotion within the research process is, however, increasingly being
examined in areas of scholarship that address diverse sensitive topics such as death
and dying (Fincham et al. 2008), health (Grinyer 2005 Rager 2005; Lalor et al.
2006), child abuse (Coles and Mudaly 2010) and disadvantaged and vulnerable
populations (Warr 2004). Within these fields, it is often argued that researchers can
benefit from engaging both cognitively and emotionally with their study partici-
pants. As Gilbert (2001) explains:
It is not the avoidance of emotions that necessarily provides for high quality research.
Rather it is an awareness and intelligent use of our emotions that benefits the research
process. (Gilbert 2001, p. 11)

Hubbard et al. (2001) argue that emotions also have ‘epistemological significance’
and form a key element of ‘how we make sense of respondent’s experiences’ (Hub-
bard et al. 2001, p. 135). Borrowing from psychotherapy authors like Hollway and
Jefferson (2000), Hubbard et al. (2001) argue that the emotional reactions within
interviews are helpful in yielding analytic insights. The usefulness of researcher
emotion, however, is still a contested area that requires further investigation. As
Kleinmann and Copp (1993) suggest, there is a risk that examining emotion leads
to a form of navel-gazing that substitutes sociological understanding with self-un-
derstanding. Others question whether engaging with researcher emotion can ever
be systematic or rigorous enough to be termed research (Wakeman 2014; Fincham
et al. 2008).

Ethics and the Role of Researcher Emotion

Researcher emotion is therefore important in relation to the ethical conduct of re-

search on human trafficking. First, researchers who are emotionally impacted by
their encounters with trafficking victims may experience vicarious trauma or re-
spond within the study with avoidant or over-identification countertransference
responses. Avoidant responses can potentially cause harm to participants as re-
searchers find it difficult to engage with and respond appropriately to a participant’s
traumatic experiences. Over-identification responses, on the other hand, can lead
to breaches of professional boundaries where researchers attempt to ‘help’ partici-
pants when they are unqualified to do so or where they need to ‘talk’ to others about
what they have heard, potentially risking anonymity and confidentiality (Wakeman
2014). The emotional responses of researchers can also have a direct effect on the
outcomes of the research, through influencing the course of the interview and data
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 27

collection, the results of data analysis and the final reporting of findings. Research-
ers involved in this type of research therefore need support in developing processes
and practicing reflexivity in order to protect both their participants and themselves
from harm and to examine the researcher’s contribution to the construction of
knowledge about human trafficking.
It is widely acknowledged that social research takes place within a highly com-
petitive environment that places temporal and financial limits upon researchers
(Brannen 1992; Callender 1996). Such constraints, particularly in commissioned
research such as ours, mean that the researcher’s capacity to design research meth-
odologies that protect both participants and researchers from harm are often limited
(Coles and Mudaly 2010; Gaskell 2008). In this context, the problems experienced
by researchers often become of secondary importance. This poses potential risks
to commissioners in relation to unmet deadlines and to research organisations in
relation to the well-being of their research staff. These are ethical issues that also
require further consideration.

Presentation of Research Findings

The challenges of writing up and disseminating research are many. However, it

has been argued that one of the key challenges in relation to ethics is the need to
weigh the privacy of individual participants against the interest of society (Sieber
and Stanley 1988). This was particularly true in relation to the study conducted
by the Scottish EHRC. As part of the overall Inquiry, the research aimed to pro-
vide evidence for the public, policymakers and politicians about the nature of hu-
man trafficking in Scotland. The Inquiry was keen to include the hidden voices of
women within their evidence so that these voices could stand for themselves within
discussions of how to progress responses to human trafficking in Scotland in future.
It was, therefore, our responsibility as researchers to strike a balance between the
desire of the Scottish Government and the commissioning body to hear authentic
victim voices and the need to offer these victims suitably anonymity, confidentiality
and safety throughout the process.
This was a difficult terrain in many ways. We felt some pressure from the com-
missioners of the research to provide women’s accounts of the most horrific and
traumatic experiences in their own words in order to strengthen the work of the
Inquiry and convince readers of the realities of trafficking and sexual exploitation.
There was concern from the leaders of the Inquiry that without these first-hand ac-
counts people would not believe the ‘stories’ about victims of trafficking and that
the Scottish Government’s responses to trafficking could be strengthened from the
provision of these accounts. This raised a number of concerns from the research
team and from TARA, including the possibility that victims might be identified due
to their unique stories and ways of expressing themselves. Striking a balance be-
tween the social and the individual in writing the report was therefore something of
a challenge. Of particular concern was the need to avoid the further exploitation of
28 H. Easton and R. Matthews

this group of women through participation in the research and the public presenta-
tion of their experiences.
The background and experiences of women trafficked for commercial sexual
exploitation are frequently unusual and distinctive. Therefore, on a very pragmatic
level, there is a risk that the unique details provided by women will result in their
identification after publication of the research. This was a particular concern in rela-
tion to the Scottish EHRC research due to its widespread promotion and accessibil-
ity as a government document. Identification can have a number of consequences.
Firstly, there is the very practical risk that traffickers or exploiters will become
aware of the whereabouts of women who have fled from their exploitation. This
makes them vulnerable to violence, further exploitation and even re-trafficking.
Aside from this risk to their physical safety, women who are able to identify them-
selves within the research might be fearful that they could be recognised by others
and feel anxious about risks to their physical safety, or they may feel unable to leave
behind the stigma and shame connected to their experiences.
As researchers rather than practitioners, we found it difficult to make assess-
ments about what information might potentially lead to breaches of anonymity and
potentially place women at risk. As a result of the close collaboration between the
researchers and TARA, it was agreed that one way of remedying this situation was
to request feedback and comments from TARA about how women’s quotes and traf-
ficking experiences were presented in the report. A number of changes were made
on this basis, which largely involved removing identifying features, particularly
geographic references such as the country of origin or trafficking route or destina-
tions, from the published report.


The trafficking of women and girls for commercial sexual exploitation is a global
social problem. It is therefore important that researchers undertake high-quality and
ethical research in order to provide good quality data that can form the basis for
legislative and policy change and the provision of adequate and suitable interven-
tions and programmes.
Conducting research with women who have been trafficked for commercial sex-
ual exploitation is clearly a challenge. The topic is sensitive, and participants are
likely to be vulnerable through their past and present circumstances and through
the added complications of being involved with the criminal justice and immigra-
tion systems. Their involvement in research may exacerbate this vulnerability as
participation has the potential to increase the physical and psychological harm they
may experience. Researchers investigating trafficked women’s experiences are
also likely to experience harm and this may have a number of ethical implications.
Well-designed, reflexive research, however, has the power to minimise harm, to
recognise and respond to emotion and the potential to transform the experiences of
individual women.
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 29

While ethics committees often take the stance that no amount of harm is accept-
able, there are also wider concepts of distributive justice and beneficence to take
into consideration when researching human trafficking (Cwikel and Hoban 2005).
According to these principles, in addition to protecting participants from harm, re-
searchers also need to balance the risks and costs of the research and consider what
will provide the biggest benefit to the greatest number of people.
Although alive with ethical and moral challenges, fieldwork that examines traf-
ficked women’s experiences and presents these clearly is fundamental to both the
academic and the policy process. As Sieber and Stanley (1988) argue, avoiding such
issues because they are too challenging is an avoidance of our social responsibility.


Alexander, J., de Chesnay, M., Marshall, E., Campbell, A., Johnson, S., & Wright, R. (1989).
Research note: Parallel reactions in rape victims and rape researchers. Violence and Victims,
4(1), 57–62.
Andrees, B., & van der Linden, M. (2005). Designing trafficking research from a labour market
perspective: The ILO experience. International Migration, 43(1–2), 55–73.
Bales, K. (2003). Because she looks like a child. In B. Ehrenreich & A. Hochschild (Eds.), Global
woman: Nannies, maids and sex workers in the new economy. London: Granta.
Beale, B., & Hillege, S. (2004). Impact of in-depth interviews on the interviewer: Roller coaster
ride. Nursing and Health Sciences, 6, 141–147.
Beauchamp, T., & Childress, J. (2012). Principles of biomedical ethics (7th edn.). Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Birch, M., & Miller, T. (2000). Inviting intimacy: The interview as therapeutic opportunity. Inter-
national Journal of Social Research Methodology, 3(3), 189–202.
Bowles, G., & Duelli Klein, R. (Eds.). (1983). Theories of women’s studies. London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul.
Brannen, J. (1992). Combining qualitative and quantitative approaches: An overview. In J. Bran-
nen (Ed.), Mixing methods: Qualitative and quantitative research. Aldershot: Avebury.
Brennan, D. (2005). Methodological challenges in research with trafficked persons: Tales from the
field. International Migration, 43(1–2), 35–54.
Brewer, J. (1990). Sensitivity as a problem in field research: A study of routine policing in North-
ern Ireland. American Behavioural Scientist, 33, 578–593.
British Society of Criminology’s Code of Ethics for Researchers in the Field of Criminology.
(2006). Accessed 7 Oct 2014.
Burman, M., Batchelor, S., & Brown, J. (2001). Researching girls and violence: Facing the dilem-
mas of fieldwork. British Journal of Criminology, 41, 443–459.
Callender, C. (1996). Contract research and academic freedom. In H. Dean (Ed.), Ethics and so-
cial policy research. Luton: University of Luton Press in Association with the Social Policy
Cambell, R. (2004). Emotionally involved: The impact of researching rape. New York: Routledge.
Cannon, S. (1989). Social research in stressful settings: Difficulties for the sociologist studying the
treatment of breast cancer. Sociology of Health and Illness, 11(1), 62–77.
Coles, J., & Mudaly, N. (2010). Staying safe: Strategies for qualitative child abuse researchers.
Child Abuse Review, 19(1), 56–69.
Coyle, A., & Wright, C. (1996). Using the counseling interview to collect research data on sensi-
tive topics. Journal of Health Psychology, 1, 431–440.
30 H. Easton and R. Matthews

Cusick, L., Kinnell, H., Brooks-Gordon, B., & Campbell, R. (2009). Wild guesses and conflated
meanings? Estimating the size of the sex worker population in Britain. Critical Social Policy,
29(4), 703–719.
Cwikel, J., & Hoban, E. (2005). Contentious issues in research on trafficked women working in
the sex industry: Study design, ethics and methodology. The Journal of Sex Research, 42(4),
Dane, B. (2000). Child welfare workers: An innovative approach to interacting with secondary
trauma. Journal of Social Work Education, 36, 27–38.
Danieli, Y. (1988). Confronting the unimaginable: Psychotherapists’ reactions to victims of the
Nazi Holocaust. In J. Wilson & J. Lindy (Eds.), Human adaptation to extreme stress. New
York: Plenum.
Easton, H., & Matthews, R. (2012). Investigating the experiences of people trafficked into com-
mercial sexual exploitation, research report 82. Glasgow: Equality and Human Rights Com-
Economic and Social Research Council (2012). Framework for research ethics. Swindon. http:// Accessed 23
Sept 2014.
Equality and Human Rights Commission. (2011). Inquiry into human trafficking in Scotland:
Report of the equality and human rights commission. Glasgow: Equality and Human Rights
Farberow, N. (1963). Introduction. In N. Farberow (Ed.), Taboo topics. New York: Atherton Press.
Figley, C. (1995). Compassion fatigue as secondary traumatic stress disorder: An overview. In C.
Figley (Ed.), Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those
who treat the traumatised. New York: Bunner/Mazel.
Fincham, B., Scourfield, J., & Langer, S. (2008). The impact of working with disturbing secondary
data: Reading suicide files in a coroner’s office. Qualitative Health Research, 18(6), 853–862.
Freud, S. (1958). The dynamics of countertransference. In J. Strachey (Ed. and trans), The stan-
dard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 12). London: Hog-
arth Press.
Game, A. (1997). Sociology’s emotions’. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 34,
Gaskell, C. (2008). Isolation and distress’? (Re)thinking the place of emotions in youth research.
Children’s Geographies, 6(2), 169–181.
Gelsthorpe, L. (1992). Response to Martyn Hammersley’s paper “on feminist methodology”. So-
ciology, 26(2), 213–218.
Gilbert, K. (2001). Introduction: Why are we interested in emotions? In K. Gilbert (Ed.), The
emotional nature of qualitative research. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Goodrum, S., & Keys, J. (2007). Reflections on two studies of emotionally sensitive topics: Be-
reavement from murder and abortion. International Journal of Social Research Methodology,
10(4), 249–258.
Grinyer, A. (2005). Personal agendas in emotionally demanding research, Social Research Update. Accessed 7 Oct 2014.
Hammersley, M. (2014). On ethical principles for social research, International journal of so-
cial research methodology, Accessed 7 Oct
Harding, S. (1987). Feminism and methodology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Harraway, D. (1991). Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature. Abingdon: Rout-
Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to politi-
cal terror. New York: Basic Books.
Hollway, W., & Jefferson, T. (2000). Doing qualitative research differently: Free association, nar-
rative and the interview method. London: Sage.
Hubbard, G., Backett-Milburn, K., & Kemmer, D. (2001). Working with emotions: Issues for the
researcher in fieldwork and teamwork. International Journal of Social Research Methodology,
4(2), 119–137.
2  Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching … 31

Johnson, B., & Clarke, J. (2003). Collecting sensitive data: The impact on the researchers. Qualita-
tive Health Research, 13(3), 421–434.
Katz, J. (2002). How emotions work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kelly, L. (1988). Surviving sexual violence. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kelly, L. (2002). Journeys of jeopardy: A review of research on trafficking in women and children
in Europe. Geneva: International Organisation for Migration.
Kelly, L. (2005). “You can find anything you want”: A critical reflection on research on trafficking
in persons within and into Europe. International Migration, 43(1–2), 235–265.
Kleinmann, S., & Copp, M. (1993). Emotions and fieldwork. Newbury Park: Sage.
Kleinmann, A., & Kleinmann, J. (1997). The appeal of experience; the dismay of images: Cul-
tural appropriations of suffering in our times. In A. Kleinmann, et al. (Eds.), Social suffering.
Berkely: University of California Press.
Lalor, J., Begley, C., & Devane, D. (2006). Exploring painful experiences: Impact of emotional
narratives on members of a qualitative research team. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 56(6),
Lee, R. (1993). Doing research on sensitive topics. London: Sage.
Lee, R., & Renzetti, C. (1990). The problems of researching sensitive topics: An overview and
introduction. American Behavioural Scientist, 33, 510–528.
Liebling, A., & Stanko, B. (2001). Allegiance and ambivalence: Some dilemmas in researching
disorder and violence. British Journal of Criminology, 41, 421–430.
Manz, B. (2002). Terror, grief and recovery: Genocidal trauma in a Mayan village in Guatemala.
In A. Hinton (Ed.), Annihilating difference: The anthropology of genocide. Berkely: University
of California Press.
Matthews, R. (2014). Female prostitution and victimisation: A realist analysis, International re-
view of victimology.
Accessed 7 Oct 2014.
McCann, I., & Pearlman, L. (1990). Vicarious traumatisation: A framework for understanding the
psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress Studies, 3, 131–149.
Melrose, M. (2002). Labour pains: Some considerations on the difficulties of researching juvenile
prostitution. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 5(4), 333–351.
Pearlman, L., & Saakvitne, K. (Eds.). (1995). Trauma and the therapist: Countertransference
and vicarious traumatisation in psychotherapy with incest survivors. New York: Norton and
Company Inc.
Rager, K. (2005). Self care and the qualitative researcher: When data can break your heart. Quali-
tative Researcher, 34, 23–27.
Renzetti, C., & Lee, R. (1993). Researching sensitive topics. Newbury Park: Sage.
Rostocki, A. (1986). Sensitive questions in sociological survey. Polish Sociological Bulletin, 75,
Rowling, L. (1999). Being in, being out, being with: Affect and the role of the qualitative re-
searcher in loss and grief research. Mortality, 4, 167–81
Schauben, L., & Frazier, P. (1995). Vicarious trauma: The effects on female counsellors of working
with sexual violence survivors. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19, 49–64.
Scott, S. (1998). Here be dragons: Researching the unbelievable, hearing the unthinkable: A femi-
nist sociologist in uncharted territory. Sociological research online, http://www.socresonline. Accessed 19 Aug 2015.
Sexton, L. (1999). Vicarious traumatisation of counsellors and effects on workplaces. British Jour-
nal of Guidance and Counselling, 27, 393–403.
Sieber, J., & Stanley, B. (1988). Ethical and professional dimensions of socially sensitive research.
American Psychologist, 43, 49–55.
Stanley, L., & Wise, S. (1983). Breaking out: Feminist consciousness and feminist research. Lon-
don: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Wakeman, S. (2014). Fieldwork, biography and emotion: Doing criminological autoethography.
British Journal of Criminology, 54(5), 705–721.
32 H. Easton and R. Matthews

Warr, D. (2004). Stories in the flesh and voices in the head: Reflections on the context and impact
of research with disadvantaged populations. Qualitative Health Research, 14(4), 578–558.
Williamson, E., Goodenough, T., Kent, J., & Ashcroft, R. (2005). Conducting research with chil-
dren: The limits of confidentiality and child protection protocols. Children and Society, 19(5),
Wilson, J., & Lindy, J. (1994). Empathic strain and countertransference. In J. Wilson & J. Lindy
(Eds.), Countertransference in the treatment of PTSD. London: Guildford.
Wincup, E. (2001). Feminist research with women awaiting trial: The effects on participants in the
qualitative research process. In K. Gilbert (Ed.), The emotional nature of qualitative research.
Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Woodby, L., Williams, B., Wittich, A., & Burgio, K. (2011). Expanding the notion of researcher
distress: the cumulative effects of coding. Qualitative Health Research, 21(6), 830–838.
Zimmerman, C., & Watts, C. (2003). WHO ethical and safety recommendations for interviewing
trafficked women. Geneva: World Health Organisation.
Zimmerman, C., Hossain, M., Yun, K., Roche, B., Morison, L., & Watts, C. (2006). Stolen smiles:
A summary report on the physical and psychological health consequences of women and ado-
lescents trafficked in Europe. London: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
University of Brighton. (undated). Illegal activities: Implications for researchers. http://about. Accessed 26 Sept 2014.

Helen Easton  is a senior lecturer in criminology at London South Bank University. She is a co-
author of Exiting Prostitution (2014). Prior to this she worked as a senior research fellow, guiding
and advising the PEER Research Project and working on the evaluation of The Chrysalis Project
both for women exiting prostitution. In this capacity, Helen acted as an ‘expert’ in the UK Govern-
ment’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade (2014). In 2011,
Helen acted as a lead researcher to a study commissioned by the Scottish Equality and Human
Rights Commission into the Experiences of Victims of Human Trafficking, which formed part of
the wider Inquiry into Human Trafficking in Scotland (2011).

Roger Matthews  is a professor of criminology at the University of Kent, UK. He is the author of
Prostitution, Politics and Policy (2008) and a co-author of Exiting Prostitution (2014). He has also
acted as an advisor to the UK Government’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the
Global Sex Trade (2014). In 2011, Roger led research commissioned by the Scottish Equality and
Human Rights Commission into the Experiences of Victims of Human Trafficking, which formed
part of the wider Inquiry into Human Trafficking in Scotland (2011).
Chapter 3
Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice:
Researching the Sex Industry and Trafficking

Liz Kelly and Maddy Coy


Whilst there have been repeated calls for more and higher quality data on traffick-
ing and prostitution, far less attention has been paid to the ethics of such research
(Cwikel and Hoban 2005; UNIAP 2008). Among the minority who have explored
this issue are those who point out that new methods, and more careful application of
existing methods, will not resolve the ethical constraints which trafficking, and by
extension research on the sex industry, inevitably involves (Brunovskis and Surtees
2010). In this chapter we draw on the limited literature, including from our own
research projects, on the ethical dilemmas in this field. Readers should be aware that
the discussion is even thinner with respect to how researching trafficking for sexual
exploitation may accentuate some of the challenges and constraints.
Margaret Melrose (2002) identifies a range of practical and emotional issues in
studying the sex industry, resulting in what Guillemin and Gillam (2004) term ‘ethi-
cally important moments’ that must be negotiated in real time with real people. As
an example, Maddy Coy (2006) raises critical questions about the parallel transac-
tions between paying women for sex and paying them for participation in research,
and the ethical dilemmas involved in these decisions and interactions. She asks
deeper and wider question of what it means in practice to ‘prioritise women’s well-
being’ when the subjects of research are young women who have been sexually ex-
ploited. The power inequalities—of age, gender, class and nationality/citizenship—
which form the roots of the sex industry and trafficking are essential considerations
in exploring ethics. Their salience informs the aspiration in much feminists and
participatory research to ‘empower’ research participants, which has additional and
complex layers when those taking part may be involved in illegal activities and, in
the case of trafficking may be entirely undocumented. The focus on empowerment,

L. Kelly () · M. Coy
Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University, London, UK
M. Coy
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 33
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_3
34 L. Kelly and M. Coy

as an ethical framing, becomes problematic if one’s research topic is in demand,

and also for the organisation of the sex industry and even pimps and traffickers.
Which ethical positions apply in these contexts is rarely discussed, in part because,
regrettably, those who organise the sex industry and its ‘customers’ are less often
the focus of research. Our research, which we draw on here, includes interviewing
those who sell sex and those pay for sex but, as yet, not traffickers and organisers
of the sex industry, so we are able to offer less with respect to that aspect of ethics
in this chapter.
An ethical standpoint should infuse and inflect each research project from in-
ception to completion. This is a perspective which is neither captured in an ethics
application nor in the only published standards on researching trafficking published
by the UN Inter Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) in 2008. In sum-
mary, UNIAP recommends that researchers:
• Do no harm: be compassionate but neutral;
• Prioritise personal safety and security: identify and minimise risks;
• Get informed consent, with no coercion;
• Ensure anonymity and confidentiality to the greatest extent possible;
• Adequately select and prepare interpreters and field teams;
• Prepare referral information, and be prepared for emergency intervention;
• Do not hesitate to help others: put your information to good use.
Although some points are undoubtedly basic standards, there are complexities in-
volved, which the UNIAP acknowledges in the further explication. It is these ad-
ditional layers in which we are most interested in this chapter. Further complexity
arises from the fact that certain standards have different implications for various re-
search subjects: those who sell sex and or/are trafficked; traffickers and third parties;
purchasers. The ethical responsibilities play out differently across these groups, since
it is problematic to define some of these groups as potential beneficiaries of research.
We build on these foundations to explore the dilemmas that researchers experi-
ence during study design, fieldwork and data analysis. Where relevant, we draw on
experience of the research projects, like on the sex industry in the UK which we
have completed with women who sell sex (Coy 2006, 2012a) and men who buy
(Coy et al. 2007). The first project involved life story work with 14 women about
their routes into the sex industry from institutional care and arts workshops with
a further 40 women about their experiences of body and self in prostitution. The
second project was a telephone survey of 137 men who paid for sex, exploring their
motivations and decision-making processes. Both offer examples of how ethics are

Ethics in Social Research

There are well-developed systems of research governance in many Western coun-

tries, focused mostly in universities through ethics committees, but extending out
into research funding agencies and professional bodies. Such processes are also
3  Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice 35

invariably connected to national, and in the case of Europe regional, data protection
laws. That said, practice varies, both between countries and within them between
institutions. Such governance is less well developed in the global south. Our discus-
sion is informed by our location within a UK university, which requires formal ethi-
cal approval for any project involving human subjects. Over the past decade this has
been supplemented by additional requirements of professional and statutory bodies,
many of which have their own, sometimes even more demanding procedures; this
is especially the case where studies seek access to those in receipt of, or employed
within, health and social care. Ethical approval has therefore, within both the UK
and the USA, become a much more demanding and protracted process, which is
reflected in an increased focus on ethics in both application forms and final report-
ing for research funders.
This enhanced scrutiny is a mechanism whereby the rights of those who take part
in research are respected and monitored. At the same time, there is an increasing
discussion and debate about the gatekeeping functions that such provisions solidify,
which effectively determine what kinds of research can be conducted, with whom
and how it is carried out. The debate is most evident in social science, with concerns
that research governance is increasingly shaped by a biomedical paradigm based on
lessons learned from medical trials and principles defined by the World Medical As-
sociation (WMA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) (Downes et al. 2014).
The principles embedded within such approaches of autonomy, beneficence, non-
maleficence and distributive justice place responsibilities on researchers to respect
the decisions that people make, to benefit others, to avoid harm and to contribute
to social justice and equity. Few would argue against these as ethical foundations,
yet tensions emerge with respect to how these principles are interpreted and imple-
mented with an increased tendency towards standard requirements across diverse
topics and contexts. The focus is determinedly on how participants are recruited,
informed consent and what the risks of participation might be rather than what it
means to be an ethical researcher.
A ‘contractual’ model of informed consent is increasingly invoked, requiring
signed forms with set content. Several commentators argue that this procedural ap-
proach serves to protect institutions and researchers rather than participants (see, for
example, McNutt et al. 2008; Riessman 2005). The dominant model presumes the
kind of face to face contact and space for discussion that is usually present in clini-
cal settings in which medical research takes place. Neither condition can be assured
in social research, where interviews may take place over the phone, for example,
or informal and even somewhat chaotic settings such as street corners. Where re-
search participants are in life contexts that involve everyday risks of harm—the
sex industry being one such, but there are many others—there is a tension between
the orthodox model of informed consent and the ethical duty to do no more harm.
Sex industry and trafficking research throw a particular light on these issues: Ask-
ing women who are weighing up the potential costs to them if anyone knows they
have taken part in research to sign forms may be a major deterrent to participation.
Even more complex issues emerge when the focus is on traffickers, exploiters and/
or corrupt officials. Here, to undertake a contractual consent process, in which the
purpose of the study is made entirely transparent, may close down the possibility of
36 L. Kelly and M. Coy

finding out anything new or useful. So are less transparent methods justified in such
instances? As with many of the issues we raise there are no simple answers to this
question. What we are opening up is that ethics need to be understood as a process
of exploration in which researchers reflect on their research questions, what pos-
sible routes there may be to gather the data, who the hoped for participants are and
the contexts in which they may be accessed.
The meaning of consent and how it can be sought is located in contexts. The is-
sue of consent, central to most discussions of ethics, is drawn on here to illuminate
our perspective on ethics as a process and a practice; if we understand negotiating
consent as a relational and communicative act, it follows that researchers need to
find appropriate ways to explain the study, what participation might involve and
the potential risks, that are appropriate to the particulars of settings, participants
and their circumstances. This is a more exacting task than simply providing written
materials, which are invariably written in formal language that few use in every-
day interactions. How to negotiate consent in ways that are meaningful and ac-
cessible cannot be entirely anticipated in advance. For example, for those who are
undocumented/illegal being asked to sign any document will create considerable
insecurity; something that is compounded in contexts where selling sex is itself
an illegal act. In such contexts, verbal consent should be considered ethical, since
it acknowledges constraints which also carry risks of further harm, with possible
consequences far greater than undertaking a research interview. Here the process
aspect is very clear—it is not possible in an ethics application to anticipate what
the potential risks might be for participants who are located at the margins, and
formalised models of seeking consent rarely encourage exploration of risk from
the perspective of the participant. Perhaps they should. For example, women who
are currently in a trafficking situation or who have a pimp/exploiter have reduced
‘space for action’, and may have well-founded fears of negative consequences if it
becomes known that they have taken part in research. One obvious consequence is
that whilst talking to researchers women are not earning money, which may enrage
exploiters who are in control of women’s income. Recognising and responding to
such different positions is part of the ethical responsibilities of researchers, working
with potential participants to create the conditions in which they are most free to
speak, whilst accepting that for some this may not be possible.
Our argument here is that ethics involves far more than completing a form or
being able to show you have met institutional requirements: rather ethics are con-
stantly present, in process, and have to be negotiated as part of an ethical research
practice (Guillemin and Gillam 2004).

Ethics in Research Design: Methods and Data Collection

Here, the discussion is again far deeper than whether we use quantitative or qualita-
tive methods and how we ensure anonymity and confidentiality and comply with
data protection laws. All of these are important issues, and should be part of proce-
3  Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice 37

dures for all the research in which we are collecting data from human subjects and/
or obtaining sensitive secondary data.
Denise Brennan (2005) points to the ‘daunting methodological challenges’
(p. 38) in researching trafficking, including the potential diverse experiences, ori-
gins, languages and age, sex and race of victims. We explore the challenges in rela-
tion to the sex industry organisers and users, which are different.
With respect to those involved in the sex industry, choice of methods and meth-
odological approach are a combination of the art of the possible and an awareness
of the particulars of this arena. Our insistence that ethics be understood as always in
process connects with the fact that what looked good on paper, in a funding applica-
tion, may turn out to be impractical in the field (Brunovskis and Surtees 2010). This
is especially the case where ‘the field’ is a context in which illegality, exploitation
and violence are all in play (Melrose 2002; Shaver 2005). Reaching targets for how
many women to interview, for example, may be more challenging than anticipated.
One of our study (Coy 2012b), which explored how women who sold sex experi-
ence their body and self in prostitution, planned to undertake arts workshops with
women at an evening drop-in service where the researcher worked. Whilst valuable
insights were gained here from discussions with women, and some initial sketching
and creative work was completed, ultimately it proved too complicated a space in
which to collect data. The substantive work with women took place in individual
sessions during the day, stretching the arts element of the research beyond the time
and resources we had originally costed for.
Thus, it may be necessary to adapt the research design, and even methods used,
which in turn requires researchers to think through the ethical issues in the field.
Issues here include how data is to be recorded, with particular concerns about video
recording, especially if there is any intention to use these in public documenta-
tion. The implications of being identified as someone who has sold sex are many,
complex and not predictable in advance, particularly in the digital age. Can the
researcher, let alone the participant, really know the implications if a video clip
‘goes global’? Here the layers of ethical responsibility are far greater than using
anonymised audio recordings, suggesting that this should only be considered where
there is a lengthier engagement with participants and there is a strong possibility of
ongoing contact, through what is used, and how it can be negotiated at every stage.
Both in preparing a bid, and in the first implementation stage, we should research
the local context, consult stakeholders on potential risks for researcher and partici-
pants, and how the presence of a researcher might affect relationships, including
those of NGOs with partners and the communities they work in. This includes fa-
miliarising oneself with the area, its local politics and actors, especially with respect
to the sex industry (Melrose 2002). This will involve building relationships, not just
partnerships—which again can be merely contractual—with potential entry points
and key informants. The ethics involved are ones which respect the local awareness
and knowledge of stakeholders that can be termed as their ‘practice based evidence’
(Coy and Garner 2012).
Research design involves choosing an entry point; locations through which to
access participants. All have limitations, and ethical challenges, since they affect
38 L. Kelly and M. Coy

what it is safe or advisable to raise or discuss (Brunovskis and Surtees 2010). When
designing studies we need to think about what each entry point facilitates, and pos-
sibly precludes, including the research questions that it may or may not be possible
to explore. For example, accessing women who sell sex on the street, through broth-
els, through health agencies and NGOs or, in the case of trafficking, prison or deten-
tion centres all change the context for the conversation. Women may have more or
less time to engage with researchers depending on where they meet, and the agency
through which initial contact is made may also inflect dialogue. For example, if one
meets women in a drugs service, then the conversation is likely to start with these
specific needs. In Coy’s (2006) research with women involved in street prostitution,
making contact whilst on evening outreach often proved too transient a context in
which to introduce the possibility of participating in research.
Whether the study is one which seeks to build relationships over time, or is a
single contact also makes a difference to what it is ethically defensible to explore.
Sitting underneath these challenges is the orientation the researcher has towards
potential participants. Not giving due consideration to their locations in systems of
power and inequality is to depersonalise women, to turn them into objects of en-
quiry. Perhaps the most fundamental ethical position requires researchers to explore
and excavate their own positions with respect to prostitution to ensure that they can
meet participants as human beings as worthy of as much respect and consideration
as any other person.

The Position of Researcher

There are debates and discussion about who should undertake research; should they
always be independent of the point of entry or embedded in communities/agencies
which have established relations of trust? Both have advantages and disadvantages
from an ethical perspective. Maddy Coy (2006) reflects on this in a paper exploring
the complexities of her dual role as an outreach worker with women in the sex in-
dustry whilst simultaneously undertaking doctoral research. From one perspective
it is possible to argue that this is the most ethical entry point, since as a worker she
has an awareness of women’s lives and the possibility to address emerging issues
through direct support. Researchers who do not have this immersion in women’s
lived experience may read words and voices at face value, lacking a deeper under-
standing of how many women perform coping in order to survive selling sex. This
has implications for fieldwork and developing analytic frameworks. Yet there are
also ethical challenges with respect to blurred boundaries, the double knowing of
things that have not been discussed in the research process and possibly the reverse,
things discussed in research that have not been raised in a case work context (Coy
This has implications, in larger projects and those where the research will take
place in other countries, for the selection and preparation of research teams, includ-
ing interpreters. Where non-research staff are engaged to undertake aspects of data
3  Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice 39

collection, the UNAIP (2008) recommends building joint teams, which combine
the knowledge and access of NGOs and the skills of researchers. Maggie O’Neill
(2001, 2008) has pioneered this approach in the UK, using participatory action re-
search principles to engage NGOs, local residents and women who sell sex in re-
search, positioning each as experts for the purposes of creating ‘a more complete
and applicable knowledge’ through the combination of academic skills and com-
munity knowledge (FalsBorda 2001, p. 28). Ensuring the bid includes financial
resources, time for training and orientation workshops, and reflecting on data at the
end of fieldwork are also ethical practices here, which recognise the co-production
of knowledge involved. An instructive example is a project on how women estab-
lish livelihoods having survived being trafficked in Nepal, where strong relation-
ships with a local NGO comprised entirely of survivors are evident. The training
and feedback loops built into the study meant that the Nepali women taking part
gained far greater understanding of the processes of research and how to use find-
ings in advocacy (Richardson et al. 2009).
The safety of researchers, the risks they may face, including those associated
with researching potentially distressing topics, are also part of ethical frameworks
(Melrose 2002). These should be included in the safety protocols, which should in-
clude ‘check-ins’ with supervisors at regular points and having friends or colleagues
who know where they are and are available for debriefs. We discuss the ethical
dilemmas that researchers may face, and the need for clear supervision routes and
guidance below.
As researchers we are positioned, explicitly or implicitly, within ongoing and
frequently fractious academic and policy debates on the sex industry. It is not pos-
sible to position oneself, as the UNIAP (2008) standards suggest, as neutral. Some
argue that researchers must ‘avoid the politics of all groups and seek out the quiet or
silenced voices’ (Cwikel and Hoban 2005, p. 309). We agree wholeheartedly with
the second point, and would add that this is not just voices, but positions/analysis.
The first part of the injunction, however, is neither possible nor practical. Most re-
searchers have a politics, even if this is couched in general terms, such as supporting
human rights and social justice, and it is ethical to admit to this, whilst being careful
and open to challenges to this in the research process. In some recent debates about
research on the sex industry it has been claimed that those with a critical feminist
perspective lack rigour. This is often used to discredit specific studies which raise
questions about harm and inequality (see, for example, Weitzer 2005). There are
at least two flaws in this argument; first, that qualitative research involving people
and subjecting their experiences to analysis can be ‘objective’. As Melissa Farley
(2005) has noted in a rejoinder to Weitzer, all research is suffused with values.
Linked to this is an unhelpful assumption that to hold an uncritical perspective on
the sex industry is itself objective, rather than also representing a value position
(Coy 2012b). Our ethical responsibility, therefore, is to be clear about our departure
points and locations in such debates, whilst being open to new data and perspectives
through the research process. Creating a research project merely to support what
one already thinks is to instrumentalise those who agree to take part.
To suggest that one is neutral serves to disguise, and thus avoid defending, the
strategic decisions that have been made in the framing of a project. The fundamental
40 L. Kelly and M. Coy

issue of definitions used, for example, has methodological and ethical implications.
Choosing to use a wider or narrower definition, for example, which does or does
not map onto current national and international law, and/or the perspectives of par-
ticipants, is an ethical stance—there are interests at stake which should be acknowl-
edged (Cwikel and Hoban 2005).
The position of researchers as beneficiaries of the research, in building the knowl-
edge base and in terms of professional reputations is rarely included in discussions
of ethics, but surely should be (Coy 2006). Increasing and competitive pressures on
academics to raise funds and demonstrate impact can lead to overclaiming—of both
what it is possible to achieve in any project and how it might have wider influences
on policy and practice. The emphasis in the UNAIP (2008) standards on putting
information to ‘good use’ reflects this. An ethical standpoint should include a com-
mitment not to overclaim, to explore the limitations of any study and the remaining
gaps in knowledge. It also requires a reflexive position, locating one’s findings
within current debates, whilst not shape shifting them so much that the complexities
and unknowns are all ironed out.

Ethics of Researching Women’s Experiences

Much research on the sex industry and trafficking has drawn on the experiences
of women who sell sex. Ethical considerations begin with justifying the purpose
of researching women’s engagement in the sex industry, given the potential for an
‘element of voyeurism … born of the othering of women who sell sex’ (Coy 2006,
p. 428). That women who sell sex are arguably ‘over-researched’ (O’Neill 1996),
certainly by comparison with men who buy sex and traffickers/exploiters, should
also invite searching questions about for whose benefit research is conducted.
Women’s motives for taking part are often to ‘tell their story’, to have a voice
and to make a difference for others (O’Neill 2001). This places an ethical responsi-
bility on researchers to undertake interviews in a way that enables this, whilst also
offering a space to think and reflect on their own experiences (Wahab 2003; Coy
2006). One way this can be facilitated is through spending time and care construct-
ing research instruments, learning from what has and has not worked in previous re-
search. Literature reviews should be used not just to compile what is already known,
but to think about methodological approaches.
An ethical standpoint here to be taken seriously that telling stories and being
heard respectfully can be a form of validation, and part of constructing and re-
constructing the self (Coy 2006). Given the stigma that attaches to those who sell
sex, many may want/seek to ‘relieve the burden’ (Brunovskis and Surtees 2010),
placing a responsibility on researchers to devise a facilitating research process and
be alert to discomfort in speaking. We should certainly not be seeking ‘trauma sto-
ries’ (Brennan 2005), and pay attention to any questions which are experienced
as invasive (Zimmerman and Watts 2004), possibly adapting research tools in the
field. Some choose methods other than words, including art, to create contexts in
3  Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice 41

which the unsayable can be explored and (re)presented with minimal filter from
researchers (see e.g. O’Neill 2001, 2008; Coy 2012a for discussions of arts work as
a research method and images created by women who sell sex).
Creating enabling contexts means paying careful attention to the safety and com-
fort of participants; which locations will protect confidentiality and offer the most
space to speak freely (Melrose 2002). Where women are accessed through sup-
port agencies, this may represent a safe space, but one in which they less likely to
voice dissatisfaction or criticism of the services they have received (Brunovskis and
Surtees 2010). An openness to diverse possibilities, whilst being aware of research-
ers’ safety, is often required here.
Payment in money or through vouchers has complex meanings and implications
in all research that are amplified when interviewing women who sell sex. Some
choose vouchers as more ethical than cash in contexts where interviewees are drug
users, but whilst they can appear less complicated for the researcher, they can be
easily exchanged for money (Coy 2006). This is an ethical dilemma which is not
easily resolved, and at the very least it requires clarity within the research project
about both what any payment is to compensate for, and acceptance of what it may
be used for. There are further layers of ethics to be negotiated if a participant asks
for financial support in relation to basic survival needs, such as food or access to
health care/treatment. Projects should develop ethical guidelines for researchers to
enable them to negotiate these difficult encounters. The UNAIP (2008) explores the
danger of creating a ‘research market’ through paying ‘too much’, which may con-
tribute not only to a commodification of testimony, but also make it more difficult
for poorly funded local researchers to undertake projects. An example of deeply
unethical practice was included in a research application we reviewed, in which a
male researcher sought financial support to take the role of a sex buyer, but planned
to use the time to interview the women. This is unethical in the first instance in that
it involves deception to gain access, which in turn creates questions about what con-
sent means in such a context. There are additional ethical questions about the use of
male privilege and how such a methodological approach would affect data collec-
tion. None of these ethical dilemmas were considered problematic by the applicant.

The Spectre of ‘Vulnerability’

It is likely that most ethics committees would define victims of trafficking as ‘vul-
nerable’ and the issue as a ‘sensitive’ one, meaning the application will be subject
to a heightened level of scrutiny. Sensitivity, here, means that the topic has the
potential to cause distress, and that participation may therefore carry more risks and
costs to participants. Some researchers have, however, questioned such automatic
designations, since they suggest a necessity for unique and additional protections
which run the risk of limiting the agency of individuals to make their own informed
decisions about whether to take part in research and what to divulge (Downes et al.
2014). All research with human subjects should respect their dignity and afford
42 L. Kelly and M. Coy

rights to suspend participation, and refuse to answer questions they feel uncomfort-
able with. The reality is, however, that questions or topics which are not considered
sensitive may be for some because of their life experiences. Asking about home,
family or belonging, for example, is less than straightforward for some migrant
women who may be fleeing upheaval and conflict, and for whom all three concepts
may evoke painful memories and current realities. Similar issues may be present for
women in the sex industry who were sexually abused as children.
Thus, the stereotype of vulnerability also runs the danger of locating women
in positions they themselves would dispute. Some see, and present themselves, as
strong and capable, with the capacity to make decisions. Participation in research
may be empowering rather than distressing—and who is best placed to make this
decision? Arguably, ‘empowerment implies offering the choice of declining to co-
operate’ (Morris et al. 1998, p. 31). Prohibitions on offering the choice to co-operate
on the basis of an assumed vulnerability foreclose the possibility of empowerment
through providing a platform for women’s voices to be heard. Narrow visions of
vulnerability are also double edged once in the field: women who do not fit ste-
reotypes of ‘vulnerable’—for example passivity and/or disadvantage—may be ex-
cluded from the consideration and support afforded to others (Brown 2006). On the
other hand, researchers themselves are not all of a piece, and some may be working
from an instrumentalist position, with a primary aim of enhancing their career at
any cost. Ethics procedures are, however, ill-suited to delving into the messiness
of personal motivations and ambitions. The vulnerability concept requires more
examination: Is it the person themselves who is vulnerable or is it the situation
in which they find themselves? The implicit ideas lurking behind such automatic
designations counterpose victimisation and agency, and in so doing deprive entire
groups of the human capacity to make informed decisions. It could be argued that
this is a form of paternalism, since it is clear that the challenges of recruiting par-
ticipants show that women can and do make decisions about their involvement. As
concerning is the potential that an overfocus on the issues of sensitivity and vulner-
ability may mean that less attention is given to the overall ethical standpoint within
research proposals.

Confidentiality: Absolute or Relative

Most ethics guidelines emphasise both anonymity and confidentiality, both as prin-
ciples in and of themselves, and as foundations for accounts being more reliable.
Whilst anonymity is not contentious, confidentiality is becoming increasingly so
as research governance becomes more developed and risk averse. Here the issue
of disclosures of serious harm has become more of a focus, and what the ethical
response should be, especially if it involves a child or children. Here again ethics
as practice and process comes to the fore, and the necessity of developing a safety
protocol in which the potential limits of confidentiality are explored. Informing
participants at the outset as to what these might be becomes part of ethical practice.
3  Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice 43

This raises serious dilemmas for researching the sex industry, particularly traffick-
ing, since most would argue that trafficking is by definition a serious harm, and
some might also view engagement in the sex industry under any circumstances as
harmful. What are the ethical responsibilities of researchers where clear evidence
of ongoing exploitation is revealed? On one hand, an ethical position suggests pro-
viding the conditions, including confidentiality, which encourage open and honest
accounts; on the other hand is a wider social responsibility to prevent further harm
to this person and potentially others.
The challenges here are multiple. How can relative confidentiality be negotiated
carefully and respectfully, and do no further harm, with people who may be present
in a country illegally, so any intervention may put them at risk of deportation? The
ethical dilemmas here are profound and complex, especially when interviewees are
not in contact with support organisations. There are no easy answers, since what
is ethical will depend on the national and particular contexts participants occupy.
There is, however, an ethical requirement on all researchers and teams to explore
the potential scenarios they might encounter and how this can best be dealt with. An
illustrative example is provided by the UNAIP (2008) from a trafficking project in
Vietnam. The researchers told participants that if they were given information about
traffickers operating in the area, they would make an anonymous report to the po-
lice after the research was complete. We are not, however, told if this actually took
place, or if any action resulted, and how this statement influenced the willingness of
participants to speak to researchers.
Brunovskis and Surtees (2010) recall the point made by Zimmerman and Watts
(2004, p. 565).
Seeing a woman in an extremely abusive environment can incite some interviewers to take
action on the woman’s behalf. However, in the past, such well-meaning actions have left
women in worse situations than before.

Working out what doing no more harm means in such situations is less than simple.
They go on to note the different implications of, for example, engaging police in
‘well-functioning democracies’ and in contexts where it is common knowledge that
corruption means there may be strong connections between law enforcement and
traffickers. The potential for doing more harm is a clear and present danger. Cwikel
and Hoban (2005) also raise these conundrums, alongside ensuring that researchers
have a clear sense of the limits of their power and capacity. Our baseline is that if
we see clear signs of abuse, or are told about them, we should explore with women
what the possibilities are for them, in their contexts. In our projects researching the
sex industry and all forms of violence this has meant suspending interviews in order
to focus on women’s immediate needs; prioritising safety and wellbeing over con-
tributions to research, and involving women in these discussions about what they
want and need (see Coy 2006 for examples). This in turn requires that researchers
have good local knowledge—about the likely responses of agencies and what ongo-
ing support options are available. This approach is used in a project on domestic
violence in the UK, mirroring the principles of self-determination used by specialist
support services and termed as ‘a positive empowerment approach’.
44 L. Kelly and M. Coy

Here the ‘positive empowerment’ orientation involved conversations in which concerns

were shared with the woman and her right and need for support explored. We sought to be
an enabler, to enable women to choose a course of action that might improve her situation.
(Downes et al. 2014, paragraph 4.9)

Emotional Labour

The emotional toll of listening to women’s experiences of the sex industry, which are
likely to involve sexual and physical violence, social marginalisation, dissociation from
the body and possibly problematic drug use, homelessness and ill-health, should not
be underestimated. For female researchers, recognising that the abuses and coercion
experienced by women who sell sex are part of a continuum of violence against women
(Kelly 1988) can be particularly unsettling (O’Neill 1994, cited in Melrose 2002).
Margaret Melrose (2002) writes movingly and candidly of the emotionally
charged territory of researching sexual exploitation with young people, and identi-
fies a number of points where emotional labour might be particularly acute. The
first begins before engagement in fieldwork, since researchers will be aware of the
potential issues they may encounter. In the process of interviewing, managing one’s
emotional response requires energy and empathy, responding to the feelings of those
who are ‘telling’ and the ‘hearing’ by the researcher. The aftermath involves ‘holding
these feelings’, often in unfamiliar surroundings and away from informal support
networks of friends and family. Melrose notes that ‘anger, guilt, frustration and rage’
are ‘humane’ reactions (p. 347) to stories of abuse and exploitation, and that rather
than seek to ‘repair’ these feelings, we should acknowledge them as part of our re-
sponsibility to participants. Perhaps these troubled and troubling emotions are part
of Simmel’s (1950; cited in Coy 2006) ‘gift of knowing’: that in bearing witness to
women’s experience, and the generosity of their sharing, we should anticipate these
relational impacts. It is not possible to disconnect our research self from our whole
self, as Melrose (2002) points out. Debriefing with colleagues during fieldwork,
sharing data analysis and spacing out interviews to ensure time for reflection are
all ways in which we have managed these emotional responses during our research.
Practical implications abound from these insights into ethics in practice. Costing
in measures to provide additional research support is a vital consideration. Melrose
(2002) suggests working in pairs so as to divide and share emotional labour, and
extending data collection periods to allow for reflection and processing. Here, the
expense of research projects needs to be weighed against providing the emotional
support that makes an ethical practice and process possible.

Studying Power: Organisers, Exploiters and Sex Buyers

Research on the organisers of, and exploiters within, the sex industry is sparse to say
the least. Here the ethical issues relate to under what circumstances it is acceptable
to undertake covert research (something we have not ourselves undertaken) and the
3  Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice 45

possibility of increased risks for researchers, especially with respect to pimps and
traffickers as potential research participants. Some of these individuals are danger-
ous, and linked to organised crime, but this depends on the setting. For example,
where prostitution is legal there are likely to be possible routes in which are not
dangerous. In addition, many of those involved are small players, often pursuing
their own livelihood projects. Risks to researchers, especially those who are young
and/or inexperienced, need to be considered carefully. Research leads and principal
investigators should think through who the most appropriate person within their
team is to undertake this layer of data collection, and what supports need to be in
place for them.
The challenges of studying organised crime are in part because they operate
in ‘“closed” and “guarded” social spaces’ (Lazaros 2007, p. 96; Brunovskis and
Surtees, 2010, p. 11). This has led some researchers to adopt covert and observa-
tion methods, which raises an entirely new set of ethical issues, including what the
responsibility of researchers is if they are present during or witness illegal events.
Such contexts are fraught with dilemmas and trilemmas, and anyone undertaking
such research needs regular supervision.

Researching Men’s Demand

Men who pay for sex are a burgeoning topic of research, having for decades been
invisible. Yet their experiences of buying access to women’s bodies are perhaps the
most direct route to exploring the gendered asymmetry of the sex industry; globally
the majority of those who sell sex are women, and those who buy, are men.
There is often an assumption that men who buy sex will be reluctant to engage
with researchers, yet our telephone survey of 137 men (Coy et al. 2007) and other
large UK samples (Farley et al. 2011, for example, interviewed 110 men) indicate
otherwise. As a less visible, arguably nonetheless stigmatised, yet more powerful
group, ethical considerations of interviewing men who pay for sex are different to
those involved in researching women’s experiences. Sex buyers clearly have more
‘choice’ when making decisions to buy sex than women who sell, since they are
seeking to fulfil sexual gratification rather than economic need. As with organis-
ers and exploiters, men who buy sex are a more structurally and socially powerful
group than women who sell sex and/or are trafficked. Ethics thus have distinctive
One route to exploring men’s perspectives, which minimises some ethical is-
sues yet carries its own, has been to collate and analyse posts on websites such as
‘Punternet’ (an internet forum where sex buyers exchange evaluations of women
according to their ‘skills’, cost, etc.) (for example Soothill and Sanders 2005; Earle
and Sharp 2007; Horvath 2012). As this data is already in the public domain, some
argue that there is no need for informed consent, although it may be necessary to
further anonymise commenters where it appears that real names have been used
(Horvath 2012).
46 L. Kelly and M. Coy

For interviewing men, too, anonymity is important (Farley et al. 2011), and again
uncontentious, but confidentiality can be more fraught. Some might harbour con-
cerns that men will disclose criminal offences, perhaps inadvertently, which may
provoke an ethical dilemma in contexts where aspects of buying sex (e.g. with
women who have been trafficked/controlled) are criminalised. Similarly, some fear
men may recount invasions of women’s bodies which amount to rape. Notwith-
standing the limited circumstances in which researchers (at least in the UK) are
legally obliged to report criminal offences, it is also extremely unlikely that re-
searchers will have sufficient information about men’s real names, locations, or the
specifics of commercial sex encounters with which to make a report. Philosophical
dilemmas about using such accounts as data might have more salience than anxiet-
ies about reporting to official bodies when developing an ethical foundation for
researching men’s demand. The emotional labour of hearing these accounts is also
worth noting; it can be intensely uncomfortable to listen to men describing how
they depersonalise women that they pay for sex, and how women’s bodies become
instrumental orifices (Grenz 2005).
For the researcher then, there are different power relations to consider. That men
often sexualise women who interview them about sexual practices is documented
in research literature (Gailey and Prohaska 2011). Sabine Grenz (2005) writes of
interviewing a sex buyer who when asked about preferences in women, describes
her physical features as those that would make sexual arousal impossible, whilst
others talked about being close to orgasm. Similarly, when we as a team of female
researchers interviewed men over the telephone about their motivations for, and ex-
periences of buying sex, some sought to sexualise us with commentary about their
penises, or questions about our bodies and relationship status. These were revealing
contributions about the ‘very discourse’ (Grenz 2005) that we were exploring: men’s
sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. In this way, they are transformed from ethi-
cal issues to part of analytic frameworks. Grenz reminds us, too, that even without
such overt sexualisation, the interview is a context where women as researchers
engage stereotypically feminine characteristics such as listening and empathy. The
casting of the researcher as expert subverts this at some level (Grenz 2005), creat-
ing a juxtaposition of social and individual capital in the research encounter. As
with all research, physical safety of researchers has practical dimensions: in what
location men are interviewed, by who, and with what experience. It might also be
necessary to think about what information they are given about researchers. In our
research with men who bought sex (Coy et al. 2007), all the research team used the
same pseudonym. As it was a study commissioned by a public body, we offered
men the name and contact details of this organisation but did not volunteer our own
institutional affiliation (although this information could easily have been obtained
from the commissioning organisation, should men have asked them). Such consid-
erations about how traceable it is possible to be are lent urgency by contexts where
women are researching men as a more powerful social group.
Hence, negotiating these complexities not only requires attention to ethics as a
practice, with careful forethought and perhaps an agreed research team protocol
3  Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice 47

about how to manage uncomfortable disclosures and encounters, but also ethics as
a process, undergoing constant reflection, and where necessary, revision.

Ethics in Analysis

Very little is written about ethics with respect to what we do with data beyond
ensuring that participants’ confidentiality is respected and ensured. At minimum
researchers should seek to reflect the complexity and diversity of experiences and
perceptions they encounter, albeit that this is always inflected through the priorities
of funders and theoretical framings and commitments. The ‘slow replay’ of emo-
tional labour during analysis—repeatedly rehearing experiences which may have
been painful in the first hearing—can be especially draining (Melrose 2002).

Towards a New Framework

As part of an ethical standpoint it is possible to integrate reflexivity in research—

asking participants what taking part has meant to and for them, what worked well
and less well for, how might the process have been improved. Where such practices
are engaged in, many say that being able to speak at length and reflect on their lives
has been a benefit (see for example, Coy 2006; DePrince and Chu 2008; Kelly et al.
2014). One woman in a study of sexual violence commented:
Actually, I’m quite surprised, I’ve found it really helpful. I can’t think about it so talking
is the only way of admitting it ever happened… I have never talked in that concentrated
way before… I think I like myself a lot more, I feel quite brave really. (Kelly 1988, p. 13)

This confirms that a foundational principle should be to treat people as human be-
ings and for research design and practice to be rooted in this: not treating partici-
pants as ‘objects’ of study, but subjects from whom researchers seek to learn.
Research protocols should anticipate potential dilemmas, address safety of par-
ticipants and researchers, but importantly stress ethics as a process and practice,
expecting that ethical issues will be raised and explored both in the field and when
working with data. This is an example of one such approach.
The development of an ethical protocol, in which researchers are invested in protecting
victim-survivors of violence and abuse whilst also maximising the capacity for self-deter-
mination and autonomy, within Project Mirabal has enabled us to articulate core ethical
values that underpin a positive empowerment approach in violence and abuse research.
These core values include, (i) conceptualising victim-survivors and perpetrators as active
agents, (ii) empowering participants to make choices about taking action to improve their
lives and, (iii) maximising opportunities for positive experiences and impacts of research.
(Downes et al. 2014)
48 L. Kelly and M. Coy

Claudia Aradau (2008, p. 76) in her philosophical exploration of trafficking uses the
concepts of ‘ethical relations’ between researcher and researched and an ‘ethics of
responsibility’ for researchers. Working with what each means in particular places
and projects is the orientation we are proposing.


Aradau, C. (2008). Rethinking trafficking in women: Politics out of security. New York: Palgrave
Brennan, D. (2005). Methodological challenges in research with trafficked persons: Tales from the
field. International Migration, 43, 35–54.
Brown, K. (2006). Participation and young people involved in prostitution. Child Abuse Review,
15(5), 294–312.
Brunovskis, A., & Surtees, R. (2010). Untold stories: Biases and selection effects in research with
victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. International Migration, 48(4),1–37 (Special Is-
sue: Special Issue on Human Trafficking).
Coy, M. (2006). This morning I’m a researcher, this afternoon I’m an outreach worker: Ethical
dilemmas in practitioner research international journal of social research methodology. Theory
and Practice, 9(5), 419–432.
Coy, M. (2012a). ‘I am a person too’: Women’s accounts and images about body and self. In M.
Coy (Ed.), Prostitution, harm and gender inequality: Theory, research and policy. Farnham:
Coy, M. (2012b). Introduction. In M. Coy (Ed.), Prostitution, harm and gender inequality: Theory,
research and policy. Farnham: Ashgate.
Coy, M., & Garner, M. (2012). Definitions, discourses and dilemmas: Policy and academic en-
gagement with the sexualisation of popular culture. Gender & Education, 24(3), 285–301.
Coy, M., Horvath, M. A. H., & Kelly, L. (2007). ‘It’s just like going to the supermarket: Men buy-
ing sex in East London. London: CWASU.
Cwikel, J., & Hoban, E. (2005). Contentious issues in research on trafficked women working in the
sex industry: study design, ethics, and methodology. Journal of Sex Research 42(4), 306–316.
DePrince, A. P., & Chu, A. T. (2008). Perceived benefits in trauma research: Examining meth-
odological and individual difference factors in responses to research participation. Journal of
Experimental Research on Human Research Ethics, 18, 218–219.
Downes, J., Kelly, L., & Westmarland, N. (2014). Ethics in violence and abuse research—a posi-
tive empowerment approach. Sociological Research Online, 19(1): 2. http://www.socresonline. Accessed 19 July 2014.
Earle, S., & Sharp, K. (2007). Sex in cyberspace: Men who pay for sex. Farnham: Ashgate.
FalsBorda, O. (2001). Participatory (action) research in social theory: Origins and challenges.
In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of action research: Participative inquiry and
practice (pp. 27–37). London: Sage.
Farley, M. (2005). Prostitution harms women even if indoors: Reply to Weitzer. Violence Against
Women, 11(7), 950–964.
Farley, M., Macleod, J., Anderson, L., & Golding, J. M. (2011, March 28) Attitudes and social
characteristics of men who buy sex in scotland, psychological trauma: Theory, research, prac-
tice, and policy advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0022645.
Gailey, J. A., & Prohaska, A. (2011). Power and gender negotiations during interviews with men
about sex and sexually degrading practices. Qualitative Research, 11(4), 365–380.
Grenz, S. (2005). Intersections of sex and power in research on prostitution: A female researcher
interviewing male heterosexual clients. Signs, 30(4), 2091–2113.
3  Ethics as Process, Ethics in Practice 49

Guillemin, M., & Gillam, L. (2004). Ethics, reflexivity and “ethically important moments”. Re-
search in Qualitative Inquiry. 10(2), 261–280.
Horvath, T. (2012). ‘What happens on tour stays on tour’: An exploratory study into the meanings
of men’s prostitution use in the context of the stag tour. Unpublished M.A. dissertation. London:
Metropolitan University.
Kelly, L. (1988). Surviving sexual violence. Cambridge: Policy Press.
Kelly, L., Sharp, N., & Klein, R. (2014). Finding the costs of freedom: How women and children
rebuild their lives after domestic violence London: Solace women’s aid. http://solacewomen- Accessed
19 Aug 2014.
Lazaros, G. (2007 ). Qualitative research in trafficking – a particular case. In E. Savona, & S. Ste-
fanizzi (Eds.), Measuring Human Trafficking: Complexities And Pitfalls (pp. 95–105). New
York: Springer Press.
McNutt, L., Waltermaurer, E., Bednarczyk, R. A., Carlson, B. E., Kotval, J., McCauley, J., et al.
(2008). Are we misjudging how well informed consent forms are read?. Journal of Empirical
Research on Human Research Ethics, 3(1), 89–97.
Melrose, M. (2002). Labour pains: Some considerations on the difficulties of researching juvenile
prostitution. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 4(4), 333–351.
Morris, K., Woodward, D., & Peterson, E. (1998). ‘Whose side are you on?’ Dilemmas in con-
ducting feminist ethnographic research with young women. International Journal of Social
Research Methodology, 1(3), 217–230.
O’Neill, M. (1996). Prostitution, Feminism and Critical Praxis: profession prostitute? The austrian
journal of sociology, special edition on work and society winter, 333–350.
O’Neill, M. (2001). Prostitution and feminism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
O’Neill, M. (2008). Sex, violence and work: Services to sex workers and public policy reform.
In G. Letherby, K. Williams, P. Birch, & M. Cain (Eds.), Sex as crime. Cullompton: Willan.
Richardson, D., Poudel, M., & Laurie, N. (2009).Sexual trafficking in Nepal: Constructing citi-
zenship and livelihoods, gender, place & culture. A Journal of Feminist Geography, 16(3),
Riessman, C. K. (2005). Exporting ethics: A narrative about narrative research in South India.
Health (London), 9(4), 473–490.
Shaver, F. (2005). Sex work research: Methodological and ethical challenges. Journal of Interper-
sonal Violence, 20(3), 296–319.
Simmel, G. (1950).The sociology of georg simmel. London: Collier Macmillan.
Soothill, K., & Sanders, T. (2005). The geographical mobility, preferences and pleasures of prolific
punters: A demonstration study of the activities of prostitutes’ clients. Sociological Research
Online, 10(1).
United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. (2008).Guide to ethics and human
rights in counter-trafficking: Ethical standards for counter-trafficking research and program-
ming. Accessed 20
July 2014.
Wahab, S. (2003). Creating knowledge collaboratively with female sex workers: Insights from a
qualitative feminist study. Qualitative Inquiry, 9, 625–642.
Weitzer, R. (2005). Flawed theory and method in studies of prostitution. Violence against women,
11(7), 934–949.
Zimmerman, C., & Watts, C. (2004). Risks and responsibilities: guidelines for interviewing traf-
ficked women Lancet, 363(9408), 565.

Liz Kelly  is the director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) and she holds the
Roddick chair on Violence Against Women. CWASU has an international reputation for its policy
relevant research at all forms of gender violence and child abuse, and the connections between
them. We are adept at what we term ‘working in between’, straddling the academy, policy, and
50 L. Kelly and M. Coy

practice. A core principle of our approach to research is to create ‘useful knowledge’ whilst being
rigorous in our approach data collection and analysis. We have a considerable track record in
writing research reports and ‘think pieces’ which change both how issues are conceptualised and
interventions are crafted. Liz undertook the first contemporary on trafficking for sexual exploita-
tion in the UK in 2000 and since that time she has conducted research in Central Asia and Europe.

Maddy Coy  is the deputy director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) and
a Reader in Sexual Exploitation and Gender Inequality at London Metropolitan University. Prior
to becoming a researcher, Maddy worked for several years with women and girls exploited in the
sex industry. She has published a number of articles on women’s experiences of selling sex, links
between local authority care and sexual exploitation, and has researched men’s motivations for
buying sex. In 2012, her edited collection ‘Prostitution: Harm and Gender Inequality’ was pub-
lished (with Ashgate), bringing together a critical perspective on prostitution from international
feminist scholars. Maddy has recently focussed on developing a gendered analysis of sexualised
popular culture, including how ‘sexualised sexism’ operates as a conducive context for violence
against women and girls. She co-ordinates, and teaches on, CWASU’s M.A. in Woman and Child
Abuse and associated courses.
Chapter 4
Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry:
The Ambivalence of Ethical Guidelines

Roos de Wildt


My phone rings for a few seconds and then stops. One missed call from Rea. Rea is
a young Albanian woman working in a bar in Kosovo. During our meetings in this
bar, Rea told me how her father arranged for her to go on various trips to western
Europe, where she was forced into prostitution. Rea did not want to live at home
anymore as soon as she realised that her father was involved in the exploitation she
encountered abroad. She decided to go and live and work in a bar in South Kosovo.
The bar functions as a meeting ground for clients and women involved in prostitu-
tion. Rea still sends part of her earnings to her family. I return Rea’s call. She has
news: ‘I told the bar owner that I am leaving. He was irritated but I told him that
there is another life for me. I am going. Can you help me? I trust you. No other
Rea’s question lays bare some of the ethical complexities of ethnographic re-
search on the sex industry. Ethnographic research methods are qualitative by nature
and aim at understanding the actual experience of people involved by entering a
scene, staying there for an extended period of time, holding in-depth interviews and
making (participant) observations (Fleisher 1998, p. 53; Decorte and Zaitch 2010,
pp. 264–265). These methods often lead to emotional engagement between ethno-
graphic researchers and respondents (see also: Fleetwood 2009; Decorte and Zaitch
2010, p. 300, 552; Fleisher 1998, p. 62; Tunnell 1998, pp. 211–212; Adler 1993).
During my ethnographic fieldwork in Kosovo, this engagement resulted in Rea ask-
ing me for help. In the WHO Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Interviewing

I returned Rea’s call with the help of my Albanian-speaking research assistant Ms. Dafina Muçaj
to whom I am grateful for her professional cooperation and thoughtful support. The phone call
was made on 5 December 2011 when I was in Kosovo conducting ethnographic research on the
local sex industry.

R. de Wildt ()
Willem Pompe Institute, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 51
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_4
52 R. de Wildt

Trafficked Women, Zimmerman and Watts (2003, pp. 24–25) outline that offering
help is an ethical and moral obligation. However, offering it in the wrong way can
worsen the situation as well as influence ‘natural’ observation methods. Help should
therefore be considered carefully.
This chapter discusses the safety and ethical dilemmas that arise from conduct-
ing ethnographic research on the sex industry. I focus on ethical concerns for re-
searching women along the whole continuum from voluntary sex workers to forced
victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, as well as all possible forms in
between these extremes.2 I start by examining the question of whether it is ethical to
carry out ethnographic research among women who are involved in the sex industry
and are potential victims of trafficking. Arguing that a study on the sex industry
cannot exclude the actual women involved, I continue by addressing ethical and
safety concerns aimed at the protection of respondents and researchers. Guiding
principles such as ‘do no harm’, informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality and
clarity about the role and responsibility of researchers can advise researchers on
how to deal with certain situations. Yet, following the general guidelines does not
guarantee successful research on the sex industry, and imposing the guidelines on
researchers, as institutional review boards tend to do, can hamper research progress.
The ambivalence concerning their practical applicability is discussed through con-
crete examples from ethnographic fieldwork on prostitution and human trafficking
in Kosovo and Italy.
Since 2011, I have been studying how war and post-war transition processes
shape the Kosovar sex industry. During various fieldwork periods, I made a habit
out of spending several days and evenings a week in bars and motels where pros-
titution was taking place. I hung out with women when they were waiting for cus-
tomers; joined them for lunch, drinks or necessary visits to institutions; discussed
‘business’ with bar owners and observed them being offered new employees. Addi-
tionally, I spent time with a woman who used to be involved in prostitution but was
now in witness protection, held in-depth interviews with local experts on human
trafficking and prostitution and followed court cases in this field. In some cases,
I reflect on ethical and safety concerns springing from one of my earlier studies
among the Romanian women involved in street prostitution in Rome, Italy, after
Romania had entered the European Union in 2007.3

Victims of trafficking are defined in the ‘UN Optional Protocol to Suppress and Punish Traffick-
ing in Persons, Especially Women and Children’. The Trafficking Protocol entered into force on 25
December 2003 and supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized
I conducted this fieldwork from February until June 2007 within the framework of a Master’s
degree in cultural anthropology.
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 53

Research Among Women Involved in the Sex Industry

Unethical: Arguments Against Including Women

During in-depth anthropological research on the sex industry and people’s lives
after trafficking, Brennan (2005, p. 37) faced methodological difficulties and ethi-
cal concerns related to ‘doing research with ex-captives who are both an extremely
vulnerable population, as well as one that is extraordinarily diverse […].’ Women
involved in prostitution, irrespective of their voluntary or forced entry into the busi-
ness, are often considered to be vulnerable because of the high risk of being subject-
ed to exploitation (Cwikel and Hoban 2005, p. 309; Kelly 2003). This vulnerability,
especially of victims of trafficking, makes some scholars plead for excluding cur-
rent (potential) victims of trafficking from research (Tyldum 2010).
One of the main arguments put forward is that research in which victims of traf-
ficking are identified, interviewed and then left in their exploitative situation, is not
ethical since it ‘is likely to ruin any belief the victim had in humanity, or any hope
of being rescued’ (Tyldum 2010, p. 3). Yet, conducting research among women who
are already participating in assistance programmes is regarded as less problematic
since service providers can easily be accessed in case women in assistance pro-
grammes express certain needs (Brunovskis and Surtees 2010, p. 13) or feel anxious
after an interview (Tyldum 2010).
In my understanding, excluding current potential victims of trafficking would,
however, mean excluding all women involved in the sex industry at the time of
research as it is difficult to decide beforehand whether or not a woman could be
regarded as a victim of trafficking. This line of argumentation would, thus, lead
to former victims of trafficking in assistance programmes being the only ethically
defendable group of respondents in studies on the sex industry.

Impossibility of Excluding: Arguments for Including Women

Interviewing women in the relatively safe context of assistance programmes indeed

offers the above-mentioned valuable advantages. However, research based on inter-
views with victims of trafficking in assistance programmes is only representative of
the situation of this specific group (see also: Tyldum 2010). No reliable conclusions
can be drawn about the situation of trafficking victims or the sex industry at large
since interviews and observations in different settings (e.g. a shelter or brothel) and
stages in life (e.g. before, during or after involvement in the sex industry) provide
different narratives. For instance, during my fieldwork in Rome, I observed that
women involved in prostitution at the time of the conversation often emphasised
that they were working without a pimp, especially when the conversation took place
at the police station after they had been arrested, whereas women involved in as-
sistance programmes generally presented themselves as forced victims (de Wildt
54 R. de Wildt

2009; see also: Brunovskis and Surtees 2010, p. 14). In the literature, two main
explanations are given for these different narratives in different settings.
First, people interpret and evaluate their experiences differently over time (Nor-
dstrom and Robben 1995, pp. 12–13). This means that it is possible for a woman
to assess her involvement in the sex industry in one way when she is still involved,
while she evaluates it in another way after she has left the business (Brunovskis
and Surtees 2010, p. 14). A young Serbian woman in a shelter in Kosovo told me
that her former pimps would sometimes lock her up, use violence if she did not
want to have intercourse with a client and encourage her to experiment with drugs,
but ‘after some time you start, in a way, to accept it. That is what you do. You see
it as a normal life. But it was not’.4 As stressed by Nordstrom and Robben (1995,
pp. 12–13) on the difference between contemporary and posterior accounts: ‘Truth
and understanding are […] always conditional and situated’, which leads to diverg-
ing accounts depending on the moment a woman speaks about her experiences in
the sex industry.
The second explanation supposes that in different settings, one meets different
women with different experiences altogether. In Kosovo, I met various women in
premises where prostitution was taking place who had been well-earning sex work-
ers as well as exploited victims of trafficking at different periods in their lives.
Oksana from Ukraine, for instance, explained: ‘With the money I earned [in Kosovo
RdW] I bought an apartment. I also put heating in the floor. […] I went on holidays
with Anna [Oksana’s daughter RdW]. She saw Egypt on television in cartoons. And
I want her to see those things. I spent a lot of money. You only live once. I went on a
lot of holidays. Took all of my family’.5 Her life had not always been so prosperous.
A few years earlier, Oksana worked in a brothel in Spain. Contrary to prior agree-
ments, the Spanish brothel owner only paid her a few euros per client and initially
did not allow her to return to Ukraine. This experience stopped Oksana from work-
ing in the sex industry for some years, but she was eventually persuaded to go back
by a friend’s stories of large earnings to be made in prostitution in Kosovo. In my
experience, women interviewed in assistance programmes seldom have nuanced
accounts of a past in which they were both affluent sex workers and victims. The
cases of women who are known by the police and are receiving help are likely to
be distinct from unknown cases, precisely because they have become visible to in-
stitutions. Institutions, after all, can be expected to first and foremost identify clear-
ly recognisable exploitation of, for instance, minors or women with nationalities
known for their involvement in trafficking (Tyldum and Brunovskis 2005, p. 24).
Women who experienced more mundane forms of pressure and control, who knew
they would be involved in prostitution, but not about the exploitative conditions, or
who already had experience in prostitution are often underrepresented in analyses
of accounts of women encountered through assistance programmes and police. This
encountering of more stereotypical stories through institutions (i.e. selection bias)
is further intensified if institutions put forward their more ‘exemplary cases’ for

Interview with Vesna on 20 March 2013.
Informal conversation with Oksana on 8 January 2014.
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 55

involvement in research (Tyldum and Brunovskis 2005, pp. 22–26; Brunovskis and

Surtees 2010, p. 14).
I would like to add a third possible explanation for differing narratives in differ-
ent settings. Women involved in prostitution might deliberately put an emphasis on
certain aspects of their story, depending on the situation they are in. As anthropolo-
gist Ghorashi (2003, p. 34) underlines in her account on individual agency: ‘When
people tell their stories they identify themselves with one or another group or reject
some external identification made of them by a dominant society’. Women can,
thus, deliberately place themselves in a certain group by presenting their story in a
certain way. Barsky (1994) describes the process whereby individuals consciously
create a specific image of themselves as ‘constructing a productive other’. The pro-
ductivity of a story is key. Women tell the story that helps them achieve their aim.
Women involved in street prostitution in Rome, for instance, often presented them-
selves as independent sex workers during contacts with the police, in order to be
left alone. Yet, in the process of being allowed access to help from nongovernmen-
tal organisations (NGOs), women often emphasised their victimisation (De Wildt
2009). The presentation of such productive stories is especially likely if no rapport
has been established between the researcher and the respondent and the women are
interviewed during one-time encounters.
Taken together, divergent evaluations of experiences over time, selection bias
and people’s tendency to tell productive life stories all explain why a researcher
will find different narratives in different settings. Research that is solely focused
on victims of trafficking in assistance programmes will inevitably result in very
specific accounts, which, in my experience, are more likely to reproduce symbolic
and stereotypical images of helpless victims of trafficking (as opposed to ‘volun-
tary’ sex workers). These prevailing images deny women’s ‘resistance to structural
inequalities and their struggle to transform their lives’ (Andrijasevic 2007, p. 98).
Ethnographic research among women involved in the sex industry over an extended
period of time provides more nuanced narratives and will broaden our understand-
ing of human trafficking and prostitution. For instance, such narratives provide in-
sight into the agreements these women have made with the facilitators of prostitu-
tion or with human traffickers in order to realise their goals of improving their own
or their family’s economic situation, leaving an oppressive or less than inspiring
home situation or experiencing adventure.

Towards a ‘Thick’ Description of the Sex Industry

I, thus, argue for including women involved in the sex industry at the time of re-
search in studies on prostitution in order to arrive at what Geertz (1973, p. 15) called
‘thick description’ and grasp the multiplicity of experiences of women involved in
the sex industry and the intertwinement with the context they find themselves in.
This asks for inclusion of a broad range of women in research: women who are cur-
rently involved in the sex industry as well as women who have been so in the past,
56 R. de Wildt

women who are seen as voluntary sex workers, women who are identified as forced
victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation and all the possibilities in be-
tween these extremes. I prefer to approach these women through different channels
and talk to them in various settings, such as brothels, health clinics, police stations
and shelters as well as ‘neutral’ places like a restaurant or at home. And, lastly,
I prefer to combine ethnographic research methodologies based on observations,
in-depth interviews and the recording of life histories of trafficked persons as well
as individuals and groups involved in prostitution (see for example: Dewalt and
Dewalt 2002) with other ‘grounded’ research methods: the analysis of court cases
(e.g. Leman and Janssens 2008) and police and official reports. All of these research
settings bring their own biases, but when combined, these stories and observations
can provide a ‘thick’ and multifaceted description of the sex industry (see also:
Cwikel and Hoban 2005, p. 13; O’Connell Davidson 1998, p. 7; Brunovskis and
Surtees 2010, pp. 8, 26–27).

Ethical and Safety Concerns in Research on the Sex


Observations in bars and informal conversations or interviews with pimps and

women involved in prostitution can put both respondents and researchers in chal-
lenging situations. The WHO Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Interviewing
Trafficked Women (Zimmerman and Watts 2003) outline the risks for respondents,
in this case specifically victims of trafficking. As an example, the recommendations
present the case of a researcher who made a documentary about trafficked women
but did not sufficiently mask the interviewees. The victims, including a woman who
had kept her experience a secret from her husband and parents, were easily identi-
fied (Zimmerman and Watts 2003, p. 19). At the same time, risk for the researcher
is inherent in research on crime and deviance (Hamm and Ferrell 1998, p. 264). This
is illustrated by the experience of criminologist Bruce Jacobs (1998, pp. 160–174),
who was robbed at gunpoint by one of his informants during his research among
crack dealers due to the latter’s disapproval of Jacob’s behaviour towards him.
The following sections consider potential risks related to conducting ethno-
graphic fieldwork in the sex industry, together with possible ways (i.e. guidelines)
to manage these risks. General ethical guidelines such as the principles of ‘do no
harm’, informed consent, confidentiality (see also: Decorte and Zaitch 2010; May
2011) and the researcher’s role and responsibility are discussed while considering
the ambivalence in their practical applicability during research on the sex industry.
The general guidelines do not offer exhaustive answers to the challenges faced by
researchers in the field of sex trafficking. They can advise a researcher, but, in the
end, he or she has to decide which approach is best suited to the specific circum-
stances. A researcher needs this freedom in order to acquire a level of understanding
of people’s experiences in a relatively hidden realm such as the sex industry that
goes beyond the ‘falsehoods and deceptions to front out others, such as researchers,
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 57

and sometimes even themselves’ (Douglas 1976, p. 9). This is not to say that any-
thing goes. My argument is that considering general guidelines will allow research-
ers to go into the field well prepared and can help prevent them from jeopardising
the safety of both their informants and themselves, but forcing the guidelines on
researchers is no guarantee to success and will only limit ethnographic research

Do No Harm

The central principle in social research is to do no harm (Decorte and Zaitch 2010).
As Bryman (2004, p. 509) outlines in his book on social research methods, harm
can refer to ‘physical harm; harm to respondent’s development; loss of self-esteem;
stress; and inducing subjects to perform reprehensible acts’. In the framework of
research on the sex industry, this could, for instance, mean that women encoun-
ter stress as a result of the topics discussed or verbal or physical violence by the
owner of the premises where they are working because he feels threatened by their
participation in the research. Zimmerman and Watts (2003, pp. 5–12) recommend
not conducting an interview with a woman if it might cause any of these forms of
harm. Such a decision asks for the assessment of possible risks in making the initial
contact, establishing the time and place of meetings and, eventually, winding down
the relationship. During my fieldwork in Kosovo, I tried to assess and mitigate the
risks in contacting and speaking with women involved in prostitution in four ways.
First of all, I made assessments of possible harms through gatekeepers: the or-
ganisation or person that arranged access to the bar, motel, house or street where the
women were working. In the beginning of my fieldwork in Kosovo, I established
contacts in premises where prostitution was taking place by joining an outreach or-
ganisation involved in distributing condoms and information about sexually trans-
mitted infections. Some of the women with whom I established good relationships
subsequently took me to other premises where they introduced me to friends or
acquaintances who were also involved in prostitution. Through preparatory con-
versations with the respective gatekeepers, I always made an effort to understand
as much as possible about the particular social power dynamics in the bar or motel
before entering. It was, for instance, relevant to know which woman was in a re-
lationship with the owner of the premises and more or less functioned as his eyes
and ears as I noticed that women felt less free to talk about working conditions in
the presence of the owner’s girlfriend. Likely, they were afraid that the girlfriend
would inform the bar owner about possible negative remarks that could hamper
their working relationship. Such details were relevant to know in order to avoid
conversations that could be experienced as unpleasant by respondents.
The second way in which I assessed the situation of women involved in prostitu-
tion in specific premises was through conversations about a certain working place
with other women involved in prostitution. The women usually hear many things
through the grapevine. Gossip between the women or between women and barkeep-
58 R. de Wildt

ers or clients can provide useful information about the working conditions in certain
bars, the attitudes of certain pimps and so on.
But thirdly, and most importantly, in order to assess discomfort or risks, I explic-
itly asked the women about possible concerns during our conversations. Examples
of questions in this regard are: ‘Do you have any concerns about speaking with
me?’ and ‘Do you feel this is a good time and place to discuss your experiences? If
not, is there a better time and place?’ (Zimmerman and Watts 2003, pp. 5–12). The
answers to these questions could convey worries that were not immediately evident
to me. This assessment of the right time and place to talk with the women in order to
avoid harm becomes easier when you get to know the women better. Once contact
was established, I usually called them first before visiting their place of work. This
provided them with an opportunity to tell me that it was not a good time because
they were too busy to speak, because there had been a police raid and the situation
was a bit tense or because a jealous boyfriend needed all their attention.
Lastly, in order to avoid distress during interviews or informal conversations, I
generally try not to ask questions that might provoke an emotionally charged re-
sponse (e.g. about children the women have not seen in a long time) or judgemental
questions (e.g. ‘what will your family think of you now?’; Zimmerman and Watts
2003, pp. 23–25). Sometimes, I do not ask any questions at all; instead, I listen to
what the women decide to share or not share (Brennan 2005, p. 45). The women are
then in charge of the pace and direction of the conversation (Zimmerman and Watts
2003, pp. 23–25). At the same time, it allows me to get a feeling for the women’s
situation. After asking them how they are, the women generally start talking about
what is on their mind, ranging from fights with other women working in the bar to
experiences with certain customers or their relations with family members. Meet-
ing women like this over an extended period of time provided me with rich insights
into their daily concerns. The importance of this approach is also acknowledged
by Polsky (1967, pp. 128–129), who recommends researchers: ‘initially, keep your
eyes and ears open but keep your mouth shut’. This is especially valuable when
the interview takes place within earshot of, for instance, boyfriends or bar owners.
Their presence will influence the information a woman may be willing to share.
According to Cwikel and Hoban (2005, p. 312), it is advisable in such situations to
‘record the woman’s statement without intervening’.
In my experience, possible harm can be limited by making sure that the first visit
to a new research premises is made in the company of a trusted gatekeeper (e.g. a
representative of an outreach organisation, a woman currently working there or a
friend of a woman working there). It is also advisable to confirm follow-up meet-
ings by phone a few minutes before arrival, to ask the women if the agreed-on time
and place are still convenient when meeting them and to more or less follow their
stories as well as one’s own intuition. Still, there are no guarantees that no harm will
be done. Researchers and respondents cannot always anticipate the consequences of
participating in research interviews. For instance, an Albanian woman enthusiasti-
cally invited me to visit her in the bar where she was working as a prostitute, but
when I arrived, her female boss scolded her for bringing in an outsider. On another
occasion, a Kosovar bar owner threatened to use violence against me and the two
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 59

Roma women working for him if we did not pay him for the time we spent together.
The precautionary measures I took made it somewhat easier to decide whether or
not a conversation should proceed, but I could not always anticipate the outcome
of such a decision.

Informed Consent

Similar to ‘do no harm’, informed consent is a fundamental principle in any social

research project. It implies that the respondents in a study should be given all the
information needed to make an informed decision about their participation. This
ranges from ensuring that the respondent is fully aware that he or she is participat-
ing in a research project to providing insight into the actual research process and
its possible implications (Bryman 2004, pp. 511–513; Noaks and Wincup 2004,
pp. 45–47; May 2011, p. 62). This entailed, for instance, that my respondents and I
discussed how I could use their stories and experiences in future books or publica-
tions about their lives without compromising their anonymity.
The institutional research boards in some countries recommend asking respon-
dents to first sign a form in order to prove that informed consent has been gained
(Decorte and Zaitch 2010, p. 540). In practice, it can be challenging to obtain fully
informed consent or signed consent forms. This is especially true for respondents
working in the sex industry (Zimmerman and Watts 2003, pp. 19–20). These wom-
en are often reluctant to sign documents with their real names (which they do not
always reveal) and may feel obliged to do so if the contact is established through
the social workers assigned to their case. Not all of them are aware of the fact that
declining to participate will not affect the assistance they are receiving (Cwikel and
Hoban 2005, p. 311; Brunovskis and Surtees 2010, p. 18).
Moreover, asking respondents to sign documents in premises where prostitution
is taking place can have negative effects. On the rare occasions that I wrote some-
thing in my notebook in a bar, I immediately aroused the suspicion of bystanders,
such as clients who were not aware of or involved in the research. They would look
at me askance or question me about my intentions, which resulted in an unpleasant
atmosphere. Waving around official forms and asking respondents to sign them
would have likely made matters worse (and me an unwelcome guest). Institutional
research boards’ possible demand for signed informed consent forms can obstruct
research or make it impossible to conduct fieldwork at all (see also: Adler and Adler
1998: xiv).
Furthermore, written consent forms do not benefit respondents but primarily
protect researchers and the institutions they work for. If participation in a research
project somehow harms a respondent, even though the agreements on the consent
form (e.g. anonymity) were never violated, researchers and institutions can hide
behind the consent forms signed by their respondents. The above-mentioned Alba-
nian woman who invited me to her place of work and was reprimanded by her boss
would have had no problem with signing a consent form if had I insisted upon her
60 R. de Wildt

doing so. If the bar owner had used violence against her, a consent form would have
proved that she had consented to me visiting her and thereby shift the responsibility
for further negative consequences. Written consent forms would have protected me
rather than my respondents.
With regard to obtaining informed consent from women involved in the sex in-
dustry, I therefore agree with Cwikel and Hoban (2005, p. 311), who allow for
verbal instead of written informed consent. Respondents have a right to be informed
about their participation in a research project, but this can also be discussed verbal-
ly. A written confirmation of consent does not benefit respondents but only protects
researchers and the institutions they work for.

Anonymity and Confidentiality

I usually start my interviews by explaining the precautionary measures I take to

guarantee anonymity and confidentiality. The respondents’ personal information
and the contents of the interviews will not be shared with others, and personal details
will be altered in publications (Noaks and Wincup 2004, pp. 48–49). Respondents
have to be able to count on this guarantee on their privacy, and any publications in
which a respondent can be identified (as happened in the example mentioned above)
must be avoided at all costs.
In my experience, the trust of informants that the researcher will respect their an-
onymity and confidentiality grows over time. First interviews often provide rather
‘standard’ descriptions of the situation of women involved in prostitution. I found
that many women, bar owners and other respondents only opened up to me after
seeing me around for weeks or months without any change in their situation (such
as more frequent police raids). The detailed and more nuanced stories that gave me
a deeper understanding of the sex industry were often only revealed gradually over
In research on criminal offenses such as trafficking and (in some countries) pros-
titution, researchers sometimes find themselves pressured by authorities or law en-
forcement agencies to disclose information about specific informants (Sluka 1995;
Tunnell 1998; Ferrell and Hamm 1998; Polsky 1967). This makes it all the more
important to think critically about the exact meaning of assuring anonymity and
confidentiality. As noted by Polsky (1967, pp. 139–140):
If one is effectively to study adult criminals in their natural settings, he [the researcher
RdW] must make the moral decision that in some ways he will break the law himself. He
need not be a ‘participant’ observer and commit the criminal acts under study, yet he has to
witness such acts or be taken into confidence about them and not blow the whistle. That is,
the investigator has to decide that when necessary he will ‘obstruct justice’ or have ‘guilty
knowledge’ or be an ‘accessory’ before or after the fact, in the full legal sense of those

Polsky (1967, p. 142) finds it acceptable for a social scientist to withhold ‘guilty
knowledge’ since the obligation of ordinary citizens to champion for the outcomes
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 61

of justice is inappropriate and even ‘highly inimical’ to social scientists in the field
of crime. This view is shared by Adler (1993, p. 24), who feels it would have been
impossible to conduct her study on upper-level drug dealers without having guilty
knowledge, making guilty observations and being involved in (minor) guilty ac-
tions. However, as shown by the case of the then doctoral student of sociology, Rik
Scarce (1994), adherence to this principle can have serious consequences. Scarce
was jailed for 5 months for refusing to disclose information on the environmental
activists he was studying at the time of his arrest.
Such an outcome should clearly be prevented, with the most important safeguard
being: open discussions about the goals and methods of ethnographic research with
law enforcement agencies. This is not to admit that the goals of my ethnographic
studies are tuned to the goals of law enforcement, but to say that the aims of ethno-
graphic research on the sex industry and the aims of law enforcement in the field
of human trafficking and prostitution are distinct but can be mutually beneficial as
long as the one does not interfere with the work of the other.
In general, data from law enforcers and ethnographic researchers are different
in the sense that judicial bodies collect intelligence and, mostly, already know the
names of premises where trafficking and prostitution are taking place as well as the
names of the people involved. Judicial bodies, therefore, rarely depend on infor-
mation from ethnographic researchers who, on the other hand, gather information
about the lived experiences of people involved in these scenes (Inciardi et al. 1993,
p. 150). However, data from investigations conducted by law enforcers can be of
interest to researchers (e.g. transcripts of telephone taps), while insights into the
daily concerns of women involved in prostitution can be relevant for authorities. In
Kosovo, the acknowledgement of each other’s aims and working methods allowed
for regular meetings with police, special prosecutors and policy makers. As a result,
I was asked to join prosecutors during hearings of defendants in trafficking cases
and to participate in inter-ministerial working group meetings on anti-trafficking,
during which I laid out various problems faced by women involved in the sex indus-
try, such as limited access to medical assistance.
I, therefore, highly value the protection of openness, but I have also experienced
that it takes time to establish mutual respect and confidentiality. And even when
these have been established, there is always a fine line to walk. Unlike lawyers,
social scientists are not bound by professional confidentiality to protect them from
being called as witnesses. The exact meaning of guaranteeing anonymity and confi-
dentiality should therefore be well-considered.
In keeping with full disclosure, I also told my respondents involved in the sex
industry about my relationship with law enforcement agencies. Bar owners, pimps
and the women involved in my research in Kosovo all knew that I regularly met
with special prosecutors and police officers. They trusted me not to disclose any
personal details to the authorities. This openness about the range of my connec-
tions proved valuable when, one day, I was in the passenger seat of a car of the
special prosecution office, which was clearly recognisable as such. I had joined the
prosecutor to attend a hearing in a human trafficking case, but we got lost on our
way to the courthouse. The driver pulled over to ask a passer-by for directions and I
62 R. de Wildt

happened to recognise the bartender of one of the premises I used to frequent in the
context of my research. He pointed us in the right direction and when I next visited
his bar, we both had a good laugh about it. Without complete openness about my
various working methods, including my contacts with the police, this event could
have had serious consequences for me as well as my research project.
This encounter should, of course, also not have happened during my first weeks
in the field, as my confidential relationships with the bar owners only grew over
time. During my first visits, the owners often tried to gloss over their involvement
in the facilitation of prostitution. They presented the women as waitresses and tried
to steer the conversations away from prostitution. My presence was, however, ac-
cepted. The bar owners must have had various reasons; most probably, they did not
want to arouse suspicion by refusing me entrance or were curious about what I was
doing. Last but not least, people like to talk about themselves, and that includes the
facilitators of prostitution. The bar owners seemed to enjoy explaining to me how
they ended up in the prostitution business and shared anecdotes about the journeys
of the women who came to work for them from abroad, about violent clients and
about their relationship with other bar owners. Some were interested in comparing
their experiences in prostitution with the situation in The Netherlands. After some
months and many more encounters, prostitution could be discussed more openly
with some, but not all, bar owners, and only after trust and confidentiality had been
Two more safeguards in regard to confidentiality and anonymity are worth men-
tioning. Firstly, I prefer not to know the exact identity of my informants. I never
asked the women for their full or real names. Occasionally, a woman would try to
show me her papers (for instance, after a conversation on working permits or border
crossings), but I always told them not to do so. I generally addressed the women by
the pseudonyms they used in the bars or just by their first names. This slightly lim-
ited my guilty knowledge. While this is my general starting point, the relationship
with some respondents resulted in friendship, Skype conversations when we were
far away and family visits when close by. In these cases, I was obviously aware of
their names and other personal details.
Secondly, I did not tape my interviews. When the women tell their stories, they
can often be identified by certain details, even if all the names are omitted. It is pos-
sible to remove personal details from interview transcripts, but this cannot be done
with a tape, unless all of it is erased. Not taping interviews and conversations has
an additional advantage. By putting a tape recorder on the table, an ‘anything but
ordinary life situation’ (Polsky 1967, pp. 138–139) is constructed. People might be
more reluctant to speak on tape about personal and possibly shameful or deviant as-
pects of their life (see also: Cwikel and Hoban 2005, p. 311). Moreover, taping con-
versations in premises where prostitution is taking place can make bystanders (e.g.
clients not involved in the research and/or not fully informed about it) suspicious,
which may lead to an unpleasant atmosphere. I, therefore, opted to write down the
data from interviews both during—by jotting down notes and quotes—and imme-
diately after the interview and made sure my notes did not contain any names, con-
tact details or other personal information (Decorte and Zaitch 2010, p. 545). This
method has the disadvantage that some quotes will get lost forever.
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 63

The Role and Responsibility of the Researcher

When informed consent and agreement on anonymity and confidentiality have been
established, the actual research commences. In my experience, most women en-
joyed talking to an interested and non-judgemental researcher. The women involved
in the sex industry in Kosovo often find themselves in a socially isolated position
because prostitution is not accepted by (or hidden from) their family. Generally
speaking, their situation does not allow them to develop relationships outside the
business. The women mostly interact with their clients and other people working
in the bar, and many of them welcome a conversation with an outsider as a break
from their conversations with clients, which are often experienced as tedious or
Although I regularly developed relationships with respondents that resembled
friendship, researchers are never ‘ordinary’ friends. Regular conversations about the
aim of our meetings and the purpose of my work (to write a book about their experi-
ences) helped to clarify the nature of our relationship. In practice, this did not mean
that I would always ask my respondents whether or not they realised that I was still
working on my research during every single follow-up conversation. In order to
collect relevant data, I also wanted to observe the unfolding of events in prostitu-
tion premises without making those involved too self-conscious as a result of the
presence of a researcher. Nevertheless, I used to regularly remind my respondents
of the fact that I was there for research purposes, both by mentioning the book that
I was going to write based on our informal and more structured conversations and
by bringing up the fact that I would be leaving at some point.
Having established the role of a researcher means that one is in the field to try
to gain an understanding of the experiences of the people involved. Zimmerman
and Watts (2003, pp. 24–25), however, consider it an ethical and moral obligation
of researchers to also offer help when a respondent asks for immediate assistance.
Polsky (1967, pp. 117, 143) is critical of such ‘action-oriented research’ and con-
siders it ‘a sentimental refusal to admit that the goals of sociological research and
the goals of social work are always distinct and often in conflict’. He continues by
stating that ‘the criminologist who refuses fully to recognise this conflict and to re-
solve it in favour of sociology erects a major barrier to the extraction of knowledge
about such crime […].’ But is it accurate to speak of ‘the extraction of knowledge’?
The ‘militant’ anthropologist Scheper-Hughes (1992, p. 25) sees knowledge de-
rived from social research ‘as something produced in human interaction, not merely
“extracted” from naïve informants’. The dialogic nature of knowledge made me
feel emotionally engaged with my respondents (see also: Fleetwood 2009; Fleisher
1998, p. 62; Tunnell 1998, pp. 211–212). Taking part in the daily lives of women in-
volved in prostitution enabled me not only to see their strength and appreciate their
inside jokes but also to witness their struggle to earn enough money for firewood,
rent and school fees for their children as well as their ability to endure beatings and
other physical hardships. I often felt like giving these women something in return
for sharing the details of their lives with me. Since ethnographic fieldwork is, above
all, a relational endeavour, I see no objection to making occasional helpful gestures
64 R. de Wildt

towards respondents, provided this is done in a carefully considered manner. In the

following, I will discuss three ways in which I made such a gesture.
Firstly, researchers can be a source of information, especially for women with lit-
tle contacts outside the sex industry. Zimmerman and Watts (2003, pp. 12–13) rec-
ommend that researchers prepare discrete, written referrals to a range of services,
such as shelters, legal aid and free health services. I agree with the value of referrals
to free health services if accompanied by a non-judgmental attitude towards women
involved in prostitution. However, I am more cautious when it comes to providing
women with written information about other resources. When bar owners, pimps
or other profiteers find out that the women working for them are in possession of
information about shelters and similar institutions, this could seriously endanger the
safety of the women as well as jeopardise the future of the research project.
Profiteers stand to lose income when a woman leaves and are likely to feel threat-
ened by information about legal procedures or shelters. This can result in violence
or other repercussions towards the woman involved. When it becomes apparent
that the information was provided by a researcher, this might compromise access to
the field and also jeopardise the safety of the researcher (Cwikel and Hoban 2005,
p. 312). More importantly, if the researcher gained access to the field through a
local organisation (e.g. an outreach health organisation), an intervention can harm
their day-to-day work with women involved in prostitution, thereby worsening the
situation for many.
This is not to say that referral information to relevant services should never be
provided. I have given information on shelters as well as legal aid services verbally.
Similar problems are not expected with information on free health services. Bar
owners and pimps often find health services relatively harmless. They might even
see the benefit of it since healthy women usually bring in more money (Cwikel and
Hoban 2005, p. 311).
Secondly, I provided my respondents with practical assistance in, for example,
their dealings with institutions. On several occasions, women told me that institu-
tions have a judgemental attitude towards them if staff knows they are involved
in the sex industry. My respondent Lumnije, for instance, regularly mentioned the
pension she was entitled to receive after her husband died in combat during the war
in Kosovo. In order to arrange for the pension to be paid into her account, Lumnije
needed to speak with the relevant department in Prishtina. Her visits to the depart-
ment were always stressful. One official called her a fallen woman and sent her
away empty-handed. When Lumnije and I went to the department together, she
was treated with courtesy since the workers were unsure about the position of the
international woman at her side.6 Likewise, I made some telephone calls to institu-
tions for Ukrainian Oksana to help arrange her departure from Kosovo.7 When the
women encounter discrimination or difficulties with institutions, researchers are in
a sound position to assist.

Meeting with Lumnije on 15 November 2013.
Meetings with Oksana on 6 and 8 January 2014.
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 65

Practical assistance can also come in the form of money. As a rule, I do not pay
respondents for interviews. People will only disclose information about their lives if
they feel like it, irrespective of monetary compensation. In my opinion, giving cash
will only stimulate those people to cooperate who are unwilling to talk and are only
interested in the money. If they are not willing to talk in the first place, respondents
will not disclose information after receiving money either. I, therefore, doubt the
value of data received as a result of the compensation provided.
This is not to say that I never provided remuneration for participation. I always
tried to pay for drinks, lunches or dinner. ‘Tried’ since male bar owners and respon-
dents with whom I had established a good relationship preferred to occasionally
invite me for food or drinks as well. Furthermore, I sometimes helped long-time
respondents in an economic crisis. This was the case with Shqipe, whom I had
been meeting approximately once a week for over 6 months, when one evening she
seemed particularly distressed. Tears were streaming down her face as she ordered
drinks for everyone and said: “I have seven euros. It’s on me. I want to spend all my
seven euros”.8 After we sat down, Shqipe told me that she was about to be evicted
from her apartment because she was unable to pay the rent as a result of losing her
job in the bar. Although she was reluctant at first, she finally allowed me to give her
money for the rent. In a similar financial emergency, I was able to provide a long-
term respondent with money for a medical procedure.
Thirdly, sometimes all I could do (and was expected to do) was to show empathy
in times of distress. Valbona needed a shoulder to lean on after she had been beaten
up by a client.9 Oksana just wanted to ‘hang out’ with someone in order not to be
alone, while she was waiting for her flight to return to Ukraine and be united with
her family after 2 years.10
These experiences touch directly on the role and responsibilities of the research-
er, which go beyond data extraction: They are also elements of a relational en-
deavour in which researchers sometimes find themselves in a position to provide
respondents with information, practical assistance and care.

To the Rescue

Researchers studying the sex industry may find themselves confronted with women
in apparently exploitative situations and feel that providing basic information or
assistance is not enough. However, possible ‘rescue operations’ require careful con-
sideration. Not only because of safety concerns for both respondent and researcher
but also because a woman may not share an outsider’s assessment of her situation.
It can be difficult to understand prostitution (which often involves limited freedom
of movement) as a career path that some women opt for in pursuit of the opportuni-

Meeting with Shqipe on 1 October 2013.
Meeting with Valbona on 25 September 2013.
Meetings with Oksana between 3 and 9 January 2014.
66 R. de Wildt

ties to travel abroad and earn money (see also: Siegel 2012, p. 263). Zimmerman
and Watts (2003, p. 21) therefore emphasise respecting a woman’s assessment of
her own situation and risks to her safety, while Brunovskis and Surtees (2010, p. 12)
underline that a researcher should not intervene without thorough consultation with
the respective person.
However, in some situations, women like Rea (who was introduced at the begin-
ning of this chapter) explicitly ask for help. From an ethical stance as well as based
on my personal feelings of commitment to the women who participated in my re-
search, I agree with Zimmerman and Watts (2003, p. 25) that the researcher ‘should
make every attempt to assist the respondent to access the appropriate resource’.
However, I am hesitant about embarking on interventions. An intervention, how-
ever well-intentioned, may jeopardise the research and, more importantly, worsen
the situation of the women. This is likely what happened to Rea, who asked me for
help because she was afraid that involving the police would result in the arrest of
her father. After much deliberation, I decided to help her. According to Rea, the bar
owner was the only person who could stop her from leaving because she owed him
money. The gatekeeper, who had initially introduced me to the bar, and I discussed
Rea’s planned departure with the bar owner. He agreed to her leaving if she first
paid her debts and I arranged for a shelter. However, on the night of her departure,
an uncle of Rea’s showed up at the bar. He prevented her from leaving by emotion-
ally blackmailing her through continued remarks such as ‘don’t you want to be a
good daughter to your family and help them by earning money?’, ‘This is your kind
of life. Don’t be naïve. You don’t even have an education’ and ‘Why would you trust
these people? You barely know them’. He also made sure that we noticed the gun in
his pocket. In the end, Rea stayed in the bar.11 The lesson I learned was: Do not think
you know better how to conduct yourself in the prostitution business than the people
involved. The bar owner had probably warned Rea’s family about her plans, thereby
ensuring that she would stay, without losing face towards the gatekeeper and me.
With hindsight, I believe it would have been better if I had assisted Rea in ap-
proaching professional organisations experienced in intervening and discussed the
possible role of the police with her.


Highly symbolic and stereotypical images of victims of trafficking and ‘voluntary’

sex workers are often at the core of debates about the sex industry, even though
empirical studies have shown that such images rarely correspond with lived ex-
periences. There is a definite need for ethnographic research among those directly
involved in the sex industry, and the findings of such research need to be presented
to and discussed by policy makers and NGOs working in the field.

Events on the evening of 8 December 2011.
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 67

Ethnographic research on the sex industry raises various ethical and safety di-
lemmas for both researcher and researched. These dilemmas have been discussed
above with the aim of contributing to the discussion on issues concerning both
researchers and the people involved in their studies. It is the responsibility of re-
searchers to continuously define and redefine the possible consequences of their ac-
tions and deal with dilemmas in a carefully considered way. Guiding principles such
as ‘do no harm’, informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality and clarity about the
role and responsibility of researchers can advise researchers on how to deal with
certain situations. However, as demonstrated by the examples from my fieldwork
in Kosovo, strict adherence to such general guidelines is no guarantee to success,
and imposing these guidelines on researchers—as institutional review boards tend
to—is bound to limit the reach of much-needed ethnographic research. In the end,
it is up the researcher to decide which approach is best suited to the circumstances,
but it should also be remembered that research projects and the outcomes of a re-
searcher’s actions can never be totally managed.


Adler, P. A. (1993). Wheeling and dealing: An ethnography of an upper-level drug dealing and
smuggling community. New York: Columbia University Press.
Adler, P. A., & Adler, P. (1998). Foreword: Moving backward. In J. Ferrell & M. Hamm (Eds.),
Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research (pp. xii–xvi). Boston: Northeast-
ern University Press.
Andrijasevic, R. (2007). Problematizing trafficking for the sex sector: A case of Eastern European
Women in the EU. In S. Walsung van & T. Spijkerboer (Eds.), Women and immigration law:
New variations on classical feminist themes (pp. 86–103). UK: Glasshouse Press.
Barsky, R. F. (1994). Constructing a productive other: Discourse theory and the convention refu-
gee hearing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Brennan, D. (2005). Methodological challenges in research with trafficked persons: Tales from the
field. International Migration, 43(1–2), 35–54.
Brunovskis, A., & Surtees, R. (2010). Untold stories: Biases and selection effects in research with
victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. International Migration, 48(4), 1–37.
Bryman, A. (2004). Social research methods (2nd edn.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cwikel, J., & Hoban, E. (2005). Contentious issues in research on trafficked women working in
the sex industry: Study design, ethics, and methodology. The Journal of Sex Research, 42(4),
Decorte, T., & Zaitch, D. (2010). Kwalitatieve methoden en technieken in de criminologie (Tweede
her.). Leuven: Acco.
Dewalt, K. M., & Dewalt, B. R. (2002). Participant observation. A guide for fieldworkers. Walnut
Creek: Altamira.
Douglas, J. D. (1976). Investigative social research: Individual and team field research. Beverly
Hills: Sage publications.
Ferrell, J., & Hamm, M. S. (Eds.). (1998). Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field
research. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Fleetwood, J. (2009). Emotional work: Ethnographic fieldwork in prisons in Ecuador. E-sharp,
14, 28–50.
68 R. de Wildt

Fleisher, M. (1998). Ethnographers, pimps, and the company store. In J. Ferrell & M. Hamm
(Eds.), Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research (pp. 44–64). Boston:
Northeastern University Press.
Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Ghorashi, H. (2003). Ways to survive, battles to win: Iranian women exiles in the Netherlands and
the United States. New York: Nova Science Publishers.
Hamm, M., & Ferrell, J. (1998). Confessions of danger and humanity. In J. Ferrell & M. Hamm
(Eds.), Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research (pp. 254–272). Boston:
Northeastern University Press.
Inciardi, J., Lockwood, D., & Pottieger, A. (1993). Women and crack-cocaine. New York: Macmil-
lan Publishing Company.
Jacobs, B. (1998). Researching crack dealers: Dilemmas and contradictions. In J. Ferrell & M.
Hamm (Eds.), Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research (pp. 160–177).
Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Kelly, L. (2003). The Wrong debate: Reflections on why force is not the key issue with respect to
trafficking in women for sexual exploitation. Feminist Review, 73, 139–144.
Leman, J., & Janssens, S. (2008). The Albanian and post-soviet business of trafficking women
for prostitution: Structural developments and financial modus operandi. European Journal of
Criminology, 5(4), 433–451.
May, T. (2011). Social research: Issues, methods and process (4th edn.). Maidenhead: Open Uni-
versity Press.
Noaks, L., & Wincup, E. (2004). Criminological research: Understanding qualitative methods
(p. 196). London: Sage.
Nordstrom, C., & Robben, A. C. G. M. (Eds.). (1995). Fieldwork under fire: Contemporary studies
of violence and survival. Berkeley: University of California Press.
O’Connell Davidson, J. (1998). Prostitution, power and freedom. Ann Arbor: University of Michi-
gan Press.
Polsky, N. (1967). Hustlers, beats, and others (p. 218). New Brunswick: Aldine Publishing Com-
Scarce, R. (1994). (No) Trial (But) tribulations: When courts and ethnography conflict. Journal of
Contemporary Ethnography, 23(2), 123–149.
Scheper-Hughes, N. (1992). Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Siegel, D. (2012). Mobility of sex workers in European cities. European Journal on Criminal
Policy and Research, 18(3), 255–268.
Sluka, J. (1995). Reflections on managing danger in fieldwork: Dangerous anthropology in Bel-
fast. In C. Nordstrom & A. Robben (Eds.), Fieldwork under fire: Contemporary studies of
violence and survival (pp. 276–294). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tunnell, K. (1998). Honesty, secrecy, and deception in the sociology of crime: Confessions and re-
flections from the backstage. In J. Ferrell & M. Hamm (Eds.), Ethnography at the edge: Crime,
deviance, and field research (pp. 206–220). Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Tyldum, G. (2010). Limitations in research on human trafficking*. International Migration, 48(5),
Tyldum, G., & Brunovskis, A. (2005). Describing the unobserved: Methodological challenges in
empirical studies on human trafficking. International Migration, 43(1–2), 17–34.
Wildt de, R. (2009). Tasten in het duister: Roemeense straatprostituees in Rome. In Y. van der Pijl,
D. Raven, L. Brouwer, & B. Oude Breuil (Eds.), Antropologische Vergezichten: Mondialiser-
ing, Migratie en Multiculturaliteit (pp. 207–224). Amsterdam: Aksant.
Zimmerman, C., & Watts, C. (2003). WHO. Ethical and safety recommendations for interviewing
trafficked women (p. 29).
4  Ethnographic Research on the Sex Industry 69

Roos de Wildt  is conducting her PhD research in cultural and global criminology at Utrecht Uni-
versity, The Netherlands and the University of Hamburg, Germany. She is studying prostitution
and human trafficking for sexual purposes in Kosovo. The aim of this project is to explore how war
and a transition process shape these phenomena. She conducted further ethnographic fieldwork on
the trafficking of Romanian women to Italy after Romania had entered the European Union, the
future perspectives of youth in post-conflict Guatemala, prostitution in the Dutch municipality of
Almere, child trafficking in The Netherlands and the closing of designated prostitution areas in
Utrecht, The Netherlands. After obtaining her Master of Science in Cultural Anthropology, Roos
worked as an international project manager at nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) between
2007 and 2011, during which she was mainly responsible for the implementation of projects in
central and eastern Europe.
Chapter 5
Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work: A Triple Taboo

Dina Siegel


On a cold and rainy day in May 2014, my research assistant Tamar and I knocked on
the window of Belinda, a 39-year-old Hungarian sex worker in the red-light district
of a small provincial town in the Netherlands. The district consisted of two narrow
streets with prostitution windows on each side. It was early afternoon and most
of the windows were still covered by heavy maroon curtains, but some women in
sexy lingerie were already sitting on their high stools, cigarette in hand, or leaning
against the wall looking out. Belinda let us in, poured us coffee and told us to make
ourselves comfortable. Tamar sat down on the only chair in the room, while I po-
sitioned myself on Belinda’s work stool behind the window. Belinda lit a cigarette
and snuggled down on the bed, which was covered with a pink plaid decorated with
hearts and flowers. Outside, two older men stopped to look at us. Three women in
one window, now that was something new! In the window opposite Belinda’s place
of work, we noticed a young girl in a red bikini. We exchanged smiles. ‘That girl
is ok’, said Belinda, ‘We always greet each other. She is from the Dominican Re-
public. Her clients are not my clients’. ‘Are there any other Hungarian girls here?’
I asked. ‘Oh yes, lots of them. Some are ok, but we don’t talk much. But over there
(pointing to the end of the street), there are gypsies, lots of gypsies, my god’. ‘They
are from Hungary as well, but when I see women like that in Hungary, I cross over
to the other side of the street. I wouldn’t want to meet them…. My god, girls like
that working here’. ‘I don’t have any contact with these gypsies, no, you don’t want
that. You will only get problems, 100 %. That one there sleeps with her pimp in the
same room. They say it’s been like that for 5 years now. He lives there, in her room!
At the Zandpad in Utrecht, boyfriends were forbidden to even drive their girls to
work, but here he is, living in her room. And these gypsies always quarrel, they are

D. Siegel ()
Willem Pompe Institute, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 71
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_5
72 D. Siegel

the only troublemakers here…and, also, she gets paid less’ (interview with Belinda,
1 May 2014).
This conversation took place during research we conducted in 2013–2014, after
the Utrecht municipality had shut down the prostitution boats at the Zandpad in
April 2013 because of concerns about human trafficking. Our research was aimed
at finding out what had happened to the hundreds of sex workers from the Zand-
pad who had been forced to leave their place of work. We located and interviewed
14 women who had found work in the sex industry in other Dutch cities. We also
interviewed their clients and spoke to police officials, local authorities and aid or-
ganizations. We met the women at their new place of work or at their homes, where
we asked them to share their stories and tell us about their problems and worries.
Belinda talked openly about the other sex workers in the area, including the
Roma girls. She was outspoken and not at all concerned about issues of ‘stigmatiza-
tion’ or racial prejudice. However, it was now my task to ‘translate’ emic into etic
and to decide how to present and interpret her words. Belinda was expressing her
feelings and opinions about her Roma neighbours, her direct competitors who were
undercutting her prices, which caused her to lose income. She mentioned the boy-
friend of the Roma sex worker, perhaps her pimp, as someone whose presence could
give rise to suspicions of ‘non-voluntary prostitution’ in the area. If so, this would
only strengthen the idea that human trafficking and prostitution are synonymous
and that all women who work as prostitutes are doing so because they are being
coerced and exploited by criminals. As had happened in the case of the Zandpad
in Utrecht, such suspicions might have serious consequences for Belinda, who had
already been forced once before to leave her place of work and move to a much less
favourable environment in another city. If the local authorities found evidence of
exploitation in this district as well, anything could happen, including the shutting
down of all prostitution windows in the area.
In other words, I had to ask myself whether or not to include the information
that Belinda so openly and honestly shared with me, given the risk of ‘stigmatiza-
tion’ or ‘discrimination’ against a specific ethnic group. On the other hand, it was
precisely this type of information that could be relevant to an analysis of the rela-
tionships between different groups of sex workers. Should I refer to the competition
without mentioning who Belinda’s competitors were and why they were offering
their services for less money? Should I neutralize the ethnic aspect and focus only
on the fact that they were all professional sex workers or perhaps only mention that
they all came from the same country? Would it be ethical for me to remain silent
on the issue, or present my findings in such a way that politicians, NGOs, media,
human rights organizations or other interest groups would be unable to manipulate
or use my data for their own purposes? Should I conform to a societal taboo and
extend it to my own research? Is it still possible to do research on social phenomena
involving ethnic or other minorities? Do such ethical considerations carry enough
weight to stand in the way of ethnographic research on sex work among particular
ethnic groups? And finally, does scientific responsibility require adherence to social
5  Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work: A Triple Taboo 73

These and similar ethical dilemmas have always bothered researchers studying
‘taboo topics’ (Farberow 1963). ‘Ethical standards are exacting. To violate them
brings discredit on the whole profession’ (Allport 1966, p. ix). Allport also noted
that scholars sometimes have difficulty dealing with sly innuendo such as ‘why are
you interested in this particular subject?’ ‘It takes courage and a tough hide to per-
sist’ (ibid.). Many taboos from the 1960s are no longer observed in 2014, but many
of the rules and much of the formal and informal control and censorship are still in
force. In the social sciences, the rules have become even stricter and more demand-
ing, particularly so in the field of criminological research.

Research Method: Being There

Over the last 15 years, it has happened to me more than once that people with whom
I shared my research plans involving the topics of ethnicity, crime and prostitu-
tion strongly advised me to reconsider or even abandon my project, for the simple
reason that they considered any combination of these issues too dangerous or too
sensitive and therefore likely to result in negative repercussions. I was of course
conscious of the fact that studying ethnic minorities involved in human traffick-
ing and prostitution in a context other than victimology or public policy was likely
to meet with opposition—not on scientific grounds, but rather because ‘problems
emerge when research by others is declared anathema on the basis of individual
prejudices’ (Soeteman and van den Born 2007, p. 9). I was also aware of the fact
that moral entrepreneurs, politicians and activists have their own agendas and a
tendency to manipulate and/or misinterpret research findings, and I knew that some
of my academic colleagues without any interest in the topic per se were critical of
my research methods.
My own research on migrant sex workers has always consisted of interviews,
participant observation, content analysis of media reports from relevant countries
and analysis of court files. Over the last 15 years, I have followed the latest develop-
ments in the Netherlands and Belgium as well as in several east and central Euro-
pean countries with regard to the position of sex workers, transnational criminality,
judicial and political responses to forced and voluntary prostitution and measures
taken by law enforcement agencies. I have participated in academic projects aimed
at studying human trafficking for sexual exploitation, voluntary prostitution in its
various forms (e.g. Siegel 2005, 2007; Siegel and de Blank 2010; Siegel and Yesil-
göz 2003) and topics ranging from exclusive escorts in ‘alternative medical clinics’
(Siegel and Bovenkerk 2000) and hidden prostitution in Dutch towns (Oude Breuil
and Siegel 2011) and Roma ghettos in Romania and Bulgaria (Siegel 2014) to the
evaluation of measures to combat and prevent human trafficking (Flight et al. 2012;
Siegel 2009).
Participant observation requires the investment of a considerable amount of time
and is based on building trust relationships with respondents. Its rewards consist
of rich insights into the lives, decisions, motives and emotions of the respondents.
74 D. Siegel

All in all, I have stayed in touch with over 20 sex workers for more than 15 years
and have followed their experiences over time. I have also interviewed hundreds
of active and former sex workers in the Netherlands, Belgium, Romania, Hungary,
Bulgaria and Russia. The use of ethnographic methods has allowed me to get close
to the women involved in the sex industry and give them an opportunity to tell their
stories and share their feelings. These data have provided me with many valuable
insights into their social world.
With the emergence of cultural criminology, the ‘methodology of attentiveness’
is often emphasized, which refers to an ‘ethnography immersed in culture and in-
terested in lifestyle(s), the symbolic, the aesthetic, and the visual’ (Hayward and
Young 2004, p. 268). In the words of Mike Presdee: ‘Crime is as much about emo-
tions—hatred, anger, frustration, excitement and love—as it is about poverty, pos-
sessing and wealth’ (Presdee 2000, p. 4).
The primary aim of my field studies on prostitution and human trafficking has
been to understand the motives, weaknesses, the daring and risk-taking, the feeling
of ‘getting away with it’, the excitement of living on the edge of the law and other
emotions. As an anthropologist and cultural criminologist, I cannot think of a better
way to study these issues than by ‘being there’.
Publications on the subject of sex work are traditionally based on quantitative re-
search methods. However, throughout the last decade, various criminologists have
pointed to the limitations of such methods and called for more innovative method-
ologies (Tyldum 2010; Zhang 2009; Brunovskis and Surtees 2010; van der Pijl et al.
2011). In order to study crime, sex work and ethnic minorities, both quantitative and
qualitative research methods can be useful, although both may raise ethical ques-
tions. My preference for participant observation and in-depth interviews inside the
community of sex workers and the possibly dangerous world of pimps and traffick-
ers is by no means unique. Participant observation as a method has steadily become
more popular, although it is still not used as often as it should in criminological
research. Nevertheless, a significant number of important and fruitful field studies
have been published on sensitive issues such as child prostitution, gambling and the
trafficking in drugs or human organs.
Studying the link between ethnicity and crime is bound to lead to new challenges
and dilemmas. There is an ongoing discussion among criminologists and anthro-
pologists about the best methods to study communities where the safety of both the
researcher and the respondents could be at stake. There is no denying that the meth-
od of participant observation has its advantages as well as its obvious limitations
(Siegel 2004). Criminologists have often pointed to the personal risks involved in
certain kinds of fieldwork (Ferrell and Hamm 1998) and to the ethical issues in-
volved in gaining access, building trust and ensuring a safe exit (Chambliss 1978;
Ianni 1972, 1974; Polsky 1969; Zaitch 2002). Personally, I have always preferred
to stick to the three golden rules designed to avoid getting involved in unpleasant
situations during fieldwork: Keep a distance from your respondents (i.e. remain an
outsider), clearly explain your limits as a researcher (i.e. do not participate in crimi-
nal activities) and never spread gossip or provide information that could harm your
respondents (even if that means excluding it from your final report).
5  Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work: A Triple Taboo 75

Ethnographic research on ethnicity, crime and sex work is not only possible but
also necessary in order to challenge the stereotypes and misunderstandings sur-
rounding these topics. Ethical issues, however, could become an obstacle to this
type of research.

Ethical Issues Surrounding Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work

In anthropology, ethnicity is usually linked to social identity, but it is relevant only

in particular social contexts. Explaining every phenomenon in ethnic terms is not to
explain, but rather to construct ethnicity (Eriksen 1992). To be a Roma in Hungary
is relevant in the socio-economic and political context of the relationship between
Roma and ethnic Hungarians. In the Netherlands, where ethnicity is not recorded,
being born in Hungary is only relevant to the relationship between Dutch citizens
and Hungarians (or east and central Europeans in general). In Belinda’s case, be-
ing a non-Roma Hungarian was important enough for her to stress the differences
between her own ‘civilized’ manners and the ways of the ‘wild gypsy women’ and
to distinguish between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.
Dutch sex workers, on the other hand, were keen to point out that it was the east
European girls in general who had ruined the business because they charged less,
had sex without a condom and generally lacked manners, which gave the whole
sector a bad reputation.
The new girls are from Bulgaria, and many from Romania, and no, we don’t have any
contact with them. Actually, we don’t even want to, because they have basically ruined
the business with their low prices…. A Dutch or a German woman, or any classy foreign
woman, would never work for less than 50 euros. Some ladies, especially these foreigners,
will work without a condom and they have simply ruined everything, because we would
never do that. (Interview with Maaike and Rafaela, 1 May 2014)

This is about a more generalized negative stereotype of Bulgarian and Romanian

women as opposed to ‘proper’ western European women. The low opinion of these
women stems to a large part from the fact that they offer their services below the
price agreed upon among west European sex workers. Maaike and Rafaela insisted
that these women did not play fair and that they were ‘unreliable and ill-mannered’.
The construction of the negative image of east European sex workers becomes
clearer and more poignant when other aspects such as family relationships, criminal
networks and extreme poverty are taken into account. For example, in her thesis on
Roma sex workers, Annemiek Dul examined how the relationships within Roma
communities contribute to the vulnerability of young women who are being traf-
ficked by members of their own community (Dul 2013). Dul interviewed Roma sex
workers who told her that their pimps were their own uncles, brothers or parents
(ibid., p. 32). In the words of one respondent: ‘My father is ashamed of me now,
because I no longer earn any money. My sister is a star in Budapest and he is proud
of her. But he’s not proud of me. I mean nothing to him now’ (Dul 2013, p. 38).
Sometimes mothers act as pimps, as hinted at by another respondent: ‘My mother
76 D. Siegel

said: ‘you will have to start making money too, so tomorrow you must go with your
sister’ (ibid., p. 39).
During my research on east and central European itinerant criminal groups in the
Netherlands (Siegel 2014), the importance of family ties between Roma in west Eu-
rope was mentioned by various respondents (ibid: 107,108). However, references
to the general category of ‘east Europeans’ appear to be treated differently from
references to the more specific group of Roma sex workers. Both Dul’s and my own
findings were criticized in the Dutch media for contributing to the negative reputa-
tion of an already vulnerable and discriminated against Roma community. The criti-
cism was based on the naive idea that victims cannot also be offenders.
Furthermore, there is still a prevailing opinion, developed after World War II,
that some ethnic groups should be exempt from scrutiny by criminologists. Frank
Bovenkerk, who conducted research on criminality among Moroccan immigrants,
quoted Maarten van Traa, the chairman of the Dutch 1995 Parliamentary Fact-Find-
ing Commission on Organized Crime, as saying ‘you’re welcome to study all ethnic
groups, except for Jews and Roma’.1 Studies on these and other minority groups, es-
pecially in a criminological context, remain taboo. This is where the ethical dilem-
ma comes into focus: Researchers are forced to clarify their position, namely that
their research has no ‘hidden agenda’ designed to stigmatize, discriminate against or
blacken the reputation of the persons or groups under study. In such cases, criminol-
ogists need a great deal of tact (and time) to explain their position to those willing to
listen. The problem arises with those who are not willing and whose own agendas
do not tolerate dissenting opinions or any form of criticism. NGOs and other inter-
est groups that are dependent on existing stereotypes and the victimization of their
‘clients’, have been known to react angrily, make unfounded accusations against
academic research, ridicule researchers, demand that they abandon their research
and/or refrain from publishing, or threaten them physically.
As I know from my own fieldwork experience, a focus on ethnicity can be help-
ful in unravelling the interrelationships and dynamics inside the studied group. As
argued by Glazer and Moynihan (1963, p. 310), ethnicity is not just something that
may impact a specific event, but is rather the source of events. It allows us to bet-
ter understand the conflicts and competition between sex workers, the struggle for
power between groups of different origins and the defence of collective interests
within a shared social context. It can also be useful in understanding the varying at-
titudes of respondents towards clients, aid agencies and law enforcement. Ethnicity
is one of the many possible aspects of the social identity of sex workers, and treating
it as little more than a tool for discrimination and stigmatization will only obscure
our understanding of the studied group.
At the end of the 1990s, Russian, Ukrainian, Albanian and Moldovan girls domi-
nated the scene in many Dutch and Belgian towns. During my research on Russian
sex workers and their alleged connection to the Russian Mafia in the Netherlands,
I discovered that the term ‘Russian prostitutes’ was a misnomer: although all these
women came from the former Soviet Union and spoke Russian as their first lan-

Personal communication.
5  Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work: A Triple Taboo 77

guage, they identified as Jewish, Armenian, Tartar, Uzbek and other ethnic nation-
alities. To the Dutch public, they all seemed to belong to the general category of
‘Russian prostitutes’, but among themselves they clearly recognized and often em-
phasized differences in customs, perceptions and preferences. Thus, some Jewish
Russian-speaking prostitutes refused to cater to Muslim clients, while ethnic Rus-
sian and Ukrainian girls, on the other hand, were fascinated by ‘Arab-looking men’.
Here again, manifestations of ethnicity provided me with a deeper insight into their
social relations, emotions and motives.
In 2004–2005, these women were replaced by Polish women, who were in turn
replaced by Romanian and Bulgarian prostitutes in 2007–2008. These women faced
open hostility from the side of the local sex workers. Many of them had worked as
prostitutes in their own countries, where they earned much less money than in the
West. They regarded sex work in the Netherlands and Belgium as a successful pro-
motion, even though they charged less than the local sex workers. As one of them
told me, ‘In Bucharest, I earn 200 euros a month. In Amsterdam, I made my Roma-
nian monthly salary after ten clients in two days’ (interview with Alisa). However,
the arrival of east and central European sex workers was eating into the earnings of
west European prostitutes.
Ethnic stereotypes and the meaning my informants attributed to their own ethnic
identity allowed me to reveal a range of nuances, symbols, internal power relations
and, in some cases, illegal activities. It was precisely because of these detailed and
rich data that I was accused by ‘moral entrepreneurs’ of stigmatizing ‘ethnic minori-
ties’ and conducting ‘unscientific’ and ‘non-professional’ research.

‘Not All of Them Are Victims’: An Unethical Argument?

In 2010, Hungarian girls (mainly of Roma origin) comprised the majority of pros-
titutes in Amsterdam’s red-light district. Together with other east and central Eu-
ropean sex workers, they offered their services for lower prices and often worked
without the use of a condom. These newcomers were younger and did not speak
any foreign language (interviews with clients during the Zandpad project). This
new ‘finding’ gave some moral entrepreneurs food for thought: If these girls were
able to travel to a foreign country without speaking any foreign language, they must
have been coerced. As one police officer explained, ‘There are many obvious signs
of trafficking, but the most important are these three: the girls are working for too
little money, they have bruises on their bodies and they don’t speak Dutch or Eng-
lish’. All three criteria could of course also be applied to women and men working
outside the sex industry. Labour migrants from other countries who work in under-
paid jobs in construction or agriculture often have wounds or bruises, but the focus
seems to be always on suspected victims of sex trafficking.
Various explanations have been proposed in the literature for the dynamic be-
tween different ethnic groups of sex workers among which socio-political events
such as the enlargement of the European Union (EU) and the economic crisis are
78 D. Siegel

most often mentioned. These ‘macro’ explanations usually refer to the transnation-
al mobility of organized crime groups specializing in human trafficking (Shelley
2010; Aronowitz 2009). However, in the prostitution market, there is also an inter-
nal dynamic driving the local mobility of sex workers that reflects the recent ‘micro’
developments and changes at the local level. For example, certain ethnic groups
seem to have chosen particular Dutch and Belgian cities as the centre of their ac-
tivities: Groningen and Brussels have become centres of prostitution for Bulgarian
girls from the small towns of Sliven and Shuman, Antwerp for women from Sofia
and Amsterdam for Hungarian prostitutes from the city of Nyiregyhaza.2 This type
of geographical mobility of sex workers and their boyfriends (or pimps) into and
within western Europe is rarely, if at all, recognized as a crucial aspect of sex work.
As many empirical studies in recent decades have shown (e.g. Siegel and Boven-
kerk 2000; Siegel and Yesilgöz 2003; Siegel 2005; Janssen 2007; Brunovskis and
Surtees 2008), most trafficked women do not see themselves as victims, let alone as
innocent and/or passive individuals. These studies have shown that the decision to
‘migrate’ is often well considered and that these women take responsibility for their
own choices and actions regardless of the outcome. Contrary to the prevailing im-
age, a large number of women knew beforehand what their work in the destination
country would imply or were at least aware of the risk of getting involved in sex
work. In fact, the women who did feel deceived did not complain about their work
being sexual per se, but about working conditions that deviated from agreements
made earlier. Most of these women had already been working as prostitutes in their
home countries (Aronowitz 2009; Janssen 2007). The relatively large amounts of
money they were able to earn and a feeling of independence were found to be their
main reasons for wanting to pursue a career in the sex industry (Siegel 2007).
New insights into issues such as perceptions of victimization and voluntary pros-
titution are not always met with applause. On more than one occasion, I have had
to defend my findings against local government officials and/or aid agencies. One
time at a round-table meeting, I reported on the results of my research on hidden
prostitution in a Dutch city where indoor prostitution was mostly taking place at the
sex workers’ homes and was therefore invisible to the police and other agencies.
When I mentioned that the women involved did not consider themselves as ‘vic-
tims’ and should not be treated as such, one official responded angrily: ‘They are
all victims, I only see victims around me; there is no prostitution without victims’.
Emotional reactions like this are of course perfectly understandable: Govern-
ment officials, aid agencies and activists are likely sincere in their belief that they
are fighting for a noble cause. However, as Oude Breuil et al. (2011) have shown,
the imaginations concerning ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ in legal and law enforce-
ment narratives are different from those in ethnographic ones. The ‘victims’ are not
always as weak, helpless and vulnerable as officials imagine them to be. Black-
and-white categories of victims and perpetrators may be helpful in constructing an

At one point, a street in the red-light district of Amsterdam where most prostitutes were origi-

nally from Hungary was nicknamed ‘Nyiregyhaza street’.

5  Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work: A Triple Taboo 79

ideology and sending out a clear message, but these categories neither reflect reality
nor are they useful in addressing actual problems.
During our research on Nigerian madams, we found that the African girls they
employed all had dreams of making lots of money and becoming as rich and power-
ful as their madams (Siegel and de Blank 2010). In another context, I was told by
Bulgarian teenagers that they were dreaming of going to the Netherlands to work in
an exclusive sex club, where they hoped to earn a lot and live up to their image of
wealthy, strong, emancipated and independent modern women who know how to
combine business with pleasure (Siegel 2012).
Such dreams stand in stark contrast to the prevailing images of passive female
victims from eastern Europe and Africa who are being exploited and abused by
Dutch or Belgian Turks and Moroccans or their own compatriots. Seen from this
perspective, government officials and activists have every reason to feel threatened
in their well-intentioned efforts to ‘save girls’ and/or ensure the continued relevance
of their organizations. As a consequence, they are more inclined to stick to their
own badly defined categories, imaginary risks and imagined problems than to focus
on specific cases and examine all the relevant details.
The same mechanism applies to ethnic advocacy groups. Organizations that are
dependent on the existence of social problems, such as discrimination, poverty or
racism, have a powerful incentive to keep these problems alive and in the public
eye. This rule has been shown to apply to the construction of public problems (Gus-
feld 1981) as well as the solutions offered by the organizations that first identified
the problem.
Ignoring ethnicity in criminological research would make it impossible to under-
stand important social reactions to (and symbolic meanings of) crime and sex work.
During my research on Russian call girls in the Netherlands (Siegel 2005; Sie-
gel and Bovenkerk 2000), two independent sex workers working in an ‘alternative
medical clinic’ were approached by Turkish pimps who tried to persuade the girls to
start working for them. The women told their would-be protectors that they already
had Russian Mafia protection in the Netherlands. After this encounter, they were
never bothered again. In order to chase away the local pimps, these women had used
the ethnic image of the Russian Mafia, which was at the time (the mid-1990s) re-
puted to be the most professional and violent criminal organization in the land. One
aspect of the image of the Russian Mafia was the idea that all Russian prostitutes
in the Netherlands had been trafficked to the West, were ‘protected’ by criminal
organizations and were made to work against their will for the Russian Mafia. In
the case described above, the girls knew exactly how to manipulate ethnic images
and by doing so retain their independence. Due to my intensive contacts with these
women during that period, our almost daily conversations and joint activities over
the course of many months of fieldwork, I was able to follow and understand how
they used and manipulated existing ‘ethnic stereotypes’ for their own ends.
As soon as they arrived in the Netherlands, they found themselves portrayed as
‘Russian whores’, on the one hand, and as victims of human trafficking by the Rus-
sian Mafia, on the other. My informants soon learned to see through the social reac-
tions to stereotypes about the ethnic group to which they were considered to belong
80 D. Siegel

and decided to use an ethnic image to their own advantage and turn a stereotype into
a self-fulfilling prophecy (Siegel and Bovenkerk 2000, p. 427).
The criminological literature provides many other examples of this kind of eth-
nic manipulation. In his book Misdaadprofielen (2001), Frank Bovenkerk examined
the link between organized crime and ethnic groups. One of his findings was that
criminals from the former Republic of Yugoslavia (mostly Serbs and Bosnians) had
been able to sell their ‘violent reputation’ to local Dutch criminals and work their
way up to become the bodyguards and enforcers of large Dutch drug networks.
Similar mechanisms apply to Colombian traquetos—cocaine dealers (see Zaitch
2002), Turkish and Kurdish heroin smugglers and Nigerian madams running inter-
national human trafficking organizations engaged in smuggling young prostitutes
from Nigeria and Ghana to the West (see Siegel and de Blank 2010). Bovenkerk
concluded that ‘it is possible to study these issues as long as they are based on
explicit definitions of the concepts of minorities and organised crime’ (Bovenkerk
2001, p. 159) and that ‘this subject deserves a prominent place on the research
agenda’ (ibid., p. 199).
Excluding the concept of ethnicity from these definitions would put serious con-
straints on research on migrant populations, migration in general and migrant sex
workers in particular.

Conclusion: Ethnographic Research on ‘Ethnic Sex

Workers’—Mission Impossible?

Taboos and ‘pseudo-ethical’ considerations constitute major obstacles to eth-

nographic criminological research on prostitution, sex trafficking and the ethnic
groups involved in sex work. Vague and unclear ethical rules with regard to the
study of ethnicity and crime can impede the production of knowledge on the links
between sex, crime and ethnicity. Social research that focuses on tough questions
is sometimes labelled ‘racist’ in advance. It is not just particular ethnic groups that
have come to be considered ‘unethical research subjects’, but, as noted by Lucassen
and Lucassen, the same applies to topics such as the economic costs of immigration,
the oppression of Muslim girls, abuse of social benefits or crime by minority youth
(2011, p. 99). Political interests play an important part in this context. In Belgium
and the Netherlands, matters regarding immigrants or foreigners in general, and
‘ethnic sex workers’ in particular, invariably result in political debates during which
criminological data are used (and/or abused).
Criminologists are asked to soften or obscure ethnic elements to avoid the risk
of stigmatizing ethnic communities or jeopardizing, for instance, the efforts of a
particular candidate country to be accepted into the EU. It is almost as if, in 2014,
there is no longer room or need for thick description, Clifford Geertz’s term for
detailed ethnographic data that can be used to describe, analyse and explain the
socio-cultural context, interrelationships, dilemmas, motives, perceptions and emo-
tions of the groups under study.
5  Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work: A Triple Taboo 81

Researchers engaging in empirical research who come across a link between

crime and ethnicity or sex work and ethnicity are faced with a dilemma. If they
are brave enough to publish their ‘unwelcome results’, they run the risk of being
attacked by ethnic interest groups and/or NGOs, and this could endanger their aca-
demic position. On the other hand, when they withhold their findings, they will be
seen as unreliable or dishonest scientists who are apparently willing to adjust and
manipulate their data, in which case they will be ostracized by the academic com-
munity. It looks as if whatever the researcher does with unwelcome findings, he or
she is bound to lose. In other words: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Does this mean that the topic of ethnicity should be avoided altogether? Far from
it. What should be done is to strengthen the position of the academic community
and reaffirm the freedom of academic inquiry, the independence of criminological
research from political agendas and the basic assumption that real science does
not shy away from taboos. These principles should also apply to criminologists
who conduct research commissioned by governmental or non-governmental par-
ties. When it is obvious that the commissioning parties expect a particular result,
researchers should take notice and find the courage to reject the project, even when
sizeable grants are at stake. Science should be free from any form of ‘scientific
corruption’ or manipulation, and unwelcome research findings that are based on a
strong theoretical foundation and solid empirical data should never be assessed in
terms of political correctness.
Belinda, the sex worker in a small Dutch town, who openly discussed her own
and her competitors’ ethnicity, as well as governmental or non-governmental moral
entrepreneurs could all benefit from data that expose real problems and shine a
light on the socio-economic, political and cultural context of sensitive issues. Such
findings may not always conform to what certain parties want to hear and may even
undermine their position as moral crusaders, but it should be obvious that nothing
will be gained by turning a blind eye or sticking to taboos and pseudo-ethical rules
which hamper social science research. Where there is a lack of knowledge, preju-
dice and myths will prevail and policies based on misconceptions can only further
add to existing problems or even create new ones. It is only through in-depth study,
genuine efforts at understanding and an objective presentation of all the relevant in-
formation that criminological research can contribute to solving societal problems,
on the one hand, and advance criminological theory, on the other. As Marie Curie
once famously said: ‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood’.


Allport, G. (1966). Foreword. In N. Farberow. (Ed.), Taboo topics. New York: Atherton Press.
Aronowitz, A. (2009). Human trafficking, human misery: The global trade in human beings. West-
port: Praeger.
Bovenkerk, F. (2001). Misdaadprofielen. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.
82 D. Siegel

Brunovskis, A.& Surtees, R. (2008). Agency and illness. The Conceptualization of trafficking
victims'choices and behaviours in the assistance system. Gender, Technology and Develop-
ment, 1, 53–76.
Brunovskis, A. & Surtees, R. (2010). Untold stories: biases and selection effects in research with
victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. International Migration, 4, 1–38.
Chambliss, W. (1978). On the take: From petty crooks to presidents. Bloomington: Indiana Uni-
versity Press.
Dul, A. (2013). Broederschap of pooierschap? Een onderzoek naar de invloed van de interne dy-
namiek van de Roma gemeenschap op de aanwezigheid van mensenhandel. Unpublished MA
thesis, General Social Sciences, Utrecht University.
Eriksen, T. (1992). Us and them in modern societies. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.
Farberow, N. (Ed.). (1963). Taboo topics. New York: Atherton Press.
Ferrell, J., & Hamm, M. (1998). Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research.
Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Flight, S., Bogaerts, S., Korf, D., & Siegel, D. (2012). Aanpak georganiseerde criminaliteit in drie
proeftuinen. Evaluation report. Cahier 2010–12. The Hague: WODC.
Glazer, N., & Moynihan, D. (1963). Beyond the melting pot. Cambridge: Harvard University and
MIT Press.
Gusfeld, J. (1981). The culture of public problems: Drinking-driving and the symbolic order. Chi-
cago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayward, K., & Young, J. (2004). Cultural criminology: Some notes on the script. Theoretical
Criminology, 8(3), 259–273. (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: Sage).
Ianni, F. (1972). A Family business: Kinship and social control in organized crime. New York:
Russell Sage Foundation.
Ianni, F. (1974). Black Mafia: Ethnic succession in organized crime. New York: Simon and Schus-
Janssen, M.-L. (2007). Reizende sekswerkers: Latijns—Amerikaanse vrouwen in de Europese
prostitutie ( Traveling sex-workers: Latin American women in the European prostitution).
Apeldoorn: Het Spinhuis.
Oude Breuil, B., & Siegel, D. (2011). Almere door de rode bril. Fenomeenonderzoek naar seksuele
dienstverlening. Rapport, Gemeente Almere, Almere.
Oude Breuil, B., Siegel, D., Van Reenen, P., Roos, L., & Beijer, A. (2011). Human trafficking
revisited: The legal, law enforcement and ethnographic narrative on sex trafficking to Western
Europe. Trends in Organized Crime, 14(1), 30–46.
Polsky, N. (1969). Hustlers, beats and others. New York: The Lyons Press.
Presdee, M. (2000). Cultural criminology and the carnival of crime. London and New York: Rout-
ledge, Tailor and Francis Group.
Shelley, L. (2010). Human trafficking: A global perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Siegel, D. (2004). Russische Maffia in Nederland?! Participerende observatie in een gevaarlijke
gemeenschap. Kwalon, 9(2):40–45 (Utrecht: Lemma bv).
Siegel, D. (2005). Russische biznis. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.
Siegel, D. (2007). Nigeriaanse madams in de mensenhandel in Nederland (Nigerian madams in
human trafficking in the Netherlands). Justitiële verkenningen, 33(7), 39–49.
Siegel, D. (2009). Human trafficking and legalized prostitution in the Netherlands. Temida, 1,
Siegel, D. (2012). Mobility of sex workers in European cities. European Journal on Criminal
Policy and Research, 18(3), 255–268.
Siegel, D. (2014). Mobile banditry: East and Central European Itinerant Criminal Groups in the
Netherlands. The Hague: Eleven International Publishing.
Siegel, D., & Bovenkerk, F. (2000). Crime and manipulation of identity among Russian-speaking
immigrants in the Netherlands. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 16(4), 424–444.
Siegel, D., & de Blank, S. (2010). Women who traffic women: The role of women in human traf-
ficking networks—Dutch cases. Global Crime, 11(4), 436–447.
5  Ethnicity, Crime and Sex Work: A Triple Taboo 83

Siegel, D., & Yesilgoz, Y. (2003). Natashas and Turkish men: New trends in women trafficking and
prostitution. In D. Siegel, H. Van de Bunt, & D. Zaitch (Eds.), Global organized crime. Trends
and developments (pp. 73–84). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.
Soeteman, A., & van den Born, F. (Eds.). (2007). Ethiek van empirisch sociaal-wetenschappelijk
onderzoek. Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen. Advies
Commissie Wetenschap en Ethiek.
Tyldum, G. (2010). Limitations in research on human trafficking. International Migration, 48(5),
van der Pijl Y., Oude Breuil, B., & Siegel, D. (2011). Is there such a thing as ‘global sex traffick-
ing’? A patchwork tale on useful (mis)understandings. Crime, Law and Social Change, 56(5),
Zaitch, D. (2002). Trafficking cocaine. Colombian drug entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. The
Hague: Kluwer Law International.
Zhang, S. (2009). Beyond the ‘Natasha’ story. A review and critique of current research on sex
trafficking. Global Crime, 10, 178–195.

Dina Siegel  is a professor of criminology and chair of the Willem Pompe Institute for Criminal
Law and Criminology at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She received her Ph.D. in cultural
anthropology from VU University, Amsterdam. She has published many papers on the Russian
mafia, human trafficking, legalized prostitution, underground banking, ecstasy (XTC) traffick-
ing, terrorism, crimes in the diamond industry and the role of women in criminal organizations.
Her most recent books are Traditional Organized Crime in the Modern World (with Henk van de
Bunt), Springer, 2012; Mobile Banditry: East and Central European Itinerant Criminal Groups in
the Netherlands, Eleven International Publishing, 2014. She has also published different articles
on the position of sex workers and on ethnographic research on prostitution in the Netherlands.
Chapter 6
The Ethical Minefield in Human Trafficking
Research—Real and Imagined

Sheldon X. Zhang


I thank the editors for this opportunity to share my observations, experience, and
thoughts on issues of ethics and morality in research on human trafficking. I would
like to begin by declaring that my views on who gets to decide what is ethical in
social science and how one must deal with these issues are contrarian to many, and I
intend not to persuade anyone to see things my way. Further, I would like to disclose
that I began my working career as a print journalist, first under a communist regime,
where censorship and thought control were the norm, and then in the USA, where
the media are fiercely protective of their right to investigate, to tell, and to opine.
Obviously, I am a fan of Western ideas on freedom of speech and personal respon-
sibility, which place the burden of ethical conduct on the individual.
After leaving the news business, I have treaded into social science research in an
academic environment. Every now and then, usually when I bring money to the uni-
versity, I am forced to discuss my ethical standard and disclose how I will conduct
myself in various research settings. For structured research activities, such as those
heavily quantitative in orientation, I pretty much know how things will roll out in
the field; however, for projects or components of projects that are mainly ethno-
graphic, I cannot even begin to predict what will happen and how I will react in the
field. As a result, like many of my qualitative peers, not only have I learned to talk in
politically correct terminology but have also assembled a morally righteous appear-
ance—one that systematically portrays certain groups of people as helpless victims
of some sort who are in perpetual need of protection. I have learned to exude con-
cerns and worries about their personal safety and their psychological well-being and
carefully craft intervention plans in case some subjects pass out or have a mental
breakdown while talking to my interviewers. The reality of field research in my line
of research and the façade of boisterous precautions for protecting human subjects

S. X. Zhang ()
Department of Sociology, San Diego State University, San Diego, USA
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 85
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_6
86 S. X. Zhang

expected by the institution are so jarringly different; it is comical. Irrespective of

my views and sensitivity to the issues of ethics and morality in social science, I am
happy to report that I have maintained, for more than two decades, an impeccable
record of human subject protection. To my knowledge, not a single human being
has ever been harmed, damaged, or defamed by me or anyone in my teams. Further-
more, of hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers that I have run into over the two
decades, I have not met or heard a single one who has ever managed to hurt anyone
in their studies, either physically or reputationally. Of course, I must admit that such
claims are limited to my own little world of personal experiences. Others may have
run into unethical and unscrupulous researchers whose field activities have resulted
in tangible injuries or psychological harms to research subjects that require profes-
sional intervention.
The topic of human trafficking has attracted wide attention, both politically and
academically. More than 90 % of all countries (160 out of a total 193 UN member
states) in the world have legislation criminalizing human trafficking since the Pro-
tocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women
and Children, under the United Nations Convention against Transnational Orga-
nized Crime came into force more than a decade ago (UNODC 2014). In the past
two decades or so, a large volume of literature has been produced on various aspects
of human trafficking activities, although the majority of these published works do
not contain primary data collection. Because of its complex nature, research on hu-
man trafficking has for a long period of time remained anecdotal and sensationalis-
tic (Weitzer 2011). Several review articles (e.g., Zhang 2009; Gozdziak and Collett
2005; Zhang 2012) of the existing literature have found little empirical data; and
most authors treated assertions by governments and international organizations as
“sources” or “evidence” (Weitzer 2014; Zhang 2012).
Recognizing the paucity in empirical evidence, a growing number of research-
ers have embarked on various journeys in different parts of the world to collect
first-hand data. Most of these researchers are qualitative in their methodological
orientation, thus employing data collection techniques such as in-depth interviews
and field observations. Working in the “trenches” of primary data collection means
direct interaction with human beings and oftentimes for prolonged periods of time.
Efforts to build rapport and trust inevitably invite situations of ethical decisions that
may bear moral consequences.
There are many aspects in human trafficking research that raise potential ethical
issues or moral dilemmas, particularly when one practices cultural criminology and
engages in ethnographic data collection. Most, if not all, researchers who have been
trained in any reputable graduate programs are aware of ethical implications in our
field conduct and will attempt to resolve, manage, avoid, or confront thorny issues,
regardless of the circumstances.
6  The Ethical Minefield in Human Trafficking Research—Real and Imagined 87

Ethics and Moral Dilemmas in Research on Sex


Sex trafficking has garnered the most attention in this collection of articles, and not
surprisingly, most literature on human trafficking is about sex. The simple mention
of sex or research on sex-related topics seems to trigger an autoimmune systemic
reaction that is almost voyeuristic in nature but presumptuous in appearance among
the moral police that patrol the research community. Ethics and moral principles are
presumed to be of utmost concerns to those who dare to venture into this field in
search of empirical data. Whenever sex is mentioned in a research plan, the ethics
review committee in most, if not all, research institutes will ravish in its scrutiny
of the field logistics and specific procedures the concerned researchers intend to
employ in data gathering. As a result, practically all researchers affiliated with any
established research organizations must go through an excruciating review process
in which they are subjected to litmus tests of epic proportions in ethical conduct.
The intensity and attention shown by members of the ethics review committee (in
the USA, it is called the Institutional Review Board or IRB) to the details of re-
search activities are eerie.

Research on Labor Trafficking and Its Ethical


Because of widespread economic inequalities, human conflicts, and globalized

commerce, millions have been uprooted and plunged into irregular migration, thus
becoming vulnerable to human trafficking (Zhang 2007). Most human trafficking
is concentrated in economic sectors such as agriculture and construction that de-
pend on manual labor, and the cost of labor is a main determinant of the business’
competitiveness (Belser 2005). According to the International Labour Organization
(ILO), the total number of forced laborers are likely to be 20.9 million around the
world (ILO 2012). However, lacking shock and sensational values, labor trafficking
has not gained much traction in either the social service industry or research com-
Human trafficking in an abstract sense is a process in which human services (la-
bor or sexual) are extracted under duress (i.e., pressure, coercion, or deception). It
is difficult to enumerate all possible forms of human services that can be trafficked,
but one thing is certain—most exploitable forms of human labor do not involve sex.
However, judging from the volume of new media reports, Hollywood movies, gov-
ernment reports, anti-trafficking street signs, and research literature, sex trafficking
has remained front and center. In fact, until recently many researchers believed
that the most common type of human trafficking involved sex (see Barrows and
Finger 2008). After an exhaustive literature review, Gozdziak and Bump (2008,
p. 7) lamented that much of the sex trafficking research focused on sex trafficking
88 S. X. Zhang

almost “to the detriment of investigating trafficking for bonded labor and domestic
servitude.” For years, even the US government, responsible for funding much of the
global anti-trafficking movement, claimed that the majority of transnational victims
are women and children “trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation” (US De-
partment of State 2008).
Things are changing. Policy makers and researchers have now paid more atten-
tion to labor exploitation of all forms—debt bondage, forced labor, and peonage.
Although less “sexy” a topic, researchers tackling labor trafficking are also con-
fronted with problems of ethical and moral implications in their field work. This
is particularly true for researchers who must deal with players in criminalized and
stigmatized businesses. In these field activities, mundane field protocols, such as
building rapport and giving incentives to participants, all of a sudden took on moral
consequences when the key informant was someone who should have been sent to
jail or even hanged.
Social scientists have historically been trained in the positivist tradition to strive
for neutrality and objectivity, while many may contend that this expectation is noth-
ing more than an intellectual façade or there is no value neutrality in social science
research. Still, most of us attempt to distance ourselves from the human subjects
from whom we seek to collect data. There are innumerable situations where re-
searchers encounter moral and ethical issues. Should a researcher even bother to
work with “scumbags” like organ traders, pimps, or other contemptible persons just
because they may lead us to the “hidden populations”? Should social scientists be-
gin their inquiry from any moral vantage point? One notable recent example is Sid-
dharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (2010), which
received scathing criticism by migration and gender researcher Laura Agustin, who
likened Kara’s “anachronistic rhetoric to nineteenth-century moral crusaders” and
chided his moral sentiment of feeling “ashamed to be male.”1 There are no obvious
solutions to these questions.

Dark Fantasy Abound, but the Sky Is Not Falling

Concerns over ethics and moral complications are not difficult to imagine for a
research topic like human trafficking, particularly when the subjects are women
and girls caught in the business of “selling” sex. The assumption underlying these
concerns is that any failure to respond to potential ethical complications can lead to
consequences detrimental to the research subjects.
For example, one of my projects ran afoul with my university IRB, which de-
cided that my field activities posed high risks to the human subjects in Tijuana,
Mexico, where my field team was conducting interviews with sex workers. A rank-
ing university official challenged my claim that my field procedure could not possi-
bly cause harm to sex workers. He countered “what if a girl turned up dead the next

Laura Agustin’s review can be found at:
6  The Ethical Minefield in Human Trafficking Research—Real and Imagined 89

day in a dark alley after talking to your interviewer?” I retorted: “First, you must
have evidence that will link the girl’s death to my study. Or shouldn’t the police
investigator make such a judgment, and not the IRB? Second, other than your dark
fantasy (i.e., the what-if-situation), do you have empirical or actual cases that attest
to this possibility? I have never heard of any research stories that have caused such
an incident.” I was certainly not in a position to challenge the IRB. Despite my chal-
lenge to the IRB or anyone to produce a verifiable incident that could attest to this
dark fantasy, my project was suspended and then voted for termination. I can only
attribute the pervasive tendency towards such an exercise of dark fantasies to two
possible sources: (1) having watched too many Hollywood gangster movies and (2)
lacking a basic understanding and experience as a field researcher.
Through internal administrative maneuverings, the IRB agreed, reluctantly, to
let me resume work following several major changes to my field protocols. There
were many changes to my field protocol. One was that I could only recruit subjects
in a government-operated health clinic where sex workers came to test for sexually
transmitted diseases. I was no longer allowed to recruit subjects from the street or
venues known for prostitution, such as strip clubs and bars. A more ridiculous one
was that I could not use male interviewers. The IRB did not explain why, but the
reason was obvious. The traditional protocol of close supervision and frequent de-
briefing were not enough to satisfy the IRB demand in my case. Male interviewers
would take advantage of the sex workers. I did not even bother to explain that in
my initial handful of interviews, my only male interviewer was far better skilled at
building rapport with the sex workers and obtained more candid response than my
female interviewers. It was found that my female interviewers dressed up profes-
sionally, thus appearing superior to their prostitute subjects, and their “professional”
mannerism was considered condescending by the sex workers who were status con-
scious and sensitive to women who were holding regular office jobs. Complaints
started to come in. As a result, my partnering community agency had to conduct
training and remind the female interviewers to dress down like a college student
and wear no makeup. Except for voyeuristic interests, I could not think of other
explanations to account for IRB’s insistent concern over possible sexual misconduct
between researchers and sex workers.
While one can neither contest nor dissuade such a dark fantasy of “what-ifs,”
empirical evidence seems to have made the opposite abundantly clear: There has
never been a single reported case of unethical conduct by a bona fide researcher
that caused verifiable harm to a human subject in human trafficking research. Still,
dark fantasy abounds in the discussion of ethical conduct in research on human
trafficking because there are numerous “what if” situations. One must wonder that
despite all the sensationalistic reports on the topic of human trafficking, why the
research community has been remarkably free of any ethical violations. The answer
is actually quite simple. To put it bluntly, traditional research methods used in social
sciences are pragmatically impossible to cause harm to human subjects, unless of
course one deliberately seeks to harm someone with collected information. Social
science methods, at least the ones that I and most of my peers use, involve nothing
more than talking to willing participants or gathering field notes based on observa-
90 S. X. Zhang

tions. One cannot think of a less risky form of human interaction than observing
or asking someone to consent to a conversation, formal or informal, recorded or
naturalistic. One poses questions and another answers. One must then ask whether
consenting adults talking to one another can create ethical dilemmas of any signifi-
cance. Even if when identifying information is collected, it is always for tracking
purposes due to research design requirement and never for analysis or reporting.
Because confidentiality and anonymity are almost always the norm and statistics
are always reported in aggregates, one will have to stretch his imagination to come
up with circumstances where harmful effects may rise.
So the sky is not falling, and the chances of any human subject being harmed
in the course of research by researchers like me are either nil or close to it. This is
neither to advocate for reckless behavior in field work nor to claim that a thorough
consideration of ethical consequences of one’s field activities does not have merits.
This is particularly the case when participant observation, a classic ethnographic
method, is used by field researchers to gain an intimate understanding of certain
social actions, legal or illegal. There are ways to do this ethically (Katz 2006), and
there are ways to do this clumsily or even unethically. The best example is probably
Laud Humphreys (1970), a sociologist who did his doctoral dissertation by disguis-
ing himself as a watch queen to study homosexual encounters in public bathrooms
in the 1960s, then a highly stigmatized and illegal practice in the USA. He became
famous, not for his many groundbreaking findings about gay culture and homo-
sexual practices at the time but for his data collection method. While the identities
of all subjects in Humphreys’ study were protected, the debate on whether disguis-
ing one’s identity as a researcher to “infiltrate” a target population is ethical will
continue in the foreseeable future (Babbie 2004). Thankfully, these days few social
scientists employ undercover techniques to study social taboos or other highly stig-
matized topics; those who do must continue to struggle with how best to approach
research subjects who would rather not talk to outsiders. After all, we are not jour-
nalists working for large news conglomerates. Social science researchers lack the
clout to exert influence over federal regulations, and it is even more troublesome
when academics from different disciplines aspire to achieve moral superiority by
serving on the IRB so that they can police others and ensure that we all behave.

Institutional Review Boards and Intellectual Censorship

Sensitive topics are unavoidable to social scientists. Lee and Renzetti (1990, p. 511)
listed several topical areas in social science research that may produce negative con-
sequences including “psychic costs, such as guilt, shame, or embarrassment.” Traf-
ficking victimization falls into these areas because of its intrusion into a person’s
private or deeply personal experiences. While “negative consequences” in social
sciences have traditionally been dealt with quietly between graduate students and
their advisers or among peers, the development of IRBs, which have metastasized
6  The Ethical Minefield in Human Trafficking Research—Real and Imagined 91

across the entire academic world, have now assumed all authority in adjudicating
and imposing ethical conduct of all research endeavors involving human subjects
(see Schrag 2010 for an excellent review of the historical development of the IRBs
in the USA).
The development of the IRBs had its origin in the biomedical world, from such
bad experiences as the Nazis conducting medical experiments on Jews and other
human subjects and several scandalous medical experiments in the USA that denied
medical treatment to ethnic minorities for the sake of maintaining randomized clini-
cal controls. It is fairly easy to see the moral imperative to establish a mechanism
to safeguard the well-being of human beings subjected to various manipulations or
tests, supposedly for the greater good of humankind. This is particularly true these
days when desperate patients are willing to try any solutions to their life-threatening
situations. The presence of an experimental treatment can present implicit coercion
and false hopes to any subjects in dire situations. Proper clinical procedures, includ-
ing supervision and monitoring by peers, can serve as a safety check and reminder
that someone is watching. Informed consent, full disclosure, voluntariness, and
mandated reporting are therefore important mechanisms to protect the welfare of
the study subjects. But social science?
It is not that the idea of enforcing a code of ethical conduct in a research com-
munity is a bad one. It is the process by which people with little research experience
or inadequate understanding of the subject matter convene to determine what are
or are not ethical field procedures. And one dare not challenge the authority of the
IRB. Consequently, it is not difficult to see that the IRB regime in the USA (and its
equivalents in a growing number of European countries) has turned field research-
ers into low-level cheaters (Katz 2006; Shea 2000). Even today, when every gradu-
ate student in the USA must undergo ethical training and get certified, violations
of the IRB protocols are commonplace. In a survey of 247 university faculty in the
criminal justice disciplines, Tartaro and Levy (2015) found that about one out of
five respondents admitted that they had started data collection prior to receiving
IRB approval, and more than a quarter of these respondents made minor changes to
a consent form or survey without prior approval from their IRB. A small percentage,
4 %, said they had intentionally been vague when seeking IRB approval for their
study; another 5 % had collected data from human subjects before even submitting
an application to the IRB for review or approval (Tartaro and Levy 2015).
As with all bureaucratic things, after a few run-ins, researchers can typically
figure out how to respond to the IRB review and learn to say the right things. While
there are many headaches in dealing with the IRB, the drill essentially gets people
to figure out the minimum to obtain the approval, saying as little as possible so as
not to raise any concerns, or simply lying however mildly to get the IRB off one’s
back. What researchers actually do in the field is another matter; this is particularly
true for ethnographers who seek out the unexpected and relish on finding the un-
These IRBs are so powerful and their authority so absolute that they are in effect
a functional censorship (Katz 2007). These IRBs decide whether a project is wor-
92 S. X. Zhang

thy of scientific inquiry, adjudicate on what constitutes proper and ethical research
conduct, and impose stipulations on research designs irrespective of resistance. In
short, they are the standard barrier of morality and ethics, and any judgment ren-
dered by an IRB is beyond contestation. In fact, there is no formalized appeal pro-
cess should one disagree with an IRB ruling in the USA. These days, anyone who
has had any experience with the IRB knows that it is politically correct to say that
all research studies involving human subjects carry some minimal risks. Therefore,
one must write some narratives to justify that the ratio of risks and benefits is in
favor of the greater good for humankind.
The idea of no-risk research does not exist to an IRB, regardless of whether
there is any evidence to back up such a claim. On the contrary, empirical evidence,
whenever available, mostly supports the null hypothesis; for instance, when Savell
et al. (2006) screened a sample of female college undergraduates for childhood
sexual abuse and tested for psychological functioning such as state and trait anxiety,
depression, curiosity, and anger prior to and after the completion of several explicit
questionnaires, including a sexual abuse screening. No significant differences were
between pre- and post-testing on any of the measures of psychological functioning;
moreover, there were no significant differences between those who reported having
been abused and the non-abused participants. Rojas and Kinder (2007) replicated
this study, with the addition of male subjects, and again found no differences what-
soever between the abused and non-abused study subjects. Findings from both stud-
ies bear significant implications for at least researchers in the areas of child sexual
abuse or human sexuality when they approach the IRB review process. Both studies
found that participation in studies involving explicit inquiries on one’s past sexual
experience, even among those sexually abused as children, did not seem to produce
any increased levels of psychological discomfort.
More than a matter of bureaucratic inconvenience, these institutional constraints
have erected obstacles for qualitative researchers, particularly those who engage
in cultural criminological inquiries. To these researchers, research simply means
spending time in the field watching, talking, observing, and talking some more.
Informed consent becomes not only impossible but also counterproductive. Sub-
jects in a natural environment might not consent to being observed if asked or even
provoke a dangerous situation if the researcher is embedded in the action.
In short, the IRB regime is essentially a lawless enterprise, with no oversight and
no appeal process. Its membership composition and competence are never open to
question. This discussion is not to downplay the ethical issues involved in doing
research on human trafficking, which by definition is replete with situations where
some forms of moral judgment are either made or passed. There are many forms of
ethical issues that warrant serious discussion and debate because they may influ-
ence the solicitation as well as interpretation of the stories that the subjects are tell-
ing. But the judgment of whether one’s research conduct is ethical is probably best
left for the researchers and their own peers to render.
6  The Ethical Minefield in Human Trafficking Research—Real and Imagined 93

Agency in Researchers and Agency in Human Subjects

It is difficult not to recognize the exuberant concerns in many corners of social

science community over the well-being of human subjects, particularly when the
subject matters deal with victims of some sort such as domestic violence and hu-
man trafficking. The current atmosphere over ethical conduct appears to suggest
two things: (1) Researchers are incapable of or cannot be entrusted in being ethical
in the field, and (2) human subjects, especially those labeled as vulnerable popula-
tions, are incapable of or cannot protect themselves. Therefore, a committee com-
posed of people of varied backgrounds, vastly different from those that they review
and judge, gets to perform these vital functions—checking to make sure researchers
are following ethical rules and the study subjects are properly protected.
For the researchers, training in graduate schools and a researcher’s own moral
compass are simply not considered adequate to handle the moral complexities of
contemporary subject matters (Fontes 2004). Somehow, researchers are unable to
apply basic moral principles in their work, such as respect for personhood, privacy
and confidentiality, and non-maleficence. Essentially, the principle of “do no harm”
is no longer expected as a natural quality of all properly trained researchers but must
be vetted and monitored by an external body. Researchers are presumed to be un-
ethical until proven otherwise, that is, via the vetting process called the IRB review.
For the human subjects, the exuberant concerns over their well-being seem not
only petite in its moral weight but also bourgeois in its intent. The idea that these hu-
man subjects are more vulnerable than their researchers seems rather feebleminded.
Many field researchers have found that their human subjects are in more control of
the research process than the researchers. Just ask anyone who has done interviews
with sex workers on the street or in a strip bar or in a brothel. Ask any researcher
who has ever approached a street prostitute to solicit participation in a study. In
these ethic-sensitive encounters, ask the researcher who is more afraid of the sur-
rounding, the researcher or the prostitute? For the ethics review committee, sex
workers are automatically viewed as vulnerable, thus in need of careful approach
and tender protection. Researchers thus must appear morally superior by ascribing
to their ethical concerns and dream up procedures that purportedly can protect these
women, regardless whether any of such protective measures are indeed needed or
even effective. Burgess-Proctor (2015) instead advocates for an empowering ap-
proach to studying victims of violence and challenging the conventional IRB posi-
tion that automatically assumes all abused women and other trauma survivors as
victims, thus in need of protection. In arguing for a post-positivist critique of current
federal regulations and conventional IRB regime, Burgess-Proctor raises the ques-
tion of “whether survivors of violent victimization are appropriately considered vul-
nerable research populations” and provides examples of women of intimate partner
abuse and proposes interview strategies that aim at empowering rather than simply
protecting study participants (Burgess-Proctor 2015, p 124).
It is highly doubtful that the proliferation of IRBs and the widespread practice of
ethical reviews of research conduct have made social science endeavors any safer or
94 S. X. Zhang

that many human subjects would have been subjected to abuse in the hands of social
science researchers had it not been for the watchful eyes of the IRB. What I have
found deplorable in this petite bourgeois sentiment is that, instead of searching for
some real evidence, those who show exuberant concerns over potential risks have
only their own imagination and fantasy to rely upon, and they never seem to grow
tired of it. What is more disturbing is that a growing number of young researchers,
particularly those recently minted PhDs, seem quite content about being subjected
to institutional censorship, as if through the ethics review, they will all become


There are a few, not many, benefits that come with age in doing social science
research; one of which is your personal experiences will become instructional ma-
terials, and you get to recall how things once were often in a slight tone of in-
dignation and with a fair dose of condescendence. One such example is the rapid
and “mysterious” growth of institutional concerns over the protection of human re-
search subjects in the realm of social science research. Showered by these concerns
throughout higher education, young generations of PhDs (at least those minted in
the USA) never hesitate to lay bare their ethical birthmarks by instinctively posing
human subject protection questions whenever sensitive topics are discussed in re-
search meetings. I am delighted to find that most researchers compete to show off
their sophisticated understanding of ethical implications and moral complexities in
their field conduct. What I would like to see more is how such excessive concerns
have made them produce better scholarship.
Central to any ethical research is the principle of “do no harm,” which states
that when conducting research, we do not harm the persons we are researching and
whose experiences we are seeking to explore and understand. What is surprising is
not that the issue of protecting human research subjects is not worthy of our atten-
tion but that the current explosion of human subject protection concerns seem to
have grown out of thin air or in the absence of empirical evidence that warrant its
My wishful thinking these days is to ask folks who claim to be empirical re-
searchers to rely more on empirical evidence as opposed to dark fantasy in ren-
dering one’s moral judgment and ethical decision. Moral entrepreneurs will never
cease to conjure up situations where they can demonstrate their moral superiority.
It is up to the researchers to resist and explore the full potential of agency in hu-
man subjects who are willing to tell their stories and whose stories and naturally
observed behavior provide the best empirical data for nuanced understanding of our
social actions.
6  The Ethical Minefield in Human Trafficking Research—Real and Imagined 95


Babbie, E. (2004). Laud Humphreys and research ethics. International Journal of Sociology and
Social Policy, 24(3), 12–19.
Barrows, J., & Finger, R. (2008). Human trafficking and the healthcare professional. Southern
Medical Journal, 101(5), 521–524.
Belser, P. (2005). Forced labour and human trafficking: Estimating the profits. Geneva: Interna-
tional Labour Office.
Burgess-Proctor, A. (2015). Methodological and ethical issues in feminist research with abused
women: Reflections on participants’ vulnerability and empowerment. Women’s Studies Inter-
national Forum, 48, 124–134.
Fontes, L. A. (2004). Ethics in violence against women research: The sensitive, the dangerous, and
the overlooked. Ethics & Behavior, 14(2), 141–174.
Gozdziak, E., & Collett, E. (2005). Research on human trafficking in North America. International
Migration, 43, 99–128.
Gozdziak, E., & Bump, M. N. (2008). Data and research on human trafficking: Bibliography of
research-based literature. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of International Migration,
Georgetown University.
Humphreys, L. (1970). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. Piscataway: Transaction
ILO. (2012). ILO indicators of forced labour: International Labour Organization.
Kara, S. (2010). Sex trafficking: Inside the business of modern slavery. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Katz, J. (2006). Ethical escape routes for underground ethnographers. American Ethnologist,
33(4), 499–506.
sDraft.pdf. Accessed 10 Aug 2015.
Katz, J. (2007). Toward a natural history of ethical censorship. Law & Society Review, 41(4),
Ethical_Censorship.pdf. Accessed 10 Aug 2015.
Lee, R. M., & Renzetti, C. M. (1990). The problems of researching sensitive topics: An overview
and introduction. American Behavioral Scientist, 33, 510–528.
Rojas, A., & Kinder, B. N. (2007). Effects of completing sexual questionnaires in males and fe-
males with histories of childhood sexual abuse: Implications for institutional review boards.
Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 33, 193–201.
Savell, J. K., Kinder, B. N., & Young, M. S. (2006). Effects of administering sexually explicit
questionnaires on anger, anxiety, and depression in sexually abuse and non-abused females:
Implications for risk assessment. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 32, 161–172.
Schrag, Z. M. (2010). Ethical imperialism: Institutional review boards and the social sciences,
1965–2009. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Shea, C. (2000) Don’t talk to the humans: The crackdown on social science research. Lingua
Franca, 10(6). Accessed 10
Aug 2015.
Tartaro, C, & Levy, M. P. (2015). IRB requirements and review processes: Criminal justice faculty
members’ compliance and satisfaction. IRB: Ethics & Human Research, 37(1), 12–16.
United States Department of State. (2008). Trafficking in persons report. Washington, DC: United
States Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
UNODC. (2014). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. Vienna: United Nations Office on
Drugs and Crime.
full_report.pdf. Accessed 10 Aug 2015.
Weitzer, R. (2011). Sex trafficking and the sex industry: The need for evidence-based theory and
legislation. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 101, 1337–1370.
Weitzer, R. (2014). Introduction: New directions in research on human trafficking. ANNALS of
American Academy of Political and Social Science, 653(1), 6–24.
96 S. X. Zhang

Zhang, S. X. (2007). Smuggling and trafficking in human beings: All roads lead to America. West-
port: Praeger.
Zhang, S. (2009). Beyond the “Natasha” story: A review and critique of current research on sex
trafficking. Global Crime, 10, 178–195.
Zhang, S. (2012). Measuring labor trafficking: A research note. Crime, Law, and Social Change,
58, 469–482.

Sheldon X. Zhang  is a professor of sociology at San Diego State University. He has been con-
ducting funded research on transnational human trafficking and smuggling activities for more than
a decade. Dr. Zhang has published two books on human smuggling/trafficking activities: Chinese
Human Smuggling Organizations—Families, Social Networks, and Cultural Imperatives (Stan-
ford University Press 2008) and Smuggling and Trafficking in Human Beings: All Roads Lead to
America (Praeger 2007). He is the editor of a special volume on human trafficking in the journal of
Crime, Law, and Social Change (Vol. 56, 2011), entitled Global Perspectives on Sex Trafficking.
He also coedited (with Ron Weitzer) another special issue on human trafficking in The ANNALS of
the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Vol. 653, 2014). His research has also led
to numerous publications in journals such as Criminology, British Journal of Criminology, Crime,
Law and Social Change, and Global Crime. His most recent interests on human trafficking have
focused on developing and testing measurement instruments and sampling strategies to produce
prevalence estimates of the human trafficking problems in the USA and abroad.
Part II
Labour Trafficking
Chapter 7
Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent
and ‘Illegality’: Researching Forced Labour
Experiences Among Refugees and Asylum
Seekers in the UK

Hannah Lewis


Despite a growing interest in trafficking and forced labour, there is a persistent

tendency for only certain types of movement and certain groups of workers to be
considered within frameworks and representations of severe labour exploitation. It
was estimated that there were 3000–5000 people in forced labour in the UK in 2013
(Geddes et al. 2013), yet advocacy, policy and campaigning responses continue to
be preoccupied by trafficking for sex work. This chapter reports on the method-
ological and ethical issues encountered in the ‘Precarious Lives’ study1 (Lewis et al.
2014b), the first to focus on experiences of forced labour in the UK among refugees
and asylum seekers, a group not commonly considered within trafficking and forced
labour frameworks.
Both Brennan (2005), discussing her long-term study of ‘ex-captive’ women in
the USA, and Andrijasevic (2010) in her book on migration, agency and traffick-
ing of eastern European women in Italy, offer important contributions to a scant
scholarly literature which engages directly with people who themselves have been
trafficked. A great deal more of the literature is ‘top-down’, contained in policy
documents and legislative frameworks, a characterisation equally true of the volu-
minous literature on migration more generally. This perhaps explains why irregular
migration is an area with little or no specialised codes of practice or research guid-
ance to date (Düvell et al. 2010) and even less so for trafficking and forced labour,

The Precarious Lives project (, funded by the Economic and Social

Research Council (ESRC; RES-062-23-2895) was led by Louise Waite with Stuart Hodkinson,
Hannah Lewis (Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield, UK) and Peter Dwyer
(Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York). A follow-up ESRC Knowl-
edge Exchange Opportunities grant (ES/K005413/1) developed a Platform on Forced Labour and
Asylum that produced a guide for practitioners and posters and postcards for workers on employ-
ment rights and tackling forced labour (

H. Lewis ()
Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 99
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_7
100 H. Lewis

a gap this volume aims to address. Interrogation of methodologies and ethics of

research with refugees and asylum seekers, meanwhile, has received growing at-
tention (e.g. Journal of Refugee Studies special edition ‘Methodologies of Forced
Migration Research’ 2007, 20(2); Hugman et al. 2011; Mackenzie et al. 2007), with
the establishment of ethical guidelines (Refugee Studies Centre undated; Temple
and Moran 2006). These contributions are located within a more established field
that explores the ethical dimensions of research with vulnerable groups (Clements
et al. 1999; Moore and Miller 1999) that can offer relevant guidance for researchers
working with people who have been trafficked or in forced labour.
Within the literature on trafficking, forced labour receives even less attention.
A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) forced labour programme in the UK
has contributed a number of dedicated studies. Several of these offered secondary
analysis of forced labour in media representations, literature and policy, court docu-
ments and legal cases. Others conducted primary research with policy/practitioner
informants in focus groups or interviews (Balch 2012; Dwyer et al. 2011; Lalani
and Metcalf 2012). The few existing studies of forced labour experiences of work-
ers have used qualitative interviews, as in Anderson and Rogaly’s landmark study
(2005) of forced labour in the UK, and in Northern Ireland (Allamby et al. 2011), as
well as utilising a community research methodology to help gain access for inter-
views among Chinese migrant workers (Kagan et al. 2011) and in the food industry
(Scott et al. 2012).
Qualitative and quantitative, primary and secondary studies all present their own
ethical challenges (Düvell et al. 2010). Acknowledging this, the focus here is on
issues arising in qualitative research with people who have experience of forced la-
bour. It is important to state that in this chapter, trafficking is understood as defined
as a process of recruitment, transportation, transfer or harbouring for the purpose
of exploitation including forced labour, but under such a definition, not all forced
labour is a result of trafficking. Research with people with experiences of forced
labour faces considerable barriers to the negotiation of access and informed consent
to explore a sensitive topic which both workers and employers seek to conceal
from outsiders, agencies, enforcement bodies and the state. This chapter considers
the challenges of negotiating access to a ‘hidden’ population and of establishing
meaningful informed consent. It is argued that informed consent is intertwined with
managing the anonymity of participants requiring practical mechanisms to extend
ethical considerations beyond the field into the spaces of desks, offices and confer-
ences where research data are managed, analysed, written up and used. The chapter
starts by discussing how ‘vulnerable’ populations are constructed.

Researching Hidden, ‘Vulnerable’ Populations

People who are refugees and asylum seekers and those who are in forced labour or
are trafficked are routinely considered to be part of ‘hard-to-reach’ groups and in
addition to be ‘multiply vulnerable’ populations. This study therefore had as its fo-
7  Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’ 101

cus a group that can be considered doubly ‘invisible’ and ‘vulnerable’: people with
a claim for asylum in the UK and with experiences of forced labour. What does it
mean to view people in the asylum system or with experiences of forced labour as
hidden or vulnerable, and what are the implications for research?
Tyldum and Brunovskis (2005, p. 18) describe a hidden population as ‘a group
of individuals for whom the size and boundaries are unknown, and for whom no
sampling frame exists’. This means that accessing a ‘hidden’ population involves
‘non-probability’ or ‘purposive’ sampling frames in which the research cannot (or
does not) aim to sample the whole population. Additionally, ‘membership in hidden
populations often involves stigmatized or illegal behaviour, leading individuals to
refuse to cooperate, or give unreliable answers to protect their privacy’ (Heckathorn
1997 in Tyldum and Brunovskis 2005, p. 18). While it is problematic to simplisti-
cally associate invisibility with unreliability, people who at different times enter or
leave categories labelled as ‘asylum seekers’, ‘trafficked’ or ‘undocumented’ are
hidden and it is usually in their interest to remain hidden (Bloch et al. 2009). Thus,
the ‘hard-to-reach’ characteristics of these populations are closely intertwined with
how we construct and understand ‘vulnerability’.
Immigration status is relevant to understanding the ‘vulnerability’ of these
groups (Bloch et al. 2009; Tyldum and Brunovskis 2005). Our participants included
individuals who at different times occupied three distinct categories of migrants:
refugees, undocumented migrants and people who have been trafficked or in forced
labour; some had occupied all three. Refugees can be defined as people denied
critical rights within and between political domains (Watts and Bohle 1993 in Stew-
art 2005). Access to rights and entitlements shift at different stages of the asylum
process. Asylum seekers have no permission to work (except if their initial deci-
sion takes 12 months or more and they apply, and are granted, the right to work in
restricted sectors by the Home Office), and they are supported with limited asylum
support cash payments and housing offered through dispersal to towns and cities
around the UK on a ‘no choice’ basis. If their case is refused, their asylum sup-
port and housing is removed within 21 days (unless they have dependents under
18 years old), they have no permission to work and are liable to be removed from
the UK. Although in a broader sense, all of those exiled by fleeing persecution are
refugees, in the UK policy this term is reserved for those granted a positive outcome
on their asylum claim. Refugees are theoretically able to access employment and
mainstream welfare support on the same basis as citizens.
Asylum seekers are identified as a vulnerable group in UK society (Stewart
2005) as people with past experiences of persecution. They may have been subject
to persecution from state, political or religious authorities in their country of origin
such as the disappearance of associates, infiltration of social spheres by informers
or time in prison that may involve torture or rape. The association of refugees with
trauma and vulnerability relates not only to past experience of persecution but also
to their construction in humanitarian responses and research. In recognising vulner-
abilities and concomitant sensitivities for planning and undertaking research, it is
vital to simultaneously avoid pathologising people according to trauma. Malkki
reminds us that refugees are not a naturally self-delimiting field of study:
102 H. Lewis

The term refugee has analytical usefulness not as a label for a special, generalizable “kind”
or “type” of person or situation, but only as a broad legal or descriptive rubric that includes
within it a world of different socioeconomic statuses, personal histories, and psychological
or spiritual situations. (Malkki 1995, p. 496)

The contemporary field of refugee studies is built on a premise of refugees as a

problematic anomaly requiring specialised corrective and therapeutic interven-
tions (Malkki 1995). The label ‘refugee’ denotes a bureaucratic and humanitarian
response to a group commonly represented as an undifferentiated and dehumanised
mass. There are clear similarities with the construction of trafficking as a problem,
an anomaly, and trafficked persons as universally similar victims requiring correc-
tive intervention in the mushrooming anti-trafficking humanitarian and campaign-
ing industry.
It is equally the case that everyone in the asylum system is made subject to
an administrative system underpinned by atomised treatment. Asylum seekers thus
share similar experiences of claiming asylum in the UK and are universally denied
certain key rights while coming from highly diverse countries of origin, ethnicities,
languages, ages, gender, religions, and educational and employment backgrounds.
Within this complexity, asylum applicants must conform to idealised images or ide-
al types of a ‘refugee’ to be granted status through the asylum system (Zimmermann
2011). To be a refugee is to have a ‘genuine’ need for protection on fleeing persecu-
tion; so the performance of vulnerability is tied up with state and media normative
constructions of refugeeness. Again, the ‘currency of victimhood’ (Brennan 2014)
is similarly central to the interaction of persons identified as trafficked with service
providers, authorities and legal representatives, and in the public representation of
Assuming vulnerability becomes problematic if it is constructed as a binary in
contradiction with agency. In order to receive ‘protection’, both refugees and traf-
ficked persons must perform to culturally embedded and state-constructed images
of authentic victims within boundaries set by the powers of state, without neces-
sarily knowing or understanding that the terms of this exchange are predisposed
towards suspicion of ‘illegality’ of ‘immigration offenders’. For both those seeking
asylum and persons trafficked, displaying agency in migration and labour processes
can pollute intangible spaces of victimhood where authentic suffering is assumed to
reside. The characterisation of trafficked persons as ‘victims’ risks denying agency
in migration and labour processes. This can undermine recognition, in both research
and intervention, of how individuals’ complex social positions affect entry into or
exit from forced labour, and denies their central role in movements to tackle con-
temporary exploitation (e.g. Andrijasevic 2010; Brennan 2005, 2014). The treat-
ment of participants as people with agency is central to understanding not just the
theoretical and political nexus between forced migration and forced labour but is
also central to ethical research conduct. This is important in social research gener-
ally, but is an especially acute concern when working with people who, by defini-
tion, have had their choices in everyday life severely curtailed within severely ex-
ploitative situations. Hence, critically interrogating pejorative depictions of people
grouped by experience of exile and/or exploitation as ‘vulnerable’ and querying
7  Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’ 103

prejudicial labels in writing and talking is a central element of ethical practice in

researching and working with such groups.
Vulnerabilities emerging not only from persecution or exploitation but also from
migration processes, reception policies and enforcement of immigration controls
have important ramifications for ethical research conduct, particularly relating to
the imperative to ‘do no harm’, and for the establishment of trust with participants.
Refugees’ social networks are likely to feature ‘multiple layers of mistrust’ (Hynes
2003) formed through experiences of fleeing persecution, migration journeys and
then facing disbelief from authorities in destination countries. For irregular mi-
grants also, issues of (mis)trust and the risk of stigmatisation alongside the threat of
denunciation to authorities are central to the establishment, and limitation, of social
networks. Trafficking routinely involves deception, often incorporating family or
friends, or traffickers who ‘groom’ and befriend as part of the trafficking process.
We can see that there are multiple concrete reasons for mistrust among individuals
with experiences of former persecution, risky migration strategies, who face hostile
immigration policies and are subject to the deceit that features in many forced la-
bour situations. The next section describes the challenges of accessing this doubly
vulnerable population and the implications of ‘illegality’ and mistrust for outreach
and recruitment strategies in the Precarious Lives study.

Access: Finding Refugees and Asylum Seekers

and Locating Experiences of Forced Labour

Our research aimed to interview people who are refugees, asylum seekers and re-
fused asylum seekers with a residential connection to Yorkshire and Humber with
experiences of forced labour. Previous research indicated (e.g. Burnett and Whyte
2010) that there could be a link between the asylum process and susceptibility
to forced labour; hence, people with an asylum claim, rather than refugees more
broadly conceived,2 were included. In-depth interviews were underpinned by a pe-
riod of ethnographic outreach. This involved over 200 visits to speak with more
than 400 contacts in the Yorkshire and Humber region at refugee and migrant sup-
port agencies sector drop-ins, team meetings and events to explain and discuss the
research (see Fig. 7.1) with staff and volunteers. The majority of visits were made
up of repeat contacts with a smaller number drop-ins and voluntary groups (such
informal English conversation projects) to meet directly with individuals in the asy-

For example, a decision was taken early on not to include people who enter the UK under ‘re-
settlement’ schemes when their refugee status is already predetermined in refugee camps by the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Resettlement refugees arrive in the
UK with refugee status and enter a resettlement programme, including training on UK rights and
entitlements not offered to those who make a ‘spontaneous’ claim for asylum after arrival in the
UK. Also not included were people who flee their country as a result of persecution and enter the
UK in another type of visa category without claiming asylum who might be thought of, or consider
themselves to be, refugees in a broader sense.
104 H. Lewis

lum system. In building our own networks, the research team1 was significantly
aided by the fact that we had more than a decade of involvement and engagement
with refugees and asylum seekers in the Yorkshire and Humber region as research-
ers, activists and volunteers. Several interviewees were identified through snow-
balling via our own existing personal contacts. Thus, multiple access points were
used to cascade information about our sampling criteria to the research population.
Furthermore, we had knowledge of the idiomatic and specialist language and sys-
tems of the asylum process and immigration policy which served to smooth signifi-
cantly the building of trust with both gatekeepers and potential participants. In the
fast-moving world of immigration and asylum policies and processes, the period
of ethnographic outreach was an important way to update and finesse this existing
vocabulary and knowledge base.
It was very challenging to identify individuals within the nexus of ‘vulnerability’
that our sampling criteria demanded: individuals who both had a claim for asylum
in the UK and experience of labour exploitation. During fieldwork, six indicators
of forced labour developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) were
used (see Table 7.1) and people identified as meeting one or more of these were
considered potential interviewees. The ILO has subsequently expanded its indica-
tors to 11, published during the study (outlined in Table 7.1, see (ILO 2012) for
detailed descriptions), and these were used in the analysis of interviewee forced
labour experiences.







Fig. 7.1   Text from the research project outreach flyer

7  Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’ 105

Table 7.1   International Labour Organisation (ILO) forced labour indicators

ILO (2005) six indicators ILO (2012) 11 indicators
Threats of actual physical or sexual violence Physical and sexual violence
Restriction of movement of the worker or Restriction of movement
confinement to a very limited area
Debt bondage, where the worker works to pay Debt bondage
off debt
Withholding wages or refusing to pay the Withholding of wages
Retention of passports and identity documents Retention of identity documents
Threat of denunciation to the authorities Intimidation and threats
Abuse of vulnerability, when an employer
takes advantage of a worker’s vulnerable
Abusive working and living condition
Excessive overtime, obligation to work hours
beyond national legal limits
Deception, failure to deliver what has been
promised to the worker

The ethnographic outreach process in total identified 70 individuals who had,

or knew someone who had, experiences that met one of the six ILO indicators for
forced labour. Some were hard to contact, others were contacted but fell silent,
particularly if they had insecure immigration status (and may have been deported or
felt too unsafe to participate). Some made considered decisions not to participate as
they did not have the time or psychological space to uncover experiences of exploi-
tation if they were busy rebuilding their lives by accessing education and seeking
work. Ultimately, we conducted in-depth interviews of 1.5–3.5 h with 30 individu-
als, 12 women and 18 men aged between 21 and 58 years and from 17 countries
in Africa, the Middle East, central Europe, and South and Central Asia (outlined in
more detail in Lewis et al. 2014b). All but one, interviewed on the telephone, had
exited from their labour experience(s) which featured forced labour indicators at the
time of the interview, though they had not necessarily escaped from a wider ‘precar-
ity trap’ resulting from intersecting labour and immigration insecurities (see Lewis
et al. 2014b). The research was also informed by interviews with 23 policymakers
and practitioners working in migrant advocacy, refugee support, labour organis-
ing and regulation and anti-trafficking. All of the interviews were audio-recorded
and fully transcribed by external freelance and professional transcribers who signed
confidentiality agreements. Freelance transcribers were offered opportunities to dis-
cuss any emotionally challenging interview content within the research team.
Already aware of the great sensitivities and complexities of working with mi-
grants with insecure status, project communications never used the word ‘illegal’
as a matter of principle (no-one is illegal) and focussed on experiences of labour
exploitation (repeatedly described through colloquial ILO forced labour indicators,
Fig. 7.1). Despite this, the project was routinely re-presented by gatekeepers as a
106 H. Lewis

study of ‘illegal working’ among asylum seekers (as evidenced, for example, in
minutes of meetings attended). This increased the need to personally ‘be there’ at
meetings or events to give an accurate message, offering scripts and sentences to
gatekeepers to avoid the repackaging of the study as one of ‘illegal’ working, which
would almost certainly create barriers to participation. In response to gatekeeper
anxieties, a list of ‘frequently asked questions’ was developed, addressing head-on
the common concerns of intermediaries: talking about ‘illegal’ working, protection
from risks of exposure to government authorities, referral for support if needed,
defining forced labour and the negotiation of informed consent. ‘Trafficking’ has
more currency as a term, and many staff and volunteers at gatekeeping agencies
had received training in trafficking indicators, and so were at least cognizant that
someone with exploitative experiences involving deception would not be likely to
verbalise these in legal or policy terms. Indeed, one anti-trafficking outreach worker
supporting women referred into the ‘National Referral Mechanism’ for ‘suspected
victims of trafficking’ pointed out that a key role for her was to encourage women
to use the word ‘trafficking’ when encountering police and other services to help
increase the likelihood that they would receive appropriate support.
To gain access to participants without exposing them as someone with a ‘forced
labour’ experience, it was important to consider how this could be done with sub-
tlety. Flyers with the research phone numbers and emails were distributed widely in
spaces used by people in the asylum system, and it was important to, for example,
wait in a quiet corner after announcing the research at a public forum to allow indi-
viduals to approach privately. Secrecy about personal experiences and immigration
status can be a tool of survival and control for people in precarious circumstances;
they may not share such experiences with friends or associates which can limit the
possibilities for snowball sampling. In their study, Bloch et al. (2009, p. 120) found
that in addition to fear and suspicion of the research, young undocumented migrants
are not open about their status, so others within the same country-of-origin group
were ‘unaware of whom was undocumented, making snowballing more difficult’.
Discussion of any kind of labour among asylum seekers is sensitive because em-
ployment is not authorised during an asylum claim or if the claim is refused. This
means individuals in the asylum system are unlikely to disclose any work expe-
rience, including severe labour exploitation or trafficking, to agencies supporting
them. Access in research is thus related to performance of strategic identities—the
disclosure of experiences or statuses associated with ‘vulnerability’ at certain times
to particular individuals. Individuals tend to become visible to service providers
only when they seek assistance, relating to their knowledge of existing services,
and this time of need may not be the most appropriate time to arrange participation
in research.
The ‘work taboo’ undoubtedly created considerable barriers to engaging in dis-
cussion of labour experiences, which can extend into the period after an individual
gains leave to remain as a refugee with permission to work. In addition, staff and
volunteers at gatekeeper agencies were extremely sensitive about discussing any
kind of employment with asylum seekers. The question of how services construct
their ‘service users’ is therefore centrally relevant to the success of research. The
7  Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’ 107

corrosive effects of precarious immigration status and fear of deportation there-

fore affect the establishment of trust not only with potential participants but also
with gatekeepers anxious to avoid talking about ‘illegal’ work activities. In this
sense, the ‘doctrine of illegality’ that surrounds unauthorised work extends far be-
yond individual workers and workplaces. The nature of ‘illegality’ is pervasive and
constitutes, as Sigona (2012, p. 62) outlines, ‘an all-encompassing discursive and
normative order that produces the subjectivities of those who, in any specific place
and time, happen to be labelled as ‘illegal’, as well as their spaces for social inter-
action’. ‘Illegality’ must be understood as multidimensional: producing not only
embodied exclusion in three overlapping domains of law (criminal, employment,
immigration), but also pervading undocumented migrants’ everyday lives and the
employers, services and social networks they come into contact with. Nevertheless,
a great deal of anecdotal evidence of refugee and asylum seeker labour exploitation
meant some gatekeepers expressed relief that our research was finally highlighting
an issue many feel does not receive adequate attention. The perception of the project
topic as ‘important’ undoubtedly assisted in softening apprehensions.

Negotiation of Anonymity as Central to Informed Consent

The negotiation of meaningful informed consent and the establishment of a shared

understanding of the level of anonymity offered in research are intertwined. Ensur-
ing participants understand how their narrative will be presented is a particular con-
cern when working with individuals with experiences of acute power imbalances.
Aware of issues of deep mistrust, fear of authorities and feelings about the pointless-
ness of sharing sensitive, personal information, from the outset we took steps to es-
tablish the safety of participants and pursued a wide-ranging approach to anonymity
in tandem with negotiating informed consent. This was guided by the principle of
‘doing no harm’ and an ‘ethics of care’ (Temple and Moran 2006) to maximise
participants’ abilities to control exposure of their experiences of exploitation. The
first step, described above, was to dedicate significant time to the outreach phase
to build trust and provide ways for potential participants to approach us without
exposing themselves as someone with an experience of forced labour that they may
not wish to be publicly associated with. The second step was to establish genuine
informed consent: something which goes beyond securing a signature on a form.
The third step was to consider carefully how to create a ‘safe space’—physically
and emotionally—for participants to talk. The process of negotiating informed con-
sent therefore extended back into the outreach phase and forward into prospective
outputs, engaging potential participants in active discussion of how their narratives
would be presented in research outputs.
Formal ethical review processes make a judgement in advance about whether
planned research, particularly with ‘subjects’ considered ‘vulnerable’, is harmful
or not. But the binary assessment of research as either ‘harmful’ or not does not
reflect the complex moral, ethical situations continuously confronted and revisited
108 H. Lewis

throughout the research process by the research team and advisory group. Recogni-
tion that the act of signing a printed, university letterhead consent form is not the
only (or even sometimes the principal) mechanism for ensuring informed consent
was central to our embedded ethical approach. Basic information about the research
was given in an initial meeting or telephone call. Wherever possible, a face-to-face
meeting was arranged to provide information and allow a ‘cooling-off’ period of a
few days before a recorded interview. Information would be given verbally, along-
side a short printed sheet. The discussion stressed: independence from authorities;
establishing the rationale for evidencing forced labour experiences beyond the com-
mon focus on the trafficking of (eastern European) women for sex work; describing
our intentions to influence policymakers and practitioners, while also emphasis-
ing that there would be no direct benefit to them from sharing their story for the
research. As Brennan has suggested, in research with trafficked people—and we
would extend this to both those with any experience of forced labour and irregular
migrants—researchers explaining what they will do may not go far enough; rather,
in working with those who may have told their story to multiple actors in legal,
enforcement and social services which offer ‘deliverables’, researchers must em-
phasise that a research interview may have no tangible benefits (Brennan 2005).
Information on the purpose and uses of the research, the right to withdraw at any
time and explanations of analysis, writing up and processes of anonymising inter-
view narratives were then repeated in an informal discussion to confirm consent for
participation and audio recording verbally before the start of the recorded interview.
We completed the signed consent sheet ‘post hoc’, at the end of a recorded in-
terview for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the interviewee is consenting
to their information being shared once they know exactly what it is that has been
recorded in the interview. This also allows for reflection on whether there are any
elements of the interview they might feel concerned about sharing and want to
redact. It creates a way of ‘closing down’ the emotional space of the interview, to
transition to a debriefing about the interview experience. Returning to reiterate in-
formed consent and how anonymity will be managed fits well with a discussion of
how the interviewee found reflecting on past experiences of exploitation. This helps
to return interviewees to the normality of mundane everyday life that they need to
continue with after the researcher has left, for example asking what they would do
for the rest of the day and if they would be seeing anyone who could support them
if they felt unhappy after revisiting difficult memories. To value interviewees’ time
and participation (not least in research focusing on forced labour), we felt it impor-
tant for interviewees to receive £ 20, paid in cash to avoid replicating stigma associ-
ated with asylum voucher payments. Some gatekeepers were concerned that even
this small sum could put potential interviewees at risk of having the money extorted
or stolen if they were living in insecure households and others knew about their
involvement, so caution was taken to arrange interviews as directly as possible with
interviewees. The small payment also alerted gatekeepers to our intentions to avoid
being overly extractive and to value interviewees’ time and contribution. There was
no indication that the payment was significant in affecting recruitment, as potential
interviewees almost never mentioned it and were more interested in discussing the
7  Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’ 109

anonymity we could offer and possible uses of the research. This research payment
was given at the end, presented as a gift in an unmarked envelope and not men-
tioned or discussed as part of the negotiation of informed consent to avoid the direct
association of consent with payment (Head 2009).
The principle of anonymity, rather than the idea of confidentiality, led the nego-
tiation of consent with participants. In many respects, research seeks the opposite of
keeping an individual’s experience ‘confidential’: indeed, the purpose of empirical
research with ‘hidden’ populations is to expose such experiences. Many of those who
participated in interviews were concerned that they would not be able to be identi-
fied—whether by authorities, their ‘exploiters’ or employers, or associates from their
social networks. We separated nationality and ethnicity data from quotes. Ages were
identified only in an ‘age band’ of five years. We removed any names, employer
business names, and neighbourhood or location identifiers and in some cases altered
or removed details from narratives of exploitation if these were unusual.
Interviewees were asked to select their own pseudonym. We considered this im-
portant for several reasons. First, it allowed interviewees some control over how
their anonymised account would be presented; secondly, it provides the chance to
select a name they might recognise to offer the potential for individuals to identify
their quotes or contribution in published materials. Thirdly, and most importantly,
the self-selection of pseudonyms engages interviewees in the process of anonymis-
ing their own account and discussion of the choice of name engendered reflec-
tion on the practicalities of anonymising. This provides some shared control over
processes of anonymisation so that it does not just happen much later on, ‘behind
closed doors’, conducted by researchers as the recipients of research data. In choos-
ing their pseudonym, participants would often first think of a nickname, or rela-
tive’s or child’s name; so the surrounding discussion (‘this has to a be a name that
no-one who knows you would associate with you’) makes writing more tangible,
helping to visualise the process that researchers go through with the data, transcrib-
ing and transferring sections of spoken word into written text.
Providing some control over how and to whom their detailed experience was
shared is important given that some of our interviewees had past experience of dis-
closure of exploitation leading to further exploitation, not being helped or being dis-
believed by officials. Happy, for example, revealed that she had been brought to the
UK as a domestic servant and was later forced into prostitution. After escaping, she
developed a close relationship with a new boyfriend and eventually opened up to
him about her experiences. He later used this information against her in psychologi-
cal abuse coupled with domestic violence. At an early state, we agreed on a ‘serious
harm’ protocol with the research advisory group on how to respond in the event of
disclosure of immediate and serious harm. This incorporated staying in contact with
and bringing issues back to the research team to discuss before taking any action,
but also discussing any action deemed necessary with participants. We communi-
cated actively with organisations able to offer help to ensure that we understood
exactly what it would be like if we referred someone to that organisation and what
help they could offer, conveying this information to interviewees to allow them to
decide whether to pursue a referral. We ensured that interviewees were included in
110 H. Lewis

interpreter selection, if required, to allow control over who their exploitation experi-
ence was shared with. This can be practically quite difficult, given the need to speak
through an interpreter. But, participants usually spoke some English even if just a
few words, and we created the space and time to communicate with participants to
check they were happy with the interpreter. In a couple of cases, participants re-
quested interpreters who already knew about their experience through interactions
with service providers, allowing them to set the boundaries of disclosure. We also
considered those subsequently exposed to the narratives of the interviews, offer-
ing debriefing within the research team after interviews and considering ways to
reduce the emotional burden on freelance transcribers by offering summaries of
interview narratives in advance and being available for informal chats about the
material which could not be shared.
After interviews began, semi-structured interview tools quickly became prompts
for a relatively unstructured, open-ended discussion of migration journeys, entry to
the UK, work histories and survival experiences driven by interviewees’ desire to
provide narrative biographical accounts. The risk of retraumatising in interviews
can to some extent be mitigated by ‘softening’ the experience, for example through
dress style, furniture layout and questioning style. We took care to avoid official-
looking rooms, spaces and layout to avoid replicating other types of interview ex-
perience typified by power imbalance (the Home Office interview, the police inter-
view). ‘Monitoring’ data (on marital status, gender, age, brief immigration and work
biographies) were collected at the end of the interview to fill any gaps that did not
already come up within the narrative to avoid going over such information more
than once. All of these tactics demanded a flexible, iterative approach to managing
the practical, material and emotional space of the interview requiring interviewers
to draw on experience and act as reflexive practitioners.
There are limitations to using the interview method. The ‘vicissitudes of the
scheduled “interview moment”’ (Brennan 2005, p. 40) cannot capture experiences
over time, particularly of ‘rebuilding’ lives after exit, and how individuals’ own
understandings of their experiences of exploitation and views of third parties may
change. However, we were generally speaking to people some time (often years)
after their exploitation experiences, which meant that uncovering limited aspects of
these scenarios was well suited to the delimited research interview. In many cases,
interviewees had experienced traumatic and confusing changes in immigration and
work status that meant they struggled to recall precise details or sequences of events.
Our research was not intended to confirm whether interviewees had been in a situ-
ation of forced labour as legally defined (and in any case, there is very little case
law to shape such a definition), but to explore how and why migration and work
biographies intersected to produce susceptibility to employment featuring forced
labour practices. Furthermore, we were interested in interviewees’ experiences and
decisions; so it was their narratives and understandings that were important.
The interview provides a bounded space to ‘enter’ and then ‘leave’ reflections
on difficult exploitation and immigration experiences that individuals might other-
wise actively forget. Equally, it cannot be assumed that people with experiences of
trafficking or forced labour consider their greatest ‘vulnerability’ to be the risk of
7  Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’ 111

exposure to their exploiters. Dedem, for example, spent some time describing his
long work history in the UK as an undocumented refused asylum seeker for over
10 years. Within interviews, we asked about past experiences of work to consider
whether prior labour exploitation or trafficking deception extending to countries of
origin or transit was relevant. Dedem strongly rejected this line of enquiry, saying
‘that’s, how can I say, it’s a solicitor's thing to ask me this kind of thing you are
interested in’. Indeed, even for those who felt they remained at risk from the people
who had exploited them, it was nearly always fears relating to precarious immigra-
tion status and anonymity from immigration authorities and government offices that
were more significant concerns for interviewees:
Interviewer: To show my university that I’ve discussed this with you, if it’s ok, I’d
like you to just go through this [informed consent] form.
Alex: [You’ll] show this to Home Office to send me back?
This brief interaction with Alex, a refused asylum seeker, is indicative of how the
anxieties surrounding the ‘illegality’ of unauthorised working and the consequences
of exposure were foremost in the minds of interviewees in negotiation of anonym-
ity to secure informed consent. Tears often came not when people reflected on past
experiences of exploitation but, particularly for those interviewees who were in
a position of insecure immigration status at the time of the interview, when cur-
rent anxieties about intransigent immigration cases emerged. Previous experiences
of being disbelieved by immigration authorities evoked feelings of powerlessness
and lack of control over possibilities of planning a personal, family life, curbing
aspirations and hopes. While signing consent forms was promised as part of our
university ethical clearance, we consider that all of the described techniques for
securing meaningful informed consent verbally are equally, if not more important to
interviewees, particularly for individuals living highly mobile, insecure lives mean-
ing that keeping copies of paperwork can be difficult. Securing genuine informed
consent (Mackenzie et al. 2007) intertwines with a shared understanding of pro-
cesses of anonymity, binding fieldwork with research analysis and dissemination
and requiring the engagement of participants as actors in the research process.

Ethics in Analysis, Write-up and Dissemination

Ethical considerations extend beyond fieldwork into analysis and dissemination

(Düvell et al. 2010). As indicated, imagining how analysis operates and the outputs
it leads to are a vital part of negotiating informed consent. Conveying the levels of
anonymity offered when interview narratives are shared in research outputs was
paramount and was explained in depth with potential interviewees. Working with
participants who speak English as a secondary language (or working through an in-
terpreter) and who have a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds
increases the need for realistic practical information of how analysis operates: how
stories are mixed together in writing and anonymity secured as narratives and de-
112 H. Lewis

tails are merged and broken up in written outputs. The politicisation of traffick-
ing and forced labour makes it especially important to make clear to participants
where our work as scholars is positioned, how writing is created, likely audiences
and how writing might be used (Brennan 2005). Methodological literature is often
caught in the spaces of interaction with participants rather than the world of files
and data management where the work of securing anonymity takes place. Illegality
concerns particularly extend to the need to minimise harm by safeguarding partici-
pant data within and after the fieldwork to ensure that any identifying details cannot
be linked to interview narratives. We did not record any official identifying data,
such as Home Office numbers, a detail it was important to emphasise to gatekeepers
and potential participants. Participants were offered the chance to sign the consent
forms using their pseudonym to ensure that records held to comply with university
ethics requirements could not put them at risk. Once each participant had selected
their pseudonym in the interview, this was used from that point forward to record all
handwritten, audio and typed interview data that could not be connected to a sepa-
rately stored, password-protected form with a pseudonym key and a third document
with real names and contact details.
While silence and forgetting can be crucial survival tools for people surviving
trauma, we should not underestimate the strategic decisions made by participants
to engage with researchers for a range of reasons. Many interviewees expressed
that they wanted to use their experience to help others. It is important to consider
researchers’ responsibilities to all migrants in terms of the concepts we use, how
we write, types of publishing outputs and so on. While in this study a strict level
of anonymity was required to avoid unintended negative consequences, it is also
the case that without contextual information such as country of origin, and details
of employers and sectors’ practices, the power and possible social benefits of the
data may be diminished both analytically and for the potential to effect change in
identifying and tackling forced labour. Some issues of trafficking and forced labour
are highly specific to certain cultural/social groups. However, there is also the risk
that information about certain types of employment, employers and so on could
be used to harm the wider population of insecure migrants, for example if used by
authorities as intelligence to shape enforcement in particular areas. Nevertheless,
we found, similarly to Düvell et al. (2010), that the sharing of general information
about labour sectors and types of jobs did not offer anything radically new to public
officials familiar with existing information about trafficking and forced labour.
So, beyond the increasing calls for academic research to ‘impact’ society and the
economy, what are our responsibilities to the people who have shared their personal,
often traumatic stories of exploitation with us? As Düvell et al. ask in relation to
irregular migration research (2010), do the potential social benefits outweigh poten-
tial social harms? In relation to research with refugees, Jacobsen and Landau argue
(2003) that there is a dual imperative for research to be both academically rigorous
and practically relevant to the struggles of disempowered groups in society. Are
academic research articles alone a valid output for research which aims to uncover,
report on and understand trauma and vulnerability? In the UK, the new Modern
Slavery Act 2015 means the policy relevance and public interest in the trauma and
7  Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’ 113

vulnerability resulting from forced labour are likely to be an ever more ‘sexy’ and
fundable topic. This makes it an urgent task for researchers to consider not only
minimising harm to participants but also moving beyond this to design research to
bring about reciprocal benefits for ‘vulnerable’ participants or communities (Mack-
enzie et al. 2007). Furthermore, reciprocity and the possibilities for research to share
resources or facilitate social change by involving target communities and organisa-
tions in design and conduct can and should be considered not only in dissemination
of research data after collection but also from the outset, within research design.
Discussion of the interpretation of situations as ‘forced’, or not, continues
through our dissemination of the Precarious Lives research findings with academic
and policy audiences and was directly encouraged in a series of ‘user workshops’ to
launch a practitioner guide and accompanying set of postcards and posters to raise
awareness of forced labour among refugees and asylum seekers—an outcome of
a follow-up ‘knowledge exchange’ grant1. Always situating experiences of forced
labour in critical, political analyses of the structural production of exploitation in a
field so often characterised by isolated tales of exceptional ‘slavery’ or ‘trafficking’
is a central part of our ethical commitment. Foregrounding analyses in the structural
effects of migration and labour regimes is not only a conceptual exercise to inter-
rogate concepts of unfreedom, precarity and socio-legal status (Lewis et al. 2014a)
but was also a pragmatic tool of engagement in the field shaping our engagement
with participants. These concerns are central to ethical considerations that extend
beyond the moments and spaces of fieldwork to how we speak about and frame data


There are multiple ethical dimensions of research with groups who may be con-
sidered ‘doubly vulnerable’—such as forced migrants with experiences of forced
labour. These extend throughout the research process from design to fieldwork to
analysis and dissemination. In the Precarious Lives study, while there was consid-
erable time given in the planning stages to considering ethical guidance, the pri-
mary approach taken was to engage in an ongoing, daily, reflexive consideration of
‘ethical’ responses to diverse individual circumstances guided by the principle of
avoiding harm. We did this through careful consideration of the language and style
used to communicate our research to the wider research field, taking time to repeat
core information about indicators of forced labour in an attempt to distance from
the repackaging of the study as one of ‘illegal’ working. This problem in itself illus-
trates the potency of assumed categories of ‘victims of human trafficking’. Making
the case for recognition of forced labour among refugees and asylum seekers chal-
lenges powerful imagined ‘victimhood’ trafficking narratives and continues to be a
major contribution of the study.
This chapter also considered the ways in which illegality affected the research,
recognising that criminal, employment and immigration law each affect the experi-
114 H. Lewis

ences of migrants with precarious immigration status working in situations of forced

labour. The sensitivities of refugee and asylum service providers to talking about
‘illegal’ activities strongly affected the outreach phase of the research and access
to potential participants. This was due both to the misrepresentation of the study
as one focusing on ‘illegal’ working and to gatekeepers’ reluctance to engage in
identifying potential participants as they were often uncomfortable with discussing
working. We found that we could overcome the apprehension of individuals with an
asylum claim and experiences of labour exploitation through detailed discussion of
informed consent, but that gatekeeper refugee service providers were on the whole
much more nervous and unconfident about talking about employment. These chal-
lenges for research in this area indicate that there are almost insurmountable barriers
to tackling forced labour when the identification of what is a serious human rights
abuse is eclipsed by the risks to individuals of criminalisation, imprisonment and
deportation if they disclose unauthorised employment.
In negotiating access, our interactions were guided wherever possible by allow-
ing individuals to control who became aware of their experiences. We built trust
by meeting people ‘where they were at’, physically—meeting people where they
felt most comfortable—and in their individual migration and labour journeys, lis-
tening to interpretations of experiences as more or less coerced. We aimed to cre-
ate a comfortable space for the interview, including avoiding the appearance of a
solicitor, Home Office or service provider interview. It was important to offer very
clear information on what we would do with interviewees’ narratives by explaining
processes of analysis and writing up in tangible ways. Incorporating an ethical ap-
proach that is iterative, flexible and responsive has time implications and relies on
highly skilled researchers acting as reflexive practitioners.
Forced labour is a term—like forced migration—circumscribed by understand-
ings of involuntariness, lack of choice and coercion. It is therefore particularly im-
portant to design research and communicate findings in ways that engage with the
ambiguities and tensions that arise from recognising people who are ‘refugees’,
‘undocumented’, ‘trafficked’ or in ‘forced labour’ as both capable and, in certain
ways at particular times, ‘vulnerable’. While recognising ‘needs’, it is important
to avoid dehumanising people as needy, requiring attention to questions of how
to balance capability and vulnerability in research conduct and outputs. Such an
approach moves beyond the encapsulation of the ethical dimensions of research in
ethical approval or signed informed consent sheets. Ethical dimensions need to be
incorporated in all aspects of the research from design to outputs.


Allamby, L., Bell, J., Hamilton, J., Hansson, U., Jarman, N., Potter, M., & Toma, S. (2011). Forced
labour in Northern Ireland: Exploiting vulnerability. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Anderson, B., & Rogaly, B. (2005). Forced labour and migration to the UK. London: Trades
Union Congress.
7  Negotiating Anonymity, Informed Consent and ‘Illegality’ 115

Andrijasevic, R. (2010). Migration, agency and citizenship in sex trafficking. Basingstoke: Pal-
grave Macmillan.
Balch, A. (2012). Regulation and enforcement to tackle forced labour in the UK: A systematic
response? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Bloch, A., Sigona, N., & Zetter, R. (2009). ‘No right to dream’. The social and economic lives of
young undocumented migrants in Britain. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Brennan, D. (2005). Methodological challenges in research with trafficked persons: Tales from the
field. International Migration, 43(1–2), 35–54. doi:10.1111/j.0020-7985.2005.00311.x.
Brennan, D. (2014). Life interrupted. Trafficking into forced labor in the United States. Durham
and London: Duke University Press.
Burnett, J., & Whyte, D. (2010). The wages of fear: risk, safety and undocumented work. Leeds:
PAFRAS and the University of Liverpool.
Clements, J., Rapley, M., & Cummins, R. A. (1999). On, to, for, with—vulnerable people and the
practices of the research community. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 27, 103–115.
Düvell, F., Triandafyllidou, A., & Vollmer, B. (2010). Ethical issues in irregular migration research
in Europe. Population, Space and Place, 16, 227–239.
Dwyer, P., Lewis, H., Scullion, L., & Waite, L. (2011). Forced labour and UK immigration policy:
Status matters? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Geddes, A., Craig, G., Scott, S., Ackers, L., Robinson, O., & Scullion, D. (2013). Forced labour in
the UK. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Head, E. (2009). The ethics and implications of paying participants in qualitative research. Inter-
national Journal of Social Research Methodology, 12(4), 335–344.
Hugman, R., Pittaway, E., & Barolomei, L. (2011). When ‘do no harm’ is not enough: The ethics
of research with refugees and other vulnerable groups. British Journal of Social Work, 41(7),
Hynes, P. (2003). The issue of ‘trust’ or ‘mistrust’ in research with refugees: choices, caveats
and considerations for researchers. New issues in refugee research, UNHCR Working Paper
No. 98.
ILO. (2005). Human trafficking and forced labour exploitation. Guidelines for legislation and law
enforcement. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
ILO. (2012). ILO indicators of forced labour: International Labour Organization.
Jacobsen, K., & Landau, L. (2003). Researching refugees: some methodological and ethical con-
siderations in social science and forced migration. New issues in refugee research, UNHCR
Working Paper No. 90.
Kagan, C., Lo, S., Mok, L., Lawthom, R., Sham, S., Greenwood, M., & Baines, S. (2011). Experi-
ences of forced labour among Chinese migrant workers. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Lalani, M., & Metcalf, H. (2012). Forced labour in the UK: the business angle. York: Joseph
Rowntree Foundation.
Lewis, H., Dwyer, P., Hodkinson, S., & Waite, L. (2014a). Hyper-precarious lives? Migrants,
work and forced labour in the Global North. Progress in Human Geography, Online.
Lewis, H., Dwyer, P., Hodkinson, S., & Waite, L. (2014b). Precarious lives: Forced labour, exploi-
tation and asylum. Bristol: The Policy Press.
Mackenzie, C., McDowell, C., & Pittaway, E. (2007). Beyond ‘Do No Harm’: The challenge
of constructing ethical relationships in refugee research. Journal of Refugee Studies, 2-(2),
Malkki, L. (1995). Refugees and exiles: From “Refugee Studies” to the national order of things.
Annual Review of Anthropology, 25, 495–523.
Moore, L. W., & Miller, M. (1999). Initiating with doubly vulnerably populations. Journal of Ad-
vanced Nursing, 30(5), 1034–1040.
Refugee Studies Centre. (undated). Ethical guidelines for good research practice. Oxford: Univer-
sity of Oxford Refugee Studies Centre.
Scott, S., Craig, G., & Geddes, A. (2012). The experience of forced labour in the UK food industry.
York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
116 H. Lewis

Sigona, N. (2012). ‘I have too much baggage’: The impacts of legal status on the social worlds of
irregular migrants. Social Anthropology, 20(1), 50–65. doi:10.1111/j.1469–8676.2011.00191.x.
Stewart, E. (2005). Exploring the vulnerability of asylum seekers in the UK. Population, Space
and Place, 11(6), 499–512. doi:10.1002/psp.394.
Temple, B., & Moran, R. (2006). Doing research with refugees. Issues and guidelines. Bristol:
The Policy Press.
Tyldum, G., & Brunovskis, A. (2005). Describing the unobserved: Methodological challenges in
empirical studies on human trafficking. International Migration, 43(1–2), 17–34. doi:10.1111/
Zimmermann, S. E. (2011). Reconsidering the problem of ‘Bogus’ refugees with ‘Socio-economic
Motivations’ for seeking asylum. Mobilities, 6(3), 335–352. doi:10.1080/17450101.2011.590

Hannah Lewis  is Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the Department of Sociological Studies, Univer-
sity of Sheffield, UK. Her research focuses on lived experiences of immigration and asylum policy,
forced migration, precarity and unfree/forced labour.
Chapter 8
Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards
in Research on Migrant Workers and Forced

Sam Scott and Alistair Geddes


Most UK universities now tell the academics they employ: ‘The primary responsi-
bility for the conduct of ethical research lies with the researcher.’1 Does this mean
that responsibility for determining what is ethical lies with the researcher as well or
just that the researcher is responsible for following what is already defined as ethi-
cal? We contend that it means only the latter for most research, with the ethical tide
over recent years moving in favour of discipline- and institution-wide ethics stan-
dardisation. This standardisation is usually centred on the following main criteria:
1. Researchers should follow all applicable ethical codes of practice (institutional,
professional and funders’, where they exist).
2. Harm (physical or psychological) must not result from research.
3. Reputational damage must not result from research.
4. The nature and purpose of the research should be clearly explained.
5. Consent of participants can be withdrawn at any time up to publication of
6. Inputs can be examined and amended.
7. Anonymity and confidentiality will be ensured.
8. Deception and covert research is to be avoided if possible, though is permissible
subject to approval by an institutional ethics committee.
9. Research with certain identified ‘vulnerable’ populations (e.g. children under 18
years) and on ‘sensitive’ topics will also require committee approval.

This is taken from a university’s current codes of practice on research ethics.

S. Scott ()
School of Natural and Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, Francis Close Hall
Campus, Cheltenham, UK
A. Geddes
School of Social Sciences, University of Dundee, Nethergate, Dundee, Scotland, UK
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 117
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_8
118 S. Scott and A. Geddes

This process of standardisation of ethical research has largely been welcomed and
has become increasingly important. Nevertheless, some types of research methods
and topics do make some researchers more fearful than others of stepping outside
of these now well-established parameters. Meanwhile, experts within universities
who have written on ethics acknowledge that more complex sets of ethics are also
important in guiding research (Guillemin and Gillam 2004; Guillemin and Heggen
2009; Shaw 2008).2
In our professional careers as social scientists, we have carried out qualitative
research on labour migration and workplace exploitation both from the perspec-
tive of migrant workers (Scott et al. 2012) and their employers (Geddes and Scott
2010; Scott 2013a, b, c). Work on the first of these perspectives has included a study
funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) into migration and forced labour
in the UK, while research on employers’ perspectives was inspired by policy work
carried out for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (see Balch et al. 2009; Geddes
et al. 2007; Scott et al. 2007) and Nuffield Foundation.3 Across both of these per-
spectives, involving mainly in-depth interviews, pay, work and housing conditions
of migrant workers were investigated, in some instances providing evidence of ex-
ploitative practices. Ethical issues were also raised at various stages of the research
from conception right through to publication.
The aim of this chapter is to review in more detail some of the ethical issues
we faced during this research and in particular to use this review to elaborate the
distinction between standardised ethical codes, on the one hand, and the need for
more flexible, relative and context-specific ethics on the other. While these two ap-
proaches to ethics may be complementary, this is not always the case. In the next
section, we present the basic argument for this distinction in more detail, before
then embroidering it via consideration of six specific ethical considerations arising
from our own research. The final section then draws together conclusions from this
analysis, which we hope will contribute to a growing literature on the handling of
ethical issues in migration research (for other related discussions on this see Ander-
son et al. 2012 and van Liempt and Bilger 2009, 2012).

Beyond Standardised Institutional Ethics:

Opening a Debate

Top-down ethical standardisation, cascaded down to academics from universities

and professional bodies, has ostensibly been done to serve the interests both of
those being researched and those doing the research. However, it is important not to

In our own field of geography, there has been long-running and vigorous philosophising over
morality and ethics (in a broad sense and not just in terms of research; see for example Barnett
2011; Smith 1997, 2000, 2001).
Details of the JRF forced labour programme can be found at:
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 119

forget that ethical frameworks are also part of a wider and burgeoning institutional
bureaucracy and that they also serve a second important function: namely, to protect
those institutions from litigation and reputational damage should any problems or
controversies arise with the research. This means that where a university researcher
steps outside of their institution’s ethics codes, the situation may amount not only to
‘unethical’ professional practice per se but may also constitute a potential threat to
their employer and even their own employment status. Such implications are appar-
ent from the way in which responsibility for ethical research as already defined in
an institutional code is devolved down to the individual researcher.
While it may thus be safer not to challenge or contravene institutional ethics
codes, we believe that there is still a distinction to be made between relying on
conformance with those codes on the one hand—that is, research which is ethical
‘on paper’—and aiming for ethical research outcomes on the other hand. During all
stages of the research process, we argue instead that individual researchers should
also deploy their own flexible, relative and context-specific ethics judgements to-
wards achieving those outcomes. This distinction is crucial, since as we see it, the
latter ‘individualised’ ethics judgements do not always align with institutional eth-
ics codes, and as a result it is important to identify and consider where the points of
difference and debate may arise.
There are two strands of argument we can use to build up the case for recognis-
ing this distinction and the need to consider the importance of more individual,
relative and context-specific ethical considerations. Firstly, there is evidence that
employers and funders of researchers have themselves not always been led first or
foremost by ethical considerations, in turn suggesting the need for individual re-
searchers to retain a critical stance in respect of the research that the former promote
and condone. A case in point here is the use of insights from management studies
and psychology in order to increase the tools available to ‘discipline’ and ‘control’
workers. Such uses of research on work/er management first focused on ‘scien-
tific management’ of factory work (Taylor 1911) but then later turned to address
‘white-collar’ work (Wright Mills 1951). However, Baritz (1960) was one of the
first to question the ethics of those developments. His analysis led him to conclude
that university research had ‘either backed away from political and ethical implica-
tions…or have faced these considerations from the point of view of management’
(ibid: 199), and also that social scientists had become ‘servants of power’ (ibid:
210). Within our own discipline, the well-known David Harvey argued similarly
that academic geographers were increasingly avoiding research deemed by their
managers and funders to be critical, controversial or politically sensitive (Harvey
1974). Furthermore, some years after such criticisms were being raised, social sci-
ence funding experienced a funding attack that was to precipitate a further process
of reorientation. In the early 1980s in the UK, this process was central to the rever-
sal of a previous decision to end all state funding for social science research (Posner
2002) and included much greater emphasis on achieving economic impact from the
120 S. Scott and A. Geddes

research, thus doing little to assuage the sorts of criticisms Harvey and Baritz had
Secondly and interweaving with the previous point, the effect of the increased
adoption of top-down and standardised research ethics codes on the contemporary
research mix also needs to be considered. In this regard, we would contend that
standardised institutional systems of ethics have added to disincentives to research
which is more challenging owing to the particular groups, topics or methods in-
volved, such as covert or semi-covert research on illicit and illegal practices like
corruption, nepotism, discrimination or bullying. Standardised codes, developed to
encompass all types of research, are unlikely to offer much if any relevant informa-
tion on how key issues (e.g. data collection, management and use and dissemination
of results) should best be dealt with in these situations. We do recognise that institu-
tions also may have expert review panels alongside their standardised ethics codes
to which ‘complex cases’ may be forwarded for further attention. Nevertheless, our
point remains that standardised ethics codes can be productive of an uneven distri-
bution of additional burden across researchers and that, consequently, those seeking
to work on already more challenging topics are also more likely to have to draw on
their own judgements, in order to address the range of ethical issues that may arise.
Drawing these strands together, our view is that the positioning of institutional
ethics codes ahead of the scope for individual and context-specific ethics judge-
ments should be subject to greater critical scrutiny by social scientists. What is
more, the need for the latter, individual-level judgements is also about more than
filling in gaps or blank spaces in the standardised codes, and rather is about recog-
nising that there are situations where certain actions or decisions may be defensible
on ethical grounds, even if they do not appear to match up to the usual requirements
of standardised codes. Thus the question of responsibility for upholding research
ethics needs to be looked into again too, going beyond the concept of compliance
with standardised codes.
The next section of the chapter contextualises this argument with particular ref-
erence to our experiences of doing qualitative migrant worker and forced-labour
research in the UK. Six specific issues are singled out for discussion, including
professional objectivity, the use of research intermediaries, research co-production,
researcher professionalism, anonymity and informed consent and research impact.

Perhaps the most obvious early manifestation of the reorientation of state-funded social science
research referred to in the text was the renaming of the Social Science Research Council as the
Economic and Social Research Council.
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 121

Ethical Issues in Qualitative Research on Migrant and

Forced Labour

Professional Objectivity

At a recent conference attended by one of us, a professor of migration argued that

the academic’s role in acting ‘professionally’ involved conforming to ethical guide-
lines and presenting data as objectively as possible. Our view is that this is a some-
what evasive standpoint in that it downplays the possibility that research may cut
across both professional and personal ethics and politics and suggests that one can
step outside those differences readily and without problem.
In reality, there is a complex set of relationships between professional objectiv-
ity, adherence to institutional ethics codes and individual ethics judgements. The
latter may be consistent with institutional codes, but they may also challenge no-
tions of professional, objective and ethical research as determined ‘from above’.
For instance, understanding human trafficking based on collecting stories from mi-
grants who may or may not have been trafficked may be carried out impeccably
in the sense of following the criteria of informed consent, anonymity and so on.
Such understanding, however well meaning, may though ultimately help to close
off migratory routeways for other migrants. In other words, there may be a specific
question about whether research on trafficking that results in increasing knowledge
of irregular immigration also achieves the standardised ethical objective of prevent-
ing harm. This question may also have two answers: yes as far as some trafficking
victims are concerned, but no as far as many other would-be migrants are con-
cerned. This example is admittedly quite coarse-grained, yet it suffices to highlight
that research can have multiple associated ethical and political layers and agendas,
and that these do not always run in the same direction. However, the ‘professional-
objective researcher’ caricature can tend to obfuscate this complexity.
How then to proceed? It may still be better to start from the view of accepting
that one may be guided by institutional codes and that they include some degree
of constraint on research that is possible. However, we are also saying that the re-
searcher should be prepared to deploy their own judgements to ensure that research
is ultimately ethical—albeit acknowledging that such judgements themselves may
be subject to contestation and debate. In geography, on topics from socio-spatial
inequality, to ghettoization of minorities to human-induced climate change, there
are multiple areas where institutional ethics codes and individual ethics judgements
may not always align, where instead critical debate exists around the processes and
outcomes of research because of their political and economic implications.
A specific example of this issue emerged during our own JRF-funded study into
forced labour in the UK. The very framing of the remit for this research, around the
introduction of a criminal offence of forced labour, posed us an ethical dilemma
from the outset, as the new legal definition of forced labour is purposefully narrow
and focusses on the very worst forms of employment abuse and exploitation. In
consequence, researchers and others using only this legal definition might conclude
122 S. Scott and A. Geddes

that forced labour is a relatively minor (though still serious) issue as far as UK
working conditions are concerned, when in fact there is other literature to suggest
that there is a large and growing grey area between ‘decent’ and other work (e.g.
Skrivankova 2010).
Our approach to dealing with this was to look for workers (in particular migrants
to the UK) who had experienced indicators of forced labour, rather than those who
were defined as forced-labour victims per se in a political-legal sense. In addition,
we also attempted to retain a broad coverage on all forms of and reasons for forced
labour, rather than gravitating towards the connection between human traffick-
ing and forced labour. Up to that point, some of the best evidence then available
pointed to the importance of this connection, to the point of eliding forced labour
with human trafficking. However, we believed that, if one is interested in worker
exploitation as an issue, then the lack of evidence of trafficking should not limit
the investigation. To this end, we wrestled with the issue of how a social ‘problem’
is defined, by whom and for what ends and encountered a variety of agendas. Our
final decision not to narrow our project investigation to just the legal definitions of
forced labour or to trafficking for forced labour and to align it instead with other
literature on workplace abuse and exploitation was essentially itself a politicised
step against simply accepting a priori framings of a social problem.

Research Intermediaries and ‘Insider’ Status

When carrying out research with other ethnic, cultural, racial, religious or linguistic
groups, use of intermediaries from the groups is often desirable, if not essential.
There are three main research intermediary models in this respect: peer or com-
munity researchers (Edwards and Alexander 2011; Marlowe et al. 2014; Ryan et al.
2011; Sporton 2013), informants (Whyte 1943) and interpreters/translators (Ed-
wards 1998; Temple 1997, 2002; Temple and Moran 2006; Wallin and Ahlstrom
Of these models, we adopted the peer/community researcher approach in our
forced-labour study (also covered in Scott et al. 2012).5 We recruited a range of
peer/community researchers having nationality and linguistic similarities to a range
of migrant groups we sought to target, assuming that these similarities would en-
able us to identify and access exploited workers across the groups. Furthermore, our
choice of this model also stemmed from awareness of the problems previous studies
had encountered in obtaining access to migrant worker interviewees via their em-
ployers (e.g. Anderson et al. 2012).
Our initial aim was to recruit a minimum of 60 interviewees, across five tar-
geted regions of the UK (Scotland, southwest England, Lincolnshire, Liverpool,
London), following the recruiting and training of 13 peer/community researchers in

Peer or community researchers may be defined as: ‘People who live within, and have everyday

experiences as a member of, a particular geographical or social “community”, and who use their
contacts and detailed lay knowledge in a mediating role, helping to gather and understand infor-
mation from and about their peers for research purposes’ (Edwards and Alexander 2011, p. 269).
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 123

those regions. Issues of access, authenticity, legitimacy, rapport and trust were all
unquestionably assisted by our researchers’ ‘insider’ positions in particular group-
ings within their respective regions. Consequently, we concur with the report by the
organisation Verité on another recent study of forced labour: ‘Research also high-
lighted the importance of local ties with communities. Local contacts were essential
in gaining access to communities, establishing rapport and trust, and interpreting
and analyzing results’ (Verité 2012, p. 17).
However, as still others have observed, the undoubtedly valuable ‘insider’ status
of peer/community researchers should not be celebrated uncritically (Elliott et al.
2002; Ganga and Scott 2006; Maykovich 1977; Rhodes 1994; Song and Parker
1995; Zinn 1979). In our case, we now know that we (together with our other aca-
demic colleagues in the study team) had some unrealistic expectations about the de-
gree to which ‘insider’ status premised on the aforementioned similarities between
researchers and target migrant groupings would circumvent difficulties of accessing
exploited workers.
Looking back on this, we should have anticipated better the ways in which insid-
er status is itself variegated and how this can shape access to a specific ‘communi-
ty’. Our peer/community researchers’ networks were composed of both ‘strong’ and
‘weak’ ties (Granovetter 1973), and we appreciate far more with hindsight how the
configuration of these forms of ties was significant towards finding and recruiting
exploited migrant workers. Although migrant communities have been characterised
in terms of having a strong network base (Boyd 1989; Tilly 1990), we found more
particularly that it was our peer/community researchers’ ability to use their strong
social ties as ‘bridges’ (Putnam 2001; Ryan et al. 2008) into more extensive ‘weak-
tie’ networks that was key to the effectiveness of what we termed more colloquially
a ‘friend-of-friend’ approach to recruitment.
With hindsight we can also identify a number of ethical issues associated with
the way that our peer/community research model played out in reality. First, our
view on the efficacy of our researchers’ insider status with respect to recruiting in-
terviewees meant our initial expectations were soon out of step with the actual rate
of progress. Having built the case that the approach would work on the timescale we
had originally set out, even in view of the challenges of access associated with our
topic, and having affirmed this in our contract agreement with the funders, we stood
open to accusations of not adhering to professional practice standards. This situa-
tion provided us a valuable lesson with regard to setting targets and assessing per-
formance without accounting for local contingencies and contexts. However, just as
we were becoming more aware of problems that our peer/community researchers
were facing, fortunately our funders were also providing sympathetic support in
understanding these problems and the delay they led to.
Second, the need for peer/community researchers to bridge into extensive net-
works of weak ties also caused us to reflect on the fact that we lacked means to
acknowledge the work done by ‘friend-of-friend’ contacts and to ascertain if our re-
searchers themselves had been relying on or even had been pressurising, particular
contacts, without much (any) reciprocity. On both these points, our approach could
be said to be ethically questionable, though in some mitigation against this, the
124 S. Scott and A. Geddes

relatively small number of interviews (four or five) we expected each researcher to

complete should have prevented such pressures from developing too far.
Finally, because of the way in which interviewee recruitment actually took place,
we also became more concerned about the likelihood of news of the research travel-
ling to those who would be less likely to welcome it, including to employers and
business owners whose actions (deliberately or otherwise) might result in worker
exploitation. Usually there are important differences between the exploited and
those exploiting, such as between owners of UK food processing plants and migrant
workers or in the UK’s Chinese restaurant sector, between primarily first-generation
poorer Mandarin-speaking migrants from mainland China and the business owners
employing them (mainly wealthier Cantonese speaking from Hong Kong and other
overseas areas; see also Pai 2008 and Wu et al. 2010). Our initial assumption had
been that such differences would also play out in terms of differing sets of ties and
networks that in turn would act against news of the research spreading in an uncon-
trolled way. In practice, however, it was clear that such safeguard was difficult to
maintain, especially with the extensive weak tie networks which were used.


As well as an initially overambitious and simplistic view of our peer/community

researchers’ ‘insider’ status, we also went into the JRF research project with a view
that the researchers we recruited would want to involve themselves further in the
research beyond the specific interviewing they were paid to do, including ‘co-pro-
ducing’ the subsequent project deliverables.6 In other words, we did not expect our
relationship with the researchers we employed to remain narrowly focussed, and we
had hoped that whether through developing their intellectual curiosity in the core
topics of labour migration and work regulation, and/or desire to try to bring about
actual change, they might be motivated to contribute to the project beyond the spe-
cific interviewing work they were paid to do.
Ethically, however, these expectations around co-production (paid and unpaid)
also turned out to be questionable and naïve. The researchers working for us were
all employed on a casual cash basis per interview transcript delivered, and the first
main barrier we faced was the view among a few of them that the pay level we had
agreed was too low given the actual scale of work involved. In heavy irony that
was not lost on us, one in this subgroup even went so far as to complain that the
pay was actually ‘exploitative’. This view was communicated to us before many
interviews had been conducted and thus could be said as lacking in some substance;
nevertheless, it reflected a growing realisation of the time and effort which would be
required, even though we felt we had tried to explain this fairly and fully during the
initial research training period (see also Elliott et al. 2002, pp  175–176 on a similar

Within geography there has been recent emphasis on the need for more community participation

and ‘co-production’ in academic knowledge creation and dissemination (see for example: North
2013; Pain et al. 2011).
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 125

point). While we could attribute such criticisms to our researchers’ inexperience, we

were still quite surprised and of course dismayed by the allegations from some that
we were ourselves engaged in their exploitation.
Although most of our 13 peer/community researchers did not raise such con-
cerns, progress on conducting interviews was initially so slow as to be virtually
non-existent. Notably, by the first milestone 6 months in, only three of the 60 inter-
views we had agreed to undertake had been completed, and with some trepidation
we agreed at that stage to a ‘crisis meeting’ between ourselves (the academics on
the project) and our funder. At this meeting, the issue of pay rates for our peer/com-
munity researchers was again discussed, and a decision was taken to raise the pay
per complete interview from £235 to £385 (a 64 % increase). We reaffirmed with
the interviewers that this revised sum was to cover all the work including recruit-
ing of each interviewee, conduct of a detailed interview and delivery of a written
interview transcript translated into English. Over the subsequent 4 months, 60 more
interviews were carried out, with transcripts delivered.
As Edwards and Alexander note: ‘There can be a fine line between involving and
empowering community members as peer researchers and exploiting their labour
and expertise’ (2011, p. 273). In our case, the ethical issues we faced around pay-
ment were conflicting. On the one hand, we deliberated at length over remunerating
the researchers fairly for all their work in each interview, yet on the other hand, our
thinking at the outset of the project had been that we did not want to pay such a gen-
erous rate as to simply incentivise transcript delivery without suitable filtering and
quality control. Furthermore, by increasing the pay to what we felt was ultimately a
generous cash sum for a single interview transcript (equivalent to almost a week’s
wages after tax for a UK-based university lecturer), we had also hoped, in line with
our early expectations, that more would be delivered in terms of co-production than
just the transcript.
In the event, most of our relationships with the 13 peer/community researchers
remained rather instrumental in character. In the main, they preferred to remain
directed by us and focussed on achieving a minimum number of interviews, with
just two of the researchers showing their desire to go beyond this in terms of co-pro-
duction opportunities as outlined above as well as in carrying out further interview-
ing. However, this only became clear when we were close to achieving our target
number of interviews, and because of this we were unable to capitalise on the de-
sire shown by those researchers during the remainder of the interview work. More
broadly we were somewhat disappointed that the other researchers were apparently
not as enthused as this, based on their own respective interviewing experiences.
Was it reasonable to expect more from our peer/community researchers? Cer-
tainly some research into labour migration and workplace exploitation has pointed
to opportunities for co-production arising from a rich layer of politicised grass-roots
worker and community activity that we had also hoped to tap into in our own work
(e.g. see Wills 2005, 2008; Wills et al. 2009). Furthermore, in our case, it was not
that our researchers were outside of such positions within voluntary and community
organisations. However, our experience suggests that at the outset of a research
126 S. Scott and A. Geddes

project, it can be quite difficult to judge whether and how such involvement will
translate into subsequent inclinations or willingness.
How might things have been different from the situation just described? On fur-
ther reflection, we believe that there are a few avenues that would be worth explor-
ing. First, we could have considered doing more to distil the eventual main project
findings and conclusions for the benefit of our researchers, perhaps by budgeting for
a post-project dissemination event to discuss the results with them and to recognise
and reflect on their contribution (for other examples of this see Merry et al. 2011;
Mosavel et al. 2011). As it was, we simply provided all the researchers with a copy
of our final published report and executive summary but received few comments
back from them on either of these documents. Secondly and on a similar note, other
researchers who have explored co-production have also encouraged involvement in
subsequent publications (Castleden et al. 2010; Hawkins et al. 2011), extending as
far as documenting and analysis of the experiences of the peer/community research-
ers’ themselves (Marlowe et al. 2014). Finally, were we to use peer/community re-
searchers again (and we certainly would still recommend a version of this method-
ology), we also think it would be prudent to scale back our geographical scope and
ambitions. The decision we took to recruit a relatively large number of researchers
was grounded in concern over recruiting sufficient numbers of interviewees, from
various different migrant groups and regions, but based on our actual experience
(including the fact that two of our 13 researchers did not recruit any interviewees),
we would now look to change this. In the future, our starting preference would be
for working with just one or two peer/community researchers with experience in lo-
cal grass-roots voluntary or community organisations and able to dedicate full-time
work to the research—although even then it might still be difficult to determine
what level of co-production this might lead on to.


Our decision to use peer/community research intermediaries in our forced-labour

research, rather than a more conventional research assistants approach, is one that
also involved other compromises. One aspect of this was the need to find research-
ers situated ‘inside’ particular communities, which in practice meant compromise
with respect to their methodological and topic-specific expertise (though all the
researchers we recruited were university graduates). To be sure, we did prepare
and deliver specialist training in advance of the interviews, in fact in the form of a
two-day course that brought all the researchers together and covered all necessary
interview resources (a project information sheet, informed consent form, a list of
recruitment criteria, digital recorders and a specially written interview schedule) as
well as interview methods training and a session involving ‘mock’ interviews. Nev-
ertheless, when we later reviewed transcripts produced from the real interviews, we
were somewhat frustrated by the limited degree to which our researchers were able
to extend beyond this initial training to steer their interviews effectively to focus
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 127

on key issues in sufficient levels of detail (see also Ryan et al. 2011). The sense of
feeling ‘disconnected’ from the data (ibid: 56) was also something we experienced.
Though we did keep in regular contact with our researchers on the forced-labour
project, through meetings, emails, calls and texts, the language differences between
ourselves and the migrant groupings being researched plus the geographically dis-
persed nature of the research meant that we remained ‘at a distance’ from proceed-
ings, and were only able to assess the quality of the interview material properly after
receiving the translated transcripts.
In the event, the delays in the interviewing progress discussed previously, the
fact that most interviews were eventually conducted over a relatively short space
of time, after our initially agreed deadline had passed, and also the fact that all
transcripts were sent to a single member of the academic research team for collation
meant that, in practice, the time afforded for reviewing early transcripts and for pro-
viding formative feedback to the researchers for subsequent interviews was highly
compressed. Some reviewing did take place, but most interviewing had been done
by then. In retrospect, we should have factored in more time for feedback based on
the first few transcripts which were generated and for working with the interviewers
on developing their interview approaches.
Elaborating on the deeper question of who should and who can carry out social
research, our experiences from this research have led us to conclude that, in fu-
ture, it would be our priority to select researchers having more relevant academic
background as well as local community links and associated political interests. As
outlined above, the use of a smaller number of researchers on full-time longer con-
tracts would likely help in this respect. For most of the peer/community research-
ers we did employ, the fact that they already had other work and were juggling
the additional commitments to the project against this work proved a challenge,
and sometimes a frustrating one all round. As one peer/community researcher com-
mented: ‘There are lots of e-mails going back and forward in relation to the Project.
Maybe just a few too much. All correspondence seems to be happening during the
day when I can only be a passive participant. But I am on top of that, although not
replying to every single one of the e-mails.’

Informed Consent and Anonymity

A key aspect of research ethics is informed consent, referring broadly to ensur-

ing that key information regarding why and how a piece of research is being done
together with its potential consequences is communicated to and understood and
accepted by the potential participants in the research. In the case of obtaining in-
formed consent of participants who are migrants, language differences may require
special consideration, although in our forced-labour research we were able to use
our peer/community intermediaries to translate the project and our requests for con-
sent for the interviewees. Here, we focus instead on the question of what constitutes
all relevant facts about the research that need to be included and communicated to
128 S. Scott and A. Geddes

participants. The way to handle this question is not always something that is clearly
defined by standardised ethics codes and rather involves an element of researcher
judgement as to what is sufficient. We would also argue this judgement may also in-
volve some calculated thinking in relation to the wording and precision with which
potential consequences of the research are communicated.
One of the authors encountered this issue in his other research on employers’
attitudes on using migrant labour focussed in particular on UK food production
(Scott 2013a, b, c). At the commencement of that line of research, the pressures
on suppliers to several major supermarket chains in terms of cost and performance
demands were being more overtly acknowledged and characterised as a ‘climate
of fear’ (noted by the UK Competition Commission in 2007). Given those circum-
stances, the approaches for interviews made to food industry employers, in order
to better understand their reliance on migrant workers and the organisation of work
and workplace conditions, had to be given very careful thought. In particular, this
led to the need for considerable care over the information provided to the employers
to ensure that it met with the informed consent principle in the relevant institutional
ethics code, but also so that it would not set employers on edge and make them
reticent to accept or engage in an interview or subsequently withdraw their consent.
Importantly, the information they were given subsequently lacked details on the
way in which the research could potentially connect to academic and policy-orien-
tated debates around immigration and low-wage work (see also Ruhs and Anderson
2010 on this), illustrating that informed consent is not reducible to a principle that
can be fully covered by an institutional checking procedure. The difference between
providing some information satisfying the needs of this procedure on the one hand
and the desirability of researchers not disclosing all information on the other is an
area which merits further critical scrutiny (see also Pai 2008).
Also as part of informed consent procedures, institutional ethics codes empha-
sise anonymity with respect to the dissemination of results. The application of this
principle is focussed on those participating in the research directly, whereas the han-
dling of names of other individuals or organisations that the participants themselves
name in the research process is more ambiguous and open to the judgement of the
researcher. In another related piece of research one of us was involved in, a draft
version of the research report was circulated to stakeholders prior to publication in
line with the funder’s expectations as well to fulfil institutional ethics requirements.
The draft report included a range of company and business names, including a num-
ber which had not participated in the research. On inspecting the circulated draft,
however, some of the stakeholders requested that references to all company and
business names be removed from the final report. The report authors felt obliged to
agree to this request, but in so doing also felt they were acting unethically on two
counts—firstly as some others they had interviewed had expected names provided
to be made public and secondly because removing the names stood to reduce the
potency of the report in terms of exposing unethical working practices. The decision
to anonymise the final report kept the authors in line with the requirements of their
institutional ethics codes (linked with the issue of reputational damage mentioned
earlier), but it conflicted with their own ethics judgements about the most effective
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 129

ways to highlight both direct and inadvertent employer collusion in the develop-
ment of poor working regimes.

Research Impact

Our research on low-wage and exploited migrant workers has the potential to influ-
ence both policy and practice, and in our efforts to recruit would-be participants we
have sometimes expressed this potential around the sentiment that ‘other people
need to know what is happening in order for a situation to then improve’. How-
ever, recognising also that there are important differences between identifying so-
cial problems, assessing their likely causes and taking actions to alleviate them, we
have taken great care to avoid phrasing this potential in terms of certainty that ‘x
will definitely happen or change as a result of this project’. Nevertheless, this leaves
open the question of whether it is at all ethical to use any indication of such potential
influence as the basis for fostering cooperation in research, especially when seeking
participation from more vulnerable groups. This question has broader salience not
only to concerns over the critical independence of academics but also in view of the
contemporary emphasis on ‘research impact’. We do not have a firm answer to this
question and rather flag it up as another issue for further contemplation, although it
also seems counterproductive not to mention any potential positive influence when
seeking to engage research participants.
In our JRF-funded forced-labour project, a subsidiary issue which arose related
to the way in which this potential for change may have been transmitted from our
peer/community researchers on to the interviewees. Again language differences and
the geographical structure of the research meant that we did not have any specific
mechanisms in place to monitor this process, and throughout the interviewing phase
we remained concerned about the potential benefits and impacts of research being
misrepresented, exaggerated or misunderstood. Not only this, we now also see that
our concern to focus on policy-level impact also dominated over our attention to
other, more local, grass-roots level benefits. We acknowledge that we did not ad-
equately ask ourselves about the latter, in particular about ways to work more with
our researchers in order to identify and provide some kind of return to the local or-
ganisations and their respective networks that turned out to have a key part in facili-
tating our peer/community research methodology (see also Mackenzie et al. 2007).
In regard to benefits for the interviewees for the forced-labour research, we did
decide to produce information sheets signposting national and local support ser-
vices and organisations that they could access, and these sheets were translated for
all migrant groups we targeted. In addition, and arguably more significantly, we also
agreed that each interviewee should be paid £35 irrespective of the specific length
or content of their interview (plus we also made it clear to our researchers that, if
they felt that a participant required additional support, this could also be arranged).
However, even these rather modest potential benefits to the interviewees were
to prove controversial. For instance, on our separate project advisory group, there
130 S. Scott and A. Geddes

were some who argued that a £35 payment per interview was excessive and that
we should be using shopping vouchers instead in order to reduce the risk of attract-
ing bogus participants who were simply after ‘easy money’ (see also Hammett and
Sporton, 2012). Furthermore, we were also challenged by a stipulation from the
university finance office administering the project budget that we needed to adhere
to its own reimbursement system, which would have made it necessary for each
interviewee to submit a university expenses claim form (in English) along with their
proof of eligibility to work in the UK and to be able to accept a cheque payment
(also subject to tax). We had to argue strenuously against the appropriateness of this
system for the research that being able to pay participants at the time of interview
was an important gesture especially given the sensitive nature of worker exploita-
tion and forced labour and that a more formal and lengthy payment process could
stand to deter potential interviewees who were already difficult to recruit.7
If arranging even modest benefits such those just outlined can prove controver-
sial and time-consuming, then achieving larger-scale rewards still at a local level is
probably much more difficult. Typically, it is left up to individual researchers as to
how far they should strive to bring additional benefits to the individuals and com-
munity groups cooperating in their research and how they should do so, for example
through pro bono work (see for example Lammers 2007) or otherwise. However,
again regarding our forced-labour research, these considerations intersected with
the sense of distance we experienced from local contexts as a result of our decision
to opt for our peer/community research model, making it more difficult to sense
what additional benefits would be best for whom. On top of this, we also found
that many of the researchers we employed and who provided links to different lo-
cal groups quickly dropped out of communication with us after completing their
interviews for the project.

Final Reflections

To summarise, ethical issues emanating from research on labour conditions and

exploitation among migrant workers to date have received relatively limited dedi-
cated attention, examples being Anderson et al. (2012) and van Liempt and Bilger
(2009, 2012). The present chapter is intended as a further contribution in this area.
Beginning with a focus on standardised top-down institutional ethics codes, the
central argument in the chapter is that the general shift towards such codes (at least
in the UK) may actually be stifling certain types of research potentially deemed
‘controversial’ or ‘sensitive’, especially if no space is made for individual context-
specific ethics judgements that may sometimes challenge institutional ethics codes.
The reorientation of UK social science research since the 1980s has also imposed

Not to mention the pragmatic case for recognising that, as migrant workers, our participants may

not have had a permanent UK address where a cheque payment could be sent to.
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 131

constraints on research that cannot demonstrate direct economic benefit or impact

or else seeks to challenge existing power relations and vested interests.
The chapter then moved from a broad critique of the dominance of institutional
codes over individual ethics to focus on six specific themes and associated chal-
lenges that the authors have had to address over their migration research careers
to date. These challenges centre on themes of professional objectivity, research in-
termediation, research co-production, researcher professionalism, anonymity and
informed consent and research impact. Following our consideration of each of these
areas, our brief further conclusions are as follows:
• One should not equate objectivity in an unproblematic way with research profes-
sionalism and ethical practice.
• Research intermediaries such as peer/community researchers may have a dif-
ferent set of priorities and a different degree of practical and political interest
in research than the academics who conceive it. Therefore, it is important not to
judge others by one’s own experiences and expectations.
• ‘Insider’ status in migration research is complex. There are layers of ties and
networks that insider status opens access to, but it does this at different rates
and to different degrees and may lead to additional (usually unpaid) ‘insiders’
becoming involved.
• There is a trade-off when using intermediaries between research professionalism
and insider status.
• Ensuring informed consent is not necessarily the same as avoiding non-disclo-
sure. Similarly, consistent adherence to the principle of anonymity may not al-
ways be the most ethical option open to the researcher.
• Pointing to the positive influence research may have is usually important but can
be expressed in various ways and needs further consideration. Attention to local
grass-roots level benefits should not be overlooked, nor should it be taken as be-
ing less complex than seeking to influencing policy or legal change at a higher
(national) scale.
Alongside these particular messages, one of the big overarching lessons we have
gained from reflecting on our experience of forced-labour research is that the peer/
community research methodology we employed could have been more focused. We
conclude that there would be advantages in recruiting fewer researchers, continuing
to use researchers drawn from within local community organisations but spending
more time trying to identify researchers most interested in co-production. We would
also allocate more resources for collaborative dissemination and for an event or
other means to better show our appreciation and thanks both to the researchers and
the organisations and others they in turn drew on.
Finally, while the chapter draws from our combined experiences, we have not
turned much attention to how the interplay between standardised top-down ethics
codes and individual-level ethics plays out between different academics working to-
gether. For example, on the issue of appropriate rates of pay for the peer/community
researchers and how to respond to the criticisms of few researchers that we were
exploiting them, we initially held quite different views. Our eventual agreement on
132 S. Scott and A. Geddes

these matters was not before considerable discussion had taken place. Similarly,
there was also a quite lengthy debate over authorship of published outputs, includ-
ing not just how to reflect our own respective efforts but also on whether or not
to include our peer/community researchers as co-authors (see also Marlowe et al.
2014).8 Clearly our call for more weight to be given to individual ethics decision-
making is one thing, but actually agreeing on this approach collectively, as part of a
research team (across different universities), is another.


Anderson, B., Rogaly, B., & Ruhs, M. (2012). Chasing ghosts: Researching illegality in mi-
grant labour markets. In C. Vargas-Silva (Ed.), Handbook of research methods in migration
(pp. 396–410). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Ltd.
Balch, A., Brindley, P., Geddes, A., & Scott, S. (2009). Gangmasters licensing authority: Annual
review 2008. Nottingham: Gangmasters Licensing Authority/Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs.
Baritz, L. (1960). The servants of power: A history of the use of social science in American indus-
try. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Barnett, C. (2011). Geography and ethics: Justice unbound. Progress in Human Geography, 35,
Boyd, M. (1989). Family and personal networks in international migration: Recent developments
and new agendas. International Migration Review, 23, 638–664.
Castleden, H., Morgan, V. S., & Neimanis, A. (2010). Researchers’ perspectives on collective/
community co-authorship in community-based participatory indigenous research. Journal of
Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 5, 23–32.
Edwards, R. (1998). A critical examination of the use of interpreters in the qualitative research
process. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 24, 197–208.
Edwards, R., & Alexander, C. (2011). Researching with peer/community researchers—ambiva-
lences and tensions. In M. Williams & W. P. Vogt (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Innovation in
Social Research Methods (pp. 269–292). London: Sage.
Elliott, E., Watson, A. J., & Harries, J. (2002). Harnessing expertise: Involving peer interviewers in
qualitative research with hard-to-reach populations. Health Expectations, 5, 172–178.
Ganga, D., & Scott, S. (2006). Cultural “insiders” and the issue of positionality in qualitative mi-
gration research: moving “across” and moving “along” researcher-participant divides. Forum
Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 7. http://www.qualitative- Accessed: 06 Jan 2015.
Geddes, A., & Scott, S. (2010). ‘UK food businesses’ reliance on low-wage migrant labour: A
case of choice or constraint? In M. Ruhs & B. Anderson (Eds.), Who needs migrant workers?
(pp. 193–218). Oxford: OUP.
Geddes, A., Scott, S., & Nielsen, K. (2007). Gangmasters licensing authority evaluation study:
Baseline report. Nottingham: Gangmasters Licensing Authority/Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs.
Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360–

In our own discipline alone there is no single convention on how to credit authorship to those

have contributed to but have not actually analysed or written up a research (for an interesting dis-
cussion of this see Hawkins et al. 2011).
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 133

Guillemin, M., & Gillam, L. (2004). Ethics, reflexivity, and “ethically important moments” in
research. Qualitative Inquiry, 10, 261–280.
Guillemin, M., & Heggen, K. (2009). Rapport and respect: Negotiating ethical relations between
researcher and participant. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, 12, 291–299.
Hammet, D. & Sporton, D. (2012). Paying for interviews? Negotiating ethics, power and expecta-
tion. Area, 44, 496-502.
Harvey, D. (1974). What kind of geography for what kind of public policy? Transactions of the
Institute of British Geographers, 63, 18–24.
Hawkins, H., Sacks, S., Cook, I., et al. (2011). Organic public geographies: “making the connec-
tion”. Antipode, 43, 909–926.
Lammers, E. (2007). Researching refugees: Preoccupations with power and questions of giving.
Refugee Survey Quarterly, 26, 72–81.
Mackenzie, C., McDowell, C., & Pittaway, E. (2007). Beyond “do no harm”: The challenge of con-
structing ethical relationships in refugee research’. Journal of Refugee Studies, 20, 299–319.
Marlowe, J. M., Lou, L., Osman, M., & Alam, Z. Z. (2014). Conducting post-disaster research with
refugee background peer researchers and their communities. Qualitative Social Work [Pre-
Accessed 27 Jan 2015.
Maykovich, M. K. (1977). The difficulties of a minority researcher in minority communities. Jour-
nal of Social Issues, 33, 108–119.
Merry, L., Clausen, C., Gagnon, A. J., Carnevale, F., Jeannotte, J., Saucier, J. F., & Oxman-Marti-
nez, J. (2011). Improving qualitative interviews with newly arrived migrant women. Qualita-
tive Health Research, 21, 976–986.
Mosavel, M., Ahmed, R., Daniels, D., & Simon, C. (2011). Community researchers conducting
health disparities research: Ethical and other insights from fieldwork journaling. Social Science
and Medicine, 73, 145–152.
North, P. (2013). Knowledge exchange, ‘impact’ and engagement: Exploring low-carbon urban
transitions. The Geographical Journal, 179, 211–220.
Pai, H.-H. (2008). Chinese whispers: The true story behind Britain’s hidden army of labour. Lon-
don: Penguin.
Pain, R., Kesby, M., & Askins, K. (2011). Geographies of impact: Power, participation and poten-
tial. Area, 43, 183–188.
Posner, M. (2002) Social Sciences under Attack in the UK (1981–1983). La Revue pour l’Histoire
du CNRS, 7. Accessed 30 Jan 2015.
Putnam, R. (2001). Bowling Alone. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Rhodes, P. (1994). Race-of-interviewer effect: A brief comment. Sociology, 28, 547–558.
Ruhs, M., & Anderson, B. (Eds.). (2010). Who needs migrant workers? Oxford: OUP.
Ryan, L., Sales, R., Tilki, M., & Siara, B. (2008). Social networks, social support and social capi-
tal: The experiences of recent Polish migrants in London. Sociology, 42(4), 672–690.
Ryan, L., Kofman, E., & Aaron, P. (2011). Insiders and outsiders: Working with peer researchers
in researching Muslim communities. International Journal of Social Research Methodology,
14, 49–60.
Scott, S. (2013a). Migration and the employer perspective: Pitfalls and potentials for a future re-
search agenda. Population, Space and Place, 19, 703–713.
Scott, S. (2013b). Labour, migration and the spatial fix. Antipode, 45, 1090–1109.
Scott, S. (2013c). Migrant-local hiring queues in the UK food industry. Population, Space and
Place, 19, 459–471.
Scott, S., Geddes, A., Nielsen, K., & Brindley, P. (2007). Gangmasters licensing authority: annual
review 2007. Nottingham: Gangmasters Licensing Authority/Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs.
Scott, S., Craig, G., & Geddes, A. (2012). The experience of forced labour in the UK food industry.
York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Shaw, I. (2008). Ethics and the practice of qualitative research. Qualitative Social Work, 7, 400–
134 S. Scott and A. Geddes

Skrivankova, K. (2010). Between decent work and forced labour: Examining the continuum of
exploitation. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Smith, D. M. (1997). Geography and ethics: a moral turn?. Progress in Human Geography, 21,
Smith, D. M. (2000). Moral geographies. Ethics in a world of difference. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.
Smith, D. M. (2001). Geography and ethics: progress, or more of the same? Progress in Human
Geography, 25, 261–268.
Song, M., & Parker, D. (1995). Commonality, difference and the dynamics of disclosure in in-
depth interviewing. Sociology, 29, 241–256.
Sporton, D. (2013). “They control my life”: The role of local recruitment agencies in East Euro-
pean migration to the UK. Population, Space and Place, 19, 443–458.
Taylor, F. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Temple, B. (1997). Watch your tongue: Issues in translation and cross-cultural research. Sociology,
31, 607–618.
Temple, B. (2002). Crossed wires: Interpreters, translators and bilingual workers in cross-language
research. Qualitative Health Research, 12, 844–854.
Temple, B., & Moran, R. (2006). Doing research with refugees: Issues and guidelines. Bristol:
Policy Press.
Tilly, C. (1990). Transplanted networks. In V. Yans-MacLoughlin (Ed.), Immigration Reconsid-
ered (pp. 79–95). New York: Oxford University Press.
van Liempt, I., & Bilger, V. (Eds.). (2009).The ethics of migration research methodology: Dealing
with vulnerable migrants. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
van Liempt, I., & Bilger, V. (2012). Ethical challenges in research with vulnerable migrants. In C.
Vargas-Silva (Ed.), Handbook of research methods in migration (pp. 451–466). Cheltenham:
Edward Elgar Ltd.
Verité. (2012). Research on Forced Labor: Successes, Challenges and Reflections on Future
tion%20of%20Goods%20%28v2%29.pdf. Accessed 11 Aug 2014.
Wallin, A. M., & Ahlstrom, G. (2006). Cross-cultural interview studies using interpreters: Sys-
temic literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 55, 723–735.
Whyte, W. F. (1943). Street corner society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wills, J. (2005). The geography of union organising in lowâ paid service industries in the UK:
lessons from the T & G’s campaign to unionise the Dorchester Hotel, London. Antipode, 37,
Wills, J. (2008). Making class politics possible: Organizing contract cleaners in London. Interna-
tional Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32, 305–323.
Wills, J., Datta, K., Evans, Y., Herbert, J., May, J., & McIlwaine, C. (2009). Religion at work: The
role of faith-based organizations in the London living wage campaign. Cambridge Journal of
Regions, Economy and Society, 2, 443–461.
Wright Mills, C. (1951). White collar: The American middle classes. Oxford: Oxford University
Wu, B., Guo, L., & Sheehan, J. (2010). Employment conditions of Chinese migrant workers in the
East midlands: A pilot study in a context of economic recession. China: International Labour
Zinn, M. B. (1979). Field research in minority communities: Ethical, methodological and political
observations by an insider. Social Problems, 27, 209–219.

Sam Scott  has worked at the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, Bristol, Exeter and Gloucester-
shire since 2004 and is a member of the latter’s geography team in Cheltenham (UK). He special-
ises in migration and employment research with a particular interest in low-wage workers and the
UK food industry. Sam currently teaches population geography, migration, and research methods.
8  Ethics, Methods and Moving Standards in Research on Migrant … 135

Alistair Geddes  is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Dundee, specialising in

social data analysis. In recent years, he has completed research on international mobility of UK
students and on population vulnerability and mobility related to climate change. He was lead
author of the 2013 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on the Scope of Forced Labour in the UK
and co-author of a 2012 report, Experiences of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry.
Chapter 9
Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges
in Research with Trafficked Persons

Rebecca Surtees and Anette Brunovskis


Research with trafficked persons is essential in order to understand their experi-

ences, address their needs, and support their reintegration after trafficking. At the
same time, undertaking such research involves ethical challenges, sensitivities, and
risks, which must be carefully considered and accommodated in the design and
implementation of trafficking research. Central to any ethical research is the prin-
ciple of “do no harm”, that through conducting our research we do no harm to the
persons we are researching and whose experiences we are seeking to explore and
This principle is especially critical when conducting research with vulnerable
groups, like trafficking victims, who often have complex and extensive needs when
trying to recover and move on with their lives after trafficking. In our research over
almost two decades, we have sought to keep this principle at the heart of our work.
And yet, avoiding harm, in a broad sense, is neither simple nor direct. We have
faced many challenges and fault lines in navigating this complex ethical space, in
different settings and with different types of research projects and respondents.

This chapter was partially funded in the framework of NEXUS Institute’s research on
reintegration in Indonesia, “Protecting the unassisted and underserved”, generously funded by
the US Department of State, under the terms of Grant No S-SGTIP-11-GR-0044. The opinions
expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US
Department of State. This chapter was also partially funded in the framework of the project
Health Services and Needs in Prostitution, generously funded by the Norwegian Research
Council, under the terms of grant 213986/H10.

R. Surtees ()
NEXUS Institute, Washington DC, USA
A. Brunovskis
Fafo, Oslo, Norway
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 137
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_9
138 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

Harm may be caused by a number of things, not least by precipitating emo-

tional reactions from respondents or reviving trauma suffered as a consequence
of trafficking. Researchers may also cause harm when their presence intrudes on
trafficked persons’ privacy and anonymity, breaches confidentiality, and leads (in-
advertently) to stigmatization and discrimination. Harm may be caused by (unin-
tentionally) raising expectations through research that some immediate good will
come of respondents’ participation. Moreover, researchers may find themselves in
difficult situations when they learn about their respondents’ needs while not be-
ing in a position to help them find support. This may be a particularly compelling
concern when conducting research with trafficking victims who have never been
formally identified and assisted. In order to alleviate, or at least mitigate, these
potential harms, we have, as part of our research protocols, to provide information
about available services to share with our respondents whenever possible. In this
chapter, we discuss different aspects of achieving this in practice and, not least, in
situations when it is difficult (or even impossible) to identify available and suitable
assistance or resources.

What Is the Role of Researchers?

Researchers may enter a field with very different aims and perceptions of what
researchers can and should do, and what research can and should be for. Different
research methodologies and topic fields shape and influence the relationships be-
tween researchers and respondents. Research can also have very different end goals
(e.g., to contribute to academic theory development, bring about social change, and
empower research participants, and so on). In our case, much of our research has
had a pronounced applied objective, with policy makers and practitioners as the
primary target audience, and one of the main foci of our research has been to con-
tribute to improved assistance for trafficked persons. As the ultimate objective of
most of our research projects is to improve the protection of trafficked persons,
we aim not only to prevent harm (“maleficence”) but also ultimately to “do good”
(“beneficence”). Specifically, and in this context, we take this to mean, in the short
term, that we try to assist in meeting the unmet needs of respondents through the
provision of referrals for assistance and, in the long-term, to undertake research that
will contribute to improved assistance and reintegration programs and policies for
Beneficence is recognized as a standard of ethical practice by various helping
professions, such as social work and psychology, as well as within the research
fields of these professions. Providing participants with some research-related ben-
efits is felt by many researchers to be a minimal requirement. However, what this
means in practice is less clear and there is some debate about researchers’ specific
roles and responsibilities in this regard. This type of research-related benefit might
include a number of different approaches, including more proactive approaches like
directly providing services to trafficked persons or providing information about
9  Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with Trafficked Persons 139

referral services to respondents. More peripheral benefits might be offering an op-

portunity to talk about their experiences to an interested (but nonjudgmental) lis-
tener (Demi and Warren 1995; Hugman et al. 2011, p. 1272; Kavanaugh et al. 2006;
Kyriakakis et al. 2014; Peled and Leichtentritt 2002, p. 149).
There are important ethical questions to be asked about research with trafficked
persons that does not offer some opportunity of assistance or remedy. At the same
time, researchers should be cautious in terms of undertaking any sort of direct in-
tervention without having consulted the trafficked person and having carefully con-
sidered the context and the implications of any proposed action.1 It is crucial to
take into account the complexities of trafficking and of trafficked persons’ lives and
options. Researchers also need to take into account local service providers’ assess-
ments of the situation and, not least, what constitute viable options for assistance for
different trafficked persons in that setting. One of the potentially grave consequenc-
es of researchers overstepping boundaries in, for instance, contacting authorities or
intervening in other ways is that it can create distrust between persons in vulnerable
situations and those who work on a day-to-day basis to assist them, thus, potentially
compromising ongoing access and intervention opportunities. This, however, does
not mean that these are easy decisions and that there is only one solution.
What can further complicate the discussion of ethics among researchers in this
field is the highly-contested nature of trafficking itself and not least the so-called
“anti-trafficking sector.” The term “rescue industry” (Agustin 2007) as a moniker
for social actors targeting particularly migrant women in prostitution, as well as
other research critical of so-called “anti-trafficking,” have offered important per-
spectives on the potentially oppressive aspects of anti-trafficking policies and their
roles in limiting migration or ignoring the agency of women in the sex industry (see,
e.g., Aradau 2004; Berman 2003; O’Connell Davidson 2006). Others have pointed
to the poor quality of (and even human rights breaches in) some assistance offered
to (or sometimes even forced upon) trafficked persons (Dottridge 2007; Gallagher
and Pearson 2010; Lee 2014). In some research situations, we have indeed found
that available assistance is of poor quality or does not align with human rights prin-
ciples and standards. For example, in some countries, assistance is essentially com-
pulsory, with identified trafficked persons obligated to accept assistance, kept in
closed shelters, and generally also required (or “encouraged”) to participate in legal
proceedings against their exploiters (Surtees 2013). In addition, in different studies
we have documented poor assistance practices, discrimination by service providers,
and even, in some extreme cases, abuse of trafficking victims while assisted (Brun-
ovskis and Surtees 2008; Surtees 2007, 2013). This raises critical questions about
when and whether researchers can safely and ethically refer victims for services in
some settings.
Nevertheless, the “anti-trafficking response” is often imprecisely referred to
in the singular and presented as homogenous. The reality is that anti-trafficking

As noted by Zimmermann and Watts (2004, p. 565): “Seeing a woman in an extremely abusive

environment can incite some interviewers to take action on the woman’s behalf. However, in the
past, such well-meaning actions have left women in worse situations than before.”
140 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

assistance efforts take very different forms globally, regionally, and even within
a single country. And in carrying out research in different countries and regions
(i.e., former Soviet Union, Europe, Southeast Asia, West Africa) and with different
categories of respondents (men and women, children and adults, victims of labor
and sex trafficking), we have found many organizations and institutions delivering
high-quality assistance, and to which we have no qualms referring our respondents.
Further, it can also be important to offer information about non-trafficking-specific
assistance (as we will return to). Some respondents who might be eligible for as-
sistance within a trafficking framework may not identify or see themselves as traf-
ficking victims or may not wish to receive assistance according to these parameters.
Some non-trafficking-specific assistance may be more suitable to their needs and
situation or have a lower threshold in terms of accessing services.
While we recognize that this can be a complicated space to navigate and that
opinions among researchers may differ on what the role of researchers should be,
our position is that one way that some harm in a research context may be avoided
(or at least mitigated) is providing respondents with information about services and
support as part of the research protocol. It is also worth noting that providing in-
formation about assistance is part of the ethical guidelines on conducting research
with trafficked persons issued by the World Health Organization (WHO 2003) and
the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Trafficking (UNIAP 2008). Moreover,
providing information about services is, to us, also about our respondents’ right to
self-determination. All information about assistance options (trafficking-specific or
more general) is theirs to either access or ignore. But if respondents do not have this
information, they also do not have the option to assess whether it is something they
would like to pursue and could benefit from.
That being said, providing referral information is less than simple and straight-
forward. Referring trafficking victims who participate in research for services has
been far more complex, and we have sometimes struggled to realize this goal in
different situations and contexts. In the following sections, we discuss different
aspects of providing referral information when conducting research with trafficking
victims. We also outline what, for us, have been challenges in providing referral
information to respondents who have assistance needs (needs that sometimes are
urgent and extensive). We will provide examples from studies we have conducted in
different countries and with different categories of victims to illustrate and discuss
some of these challenges and constraints.

Referrals and Assistance—From Ethical Considerations to


In our research with trafficking victims over the years, we have found that many of
our respondents were unaware of the support and services available to them—for
example, access to medical care, counseling services, shelter, legal assistance, voca-
tional training, job placements, education, and so on. Therefore, and for the reasons
9  Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with Trafficked Persons 141

described in the previous paragraph, in the design of our research projects, we (and
the research teams we work with) are equipped with written information about the
range of services and support that are available to our respondents, whenever pos-
sible. This involves, prior to conducting a study, mapping what services are avail-
able in respondents’ local areas as well as nationally. This includes not only services
for trafficked persons but also services for socially vulnerable persons generally as
some individuals may not accept support offered within the trafficking assistance
framework, as mentioned above.2
After identifying available services, we typically prepare a referral sheet with a
description of services and contact information. This information is validated by ser-
vice providers as part of this mapping exercise, and service providers are informed
that they may receive calls or referrals in the context of the research. This referral
information is then shared with respondents as part of the interview process. This
research protocol also involves explaining this referral information to respondents
at the end of the interview as well as, in some cases, assisting in making initial con-
tact with service providers. At the same time, we are also clear that, as researchers,
we are not service providers and cannot offer direct services or follow-up support,
and we seek to maintain this delineation between the different roles. Nevertheless,
this can be complicated and also, to a large extent, rests on the respondents’ under-
standing of what research is and, by implication, what is the role of the researcher.
Some respondents with limited experience of research may associate researchers
with “the state” or a generic official position (Brunovskis 2010).3 Careful consid-
eration is warranted throughout the interview as to whether the respondent fully
understands the limitations of the researcher’s role and options to help.
Referral sheets (tailored to the language and education levels of respondents) are
offered in written form as this allows respondents to keep and refer back to informa-
tion at a later stage if or when the need or desire for assistance arises.4 As part of the
protocol to ensure informed consent, we also prepare a written project description
for respondents with information about the research and our contact information,
as well as contact information for local partners when conducting research abroad.
This serves as an additional resource to allow for and facilitate referral of trafficked
persons who require or desire services and support at any time following the inter-
views (see also Kyriakakis et al. 2014).
Ethical challenges may emerge at any phase of a research project (Kvale 1996),
and we have revised or adapted the provision of referral information at different
stages, as issues emerged during implementation. We have, for example, added and

One challenge in offering assistance to trafficking victims is that receiving assistance can iden-
tify women as trafficking victims (seen by many as “deviant”) and, therefore, lead to stigmatiza-
tion (Brunovskis and Surtees, 2007, 2010, p. 468; Surtees 2007, 2013).
See also Brunovskis and Surtees (2010) for a discussion of informed consent in situations where
the distinction between researcher and service provider/“helper” may become blurred.
One study of assistance in Southeast Europe highlighted the value of offering written material
about assistance, given that many victims require some time to process the information, weigh up
their options, and come to a decision about whether or not to accept or seek out assistance (Surtees
2007, p. 76).
142 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

amended referral sheets as new services became available, or we became aware of

other assistance options. In one project, we removed the contact information of one
organization after it did not respond to respondents’ requests for assistance. Our
concern in this case was that trafficked persons who reached out for help might only
trust enough to do so once. And if they were not well-received or got no response,
they may choose not to seek out assistance again, contributing to their continued
vulnerability. And, in the design of an ongoing longitudinal study of reintegration in
Indonesia, referral sheets are reviewed, validated, and updated prior to each round
of interviews.
The extent to which respondents choose to access services after receiving refer-
ral information may vary. For example, Mossige and Backe-Hansen (2013) discuss
two large-scale surveys (with around 10,000 respondents combined) with 15-year-
olds on intimate issues of sexuality, health, and abuse. Potential negative reactions
were a concern, not least that abused youth could be re-traumatized, given the sen-
sitive and potentially intrusive nature of the questions asked. However, the authors
point out that none of the respondents accessed the services for which they were
given contact information.
Lack of interest in or need for referral services may certainly be the case for
some studies and some types of respondents, although not seeking out services
should not in and of itself be taken to mean services are not needed or wanted. As
we will return to below, there are numerous factors that may stand in the way of
accessing services. However, in our experience, and in the context of our research
with trafficked persons and other vulnerable groups, services have been both de-
sired and used. Indeed, in the studies that we have conducted, we can point to some
(and sometimes many) instances in which the provision of referral information has
translated into individuals being assisted. That being said, decisions about assis-
tance are often complicated, and victims made different decisions at different stages
of their post-trafficking life as their individual situations evolved and in response
to the different forms of assistance offered. Some people took months or years to
follow up on referrals and approach service providers, and we only learned about
these referrals because we have maintained relationships with service providers and
respondents over some years.
Large numbers of trafficking victims are unidentified and unassisted, and so re-
search may be a unique opportunity for victims to make connections with services.
Some respondents may not get all of the support they need through their existing
service providers, and referral sheets offer the opportunity to expand the types of
services that they are aware of and can access. In addition, we have found in our
research that, in some environments, trafficked persons do not know where they
can find assistance or how to approach service providers, and being able to access
services is not automatic (Brunovskis and Surtees 2007, 2012a; Surtees 2007, 2008,
2013, 2014). For example, one woman in Southeast Europe described the uncer-
tainty around assistance: “Before being trafficked I didn’t know about such services.
Neither did I know [about assistance] upon arrival. I was lucky that my mother
found some information about that. When I was trafficked, I didn’t think that any-
one, besides the police, but they are corrupted, can rescue you.” Similarly, one man
9  Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with Trafficked Persons 143

trafficked to the former Soviet Union was identified and assisted through a church
and, upon his return home, knew only of the services available through this network:
“I had no idea which organizations I could address to ask for help. I knew only the
church that I was referred to by those religious people in [the destination country].
I did not know that besides the state organizations there are NGOs” (Surtees 2007,
p. 160). Thus, for many trafficked persons, the provision of referral sheets is the first
clear information they have about assistance options available to them.
This is not unique to trafficking victims. In the context of a project we conducted
among returned migrants in a small town in Albania, providing information about
resources and services within the municipality translated into many people access-
ing these services, which they were not aware of previously. In addition, including
information not only about services generally but also about trafficking assistance
programs in the country led to a number of trafficking victims being identified and
provided with support, including at least one who, in our initial interview with her,
camouflaged the trafficked nature of her migration. After being provided with the
referral sheet she not only contacted our nongovernmental organization (NGO)
project partner for support but also referred another family member who was previ-
ously trafficked.
This is not to say that all respondents will want or need referral information. We
often contact respondents through gatekeepers who are still assisting them; these re-
spondents often have access to a raft of services. Some respondents no longer need
or want assistance or support. In other cases, the victim may need assistance but is
able to access alternative sources of support and does not require services offered
by counter-trafficking actors.
Providing referrals to and information about services may not safeguard against
all aspects of potential harm through research with vulnerable groups. But, in our
experience, it has translated into many persons with unmet assistance needs being
able to access services. Nevertheless, we have also found that there can be obstacles
to identifying assistance options and offering referral information to respondents,
both in terms of actual existence of services and the appropriateness and desirability
of services for respondents. In the following sections, we discuss our experiences
with referral services being (1) unavailable, (2) available but inappropriate or unde-
sirable, (3) inaccessible to respondents because of their legal status, and (4) difficult
to access because of respondents’ personal and practical barriers. These issues are
not unique to research within the human trafficking field but reflect more broadly
the dilemmas researchers encounter in settings where lack of appropriate services
for vulnerable populations is precisely one of the most important topics to docu-
ment in research.

No One to Help—No Referral Services Were Available

In some settings, a major challenge in offering referrals is that services for traf-
ficked persons or vulnerable people do not exist. We have found this to be the
144 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

case to varying degrees in different settings. One particularly unserved category of

trafficking victims is that of trafficked men; services for men are often limited or
even nonexistent. This has posed many challenges in terms of engaging with men
as respondents.
In a recent study conducted of Cambodian fishers trafficked to South Africa
(Surtees 2014), lack of assistance for trafficked men was a serious challenge in
conducting the research. In preparing for the study, we mapped services available to
trafficked men and found significant gaps. Services for men were very limited (i.e.,
offered only by a handful of organizations) and were geographically concentrated
(i.e., in only some provinces). Often, returning men received only the most basic as-
sistance (i.e., money to travel to their village and legal assistance in pursuing a case
against their traffickers). However, most men identified their most urgent assistance
need as economic, that is, getting a job to support themselves and their families
and pay off their migration debts.5 The need for services came up consistently and
urgently when interviewing men who had suffered violence and abuse on fishing
vessels for, literally, years and had quite significant needs, including, most critically,
the need for medical care, counseling, and employment options. In spite of inform-
ing all respondents prior to the interview that we were researchers and not able to
offer services, the desire (and need) for services was nonetheless a consistent (and
sometimes urgent) theme in our interviews and interactions. One man, for example,
when asked why he agreed to be interviewed, explained that he hoped to find some
type of help, even though the interviewer had been clear in both written and verbal
form that we could not offer services:
Because I have tried many places and no one could support me and I hope your organization
can help me. [NGOs] could not assist me, so maybe [your organization] can. I just keep try-
ing my luck. If I stay still I would not get any information about support. I just keep trying;
maybe I can know better.

Another trafficked fisher expressed similar sentiments: “I came here to let you inter-
view me because I wanted to know what you will ask me, how you can help us and
you might help me to learn how to [receive] vocational training…”
Similarly, a recent study of reintegration in the Mekong region involved inter-
viewing 252 trafficking victims in six countries (Surtees 2013). These individuals
were diverse—male and female, adult and children, foreigners and country nation-
als—and had diverse trafficking experiences (i.e., for sexual exploitation and forced
labor, internal and international trafficking). Given the diversity of the sample and
also the scope of the study, it was challenging to prepare referral sheets that would
effectively meet the needs of this heterogeneous group of trafficked persons. In this
case, the study was undertaken in cooperation with United Nations Inter-Agency
Project on Trafficking, which, at the time, was coordinating the anti-trafficking re-
sponse in the six Mekong countries and other national and international organi-
zations, which offer services. This contributed significantly to learning about and
referring respondents for available services in the six countries. At the same time,

“Lucky” men from those provinces where the few NGOs ran programmes might receive some

small economic support (i.e., a grant of chickens or ducks or vocational training).

9  Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with Trafficked Persons 145

even this extensive network of organizations could not address the reality of no ser-
vices being available for some types of victims, for some forms of trafficking, and
in some geographical areas.
In some situations, lack of referral services is a function of the legal framework,
which does not take into account some forms of trafficking or types of victims.
This means that it is sometimes not possible to offer referrals (or at least adequate
and relevant referrals), making research in such settings complex and sensitive. For
example, the anti-trafficking law in Vietnam has only included men as trafficking
victims since 2012, which means that trafficking services for men were limited
when the study on reintegration in the Mekong region began in 2011, along with a
general dearth of other social services in the country (Surtees 2013). Similarly, the
Republic of South Africa did not include labor trafficking in its anti-trafficking law
until July 2013, the legislation was only operationalized in 2014, and other services
for vulnerable men were also quite limited (Surtees 2014).
In a current study of reintegration being conducted by the first author in Indone-
sia, the research project includes more direct engagement to respond to unmet as-
sistance needs identified through the research, including enhancing NGO capacity
for facilitation and advocacy around services for unmet needs.6 This is an attempt
to explore how this ethical challenge of referrals and assistance might be addressed
in longer-term projects. However, this approach is only possible in the context of
longer-term projects, where researchers have an ongoing relationship and presence
in the field to identify gaps in assistance and respond to unmet needs. Moreover, it
requires a donor who is willing and able to fund a longer-term study and this type
of referral/assistance approach.7

Services Were Not Appropriate or Desirable for All Respondents

When, as described above, there are no services available, providing information

about resources is an obvious conundrum. At a personal (and emotional) level, it
is also difficult to interview research participants who may be in great need of as-
sistance when there is nowhere to refer them. A different, but no less complicated,
problem arises when there are services available, maybe even specifically tailored
to the group in question, that are not appropriate or desirable for respondents. In
practice, this means that, in all likelihood, respondents will not benefit from as-
sistance even if it does exist in principle. We have encountered this issue in two
slightly different ways: in the first case, services are not seen as desirable or benefi-

This research project (“Protecting the Unassisted and Underserved”) is funded by the US Depart-
ment of State, under the terms of Grant No S-SGTIP-11-GR-0044.
Another way of addressing a lack of services is described in Kyriakakis et al. (2014), in the con-
text of a study on intimate partner violence (IPV). When the researcher found a lack of resources
for victims of IPV in her research site, she conducted basic IPV training with other organizations
in the community that were assisting the group on other issues to enable them to offer appropriate
146 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

cial by respondents; in the second case, services are inappropriate or, in effect, not
practical or possible to access.
In one study, we interviewed women and transgender persons in prostitution in
Serbia to assess whether unidentified (and, by implication, unassisted) trafficking
victims could be contacted in this venue (Brunovskis and Surtees 2007). This did
indeed turn out to be the case. Seven of 20 respondents clearly fell within the defini-
tion of trafficking. Some had been trafficked earlier in their lives. For others, there
were indications that they were still in a trafficking situation. In principle and on pa-
per, the first response when encountering (especially ongoing) abusive situations is
to alert the police. However, this was not safe or appropriate as we learned through
these interviews that the majority of respondents had very negative (even violent)
experiences with the police, including being sexually and physically abused, ar-
rested, and extorted for money.
It is also important to mention that we collaborated with a local outreach NGO
working with persons in street prostitution and, therefore, benefitted from their
assessment of what would be appropriate responses in each case, based on their
knowledge of the respondent and of what the local assistance system could realisti-
cally offer that individual. For instance, one presumed trafficking victim had previ-
ously been placed in a state institution and had very bad experiences during her stay
there. As placement in this same institution was the most likely assistance available
to her and also the likely outcome of police intervention, social workers felt this was
unhelpful. Of course, ultimately the individual trafficking victim must decide what
services they do (and do not) accept and so this young woman was fully informed
about various assistance options and provided with contact information. Because
of her past experiences with the authorities (i.e., state social services, police), she
was reluctant to access even the most basic services, and she described her concerns
about being sent back to the shelter:
There are so many police in this area now, it makes me very nervous. I constantly come
into contact with them, and they’re very rude. […] I don’t like to stay at [the institution],
I’m afraid there. They might steal things from me. Before, when I stayed there, people stole
from me. And the staff is mean and they hit and abuse us, and also, the other people at [the
institution] can be violent.

While contacting the police or taking other steps to remove a person from a po-
tentially exploitative situation is the immediate reaction for most people raised in
reasonably well-functioning democracies, it may, in many contexts, cause harm—
for example, when police are complicit with traffickers, when victims are arrested
rather than identified, etc. (Brunovskis and Surtees 2010; see also UNIAP 2008;
WHO 2003, pp. 21–23).
A further reason for respondents not wanting to access services is tied both to
who offers them and what they contain. In some contexts, victims have been par-
ticularly skeptical of state services because they do not trust the state. Others have
voiced concern about faith-based assistance, because this assistance can, in some
situations, involve obligations to participate in religious activities (Brunovskis and
Surtees 2007; Surtees 2007). How assistance is organized can, in some cases, deter
victims from accessing assistance—for example, when shelter-based assistance in-
9  Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with Trafficked Persons 147

volves restrictions in terms of being able to leave the shelter and communicate with
people “on the outside.”
A related problem is that services may exist but are effectively inaccessible be-
cause of the way they are organized. There are a number of barriers to accessing ser-
vices, not least in terms of geographical availability. For many trafficked persons,
services are far from their homes and interfere with work and family obligations.
One young woman in Southeast Europe described how psychological counseling
had assisted greatly in her recovery from trafficking. However, she was unable to
continue with this counseling as it conflicted with her work hours and, moreover,
her family did not permit her to travel from her village to the nearby town where
the counseling was offered (Brunovskis and Surtees 2007). Similarly, in Southeast
Asia, trafficked persons described being unable to access services, such as voca-
tional training offered in a nearby town, as they did not want to leave their fam-
ily behind and also needed to work immediately to earn money for their families
(Surtees 2013).
Another issue is whether beneficiaries must enter a residential assistance pro-
gram (i.e., stay in a shelter) to receive assistance.8 Victims may not want to leave
home and their families behind, especially after long absences while trafficked.
They may not wish to give up their personal space and autonomy, which is often in-
volved, to varying degrees, when living in a shelter or some form of communal liv-
ing. For victims who are stressed and anxious in the aftermath of trafficking, shelter
or communal living may also be a deeply stressful and uncomfortable environment.
Another obstacle in accepting residential services is when victims have dependents
and need to care and provide for them. We have found in many studies that victims
are worried not only for themselves but also for family members. Sometimes, this is
tied to threats from traffickers against victims’ families (and, in some cases, this has
indeed happened). In most cases, however, victims have an overarching concern for
their families’ socioeconomic well-being, generally having migrated originally to
support their families. How assistance is set up is also important when victims have
accompanying children. Residential care is not generally an appropriate environ-
ment for children, and shelters for trafficking victims can be particularly stressful
environments, bringing together persons suffering varying degrees of trauma and
displaying a range of stressed and stressful behaviors.

Respondents Could Not Access Referrals and Services Because of

Their Legal Status

A significant (sometimes insurmountable) obstacle in accessing services is when

victims are not legally entitled to assistance, often because they lack legal residence

A more comprehensive analysis of obstacles to accessing anti-trafficking assistance generally
can be found in Brunovskis and Surtees (2007), where the main focus is on victims declining as-
sistance. See also Surtees (2013) for an exploration of this issue in Southeast Asia.
148 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

in the country. For those still trafficked at the time of the interview (and assuming
they are able to leave the trafficking situation), lack of legal status can, in some
cases, be ameliorated by their formal identification as trafficking victims. Many
countries have provisions to offer assistance to trafficking victims and some form
of legal residence. However, for those unable or unwilling to be formally identified,
services may be inaccessible.
For several reasons, including the above, we have only to a limited extent tried
to access respondents while they were in a trafficking situation. This has been based
on the potential risk to respondents who are in an ongoing exploitative situation as
well as risk to researchers. Further, still trafficked victims may feel unsafe or un-
comfortable to speak openly about their situation and, thus, may provide incomplete
or inaccurate information, raising issues of data quality (Brunovskis and Surtees
2010). And when we have accessed respondents in (potential) trafficking situations,
it has been cases of internal trafficking, meaning that at least the respondents’ le-
gal residence status was assured, removing one layer of vulnerability and potential
obstacle to assistance. However, it is worth noting that this may not always be the
case and should be anticipated in the design of research protocols and the mapping
of referral services.
Dependence on legal status to be eligible for assistance will vary greatly from
context to context. In many countries, trafficking victims will have the right to some
level of protection (and to assistance) even without legal residence. For instance,
signatories to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in
Human Beings (CoE Convention) are bound by articles 10, 12, and 18 not to remove
persons from their territories if there are reasonable grounds to believe that they are
trafficking victims, until a proper identification process and investigation has been
conducted. Potential victims must be offered assistance in this period (Council of
Europe 2005, pp. 10–11 and 14). However, this presupposes being recognized as a
potential victim, which is a more likely outcome for persons belonging to already
recognized at-risk groups, especially women and girls in prostitution, displaying
what is assumed to be probable victim characteristics and behaviors (Brunovskis
and Surtees 2012b).
Respondents not being able to access services because of their legal status have
been an issue for us in studying irregular migration and in work on human traf-
ficking in contexts where national legislation does not recognize certain forms of
trafficking, meaning that victims, in many cases, will be assigned status as irregular
The second author encountered tensions between legal migration status and re-
ferral for assistance in a study of irregular migration in Norway (Brunovskis and
Bjerkan 2008; Brunovskis 2010). While Norway has a comprehensive welfare state
with assistance for trafficking victims and other vulnerable groups, services can
only be accessed with some form of legal residence (or pending recognition as a
potential trafficking victim as part of a formal identification process). However,
persons who are not formally identified as potential victims can only access very
limited assistance (e.g., only emergency medical assistance). This proved to be a
challenge in this particular study, where one of the goals was to discuss ethical
9  Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with Trafficked Persons 149

and methodological challenges in the study of irregular migration in Norway, and,

with this goal in mind, we included relatively few respondents. We were aware of
our limited options for providing referrals to assistance, knowing that we would
have to draw on personal networks and informal contacts should any assistance
needs arise. One respondent in particular revealed a very precarious situation, being
blackmailed, threatened, and physically abused over several years by the man who
smuggled her into the country. Her experience was, if not a clear case of trafficking,
then certainly bordering on it, and would, in our view, have warranted a proper as-
sessment and investigation as to whether or not it fell within the trafficking defini-
tion as prescribed by the CoE Convention. When interviewed, she was hiding from
the man who threatened her. However, 6 months later, she contacted us in a dis-
tressed state and said that this man had found her and that she feared for her life. We
were able, largely through personal contacts and perseverance, to find some form of
assistance for her, but we faced a great deal of resistance, despite the gravity of the
situation. The police were reluctant even to speak with her, in spite of her offer of
substantial information about what she said was a well-established human smuggler
and violent criminal, and made it clear that one likely outcome would be her depor-
tation. Finding physical protection elsewhere was also difficult; shelters for victims
of violence said they were unable to house anyone without a residence permit, but
could offer conversation, advice, and moral support. The implication seemed to be
that since this woman did not fall clearly within the expected parameters of a victim,
assistance, although in principle low-threshold in Norway, was completely out of
her reach. This, and other cases in the study with severe assistance needs, led us to
recommend that research with this group in this context needs careful consideration
as to whether it can be ethically undertaken with larger numbers of respondents.9 In
some circumstances, it may be preferable to choose a research design with a smaller
sample that allows for closer follow-up of individual respondents in great need of
Issues surrounding legal status have also arisen in studies on human trafficking.
Assistance in some countries is only available to those legally identified as traffick-
ing victims, meaning that those who are not formally identified will be ineligible
for services provided by the state. And yet some trafficked persons do not wish to
be formally identified, for example, because they want to stay in the country and
make money, which means the referral sheet will not meet their needs. For example,
many men trafficked for labor from countries of the former Soviet Union chose to
stay abroad and work after escaping trafficking so that they could return home with
at least a small amount of money and, thus, not need to reveal the full extent of the
exploitation and problems they had faced abroad (Surtees 2008a, b). This issue also
arose in the case of foreign trafficking victims in Thailand interviewed in a study of
reintegration who had escaped trafficking (sometimes multiple trafficking experi-
ences) but, instead of seeking help (which would have involved returning home),

The context for assistance to irregular migrants in Norway has since changed, with the establish-

ment of a health center for irregular migrants. Still, in terms of legal protection and protection
against violence, there is little reason to believe that the situation is different.
150 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

looked for other ways to stay in the country and work (Surtees 2013). Offering re-
ferrals to this category of former trafficking victims sometimes involves treading a
fine line (legally and ethically) as services that would meet their needs may involve
programs or organizations that are not legally recognized by the state. It is worth
considering how researchers might approach the development of referral sheets in
situations where assistance is not legally allowable or covert.

Personal and Practical Barriers Preventing Respondents from

Accessing Referrals

In some studies, trafficked persons described personal barriers to accessing or ac-

cepting assistance offered through research referral sheets. Concerns centered
around issues of trust and suspicion. This aligns with concerns that some victims
have generally about assistance. For example, when researching why some victims
decline services after trafficking, many victims expressed at least some suspicion
and insecurity about different types of assistance. In another study, one respondent
expressed her initial suspicion of assistance as follows: “Cheese is only free in a
mouse trap.” Similarly, some men proved particularly resistant to assistance, argu-
ably linked to notions of hegemonic masculinity in which men must be strong and
self-sufficient, which, in turn, had implications for accepting referrals through our
research. As one male trafficking victim from Southeast Europe explained: “Many
men don’t tell about what happened to them. They are ashamed of the fact that
they were tricked and lied to. They would never request assistance from organiza-
tions…. A man must manage his problems by himself” (Surtees 2007, p. 213; see
also Surtees 2008a, b).
In some cases, an unwillingness to accept referral information (and subsequently
access services) was linked to victims’ past experiences of assistance, both within
the trafficking framework and more generally. That is, negative assistance experi-
ences, noted in different service areas, including medical assistance, psychological
support, education, and so on, led some trafficked persons to decline support.
Victims’ families were also sometimes suspicious of assistance, as illustrated
by the experience of one woman whose husband discouraged her from accepting
assistance, suspicious that it was not free and would somehow cost them later on.
When she received a business grant after some months of other (positive and free-
of-charge) assistance, he remained suspicious. When asked, at the time of the inter-
view, if her husband had changed his mind, she explained: “No, he hasn’t changed.
He is waiting for these [business implements] to be taken away. He likes doing
everything with his own hands and he says that I don’t believe that anyone can give
you something free of charge….” Suspicion may be a greater obstacle for some
forms of assistance than others, as one social worker explained of psychological
support: “There is a lot of reluctance at the start. We tell them about the different
types of help and many women reject when they hear the word ‘psychological’”
(Brunovskis and Surtees 2007, p. 115; see also Surtees 2007, 2008a, b).
9  Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with Trafficked Persons 151

Another obstacle was lack of experience with services and how practically to ac-
cess them. In a study of reintegration in the Mekong region (Surtees 2013), some re-
spondents, over the course of the interview, described problems they faced as part of
reintegration and forms of support that would potentially have assisted in that pro-
cess. However, when researchers discussed referral services with them, many said
that they did not feel comfortable to call service providers to ask for assistance—
they described feeling too shy, uncomfortable, and, in some cases, “ashamed.” To
some extent, this seemed to be an issue of less-educated people who were generally
less informed about their rights as trafficking victims and available assistance. It
was also linked to discomfort in approaching service providers. As a result, over the
course of the study, we adjusted the referral procedures so that researchers would,
in such circumstances, offer to contact service providers on the respondents’ be-
half (with their consent). This required additional procedures including interviewers
explaining to the respondents what referral to assistance would entail and asking
for their consent to provide their contact details only to the service provider. It also
placed an additional responsibility on researchers who, in the end, facilitated a num-
ber of referrals and even followed up in some cases to ensure that respondents had
been contacted by service providers and services provided.10
There are also practical barriers to accessing services that are offered as part
of the referral protocol. In studies the first author has conducted in Southeast Asia
(Surtees 2013, 2014), respondents did not always have the money (or sometimes
even a telephone) to call service providers and follow up about possible services.
Those living in rural areas also generally did not have the money to travel to the
nearest service provider (generally located in the nearest city or the capital) to seek
out assistance. This meant researchers facilitating this initial contact by offering
their own phones to make initial contact. This was sufficiently common that, as a
matter of practice, researchers were equipped with or reimbursed for phone cards
to allow for such an eventuality. These strategies for facilitating referrals and ac-
cessing of assistance have also been built into the design of the current study of
reintegration we are conducting in Indonesia.


“Doing no harm” is an important principle in undertaking research, not least in con-

ducting research with vulnerable groups, such as trafficking victims. In our view,
offering referral information about assistance options is an important way of re-
specting that principle. Access to assistance may serve to mitigate the emotional
or psychological effects of being interviewed about personal and troubling issues
and experiences. It may also fill an important function in cases when respondents
have other, preexisting, and unaddressed assistance needs. Making the transition

Researchers obtained their consent to follow up with them at a later stage, following the inter-
view. Those that did not consent were not contacted.
152 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

from these principles on paper to how referrals work in practice, however, is not
always straightforward. As we have discussed, obstacles to how referrals function
in practice can be found in the complete lack of services for some groups, services
that do not meet the needs of some respondents, ineligibility for services due to lack
of legal rights, and barriers to accessing assistance and services.
As researchers, we are not in a position to offer services and need to link up
with the existing assistance systems (whether they are weak or strong) and make
the most of what is available. In many cases, this can leave us with the question of
whether we are doing enough and whether what is offered sufficiently addresses
our concerns about doing no harm—both in terms of the potential negative effects
of our own research and in terms of addressing unmet and preexisting needs. There
are many ethical conundrums researchers may face when working with respondents
who may be in extremely vulnerable situations and with few assistance options. In
light of this, assessing whether such an approach is appropriate needs to be consid-
ered on a project-by-project basis (and regularly throughout the research project)
and based on the local research context.
Lack of appropriate services is, of course, not only, or even primarily, an is-
sue concerning research ethics but one that is important for the sector as a whole,
with profound implications for trafficked persons of different categories, be they
participants in research or not. Appropriate, comprehensive, and timely services,
including services for groups other than women and children trafficked for sexual
exploitation, continue to be lacking in many (arguably most) contexts. And, in some
cases, the lack of an appropriate response to trafficking and insufficient services for
trafficked persons are important topics for research. By pointing to what is lacking,
research has the potential to contribute to positive change.
Researchers may face a dilemma in choosing whether to engage directly with
respondents with great assistance needs and no services available, thereby risking
to “do harm.” For example, interviewing a trafficking victim may precipitate trau-
matic reactions that require professional intervention, which, in many cases, may not
be available, potentially leaving the respondent in a worse position than before the
interview. At the same time, it is precisely this type of research that can contribute
to improving the availability and quality of assistance for underserved and unas-
sisted groups over time and, in the larger context, “do good.” Excluding underserved
groups may contribute to continued silence on the important experiences of the most
disenfranchised and unrecognized vulnerable groups and, thereby, reinforce their
systematic exclusion. These are not easy questions to solve and warrant a transpar-
ent and considered discussion among researchers engaged in these types of studies.


Agustin, L. (2007). Sex at the margins. Migration, labour and the rescue industry. London: Zed
Aradau, C. (2004). The perverse politics of four-letter words: risk and pity in the securitisation of
human trafficking. Millennium—Journal of International Studies, 33, 251–277.
9  Doing No Harm—Ethical Challenges in Research with Trafficked Persons 153

Berman, J. (2003). (Un)popular strangers and crises (Un)bounded: discourses of sex-trafficking,

the European political community and the panicked State of the modern State. European Jour-
nal of International Relations, 9(1), 37–86.
Brunovskis, A. (2010). Irregular migration research in Norway: reflections on research ethics and
methodological challenges based on a method development project. In K. Hviid, M. B. Jør-
gensen, S. Meret & T. Lund Thomsen (Eds.), Irregular migration in a scandinavian perspec-
tive (pp. 47–71). Maastricht: Shaker Publishing.
Brunovskis, A., & Bjerkan, L. (2008). Research with irregular migrants in Norway. Methodologi-
cal and ethical challenges and emerging research agendas. (UDI FoU-report June).
Brunovskis, A., & Surtees, R. (2007). Leaving the past behind. When trafficking victims decline
assistance. Washington, DC: NEXUS Institute (Oslo, Norway: Fafo).
Brunovskis, A., & Surtees, R. (2008). Agency or illness: the conceptualization of trafficking vic-
tims choices and behaviors in the assistance system. Gender, Technology and Development,
12(1), 53–76.
Brunovskis, A., & Surtees, R. (2010). Untold stories. Biases and selection effects in research with
victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. International Migration, 48(4), 1–37.
Brunovskis, A., & Surtees, R. (2012a). A fuller picture. Addressing trafficking-related assistance
needs and socio-economic vulnerabilities. Washington, DC: NEXUS Institute (Oslo, Norway:
Brunovskis, A., & Surtees, R. (2012b). No place like home. Challenges in family reintegration
after trafficking. Washington, DC: NEXUS Institute (Oslo. Norway: Fafo).
Council of Europe (2005). Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human
Beings and its Explanatory Report, Council of Europe. Treaty Series, No. 197, 16.V.2005.
Demi, A., & Warren, N. (1995). Issues in conducting research with vulnerable families. Western
Journal of Nursing Research, 17(2), 188–202.
Dottridge, M. (Ed.). (2007). Collateral damage: the impact of anti-trafficking measures on human
rights around the world. Bangkok: GAATW.
Gallagher, A., & Pearson, E. (2010). The high cost of freedom. Human Rights Quarterly, 32,
Hugman, R., Pittaway, E., & Bartolomei, L. (2011). When do no harm is not enough. The ethics
of research with refugees and other vulnerable populations. British Journal of Social Work, 41,
Kavanaugh, K., Moro, T., Savage, T., & Mehendale, R. (2006). Enacting a theory of caring to re-
cruit and retain vulnerable participants for sensitive research. Research in Nursing and Heath,
26, 244–252.
Kvale, S. (1996). Interviews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. Thousand
Oaks: Sage Publications.
Kyriakakis, S., Waller, B., Kagotho, N., & Edmond, T. (2014). Conducting safe research with at
risk populations. Design strategies from a study with unauthorized immigrant women experi-
encing intimate abuse. Qualitative Social Work, 14, 259–274.
Lee, M. (2014). Gendered discipline and protective custody of trafficking victims in Asia. Punish-
ment and Society, 16, 206–222.
Mossige, S. & Back-Hansen, E. (2013). For sensitivt for ungdom? In H. Fossheim & I. Hølen
(Eds.), Barn i forskning. Etiske dimensjoner. Oslo: De nasjonale forskningsetiske komiteene.
O’Connell Davidson, J. (2006). Will the real sex slave please stand up? Feminist Review, 83, 4–22.
Peled, E., & Leichtentritt, R. (2002). The ethics of qualitative social work research. Qualitative
Social Work, 1, 145–169.
Surtees, R. (2007). Listening to victims: Experiences of identification, return and assistance in
Southeastern Europe. Vienna: USAID, ICMPD & NEXUS.
Surtees, R. (2008a). Trafficked men, unwilling victims. St. Antony’s International Review, 4(1),
Surtees, R. (2008b). Trafficking in men, a trend less considered. The case of Belarus and Ukraine.
Geneva: IOM (Washington, DC: NEXUS Institute).
154 R. Surtees and A. Brunovskis

Surtees, R. (2013). After trafficking. Experiences and challenges in the (re)integration of traf-
ficked persons in the greater mekong sub-region. Oxon & NY: UNIAP & NEXUS Institute.
Surtees, R. (2014). In African waters. The trafficking of Cambodian fishers in South Africa. Wash-
ington, DC: NEXUS Institute (Geneva. Switzerland: IOM).
UNIAP. (2008). Guide to ethics and human rights in counter-trafficking. Ethical standards for
counter-trafficking research and programmes. Bangkok: UNIAP.
WHO. (2003). Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Interviewing Trafficked Women. Geneva:
Zimmermann, C. & Watts, C. (2004). Risks and responsibilities: Guidelines for interviewing traf-
ficked women. Lancet, 363, 565.

Rebecca Surtees  is an anthropologist and senior researcher at NEXUS Institute, a human rights
policy and research center in Washington, DC. She has conducted research on various aspects
of human trafficking in Southeast Asia, Southeast Europe, the former Soviet Union, and West
Africa. Her area of interest is reintegration and assistance and exploring less considered forms of

Anette Brunovskis  is a sociologist and researcher at Fafo, an independent and multidisciplinary

research foundation in Norway focusing on social welfare and trade policy, labour and living
conditions, public health, migration and integration, and transnational security and development
issues. She has conducted research on human trafficking in Norway, Southeast Europe, and the
former Soviet Union, as well as studies of irregular and other migration.
Chapter 10
Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human
Trafficking Research: Reflections on Research
with Male Labourers from South Asia in

Sallie Yea

[Researchers need to] think seriously about these issues [of approach and methodology],
experimenting with methods and approaches explicitly designed to counteract barriers to
disclosure and discovery. (Kelly 2002, p. 8)

Another major problem is the rapport between the interviewees and the interviewer. It is
difficult to eliminate bias due to social stigma and fear. It is hard to circumvent this prob-
lem, which is surely aggravated by the use of a standardized questionnaire …. Possible
ways around the problems related to the rapport between the interviewer and the inter-
viewee may perhaps be found in anthropology. (Andrees and van der Linden 2005, p. 69)


To date, the vast majority of research on human trafficking has focused on three
areas: reviews of legal and policy frameworks for both destination and source coun-
tries of trafficked persons; key informant-based studies of the characteristics of traf-
ficking for a particular country or regional context in which the main methodology
involves interviews with “experts” on trafficking (normally including immigration
and policing officials, nongovernmental support and advocacy organisations, judi-
ciary bodies and lawyers, and social workers, health care professionals, and staff at
shelters for trafficking victims); and studies using mixed methods of secondary data
(such as case and other materials from shelters, media accounts, legal case materi-
als, and police interview records) and interviews with key informants, as well as
direct interviews with victims and survivors of trafficking themselves.

S. Yea ()
Humanities and Social Science Education (HSSE), National Institute of Education (NIE),
Nanyang Technological University, 1 Nanyang Drive, Nanyang, Singapore
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 155
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_10
156 S. Yea

There is a need for the study of human trafficking to go beyond its current fo-
cus which, according to Kelly (2002), “has not moved much beyond mapping the
problem, and review of legal frameworks and policy responses” (p. 4), to more
in-depth and rigorous research involving trafficking victims and survivors. That
such a research orientation is not commonly employed is explained in large part by
the difficulties of directly interviewing, observing, and interacting with trafficked
persons, often even after they have exited trafficking (Andrees and van der Linden
2005; Laczko 2005). Further, even where trafficked persons do participate in re-
search through interviews or more informal encounters with researchers, some have
raised concerns about the validity of the information they provide since trafficked
persons can face significant barriers to disclosure (Brennan 2005).
In light of these discussions, rather than dealing with the challenges of conducting
trafficking research generally (see Andrees and van der Linden 2005),1 this chapter
attempts to provide a more focused reflection of the challenges of one type of re-
search on human trafficking: research involving trafficked persons as participants.
The limited literature discussing trafficking research methodologies and issues that
have appeared to date tends to identify that there is a problem in conducting direct,
primary research with populations of trafficked persons (as well as other actors in
the trafficking process) but falls short of suggesting paths through these barriers.
The main contribution of such discussions has been in identifying the importance of
developing trust and rapport between trafficked persons and researchers, but goes
no further than to suggest that achieving this presents many challenges and difficul-
ties. This chapter offers an attempt to address the question of how to improve the
likelihood of disclosure and discovery when conducting research with trafficked
persons, emphasising the importance of establishing trust and rapport with them.
I discuss five considerations of a feminist methodology for human trafficking re-
search. Current discussions about conducting research with trafficked persons tend
to focus on the rigour of data produced, which is an outcome of research. In this
chapter, I argue for a more process-oriented view of trafficking research, drawing
on five considerations that have the potential to achieve more in-depth and ethically
appropriate research outcomes. These considerations are: relationships, reflexivity,
reciprocity, respect, and responsibility. These considerations directly address the
notions of trust and rapport, which—as the opening quotes suggest—have been
widely recognised as pivotal for successful in-depth research with people who have
been trafficked. Nonetheless, a commitment to these research considerations can
present challenges to the researcher where the participants are trafficked persons.
Feminist and critical discussions of ethics in the social science research process,
although rarely attending to the subject of human trafficking, nonetheless raise im-
portant concerns about power/empowerment, representation, and relationships in

These include a lack of longitudinal and comparative studies, a focus on transnational as opposed
to domestic trafficking, a lack of studies that evaluate counter-trafficking programmes and poli-
cies (particularly reintegration and rehabilitation programmes), a lack of critical analysis of (the
outcomes of) legal cases and compensation claims, and a possible overemphasis on sex trafficking
as opposed to other forms of human trafficking, such as labour, marriage, and so on.
10  Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human Trafficking Research 157

the research process. These discussions address the ways power gradients between
the researcher and research subjects are constructed along gendered, ethnic, and
class lines, thus giving rise to the need for researchers to be reflexive of their own
position in relation to interactions with and writings about the researched (Cloke
et al. 2000; Scheyvens and Leslie 2000; England 1994). In outlining a feminist
methodology for research with populations of trafficked persons, I reflect in this
chapter on a study with South Asian migrant labourers in Singapore in the construc-
tion, shipyard, landscaping, and cleaning sectors (see Yea 2015). I draw on both
interviews and other information from participants and on my own research diary
and field notes to advance these points. I follow Cloke et al.’s (2000) approach
in enunciating reflexive accounts of the ethics of research with homeless people
through diary commentaries. My research diary, kept over the 18-month period of
my fieldwork in Singapore, may be considered an autoethnographic text to the ex-
tent that it is my “reflective ruminations on the fieldwork encounter” (Butz and
Besio 2009, p. 1660). The focus on this particular research project (as opposed to
one focusing on women in the sex industry, for example) is also meant to redress the
overemphasis on “sex trafficking”, both in research and in discussions of conduct-
ing trafficking research (see also Surtees 2008).
The chapter begins by exploring the reasons why establishing trust and rapport
with participants is important in human trafficking research and what these notions
mean in this particular type of research. The main part of the chapter then discusses
the five process-oriented elements of human trafficking research, drawing on reflec-
tions from my research. The final part of the chapter takes a brief glance at some of
the implications of following a feminist methodology for the researcher herself as
she endeavours to follow a research process guided by these five elements.

Trust, Rapport, Honesty, and Disclosure in Trafficking


The reasons trafficked persons are often not willing to disclose their experiences
to researchers can be similar to those that explain why they rarely undertake legal
action or come forward and declare themselves to authorities. These include the
fact that they often begin to normalize their situation, that they develop pseudo-con-
structions of family and/or begin to identify with their traffickers and/or customers
(especially in the sex industry), that they fear violence or reprisal from traffickers,
they perceive no immediate benefit from participation and may have already settled
claims through means other than the legal system (such as privately negotiated com-
pensation claims), or that they wish to remain in the destination country and “take
their chances” to find other work. Apart from this, trafficked persons may not psy-
chologically or emotionally be in a position to divulge details of their experiences.
In Singapore, potentially trafficked migrant workers who seek assistance from
authorities such as the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the Ministry responsible
for managing foreign workers’ welfare and status in Singapore, may not necessar-
158 S. Yea

ily be identified as victims. Anur (22 years, Sri Lankan) exemplified the dilemmas
many men in my research faced. I initially met Anur in a hawker centre in Little In-
dia2 to discuss his situation. His English was flawless, a result of having previously
worked in Dubai as a bartender for 2 years. As he narrated his story of migration
and work to Singapore, it became clear that he had been trafficked. He had been
deceptively recruited in Sri Lanka by a man who visited his village but lived 300 km
away in Colombo. The man had told Anur he would make S$2000 (US$1600) a
month working as a bartender in Singapore—three times what he had been making
in Dubai. Upon arrival to Singapore, Anur was ferried to a boarding lodge in Little
India with several other Sri Lankan men and told to wait 1 month for his work per-
mit to be processed. In the meantime, his recruiter left Singapore and passed him
on to another agent who told him he would find casual work for Anur. Anur and
the other three men in the same situation were then deployed variously as kitchen
hands, box packers, and furniture movers by their second agent; although they were
promised S$50 (US$40) per day for their work, the agent retained all their salary.
After 1 month had passed, the agent then told the men that their applications for
work permits were unsuccessful and they were advised to buy their own air tickets
to return to Sri Lanka, having lost the S$3000 (US$2400) in fees they paid to their
recruiter in Sri Lanka and agent in Singapore.
Anur’s experience of deceptive recruitment, unremunerated and forced labour,
debt bondage,3 and monitoring by agents or bosses is not uncommon amongst male
migrant contract labourers in Singapore. However, what I wish to highlight here is
the “context of reception” for Anur when he presented at MOM for assistance. As I
wrote in my research diary:
Anur went to MOM three days after his agent told him he could not arrange the work per-
mit. Unbeknown to Anur, his tourist visa had already expired by three days, so rendering
him an “illegal overstayer” in the eyes of the Singapore government. Moreover, when he
told the MOM officer that he had been working casually during the previous month at the
advisement of his agent, he was further branded as working illegally and therefore breach-
ing the conditions of stay on a tourist visa (which does not allow the bearer to undertake
any paid work). The MOM officer phoned the Immigration and Customs Authorities (ICA)
and when one ICA officer arrived at MOM, Anur was placed in handcuffs and taken away
to prison. He was released the following day and given a Special Pass. The ICA officer told
him to go and find money for his S$500 (US$400) fine for overstaying, and his air ticket
money. He was advised that when the investigation of his recruiter and agent was con-
cluded he would be deported. Upon hearing of Anur’s experience with MOM and ICA I was
infuriated. The Singapore government had just passed the Prevention of Human Traffick-

Little India is a historic precinct and ethnic enclave in Singapore where Tamil immigrants settled
during British rule. While no longer ethnically distinct as a residential district, commercial busi-
nesses and trades continue to demonstrate a strong South Asian influence, and it is a popular meet-
ing place for Singapore’s South Asian migrant workers from India and Bangladesh.
Low-wage migrant workers often incur large debts through the payment of recruitment or “agent
fees” to secure jobs in Singapore. These debts are hugely disproportionate to their low wages, with
Bangladeshi migrant workers known to pay agent fees of S$8000–$11,000 (US$6400–$8800) for
jobs that pay about S$16–$18 (US$13–$14.50) a day. These heavy debt burdens bind workers to
exploitative work situations and are a tremendous source of stress if workers lose their jobs or
become injured before the debt is repaid.
10  Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human Trafficking Research 159

ing Act (PHTA), which included labour trafficking, and yet Anur was being criminalised
and, eventually, deported. No wonder so many men continue to labour under oppressive
and exploitative arrangements if this is the outcome of their pleas for assistance to the

In fact, precisely because of these types of encounters with authorities, countless

other men do not desert their workplace. One trafficked Tamil participant, Sam,
had gone out of his workplace to complain to MOM, but related that there were “at
least 80 men in my company working under the same conditions as me who will not
come out. They are too scared. They all have debts back home and they are scared
of being deported with nothing”.
In these circumstances, it is clear that the most common factor contributing to the
destruction of trust is experiences of having trust (in family and friends, employers,
recruiters and managers, customers) betrayed in the workplace and in seeking assis-
tance. In other words, in sites of trafficking trust breaks down through the deception
surrounding trafficking (doing work not agreed to or under conditions not agreed
to), abuse of relationships within “work”, through the instillation of fear which is
central to trafficking’s tactics of control, and in seeking redress and help.
In light of these concerns, Denise Brennan (2005) has raised the question of how
severely exploited persons can begin to trust others again. She points to a problem
that is encountered by many people who work with trafficked persons who come to
be detected by authorities or NGOs:
Trafficked persons who were freed following raids of brothels, factories, or private homes
... by law enforcement, almost immediately are asked to trust their liberators. Soon after
they might find themselves interviewed not only by the local police, but also by the FBI,
immigration officials, state and federal prosecutors, and then, by their own lawyers. (p. 42)

Yet there is no inherent reason why trafficked persons should trust any of these
people who may, for example, be more interested in adding to the number of legal
cases of trafficking for that country. Why would a trafficked person trust individuals
who purport to help, protect, or support them and assist them in meeting their needs,
but whose main goals may compromise their ability to fulfil these promises? In
other words, trust is not only commonly broken down during a trafficked person’s
experiences in a trafficking situation but also, sadly, after they have left a traffick-
ing situation. Why, given such experiences, would trafficked persons, who are met
through shelters, NGOs or police, view researchers any differently to these others?
Attempting to answer this question involves serious methodological intro-
spection. In my research I worked towards establishing trust and rapport through
repeated encounters with participants over a sustained time. Yet there is a seeming
reluctance in trafficking research to “borrow” from feminist approaches or to learn
from in-depth research processes involving other vulnerable groups. Methodolog-
ically, trafficking victims’ experiences can best be understood via a combination
of narrative, interview, and ethnographic approaches (Miles and Crush 1993).
Such studies use a combination of processes to establish participants’ stories of
place, movement, identity, experiences, and daily life. A few more recent studies
of female migrant workers in Asia (though rarely male migrant workers) have
also begun to explore topics beyond traditional “structural” concerns of numbers
160 S. Yea

and patterns to the ways these trends are informed by the migrant’s life history and
identity and are framed within the migrants’ own narratives (for example Tyner
2002; Nencel 2001; Brennan 2004). These methodological reflections on the im-
portance of trust and rapport lead us to a consideration of five principles by which
research relations are best conducted in research with trafficked persons. It is to a
consideration of these that we now turn.

Process-Oriented Aspects of Research with Trafficked


Creating contexts of disclosure and honesty through trust and rapport rests on de-
veloping ethical and sincere relationships through adhering to the principles of
reciprocity, reflexivity, respect, and responsibility. These principles offer a process-
oriented view of trafficking research and my reflections on these experiences are
discussed here in more detail, drawing on empirical material from my study of
labour trafficking of South Asian men in Singapore.


The five elements of a feminist methodology in trafficking research are united by

a common emphasis on relationships between researcher and participants, as my
narration of my relationship with Sumsul reveals. Sumsul was trafficked into a con-
struction subcontracting company in Singapore, along with 18 other Bangladeshi
men. He was not paid his salary for over 5 months, was threatened with deportation
if he complained to MOM, and was subject to extreme work conditions, including
shifts that regularly exceeded 24 and 32 h without rest. I met Sumsul when he and
some of his co-workers presented at the office of a small NGO in Little India to seek
advice. I was given the contact details of the men to follow-up with their stories,
possibly with a view to assist them to put together a claim for their unpaid salaries
to MOM. Over the course of several days, I travelled to the remotely located dormi-
tory where they were living and met them in a nearby food court to document their
situations. At the time I felt that the men were confused about my role and the pur-
pose of the interview, even though I had provided them with a participant informa-
tion form explaining my research and the support work I may be able to offer them.
During these initial interviews the men provided only basic information, relating
primarily to their recruitment in Bangladesh and their deployment in Singapore. On
the basis of these interviews I put together a case summary for the attention of the
representatives of the Trafficking in Persons Taskforce (TIP Taskforce) from MOM.
MOM responded swiftly and the men, in something almost unheard of in labour
cases and salary disputes, were compensated all their owed salaries and given the
opportunity to change their employer.
10  Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human Trafficking Research 161

The success of my intervention on their behalf not only created trust and rapport
(they saw me as someone not just interested in extracting their story but in assisting
them to the extent possible) but also led to longer-term relationships with some of
the men as they met regularly with me to discuss their post-trafficking trajectories
in Singapore. Over 2 years I developed an especially close friendship with Sumsul
and another of the workers, Ashraful. Sumsul and Ashraful introduced me to other
participants in the research on the basis of the honest and sincere relations that I
developed with them. This “demonstrated sincerity” was the basis for snowballing
in the research.
Flinders identifies four types of relationships between researcher and participant,
which assist the researchers studying human trafficking being able to consciously
position themselves in relation to the participants. For Flinders, relationships can
be placed on a continuum in which at one end is a utilitarian approach (where there
is informed consent, avoidance of harm, and confidentiality), a deontological ap-
proach (where there is reciprocity, avoidance of wrong, and fairness), a relational
approach (where there is collaboration, avoidance of imposition, and confirmation),
and positioned at the other end of the continuum is an ecological approach (where
there is cultural sensitivity, avoidance of detachment, and responsive communica-
tion). In my experience, and as my relations with Ashraful and Sumsul reveal, for
trafficking research with victims and survivors, the further along the continuum a
researcher locates herself, the more both she and the participants will be able to
gain from the research. This leads us to a consideration of the other four principles.


Reciprocity in a limited sense can simply mean that the researcher fulfils an ethical
obligation to share any outcomes of the research process with the participants. This
is nonetheless a rather minimalist way to view reciprocity in trafficking research.
Reciprocity is central to establishing rapport with participants, and it can be effec-
tively achieved only if the researcher offers something of herself during the research
process, particularly “intimate knowledge” of the same kind that the researcher is
expecting the participants to reveal to them. To this end, much of the early femi-
nist literature on reciprocity in the research process has been informed by Oakley’s
(1981) work in which she notes,
I have found, in my previous interviewing experience, that an attitude of refusing to answer
my questions or offer any kind of personal feedback was not helpful in the traditional goal
of promoting “rapport”. A different role, which could be termed “no intimacy without reci-
procity”, seemed especially important in longitudinal in-depth interviewing. (p. 49)

The researcher must therefore address the following question in conducting in-
depth research with trafficked persons: am I prepared to share intimate details of my
life in the research process in the way I am asking my participants to do? Of course
162 S. Yea

the researcher may never need to divulge personal experiences or information, but
she must nonetheless be open to such a possibility.
In my relationship with Sumsul, this mutual sharing of experiences led to signifi-
cant disclosures about his experiences of being on a Special Pass in Singapore. As
I wrote in my research diary:
Yesterday Sumsul made a disclosure to me that was completely unexpected. We were sit-
ting in the food court attached to his dormitory, having just finished lunch, and were dis-
cussing relations with aging parents when we live overseas. I told Sumsul about my father’s
failing health and how it worried me to be so far from him. I had not told many people about
my concerns, since none of my Australian friends were in a situation close to mine (work-
ing and living overseas with an ailing parent). But I told Sumsul because it seemed appro-
priate at the time since he also lived overseas in Singapore and was very close to his father.
After my admission, Sumsul revealed how heartbroken he was when his father passed away
whilst he was working in Singapore. He told me of his regrets that he had not been able to
pay his father back the loan money to finance his migration to Singapore, as he’d promised,
and how he had not even been able to contribute to the funeral expenses from afar since he
had ended up in a company that did not pay him his salary in Singapore.

In this case, Sumsul’s disclosure was set against the backdrop of my own painful
experiences with my father. Susmul advised me to make sure I made regular visits
home to see my father and not “have regrets only once he passes away”. Not only
was the information he provided that day pivotal in understanding his trajectory in
Singapore (he needed to restore his dignity to his family by seeking justice for his
trafficking) but it also spoke to the ways power relations can be inverted through
intimacy in the research process; Sumsul became the one with knowledge, experi-
ence, and advice, rather than me.


The notion of reciprocity in the research process is strongly related to the issue
of reflexivity, which may be described simply as, “the sense of seriously locating
[oneself] in the research” (Williams 1990, p. 254). Reflexivity thus involves an ap-
preciation of the subjectivity of the researcher, especially where the researcher situ-
ates herself in relation to the research and the participants. For trafficking research
the premise of reflexivity is strongly related to the need to break down and over-
come the current preoccupation in trafficking discourses with perceptions of the
“innocent and disempowered victim”. To this end, some examples of ethnographic
research with migrant women in prostitution in developing country contexts tend
to provide a counterpoint to such a stereotype. For Brennan (2005), part of the at-
tractiveness of anthropology is its ability to overcome the bias of the “media-hype”
of sex trafficking that results in misrepresenting, sensationalising, and politicising
of the issue. In focusing on sex workers operating in sex tourism districts in Cebu,
Philippines, Law (2000) also disagrees with the totalising potential of the victim
identity, which
10  Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human Trafficking Research 163

neglect[s] the worldviews and everyday experiences of Southeast Asian sex workers, who
rarely consider themselves victims of the political economy or part of global sex traffic.
Instead, their lives are framed by issues of employment opportunities, family responsi-
bilities and dreams of a better life—at home or abroad. Furthermore, their relationships
with foreign tourists are often understood in romantic or benign terms, where paid sexual
encounters are meshed with exit from the industry. (p. 11)

This victim identity has been discussed more broadly in development research, re-
lating again to the need for reflexivity upon the part of the researcher. According to
Scheyvens et al. (2003):
A danger is that rather than valuing our informants and the knowledge they possess, we pity
them if they are marginalised …. We view our informants not as people who lead multi-
dimensional lives—laughing, crying, celebrating, grieving and hoping, just like the rest of
us ... but as people we feel we need to help. (p. 168)

The constitutive power of the “victim rhetoric” (Kapur 2002) in discourses on sex
trafficking has also been discussed by several researchers (for example, Hua and
Nigorizawa 2010; Lainez 2010). Only by adopting an ethnographic approach to my
research could the everyday experiences of the South Asian men in my research
emerge at all within their narratives of their migration journeys. Adopting such an
approach requires the researcher to evaluate her own position in relation to the par-
ticipants and, importantly, work towards interactions with them which are based on
equality and not pity, and to see trafficked persons as able to express—albeit often
limited—agency in their lives.
With the men in my research I aimed to achieve this sense of agency not only
through the type of research methodology (ethnography) I adopted but also through
actively attempting to have research participants articulate their own narratives in
their own words, including what they considered to be the most significant aspects
of their migration experiences in Singapore, through their keeping diaries (see Yea
et al. 2014). I found there were some subjects that were difficult to discuss with
my participants, even those with whom I had developed a close and trusting re-
lationship. These subjects often centred on personal relationships with wives and
girlfriends and how these were transformed after men failed to send remittances, on
shame and stigma for having failed in their migrations, and on their relations with
other workers in Singapore that often formed key survival and support networks for
them in the context of their trafficking.
The diaries thus allowed the men to narrate their emotional and relational lives
in the context of their trafficking and exploitation. Having conducted research with
trafficked women previously, I found that gender played a significant role in dis-
closures involving emotion and relationships, with men far less likely to openly
discuss these subjects. The Tamil and Bangladeshi men in my study had certain
expectations placed on them within their home communities concerning the male
breadwinner role, performing “hard work” abroad, and, for the younger men “com-
ing of age”, through labour migration (see Ye 2013; Osella and Osella 2006). These
socially and culturally embedded expectations often meant that the men in my
study were predisposed to play down the negative aspects of their experience, and
to avoid interactions which might lead to outpouring of emotion through crying
164 S. Yea

(­ unmanly behaviour). Yet, because trafficking is not only a “crime” against victims
but an experience of violence, shame, humiliation, and failure, it is critical that any
meaningful research with victims engage with these aspects of a trafficked person’s
experience in ways that reflect how and in what ways these aspects of trafficking
figure in their ongoing experiences of recovery.
One of my participants, an Indian man from Tamil Nadu named Raja, handed
over his completed diary the day before he was deported from Singapore. In the
many interactions I and my Tamil research assistant had with Raja, he never once
discussed his girlfriend back in India. However, upon translating his diary to Eng-
lish and in Raja’s absence, we discovered the circumstances of his failed relation-
ship. He wrote,
2nd July 2013 (Tuesday)
There are no days without hardship and difficulties in my life. God has created me this
way, I guess. I have been in love with a girl and we have been dating for 10 years. Spoke
to her father about the possibility of marrying me, but he said no because of my status in
Singapore. He pointed out to her that I have no money and am in debt, so it is a bad choice
for a husband. She told me sadly that she can’t go against her family’s wishes. But I am
happy that I have loved a good girl in my life. There are no days in my life without disap-
pointments. Thoughts of dying and death come to my mind. However, there is God, and I
thought then that everything happens for a reason.

3rd July 2013 (Wednesday)

I felt heavy-hearted today. I had been speaking every day to my girlfriend, but I can’t today.
I endured all the hardship in Singapore because of my girlfriend. And for the same Singa-
pore, the girl has left me. If it wasn’t for my girlfriend, I would have died for lack of hope.
Singapore has changed my fate.

15th July 2013 (Monday)

I went to MOM again today to have my Special Pass chopped. If my is case finished, I want
to go home as soon as I can. But, it hasn’t finished. I went straight to the church and then
called home. They informed me that my uncle has passed away. If I was home, I would have
visited him and seen him. But I can’t because I am stuck here.

16th July 2013 (Tuesday)

After a long time of not communicating, I called my college friend today. Felt happy talking
to this friend. I told him that I am in Singapore and I am fine. Only I know my pain and the
cover up I am making. My friend told me that my girlfriend was married off immediately
by her family after her father told me he would not accept me as a husband.

This disclosure is significant for many reasons, but what I wish to emphasise here is
that without the opportunity to write about this in his diary, this situation would nev-
er have been revealed in the research. Creative methods and approaches to painful
and intimate disclosures are important not only in revealing the multidimensional
lives of participants but also understanding how vulnerabilities created by trafficked
experiences affect victims in the longer term in ways that often lead to renewed
vulnerabilities in migration and once victims return home. Raja’s disclosure clearly
exemplifies this.
10  Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human Trafficking Research 165


The notion of respect also ties back with concerns about the issue of how victims are
(narrowly) understood and represented (reflexivity), and also with how trafficked
persons have been valued (or not) throughout their experiences of trafficking. A
relationship with a trafficking victim that relies on trust and rapport is difficult to
establish where there are obvious power disparities between the two and which are
reinforced through their interactions with each other. One example of this in my
research in Singapore illustrates the sensitivity of participants to being defined and
located as “victims” or helpless others by researchers and others involved in sup-
porting them.
In mid-2014, I was put in touch with four Bangladeshi men trafficked to a mid-
sized construction subcontracting firm in Singapore’s industrial northwest. Over 4
months I worked with these men, first taking their interviews for my research, then
assisting them with articulating their claims to MOM. Throughout these months two
of the men (who spoke better English) often asked to meet with me simply to have
someone to talk to about the stress their situations were creating on their families
back in Bangladesh. The close relations that developed began to approximate those
I had established with Sumsul and Ashraful previously. However, I felt that the men
needed a greater level of support with their cases than I was able to offer and so I
referred the men to one of the local migrant worker NGOs in Singapore for assis-
tance with labour court proceedings and broader case management work. After all,
referral networks are cited by many international organisations as a standard ethi-
cal practice by researchers working with trafficked persons (such as WHO 2000).
The case management was, however, handled badly and the men were deported 4
months after I had made the referral with no compensation and no opportunity to
put their claims forward in labour court. However, it was after the men’s deportation
and in the uncanny context of NGO support that the men’s rights and dignity were
further compromised. As I wrote in my research diary at the time:
Today someone from the NGO emailed me the link to a story of some trafficked workers.
When I opened the link I was shocked to see the four JS Metals men I had referred with
their photos, real names and details of their case published in a story titled “Bhuiyan and
Friends Defeated”. As I read through the story the more uncomfortable I felt—not only at
the use of the men’s real names, faces, and documents, but their portrayal as helpless and
duped foreigners. One part of the story read, “It is impossible to avoid the sense that the
employer was taking advantage of the relative powerlessness of new workers when they’ve
freshly gotten off the plane and not yet earned their first month’s wages. Not only was the
employer trying to reduce salaries, he was trying to load onto employees costs that by law
the employer is expected to bear, e.g. medical, holiday overtime and airfare. Perhaps the
calculation was that workers were ignorant of the law and would accept the contract terms
as the last word on the matter.” How should I feel about this? I knew that on an instinctive
level I felt that TWC24 had betrayed the first ethical principle of trafficked persons: that
is, confidentiality. On another level I felt responsible because it was I who had passed the
case to TWC2 and flagged it as trafficking to them. But most of all, I felt that these men

TWC2 stands for Transient Workers Count Too (, a migrant worker NGO

based in Singapore.
166 S. Yea

were reduced to duped and powerless victims. I knew this to be otherwise, but ultimately
the story was not respectful of the men’s own initiative and agency that I had observed over
the previous months in so many ways.

My concerns about the ways the men were represented in the story, and the ethical
dilemmas it represented, lead me to a final consideration in relationships with traf-
ficked persons in research, namely, responsibility.


According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) guidelines for interviewing

trafficked women (WHO 2000), interviewers must, at a minimum, avoid placing
the participant at risk and avoid harm to the participant, including re-traumatisation
(psychological harm) and physical harm (such as the possibility of retribution by
traffickers for “going public” or appearing in research, including possible harm
to the participant’s family). This can be quite tricky when referring to trafficking
victims since, “The degree and duration of the physical danger and psychological
trauma is not always evident. In some cases risks may not be obvious to the inter-
viewer. In other cases the dangers may not be apparent to the women”. In addition,
researchers have a responsibility, as with any research involving human subjects,
to maintain transparency in the research, which includes informing participants of
what outcomes will result from the research (including publications) and what uses
such outcomes may have (many of which may not be intended). However, the no-
tion of responsibility can extend much further than this when conducting in-depth
research with trafficked persons.
In many country contexts trafficking support networks may be virtually nonexis-
tent and it is not as easy to dismiss the possible support roles of the researcher in the
absence of a readily existing support infrastructure. The further a researcher estab-
lishes trust and rapport with participants, the more likely the participants are to call
on the researcher for other needs, particularly if they are still residing in the destina-
tion country, possibly illegally and possibly with limited resources and knowledge
of the host society. One example of how responsibilities of the researcher can be
played out is in terms of referring cases to government authorities for assistance,
including flagging cases as having elements of trafficking (as in the four men I
referred to TWC2, discussed above). Whether a researcher should take on respon-
sibility for case management and other forms of support is an open question and,
ultimately, depends on the political and institutional context in which the research
is undertaken. In Singapore, civil society is not well developed and a few NGOs
that work directly with vulnerable and exploited migrant workers (including those
that may be considered trafficked) often operate under stained capacity. This meant,
for my research, that referrals often did not provide the types of support that were
needed for workers. Further, because human trafficking is a relatively new issue in
Singapore, NGOs oriented to migrant worker support have been unsure about how
victims may be identified and how their situations can be supported through a traf-
ficking framework.
10  Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human Trafficking Research 167

In this context I often took on support work myself, outside the parameters of
any NGO interventions or assistance. This placed enormous personal and emotional
strain on me, as I juggled teaching, research, personal responsibilities, and vic-
tims’ support needs. These victim support needs ranged from putting compensation
claims together for men, following up on their cases with MOM, making pleas for
better support (visa status and eligibility to work) with MOM, and seeking financial
support (from NGOs or church groups) for the men whom I considered to be in the
most vulnerable situations. I do not wish to laud these efforts as anything more than
necessary at the time. However, what I invite reflection on is how they can emerge
in the context of sincere relationships established through research and in keeping
with the ethical obligations a researcher must fulfil in conducting this type of re-
search. This is especially true, I believe, when a researcher meets participants out-
side the parameters of institutions such as NGOs, shelters or government authorities
where their victimhood has already been established.


Current discussions about research and data on human trafficking tend to focus
primarily on issues of rigour in trafficking research, which is outcome-oriented and
includes concerns around the relevance and reliability of information collected and
how representative it can be said to be of the population under consideration. I have
argued in this chapter that a more process-oriented view of trafficking research,
embodied in five other considerations, is also desirable because it results in more
informative and ethically responsible research outcomes.
Following this, the chapter has attempted to provide some insights into ways of
establishing contexts of honesty and disclosure in trafficking research, responding
to Kelly’s (2005) call for researchers to begin to think about methodologies and
processes to achieve this. Trust and rapport have been recognised in some discus-
sions of trafficking research as necessary to the achievement of disclosure and hon-
esty. However, trust and rapport have not themselves been critically discussed in
trafficking research: how exactly are they to be achieved? What do they involve?
What implications do they have for the researcher herself? How might feminist
research principles work towards the achievement of trust and rapport in trafficking
research? This chapter has attempted to make some inroads into answering these
questions based on one ethnographic study by the author. In my experience, the
more fully one adheres to the principles of good relationships, which means em-
bracing the notions of respect, reciprocity, responsibility, and reflexivity, the more
informative and more ethically responsible the research outcomes will be. Traf-
ficking research needs to move beyond its current focus, which tends to reproduce
knowledge about trafficking that is already widely accepted and understood, and
undertake in-depth research by which largely untold dimensions of trafficked per-
sons’ experiences can be illuminated.
168 S. Yea


Andrees, B., & van der Linden, M. N. J. (2005). Designing trafficking research from a labour mar-
ket perspective: The ILO experience. International Migration, 43(1–2), 55–74. [Special issue].
Brennan, D. (2004). What’s love got to do with it? Transnational desires and sex tourism in the
Dominican Republic. Durham: Duke University Press.
Brennan, D. (2005). Methodological challenges in research with trafficked persons: Tales from the
field. International Migration, 43(1–2), 35–54. [Special issue].
Butz, D., & Besio, K. (2009). Autoethnography. Geography Compass, 3(5), 1660–1674.
Cloke, P., Cursons, J., Milbourne, P., & Widdowfield, R. (2000). Ethics, reflexivity and research:
Encounters with homeless people. Ethics, Place and Environment, 3(2), 133–154.
England, K. (1994). Getting personal: Reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research. Profes-
sional Geographer, 46, 80–89.
Hua, J., & Nigorizawa, H. (2010). US sex trafficking, women’s human rights and the politics of
representation. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12(3–4), 401–423.
Kapur, R. (2002). The tragedy of the victimisation rhetoric: Resurrecting the “native” subject in
international/post-colonial feminist legal politics. Harvard Human Rights Journal, 15, 1–37.
Kelly, L. (2002, September). Journeys of jeopardy: A commentary on current research on traf-
ficking of women and children for sexual exploitation within Europe. Paper presented at the
EU/IOM European Conference on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings,
Kelly, L. (2005). “You can find anything you want”: A critical reflection on research on trafficking
in persons within and into Europe. International Migration, 43(1–2), 235–266. [Special issue].
Laczko, F. (Ed.). (2005). Introduction. International Migration, 43(1–2), 1–16. [Special issue].
Lainez, N. (2010). Representing sex trafficking? The victim staged. In T. Zheng (Ed.), Anti-traf-
ficking, human rights, and social justice (pp. 134–149). New York: Routledge.
Law, L. (2000). Sex work in southeast Asia: The place of desire in a time of AIDS. (Routledge
Pacific Rim geographies series). London: Routledge.
Miles, M., & Crush, J. (1993). Personal narratives as interactive texts: Collecting and interpreting
migrant life histories. Professional Geographer, 45(1), 84–94.
Nencel, L. (2001). Ethnography and prostitution in Peru. London: Pluto Press.
Oakley, A. (1981). Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. In H. Roberts (Ed.), Doing
feminist research (pp. 30–61). London: Routledge.
Osella F., & Osella, C. (2006) Men and masculinities in south India. London: Anthem Press.
Scheyvens, R., & Leslie, H. (2000). Gender, ethics and empowerment: Dilemmas of development
fieldwork. Women’s Studies International Forum, 23(1), 119–130.
Scheyvens, R., Scheyvens, H., & Warwick E. M. (2003). Working with marginalised, vulnerable
or privileged groups. In R. Scheyvens & D. Storey (Eds.), Development fieldwork: A practical
guide (pp. 167–196). London: Sage.
Surtees, R. (2008). Trafficked men as unwilling victims. St. Anthony’s International Review, 1(4),
Surtees, R. (2014). Another side of the story: Challenges in research with unidentified and unde-
tected trafficking victims. In S. Yea (Ed.), Human trafficking in Asia: Forcing issue. London:
Tyner, J. A. (2002). Geographics of identity: The migrant experiences of Filipinas in Northeast
Ohio. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 43(3), 311–326.
Williams, A. (1990). Reading feminism in fieldnotes. In L. Stanley (Ed.), Feminist praxis
(pp. 253–61). London: Routledge.
World Health Organisation (WHO). (2000). WHO ethical and safety recommendations for inter-
viewing trafficked women. Geneva: World Health Organisation.
Ye, J. J. (2013) Migrant masculinities: Bangladeshi men in Singapore’s labour force. Gender, Pace
and Culture, 21(8), 1012–1028.
10  Trust, Rapport, and Ethics in Human Trafficking Research 169

Yea, S. (2015). The diaries project: Methodologies for an empowering and activist engagement
with marginal migrant workers. Unpublished manuscript.
Yea, S., Mohsin, A. K. M., & Fordyce, D. (2014). One thousand and one days: Stories of migrant
worker hardship in Singapore. Dhaka: Bangla Kantha Publications.

Sallie Yea  is an assistant professor in geography at the National Institute of Education, Nan-
yang Technological University, Singapore. Her research focuses on human trafficking, vulnerable
migrants, and transnationalism. She has conducted research on these subjects in South Korea,
Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. Her recent research focuses on
unfree labour of male migrant workers in Singapore. She has published her work in journals such
as Political Geography, Environment and Planning D, Antipode, Singapore Journal of Tropical
Geography, and Gender, Place and Culture, amongst others. She has an edited volume on Human
Trafficking in Asia (Routledge 2014) and a monograph on Trafficking Women in Korea (Rout-
ledge 2015).
Part III
Child Trafficking
Chapter 11
Getting What We Want: Experience and Impact
in Research with Survivors of Slavery

Zhaleh Boyd and Kevin Bales

Boyd: As a survivor of sexual violence, I am aware that much of my passion for

anti-slavery research and policy is borne from those experiences. I am aware that I
am often grateful for ways in which surviving has strengthened my character and
that I am at other times still crippled with painful memories of abuse. A good start
to addressing the incredibly nuanced arena of ethics in human trafficking research
is to remain mindful of my own experience with trauma while balancing it with an
openness to the unique experiences of research participants. A solid next step is to
remain fluid and flexible with regard to the nature of subject participation. Despite
slavery’s long and profound existence, slavery studies is a comparatively nascent
field; therefore, a commitment to developing nuanced moral and ethical guidelines
in consultation with fellow slavery researchers and trafficking survivors is the way
Bales: For nearly 20 years I have been carrying out field research on modern
slavery. This has brought me into contact with slaves and slaveholders and in the
process with challenging ethical questions. If the only way to gain information from
a criminal slaveholder is to misrepresent one’s status, does the knowledge gained,
which might lead to the liberation of slaves, outweigh the duplicity? If speaking to
people in slavery gives them hopes that cannot be fulfilled, has research become
cruelty in the name of inquiry? How can one ‘first do no harm’ if it is unclear how,
why, and in what form harm might occur? I suspect the best that I can offer in this
short piece that I am happy to write with Zhaleh Boyd is that others might learn
from, and then avoid, my mistakes.
Well I’m a prostitute. I have been prostituting since I was ten years old. I’m now fourteen.
I started prostituting because my mother left me for drugs and my daddy was really never

Z. Boyd () · K. Bales
Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, Hull, UK
K. Bales
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 173
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_11
174 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

First, do no harm.
This brilliant, dynamic young lady relating her story is doing so voluntarily; we
have the consent and assent forms to prove it. She came here today well aware that
this is the activity on the agenda. She is writing it with her own hand, with a pen and
sheets of paper chosen for the purpose of telling this story. That means she wants to
tell it, right? An advocate is present—one who she trusts and even loves, and who is
very vocal about loving her back—so she must be safe from harm.
Musn’t she?
Vulnerability is an elusive characteristic in that it is constantly shifting, explod-
ing into focus, then hiding itself from view, peeking out now and then through tiny
fissures in a facade. It constantly morphs and mutates, and it is ever the talented
actor. By what scales do we measure vulnerability, and are they the same scales we
use to measure agency? Are we benefiting from this wonderful young lady’s vul-
nerability, and/or are we empowering her? Are we informed enough to differentiate
between the two in every situation?
In the quote above, this powerful young lady uses wording that indicates much
about her understanding of the dynamics of both vulnerability and agency. She im-
mediately self-identifies as a prostitute, choosing to deploy an official term rather
than the jargon of the life1; she is conscious of her audience and actively code-
switches to communicate deliberately with that audience. She goes on to identify
quite immediately one of the push factors that made her vulnerable to slavery: a
lack of belonging. ‘Belonging is often associated with a search for a sense of being
at home. It is, however, more than an individual state of mind: our ideas of belong-
ing connect us to each other, and to the social worlds we inhabit in quite specific
ways’ (Sharma 2014). Belonging is relational and complex; belonging is not solely
determined by geography, physical features, culture, or even bloodlines. One must
both seek acceptance and be accepted by the group. Whether or not an individual
fits in with a group must be agreed upon by both the individual and the group. The
phrase ‘my mother left me for drugs’ denotes that she perceives herself to be less
acceptable to her mother than drugs, less powerful than addiction. Furthermore,
her mother does not belong to her, as her mother belongs to her addiction. For her
father, her wording suggests that he never even considered her as belonging to him.
For children who lack stable families, particularly during the formative years,
the desire to belong—anywhere and to anyone—can become an overwhelming
need. Anything that is categorised as an overwhelming need can effectively be ex-
ploited. The US foster care system was created to address the needs of these chil-
dren, providing shelter, supervision, food, education, health, and other forms of care
through adulthood. The foster care system is rife with shortcomings, unfortunately,
which has given rise to multiple intersections with the domestic minor sex traffick-
ing (DMST) industry and, subsequently, the anti-trafficking realm.
This particular research project involves a group of teen and pre-teen female,
male, and transgender students from the USA who also happen to have been so-

‘The life’ is a term commonly used throughout the USA to refer to the ways and means of pros-
11  Getting What We Want 175

cialised as racial minorities, as foster children, and as sex workers. Despite these
similarities, the students represent a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds,
socio-economic experiences, sex work organisational structures, familial experi-
ences, and world views. They have each lived sex trafficking in unique ways and
often vacillate between empathy and apathy for each other’s realities. The method-
ology for this research project included two sets of questionnaires and one semi-
structured group interview. One questionnaire was developed and administered by
the youth advocate who facilitated the formation of the sample. The second ques-
tionnaire was developed by the researcher and administered by the youth advocate.
The semi-structured group interview was facilitated by the youth advocate and one
of the older students. The presence of an advocate is key in engaging this particular
sample group because of the special circumstances surrounding their vulnerabil-
ity. These participants are children, which already categorises them as vulnerable.
They are also trauma survivors, foster children, victims of sexual violence, and sex
workers. All of these groups are commonly identified in sociological research as
being vulnerable. Furthermore, child subjects require parental consent to participate
in ethically sound sociological research; however, in the case of this sample, the
parents and guardians of these participants are sometimes their enslavers. In order
to move forward with the data collection, we have decided to engage a youth ad-
vocate that is known and trusted to each of the participants and to distribute assent
forms to each of the participants so that they can be fully informed of their rights
as research subjects. The benefits of involving an advocate is useful in more ways
than simply replacing parents and guardians, however. The presence of an advocate
can ensure that the project has someone present (1) whose sole interest is the sub-
ject’s protection, (2) who is an objective observer of our behaviour as researchers,
(3) who the subject views as a protector, and (4) who is more intimately informed
on the subject’s interests, experiences, needs, and strengths than the researchers
are. Both questionnaires and the interview were administered and gathered within a
classroom setting, away from pimps, johns, and other enslavers or those otherwise
complicit in the participants’ enslavement. In all, 13 students participated in this
research, forming a snowball convenience sample.
This research project explores the enslaver–victim relationship and the push–
pull factors that allow for such a relationship. A commonly accepted narrative of
slavery is that it is motivated by a greed for economic capital so intense that it
eclipses the enslaver’s ability to recognise the humanity in his/her victim. While
cases motivated by a desire for economic capital exist, cases abound that appear to
strip the enslaver of economic capital as well. With an increasing number of cases
of the latter, gaps in policy and direct services with which these cases are correlated
are also increasingly noticeable. Therefore, we are currently researching human
trafficking/contemporary slavery cases and incidents in order to develop a more
nuanced understanding of the various circumstances that lead to the enslavement
of a person by another person or persons. This project seeks to compile personal
accounts of both enslavers and victims in which some mention of motivations and
intentions may be reasonably identified as relating to social, cultural, or economic
176 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

Foster children who have also self-identified as sex workers were an ideal re-
search sample for this particular project because the nature of the US foster care
system provides that its wards are highly aware that their caretakers receive an
allowance for their care and sometimes develop a belief that the amount of this
allowance is a measure of their personal value. In anti-slavery discourse, a per-
son’s monetary value as a slave is also widely accepted as a measurement of his/
her personal value to his/her enslaver and possibly in his/her self-image. From these
interviews, we hope to discover what patterns and variables involving concepts of
personal value may exist at the intersection of foster care and contemporary slavery.
One student of the 13 is quoted throughout this chapter. The excerpts from her
completed questionnaires serve as a case study into the moral and ethical research
dilemmas commonly encountered with men, women, transgendered persons, and
children who have been victims of sex trafficking. The young lady in this case study
entered the life before becoming a teenager, as is the norm2 in American DMST.
At ten years old my mom left me to go chase drugs. I met a man who is my pimp/baby’s
father and been with him for four years. I had a baby at thirteen years old by him. Now I’m
a prostitute. My mother used to call me out my name every day that it start hurting me so
bad to the point I start cutting myself. My baby’s father beats me. I needed money really
bad so I sucked a guy’s dick and he recorded it and put it on Facebook and everyone been
calling me out my name. I trust no one.

Requesting that a victim remember trauma vividly enough to recount it in detail

can be, in and of itself, the cause of further trauma to the victim (Brennan 2005,
p. 44; WHO 2003). In the passage above, she discusses the various types of abuse
she has received: sexual, verbal, physical, and what is commonly referred to as
cyberbullying. In asking her to recount each of these experiences—abandonment,
rape, childhood pregnancy and childbirth, sex trafficking, verbal abuse, self-muti-
lation, physical violence, sex acts for survival, betrayal, shaming and ostracism—it
is possible that we have asked her to relive each experience as well. Perhaps she
has developed a mechanism for processing this type of memory-induced pain, and
perhaps not. Throughout the survey process, the youth advocate assists the students
in processing their experiences and the attendant emotions. She remains available
to the students for as long as they care to be in contact with her, providing services
even once they have aged out of the system.
One day I met him walking to my uncle’s house in the projects. He was selling drugs out of
his house. I was ten years old but I looked fifteen because my boobs and period had came
early. He kept trying to talk to me and I kept turning him down. But one day he brought
me flowers and gave me money to get my hair done. I thought it was cute and we started
dating. Two weeks later he went to jail for drugs. I kept writing him. When he got out he
took me to a hotel…

In this passage, she exhibits quite a bit of agency, as well as illuminating some of the
depth of her self-image. She provides that the decision to enter into a relationship
with the person who would become her pimp was her own and that it was a decision

According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI 2009), the average age of both
the onset of sexual assault and the average age of entrance into prostitution for girls is 12 years.
11  Getting What We Want 177

she made only after a courtship. The terms of the courtship hint at a commodifica-
tion but in a way not esoteric to American society. Although there are no real clues
as to his age besides her description of his as ‘a man’, we suspect he is at least 15
but is most likely an adult. She mentions being aware that she is too young for him
but that her body’s development made her look older than she thought a 10-year-
old should physically appear. It is difficult to tell whether or not she believes he is
justified in having a sexual attraction to a child; her repeated mention of her age
hints that perhaps she knows she is younger than the socially acceptable age of
In this part of her account, her tone seems confident. She belongs; she cares
for someone and is cared for in return; even when he leaves, she remains within
the socially acceptable bounds of the relationship. This seems to be a moment of
relative safety in the narrative. Despite the fact that she is recounting an illegal and
age-inappropriate sexual relationship, her tone and word choice denote agency. She
is often the subject of the sentence, rather than an object in it.
He told me he love me and he gave me money on a daily. I thought I loved him so when he
went to jail for a few months I was holding it down for him. When I was twelve he came
back from jail he didn’t have any money so he start telling me that I have to go make money
for him. I cried and said no because I was a virgin but he didn’t care. When I said no he
started beating me.

Her tone changes noticeably here. The sentence structure devolves. The sentence ‘I
thought I loved him so when he went to jail for a few months I was holding it down
for him’ seems an answer constructed in response to a question we did not ask: a
question about allowing herself to be vulnerable to him and perhaps about being
loyal to him rather than to herself. Whether these questions come from internal or
external sources, they are indicative of the shame and self-blame that are symptom-
atic of sexual and physical violence. It is possible that she is explaining herself to
herself, or to the advocate, or to me, or to society at large. That burden—of feeling
as if she owes anyone an explanation—can be harmful. As researchers encouraging
her to interact with this burden, it is probable that a portion of that burden is ours.
Simultaneously and/or conversely, interacting with that burden may be cathartic.
After he was done hitting me we laid in the bed. He start telling me he loved me and he
didn’t mean to hit me that he just need some money. He told me he promise me never to hit
me again and then he took off my clothes and I lost my life to him that day. Once you have
sex with a pimp he owns you forever and it’s very hard for you to leave him after that. He
had put me on my first track in [city] called [street name]. All I have to do was get in the car
with old white men and charge them $$ 40–$$60 dollars for blow jobs and $$ 100–$$150
for sex. I was scared and I panic every time those men was on top of me. They used and
abuse me and my insides.

This passage is interesting in a number of ways. ‘I lost my life to him that day’ is
an insightful description of rape and initiation into sex trafficking. The switch from
‘I’ to ‘you’ in her description of the events denotes the possibility that the fourth
sentence is an idea that was taught to her rather than a conclusion she has personally
drawn. The phrase ‘All I have to do’ preceding her description of being trafficked
also sounds like words not her own, although the two concluding sentences do.
178 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

This young lady seems to see herself simultaneously from several perspectives
and/or to compartmentalise some aspects of her experience in order to disassociate
herself from them. In supporting her and learning from her, it is our intention that
she receives ongoing assistance with processing her experience. The first step in
doing so is ensuring an authentic and consistent relationship. Of authentic connec-
tion, Minh Dang explains in her Open Letter to the Anti-Trafficking Movement that
‘Just because I have stood on the street corner soliciting sex does not mean that I
cannot understand you and you cannot understand me’ (2014). This statement is the
foundation of moral and ethical research: Whether it is intentional or unintentional,
othering a fellow human being to further one’s own interests is exploitative.
This idea applies even if your research subject is an enslaver. The popular con-
temporary slavery narratives present those who deal in slaves as inhuman evildoers
with no redeeming qualities. The reality is that the perpetrators of slavery are as
diverse as the victims. In fact, many of them are simultaneously victims and enslav-
ers, or were at one time victims and have since transitioned into the role of perpe-
trators. Very little information on the enslaver in this case study is supplied via the
narrative. It is possible that he violently coerced her into sex trafficking in order to
pay a debt that was being violently extorted from him.
It is important to note that moral and ethical concerns must not be limited to
research subjects. Considerations should be extended as well to the researcher(s),
the sponsoring institution(s), and the audience. These groups are all vulnerable to
research methods and methodologies as well, and measures to protect these ‘un-
likely victims’ of moral and ethical laxity are often fulfilled as technicalities or
This chapter examines the ethical and moral dilemmas present in conducting re-
search within vulnerable populations. In analysing the process of conducting inter-
views with trafficking victims that identify as transient minor sex workers, several
ethical and moral concerns become immediately apparent. In light of the primary
responsibility to ‘first, do no harm’, investigating the variety of unintended nega-
tive consequences implicit in data collection and presentation is a process that is
both tedious and engaging. Experience and literature are employed in analysing the
threats to the physical, social, and psychological integrity of all participants in this
project, including the researcher, the subjects, the sponsoring institution(s), and the

First, Do No Harm

While this concept is a best practices mantra, it is extremely difficult to provide con-
crete assurances that no harm can possibly be done. Furthermore, notions of ‘harm’
are often coloured by ethnocentrism and fraught with power dynamics. Perhaps
unpacking research practices for unintended harmful consequences is enough of an
attempt for our current academic evolution. Perhaps not. We are dependent upon
trafficking victims and survivors for gathering data and other forms of knowledge,
11  Getting What We Want 179

so we must be invested in safely and deliberately extracting information from them

without inflicting pain.
In some cases, even the idea of agreeing to an interview can be harmful to a
trafficking victim. ‘For many women it is stressful to anticipate an interview about
their experiences’(WHO 2003). The anticipation itself may trigger feelings of loss
of control and fear. It is extremely important to remain constantly aware of the
interviewee’s frame of mind. It is difficult to predict which words, questions, or
memories will trigger painful reactions, so active, attentive listening is a basic re-
quirement for minimising harm.
Furthermore, restricting a survivor into a two-dimensional role can also be harm-
ful. Survivors are more than their slavery experiences; they are as complete, multi-
faceted, and complex as everyone else. In our experience with interviewing survi-
vors that are on the ‘survivors public speaking circuit’, there is a broad spectrum of
recovery and stages of social reintegration amongst them. Some of them understand
how to negotiate talent contracts and are able to make a livelihood sharing their
stories and discussing possible solutions; others are trotted out for show in return for
in-kind services with no guidance on how to break the cycle of emotional and mate-
rial dependence. For as long as this situation persists, the anti-slavery movement
as we know it will fall short of its potential because its success ‘hinges not only on
ex-captives telling their own stories but also on their taking an active leadership
role in its direction, agenda-setting, and policy formulation’ (Brennan 2005, p. 38).

Trauma Redux

The young lady interviewed in this case study is in a current state of being enslaved.
At the time the survey was conducted, she was temporarily separated from her en-
slaver, but all of the means of coercion that affect her remain in place. When she
leaves the safe space within which the data is collected, she is completely vulner-
able to him again. Some research subjects remain in slavery situations at the point
of intervention; others are no longer in slavery situations and likely will not be
again; still others are in a lull between ‘rescue’ and re-enslavement. Each of these
situations has its own dynamics with regard to the subject’s safety. In talking with
subjects that are currently in a slavery situation, there is the possibility that she/he
will be punished by his/her enslaver and/or community for talking with an outsider.
Victims often self-censor because of ‘fear of reprisals from their enslavers, their
stage in the recovery process, and concern that their community of co-ethnics will
stigmatize them’ (Brennan 2005, p. 43).
Self-censorship as an ethical concern is an interesting issue as it is borne from
the urge for self-preservation. Research subjects might agree to participate for any
number of reasons, and those reasons are weighed against a wide variety of possi-
bilities for participation backlash. This backlash could come before, during, or after
the subjects’ interaction with the researcher. If, at any point in the data collection
process, the subject senses that the balance of safety has shifted, she/he may quickly
180 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

alter his/her story or self-censor in some other way. The threat may be perceived by
the subject as originating in his/her trafficker(s), his/her self, or in the researcher. For
example, in a session that was conducted by the advocate and an advanced student,
one of the participants was asked, ‘What would you say is the worst thing that ever
happened to you?’; she responds, ‘I’m not even trying to talk about that because I
don’t like crying in front of people.’ The participant voiced, in this circumstance, a
fear of losing emotional self-control in a conversation about a topic that may have
provided extremely useful information regarding her entrance into contemporary
slavery. The advocate changed the course of the conversation accordingly in order
to safely extend the conversation. The advocate asked a few minutes later, ‘How
did you end up in the life?’, and the participant responded, ‘Damn…see now I gotta
explain this shit…I was still a virgin but then, shit happens, you feel me? That’s all
I’m gonna say.’ She goes on to explain how she met her first boyfriend/enslaver, but
there still seems to be an important piece of information that she chooses to censor.
The process of perceiving a threat and self-censoring in response can give rise
to data that is unclear, incomplete, false, or otherwise tainted. At the time of this
particular research project, the best fail-safe against self-censorship was ensuring
that the subject felt as safe and as empowered as possible. The victim advocate was
indispensable in this aspect of the project as she could interpret both verbal and
nonverbal cues from the subjects with much greater perception than we and could
respond accordingly, taking necessary measures to steer the session in an appropri-
ate direction.
Victims that are currently enslaved may also be fearful of their own criminalisa-
tion. Because contemporary slavery is itself illicit and intersects with other illicit
activities, such as irregular immigration, sex work, drug and arms possession and
trafficking, theft, assault, and fraud, victims are often convinced that they will be
either misidentified as criminals or that they are actually criminals (WHO 2003).
They also may have very limited knowledge of their legal options; in fact, many
victims come in contact with law enforcement who also have limited knowledge of
the victims’ legal options (Grubb and Bennett 2012). Due to inconsistencies in anti-
slavery law, victims that seek help are informed that they may only access victim
protection services if they contribute to the conviction of their captor (WHO 2003).
There is also the possibility that the subject will suffer compounded mental and
emotional stress from confronting his/her status as a victim of slavery, especially if
she/he did not self-identify as a victim before then or if she/he plays a willing role
in order to survive the day-to-day indignities of his/her situation. ‘Asking a woman
to talk about experiences that were frightening, humiliating, and painful can cause
extreme anxiety. Many women feel ashamed of what they have done or what has
happened to them’ (WHO 2003). Some victims who are no longer enslaved may
find catharsis in discussing his/her experiences in the past tense, while others may
find that remembering certain aspects of his/her experience causes mental anguish
and triggers unhealthy habits, which may lead to re-enslavement. ‘A woman’s dis-
tress from an interview may occur during an interview, but may also emerge before
or after…. Women may also review and regret what they have recounted long after
an interview has ended. For some, the entire process is traumatic’ (WHO 2003).
11  Getting What We Want 181

Self-Image and Self-Identification

Identifying a trafficking victim is an ethical dilemma all its own. In the case study,
the young lady sharing her story with us self-identifies as a prostitute, and she self-
identifies as a child prostitute. She does not refer to herself in the narrative as a
trafficking victim nor a slave; whether she self-identifies as either in her own mind
is unknown to us. Internationally, the sheer number of terms used to describe what
is deployed in this chapter as ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘slavery’ is daunting, reconcil-
ing the various definitions of each term is extremely difficult (Androff 2010) and
attempting to identify victims based on a single, agreed-upon definition can seem
nearly impossible. Identifying a victim who also self-identifies as a trafficking vic-
tim is extremely rare and dramatically narrows the population for a prospective
sample. For some, self-identifying as a slave or as a trafficking victim has never
crossed their minds (Warren 2012). This phenomenon is often found among popula-
tions for whom extreme exploitation is normalised, such as the restavec population
in Haiti or children employed in the worst forms of child labour throughout South
Asia. For others, the possibility that she/he might be enslaved or trafficked must be
compartmentalised in the subconscious for psychological survival (Jani 2009). This
situation is easily discernible among victims of debt bondage; they often believe
that they can endure the indignities heaped upon them for the seemingly finite time
period required to pay off their debt, at least until it becomes clear that the debt is
never ending. There are those, however, who are consciously aware of their victimi-
sation and identify as such. Self-identification is extremely important for research,
as attributing labels to people who do not attribute those same labels to themselves
can have enormously negative repercussions. ‘It is impossible to distinguish victims
of trafficking based on external observations, thus, unambiguous classification of
victims of trafficking is most easily facilitated if the victims are willing to give
up information about exploitation and abuse themselves’ (Tyldum and Brunovskis
Collecting data on trafficking from victims who both meet credible criteria for
victimhood and self-identify as such is methodologically sound, but it remains a
limited sample as it is, therefore, not representative of the entire population of traf-
ficking victims. This shortcoming can only be rectified through the continued de-
velopment of the field. Despite the antiquity and prevalence of slavery, there is
much that we still struggle to comprehend about its effects upon every strata of
society. The more we learn from our limited samples and the gaps they illustrate,
the more we can develop new research projects to address those gaps. Eventually,
we will create a more complete study of slavery.
Collecting and using data from persons who never identified as trafficking vic-
tims or who no longer identify as a trafficking victim can have severe negative
consequences. For example, if the identities of survivors of trafficking are not vig-
ilantly protected, they may become vulnerable to people from their old lives as
well as new friends and acquaintances who reduce the survivors’ entire existence
to that of a ‘slave’ or ‘victim’. The recent controversy surrounding Somaly Mam’s
182 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

organisation Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire (AFESIP) was fuelled by
this issue. Several people have come forward to state that although Mam had stated
in the past that they had been trafficked, her statements were false. Mam’s husband
refuted the story that their daughter had been kidnapped by traffickers (Marks and
Bopha 2012). A client of AFESIP, Meas Ratha, explained that the story she told
was not her own, but another AFESIP client’s, and that her life had been negatively
affected by the untruth (Murdoch 2013). Long Pross recanted her story regarding
the loss of an eye to a violent trafficker; her parents informed the public that it was
removed in surgery due to a tumour and that she had never been trafficked (Mur-
doch 2013). Mam herself has now resigned as director of AFESIP since questions
abound regarding her autobiography, which describes her as having been trafficked
repeatedly since childhood (Marks 2014). In the case of AFESIP, it is true that the
organisation served women and girls who desperately needed help escaping slavery,
receiving medical assistance and shelter and preparing to begin new lives or being
reunited with their family. The details of each member’s experience may not have
seemed as pressingly important as garnering attention to the issue and securing
funding to provide services for the clients at the time; however, the untruths proved
to become a hindrance to everyone involved. Even when the account is completely
truthful, the contemporary slave narrative is generally deployed in a way that has
proven to be increasingly problematic. The experiences of survivors are treated as
a sort of currency in the contemporary anti-trafficking movement, to the extent that
…it seems that official trafficking narratives are not really meant to show anything else but
the fact that victims can be and want to be saved. These narratives are not created as records
to define trafficking or even to witness it. And they are definitely not created to show the
complexity, diversity or variety of human trafficking that exists. (Snajdr 2013)

Despite the disturbing truth that permeates a survivor’s story, the ways in which the
stories are deployed by the media, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the
government, the international arena, and academia has by and large transformed
them into sensationalism. These experiences are used as a means for attracting and
maintaining attention to the organisation rather than as an entry point into problem-
solving. We become stuck in the story, as often does the survivor. She/he becomes
beholden to the process of performing victimhood rather than participating in inter-
vention and recovery.


Compensating research subjects presents an interesting ethical dilemma. Fitting

compensation is something that should be discussed at length between the research
subjects, their advocates, and the researcher(s) before it is decided upon. Especially
on a topic in which the commodification of human beings is the central issue, quan-
tifying the sharing of an experience is shaky ground. In this project, compensation
was discussed between the advocate and the interviewees; the researcher was not
11  Getting What We Want 183

privy to the terms. While this method may also provide certain benefits relating to
confidentiality and other protections necessary for minors, it also allows for exploi-
tation should the advocate or other liaison prove unscrupulous. Because compen-
sation can take many forms, participation can also be extorted from victims. We
encountered this difficulty in our attempts to interview prisoners.
On the one hand, openly discussing the processes of the research for all parties
involved can be a useful exercise in building trust. The researcher stands to gain a
deeper understanding of the emotional toll involved in recounting experiences of
trauma. The survivor participates more wholly in the presentation of his/her image
and experience to the researcher’s audience and more fully grasps the import of his/
her experience to the various epistemologies involved. The advocate can actively
protect both the researcher and the subject from misunderstandings of themselves
and each other. Special attention should be paid to the language around setting a
value to an experience, to time, to presence, and to emotional expression.
In this particular project, we offered compensation in a couple of forms: (1) we
offered to host an informal discussion over brunch at an agreed-upon restaurant and
(2) we offered to provide gift cards to establishments that would be most useful to
the participants and asked the advocate to advise us on which establishments would
be best. The advocate considered both of these offers and agreed that the brunch
would be a good idea; however, due to the transitory nature of both the life and
foster care, we were unable to schedule a brunch at which a large enough sample
of participants could attend. In the end, the advocate offered to provide etiquette
classes for the participants, which arose impromptu during a session in which one
participant expressed a desire to learn more ‘lady-like’ mannerisms.

Enslavers as Vulnerable Subjects

In this project, as in most slavery research, we tend to ignore, dismiss, or simplify

the points of view of the enslavers. The pimp mentioned in the case study remains
a mystery to us. The interviewee did not offer more information on his motivation
for enslaving her except for the explanation that he needed money when he was
released from jail. After he beats her, she refers to him from then on as her pimp
rather than her boyfriend, baby’s father, or lover, although she states later that she
cannot leave him because she loves him. Perhaps his plan was to enslave her from
the beginning, and perhaps he was coerced into enslaving her by a third party that
remains unknown to us. Because the term ‘trafficker’ or ‘enslaver’ can be applied to
a wide variety of participants, the dichotomy with which we tend to divide partici-
pants into ‘victims’ and ‘criminals’ is ethically unsound. Many victims participate
in the trafficking of others, and many victims commit crimes in the process of being
victimised (Malarek 2007). Similarly, traffickers have been known to have entered
the industry as victims, achieving an advancement in the ranks driven by survival
tactics (Warren 2012).
184 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

Enslaver–victim relationships are often presented to us as dichotomous: The en-

slaver is adult, male, evil, and a stranger to the victim. The victim is a child, female,
innocent, and unaware of the processes taking place around her. While cases such
as these exist, they are by no means representative of all enslaver–victim relation-
ships. In many cases, kinship plays an important role in the trafficking relation-
ship. In situations of bonded labour, the only means a family may have of feeding
its children is to borrow a loan from a landlord. As collateral, that child’s present
and/or future labour is signed over. Unscrupulous landlords routinely balloon the
debt by adding in exorbitant interest rates and inflated pricing for basic foodstuffs,
use of tools, transportation to work sites, and other necessary items. In this way, a
parent has officially sold his/her child into slavery; that parent is a trafficker under
most current definitions. In other situations, the sale of a child by a parent may be
based in cultural and religious norms. The trokosi and devadasi traditions in West
Africa and South Asia, respectively, both involve the sale of girl children to a holy
temple to provide both sexual and domestic labour. In numerous parts of the world,
including the USA,3 parents often send their children away if they feel they cannot
adequately care for them, with people who claim to serve the best interests of the
child but actively sell and/or otherwise exploit those children.
Because ‘trafficking narratives always frame the victim as innocent, and the
trafficker as “evil” in facile ways,’ we may find, as researchers, that our literature
reviews and our primary data provides no empirically based, data-driven evidence
to the contrary (Snajdr 2013, p. 240). This represents an enormous gap in human
trafficking research and requires immediate attention.

Researchers as Vulnerable Subjects

Researchers are vulnerable to negative impacts from their own methods and prac-
tices as well. As researchers, we feel a certain amount of pressure to gather data
wherever we can find it. The process of this undertaking can often lead us to per-
ceive our research subjects as just that: ours. And subjects. In our quest to test
theories to advance the field and/or our careers, we may sometimes believe that we
have a right to the information stored within victims’ experiences. Sometimes we
feel further entitled because our intention is to use this information to directly or
indirectly establish justice. We may expect a certain level of gratitude from research
subjects for the nobility of our undertaking. We may perceive them to be obstacles
to their own liberation: If they do not share their stories with us, how can we help
(read: save) them? This perspective and practice permeates much of the western

A burgeoning set of literature investigates the numerous intersections between the US foster care
system and DMST. Referred to by Malika Saada Saar as ‘The Foster Care to Child Trafficking
Pipeline’, the gaps in the foster care system have given rise to a supply chain for child sex traf-
fickers. Data from DMST recovery operations show that 60–90 % of child sex trafficking victims
spent some time in foster care (Saar 2013).
11  Getting What We Want 185

nonprofit and corporate social responsibility arenas and is commonly referred to as

‘the saviour industrial complex’, a term coined by Teju Cole (2012) in response to
Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 viral video campaign. It is increasingly proving to
be unsustainable and inefficient at establishing lasting improvements.
This hierarchical understanding of research power dynamics may also show up
as a symptom of vicarious traumatisation, defined as ‘the process and mechanism by
which the inner experience of the therapist is profoundly and permanently changed
through an empathic bonding with the client’s traumatic experiences’ (Kadambi and
Ennis 2004). Vicarious traumatisation is often conflated with compassion fatigue,
secondary traumatic stress, countertransference, and burnout (Way et al. 2004), but
there are three conditions theorised to be unique to facilitating vicarious trauma in
those working with traumatised clients. These conditions are:
(1) Empathic engagement and exposure of the therapist to graphic and traumatic
(2) Empathic engagement and exposure of the therapist to the reality of human
(3) The therapist’s participation in traumatic re-enactments wherein client trans-
ference responses re-enact elements of the initial trauma within the therapy
process (Kadambi and Ennis 2004, p. 3).
While the research on vicarious traumatisation quoted here is more specifically
written about therapists and clinicians, we confidently apply conditions (1) and (2)
to the work of human trafficking researchers in general and can apply condition
(3) to our personal human trafficking research experiences. Furthermore, similar
studies on researcher trauma via qualitative data collection report the occurrence of
emotional impacts on interviewers (Coles and Mudaly 2010). Studies throughout
the literature on vicarious trauma agree that it causes shifts in the ‘therapist’s sense
of spirituality, worldview, and self-identity, as the result of disruptions in cogni-
tive schemas associated with trust, intimacy, safety, power, and control’ (McCann
and Pearlman 1990; Pearlman and Saakvitne 1995; cited in Kadambi and Ennis
2004). Shifts and disruptions such as these will affect researchers both personally
and professionally. The responsibility that researchers have to maintain the purity
of the data provides that we must responsibly ensure that our personal narratives do
not influence the collection or presentation of said data. However, there is a school
of thought that supports the inclusion of both thinking and emotion in interviewer–
interviewee interaction in order to establish ‘a richer, deeper and more accurate
analysis of research data, and ultimately in a more representative construction of
meaning and new knowledge’ (Coles and Mudaly 2010).
By extension, sponsoring institutions and audiences can become vulnerable to
both the white saviour industrial complex and vicarious traumatisation. Because
human trafficking—and particularly sex trafficking—is highly sensationalised in
mass media (Kempadoo 2005; Doezema 2010; Mojca 2010; Snajdr 2013), any pub-
lished research on the topic has the power to attract media attention. Current traf-
ficking policies and interventions are notoriously based on faulty or nonexistent
data. This reality exacerbates the type and amount of attention that any data-driven
186 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

research can receive. The immediate danger in this is having empirically sound
data misrepresented or inaccurately contextualised as ‘uncritically using or publish-
ing findings not based on sound methodologies may result in misinformation and
hinder the creation of relevant policies and appropriate programmes’ (Tyldum and
Brunovskis 2005). For example, our own research with 13 students could be ex-
trapolated without the context of the research methodology, and those extrapolated
numbers could be used to make claims about tenuously related topics that are actu-
ally unsubstantiated. Furthermore, ideas present within a sentence or two from the
student quoted in this chapter could be attributed to all sex trafficking victims, or all
sex workers, or all foster care clients, misrepresenting the reality of the population
this research is meant to serve. We must remain ever mindful of our ‘need to protect
ex-captives not just from their traffickers, but also from exploitation in the media’
(Brennan 2005, p. 38).
The issue of vicarious traumatisation as it relates to sponsoring institutions and
audiences is problematic more so along the lines of compassion fatigue and cogni-
tive dissonance. Human trafficking is by all accounts an affront to human dignity
and a crime of the most heinous nature. For many audiences, the sheer inhumanity
of it, often multiplied exponentially by media sensationalism, elicits a response that
amounts to ignoring or downplaying its existence. This reaction is known as cogni-
tive dissonance. Other audiences may react differently, becoming immediately in-
terested and concerned. They may spring into action, reading as much information
as they can and becoming involved in the efforts of an anti-trafficking campaign.
After a time, however, she/he may begin to feel that his/her contributions have ef-
fected little to no change. With a greater consciousness of the issue, she/he may per-
ceive media reports and action alerts as dramatically increasing, further minimising
his/her efforts. A common reaction is to gradually reduce his/her participation in
anti-trafficking activities and/or to completely detach from the movement.


Generally speaking, humanity is still struggling to address this ancient issue of slav-
ery. In the 2000 years since Cyrus’ denunciation of slavery, we have made great
advancements in eradicating it, but much work remains to be done.
Human trafficking research is important; however, it is not more important than
protecting victims of trafficking. There are many spaces within which we may for-
get the importance of protecting each other’s humanity, but a first step to eliminat-
ing those spaces is remaining aware of their existence. Some of the students that
participated in this research project are back in the life. Some of them were moved
to different foster care homes or groups homes in other cities or across the country.
A couple of them tried unsuccessfully to live again with their parents. One has
struck out on her own, surviving via freelance sex work. She refuses to work with
a pimp or a partner, unwilling to divide her earnings with someone else. Several of
11  Getting What We Want 187

the students have children and work hard to keep them out of the foster care system,
determined to provide a better chance at safety than they were afforded.
The young lady whose story served as the case study for this chapter shared
experiences that filled several pages, but so much of her story remains a mystery.
The timeline she provides seems odd, and her baby receives only a passing mention.
What does this mean? As a child continuously living with trauma, has her sense of
time and space been impacted? Is her vagueness surrounding her pimp and child a
form of self-censorship for their protection, or is there another reason she has not
shared more information about them? Did she become frightened and change the
course of her narrative? Is the entire account a fabrication? Regardless of what the
answers to these questions are, she remains a traumatised child living with insuf-
ficient protection.
In our attempts to figure out how best to contribute to the well-being of every
survivor that has shared his/her story with us, we turn again to guidelines provided
by Minh Dang to the anti-trafficking movement:
Preparation must include a self-reflective and emotional component. How prepared are
people to hold the horrors of human trafficking? How prepared are people to hold the hor-
rors while celebrating the joys? How informed are people of their motivations? Are we here
to ‘save’ participants because we think they have sinned? What stereotypes do we bring to
this work? What stereotypes are we reinforcing? (2014).

An honest and in-depth exploration of all the possibilities for harming a participant
in the course of the research process is key to maintaining an ethical study.
Literature and training abound on methods for collecting data from trauma survi-
vors that will minimise re-traumatisation. While most of this literature is not neces-
sarily to be found within the slavery studies section of the library, the intersecting
fields of journalism, sociology, and psychology provide useful practices that can be
adapted and applied. At the most basic level, it is of the utmost importance that the
researcher is constantly aware that asking a trauma survivor to relive and relate his/
her traumatic experiences has the potential to be heavily taxing on the subject be-
fore, during, and/or after the session(s). Understanding, communicating, and plan-
ning for this reality can have several outcomes: It can discourage the subject from
participating; it can encourage the subject to participate; it can trigger a sense of
empowerment; it can trigger a sense of powerlessness. Planning for all four of these
possibilities is a best practice.
Attempting to use data gathered from participants whom the researcher identifies
as victims but who do not self-identify as victims has the potential to corrupt the
researcher–subject relationship. If the participant decides, upon realisation that she/
he is being portrayed by the researcher as a victim, a survivor, and/or a slave, that
she/he no longer wants to be a participant, that data is no longer valid. For these
reasons, it is key to discuss the terminology with the participants in both written
and oral communications and with a trusted advocate involved if necessary. If the
participant states that she/he does not identify as a slave, a trafficking victim, or
a survivor, it is important to relay this information clearly and prominently in the
presentation of the data. In the explanation of the situation, it is also important to
illustrate how and why the researcher identifies the participant as a slave/victim/
188 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

survivor despite the fact that the subject does not self-identify as such. As slavery
studies researchers adopt this practice, the study of how and why some people who
can be legally labelled slaves/trafficking victims/survivors have decided to reject
that label will greatly contribute to the field.
Participant compensation can also greatly impact the ways in which researcher
and participant interact with each other. Compensation can take a wide variety of
forms, and project funding is always an unpredictable variable, so creativity and
clear communication are key in determining an agreement that both parties find
satisfactory. In the project discussed throughout this chapter, the participants did not
request material compensation to my knowledge; they did, however, request on sev-
eral occasions that we ‘just make them look good’. In order to do so, we reviewed
the collected testimonials closely, gleaning clues to what the participants seemed to
value most in themselves, in others, and in life. It is our hope that these observations
are as close to the truth as possible and that they approve of how we have presented
their voices in our research.
The vulnerability of traffickers has a different but intersecting set of concerns to
those of victims/survivors. Their participation in research initiatives can give rise to
retribution upon themselves and/or their loved ones. They also may not self-identify
as ‘enslavers’ or ‘traffickers’, and being characterised as such in the proposal, the
data collection process and/or the reports or studies may cause serious damage to
their self-image. It is useful to allow the participant to determine the terminology
that is to be used in describing him/her and to use that terminology as a starting
point for discussing how it is similar to and different from the way she/he is per-
ceived by his/her victims or according to the letter of the law. These nuances should
be discussed at length in the reporting of the data for context as well as for its inher-
ent value to the field.
Finally, the vulnerability of the researcher is the responsibility of the researcher.
The researcher must be clear and reflective about his/her particular vulnerabilities
to the research topics, transference from participants, and self-image. It is also very
important to be detached from the original proposal; flexibility and creativity are
a necessity in such a burgeoning field. We have found it useful to maintain a field
research journal to assist with processing the experience and to enlist the assistance
of co-workers, reviewers, or other informed supporters to assist us in maintaining
clarity and objectivity.


Androff, D. K. (2010). The problem of contemporary slavery: An international human rights

challenge for social work. International Social Work, 54(209).
tent/54/2/209. Accessed 23 Oct 2012.
Brennan, D. (2005). Methodological challenges in research with trafficked persons: Tales from the
field. International Migration, 43(1–2), 35–54.
Cole, T. (2012). The white savior industrial complex. The Atlantic 21 March. www.theatlantic.
com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/. Accessed 25 June
11  Getting What We Want 189

Coles, J., & Mudaly, N. (2010). Staying safe: Strategies for qualitative child abuse researchers.
Child Abuse Review, 19, 56–69.
Dang, M. (2014) “Open letter to the anti-trafficking movement—on guiding principles”. Preface.
Survivors of slavery: Modern day slave narratives. Laura Murphy (xiii–xxii). New York: Co-
lumbia University Press. (Print)
Doezema, J. (2010). Sex slavers and discourse masters: The construction of trafficking. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan. (Print)
Grubb, D., & Bennett, K. (2012). The readiness of local law enforcement to engage in US anti-
trafficking efforts: An assessment of human trafficking training and awareness of local, county,
and state law enforcement agencies in the state of Georgia. Police Practice & Research, 13(6),
487–500. doi:10.1080/15614263.2012.662815.
Jani, N. (2009). Exploring vulnerability and consent to trafficking related migration: A study of
South Asian bar dancers. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Publishing.
Kadambi, M. A., & Ennis, L. (2004). Reconsidering vicarious trauma. Journal of Trauma Prac-
tice, 3(2), 1–21.
Kempadoo, K. (Ed.). (2005). Trafficking and prostitution reconsidered: New perspectives on mi-
gration, sex work, and human rights. Boulder: Paradigm.
Malarek, V. (2007). Meet the Traffickers. New Internationalist, 404, 10–11.
Marks, S. (2014, May 30). Somaly Mam: The holy saint (and Sinner) of sex trafficking; somaly
mam saved countless girls in Cambodia. Does it matter if key parts of her story aren’t true?
trafficking-251642.html. Accessed 29 June 2014.
Marks, S., & Bopha, P. (2012, April 25). More questions over Somaly Mam’s kidnapping claim.
The Cambodia Daily.
mams-kidnapping-claim-1592/. Accessed 20 June 2014.
McCann, I. L., & Pearlman, L. A. (1990). Vicarious traumatizations: A framework for understand-
ing the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3, 131–149.
Mojca, P. (2010). Media framing of trafficking. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12(1),
Murdoch, L. (2013, November 3). Dark truths or fiction? The Sydney morning herald. http://www. Accessed 20 June 2014.
Pearlman, L. A., & Saakvitne, K. W. (1995). Trauma and the therapist: Countertransference and
vicarious traumatization in psychotherapy with incest survivors. New York: W.W. Norton &
Saar, M. S. (2013, October 29). Stopping the foster care to child trafficking pipeline. Huffington
html. Accessed 29 June 2014.
Sharma, N. (2014). Belonging. In B. Anderson & M. Keith (Eds.), Migration: A COMPAS anthol-
ogy. Oxford: COMPAS. ISBN:978-1-907271-03-8.
Snajdr, E. (2013). Beneath the master narrative: human trafficking, myths of sexual slavery and
ethnographic realities. Dialectical Anthropology, 37(2), 229–256.
s10624-013-9292-3. Accessed 20 June 2014
Tyldum, G., & Brunovskis, A. (2005). Describing the unobserved: Methodological challenges in
empirical studies. International Migration, 43(1–2), 17–34.
U.S. Department of Justice (2009). Office of the Inspector General, audit division. Federal Bureau
of Investigation’s efforts to combat crimes against children, by Glenn A. Fine. Audit Report
09-08. DIANE Publishing: Washington, DC. ISBN:1437916600, 9781437916607.
Warren, K. B. (2012). Troubling the victim/trafficker dichotomy in efforts to combat human traf-
ficking: The unintended consequences of moralizing labour migration. Indiana Journal of
Global Legal Studies, 19(1), 105–120.
Way, I., et al. (2004). Vicarious trauma: A comparison of clinicians who treat survivors of sexual
abuse and sexual offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19, 49–71.
World Health Organization. (2003). “WHO ethical and safety recommendations for interviewing
trafficked women.” London: Health Policy Unit, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medi-
cine; Daphne Programme of the European Commission.
190 Z. Boyd and K. Bales

Zhaleh Boyd  earned a Master’s in Public Diplomacy with a focus in human trafficking in
2012 from the University of Southern California (USC) under the US Department of State Picker-
ing Diplomatic Fellowship. During her 2 years at USC, she served as the graduate research fellow
in the Technology and Trafficking in Persons Initiative at the Annenberg Center on Communica-
tion Leadership and Policy. Her master’s research explored the shifting notions of coercion and
consent in various trafficking situations, and she conducted field research with sex trafficking
survivors in Vietnam and labour trafficking survivors in Sierra Leone’s diamond industry. During
this time, she also worked as Director of Communications at Shine On Sierra Leone, an LA-based
development organisation that partners with villages in the diamondiferous Kono region of Sierra
Leone on educational, agricultural, healthcare, and sustainable small business projects. Zhaleh is
currently pursuing a PhD in Contemporary Slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of
Slavery and Emancipation (WISE), serving as Associate Fellow at University College of London’s
Institute for Commonwealth Studies, and working as a Research Fellow for Walk Free Founda-
tion’s Global Slavery Index.

Kevin Bales  is a professor of contemporary slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study
of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE), University of Hull, and co-founder of Free the Slaves,
Washington DC. He also serves as lead author of the Global Slavery Index. His book Disposable
People: New Slavery in the Global Economy was named one of ‘100 World-Changing Discoveries’
by the Association of British Universities in 2006. The film based on Disposable People, which
he co-wrote, won a Peabody Award and two Emmy Awards. His 2007 book Ending Slavery: How
We Free Today’s Slaves, won the 2011 Grawemeyer Award. In 2008, with Zoe Trodd, he published
To Plead Our Own Cause: Personal Stories by Today’s Slaves. In 2009, with Ron Soodalter, he
published The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today. He is currently
writing on the relationship between slavery and environmental destruction.
Chapter 12
No Love for Children: Reciprocity, Science,
and Engagement in the Study of Child Sex

Anthony Marcus and Ric Curtis

“Plan C” for Sandy

One of our first failed attempts to recruit teenage sex workers in Atlantic City, New
Jersey occurred in the spring of 2010, when we spotted two likely candidates lin-
gering outside a ghetto liquor store on the corner of Pacific and Florida Avenues,
amidst dilapidated summer cottages and burnt-out mid-twentieth century office
buildings. It was early June and we had spent more than a week walking up and
down the main avenues in search of “CSEC victims” (commercially sexually ex-
ploited children), but the legions of youthful captives that we had been assured
were there, by members of the Atlantic City federal anti-trafficking task force, were
nowhere to be seen. We had begun to wonder if it was all just a hoax. But when
we spotted Sierra and Sandy standing on the corner—two skinny white girls that
looked every bit the part—it was a bit of a relief, and it was immediately obvious
that they were not tourists with their families on a day trip to the casinos. But walk-
ing up to strangers on the street and asking if they are prostitutes is not a strategy
that typically meets with success, so we approached them with a bit of caution,
uncertain of what exactly to say.
But as chance would have it, Sandy was perturbed about something, and she
turned and asked me if she could borrow my cell phone to make a call. “Sure,”
I said, and handed her the phone. What luck, I thought, now standing inside the
liquor store with the two girls. Sandy made her call, and we overheard her talking
with someone about verifying the time and date of an upcoming court appointment.
As she was ironing out the details of her legal appointments, I turned to Sierra to
begin to explain to her that we were researchers doing a study of young girls like

A. Marcus () · R. Curtis
Department of Anthropology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY, USA
R. Curtis
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 191
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_12
192 A. Marcus and R. Curtis

themselves. But out of the corner of her eye, Sandy saw me initiating a conversa-
tion with Sierra, and she yanked her by the arm away from me, as if I was trying to
coax them into free sex in exchange for the small favor I had done. When she hung
up, Sandy dragged Sierra away from us, giving me a disapproving glance as they
walked down Pacific Avenue.
About 2 weeks later, after we had interviewed more than a dozen young people
and word on the street got out about the project, we ran into Sandy on Atlantic Av-
enue one evening and she complained that she had not yet been able to earn the $30
that came with getting interviewed. We laughed and told her that we had tried to
interview her a few weeks earlier, but that she and her girlfriend had walked away.
“Yeah, that’s because we thought that you were a pervert then,” she said.
Over the course of the summer we continued to see Sandy and Sierra on the
avenue, but since we were focused on finding and interviewing as many young
people as possible, there was never an opportunity to do more than simply conduct
an interview and pay them the money. After the summer ended, in early October,
we returned to Atlantic City to conduct some follow-up work and spotted Sandy
walking down Pacific Avenue. Follow-up interviews were not part of the research
protocol, but since this was to be the last day, we took the opportunity to talk with
Sandy about what had happened to her since we first met in the liquor store:
It’s bad out here. I have a scar right here [pointing to a fresh scar above her right temple]. I
was in the Roadway [a motel] doing my thing about three months ago. And I got done and
I was walking to the bathroom and he put his hand around my mouth and tried to kill me.
And he smashed my head so hard up against the wall, right on the corner; that it looks like a
gash. It cut me bad. I bled a lot and I was running down Pacific [Avenue] gushing blood…
I don’t know if you guys interviewed Nicki. She’s a small girl and has long black hair. She
just got raped about three weeks ago walking down an alley. She got into a black Mitsubi-
shi. There was a Mexican inside and he put a gun to her head and said, “if you say anything,
I’m gonna shoot you.” He took her down by the bay and he said, “Get out of the car,” and
he took her phone and everything, and just left her down there
There’s a lot of fake pimps down here. There’s not anything like a real pimp, but there’s a
lot of fake ones. Like, I’ll walk down the street, and because I’m white, the black guys will
say something stupid like “snow bunny” or something stupid like that. They always try to
take your money or something.
How do you avoid them taking your money?
I cross the street, ha, ha. I don’t really have girlfriends to help me. I’m by myself a lot. I was
staying at the XX Manor, but me and my boyfriend [a drug dealer] got into an argument and
he kicked me out. So that’s why I have to get a room. I was with him for about four months.
I wanna get out of here. I can’t stand Atlantic City…
Where would you like to go?
I don’t know. I need to get my shit together. I need to get my GED [secondary school
equivalency degree]. I have to get a job….you know, that actually takes out taxes. After a
while you just get tired. And I’m tired. And you gotta worry about when is the next meal
you’re gonna eat, how you’re gonna pay your rent. And when you’re standing on the block,
doing what you do, waiting for the next car to pull up, you don’t know if it’s a cop or not.
About two months ago, I caught my charges back-to-back walking the streets. And the same
cop got me twice. But after six months, they can’t indict you, and it’s been four, so, hope-
fully, it’s still lost in the system. It’s less busy out here because it’s getting to be wintertime.
So, what do people do?
12  No Love for Children 193

The same thing that they do every day, try to survive…I’m tired. Not sleepy tired, just tired
of it. And I’m young and I’m better than this and I can get out of it. It’s just, you’re wrapped
up in this system and you don’t know where to go. You need a boost. You see the older
women that are old enough to be my mom, 40, 50 years old, still out here doing it, still out
here smoking crack. They’re so old that you would think that they’re not going anywhere,
and I don’t want that to be my future.
Do you have family that you could…
I have my mom and my dad, but my mom, she’s with her boyfriend. She was dumped by my
father when I was 12. And my dad, he lives in Thomaston with his fiancé, and me and her
don’t get along, so … it’s like I’m stuck. I have a brother, he’s 24, but he’s kinda bouncing
around in Thomaston.
Geez, it doesn’t sound like that’s a good place to go back to either. It sounds like kind of a
pain in the ass.
Yeah, it is.
Well, you need a “Plan C”, because Plan B ain’t no good.
Dr. Richard Curtis (field notes 2010)

Introduction: No Love for Other People’s Children

That was in 2010 and it bothered me deeply at the time that at that moment I did
not extend a helping hand to Sandy because it goes against all of my instincts. But
I walked away and she did not ask for help. It is a conversation that still haunts me
today whenever I think about it. Had Sandy been one of the many adults that we
routinely come across in our research and develop enduring relationships with, and
not someone that was young and involved in sex work, I might very well have been
tempted to help her find a Plan C.
She was a sensible late teenage girl who was conscious of her bad decisions in
face of a terrible homelife and knew that she needed a fresh start. By the end of the
summer, we might have passed each other’s friend tests and driven to New York
City with a group of student interviewers who would be the start of her new sup-
port network. As a professor of anthropology at a major university who has helped
to found dozens of harm reduction ministries and social service organizations, it
would have been easy to find her a place to stay, an entry-level job as an interviewer,
an outreach worker, a residence administrator in an assisted living facility, or some
other bridge to dreams of school, a career, or whatever.
I have over three decades of giving field informants a Plan C, and it has never
been about one way charity or rescue, but rather a reciprocal exchange for support
of my research (for an example of this, see Stamler 1998). Her chances of success
were far higher than most of the Plan Cs I have provided. She had the flexibility,
health, and enthusiasm of youth and the protective concern for her friend that I saw
in our first encounter. But, if successful, her Plan C would have sparked a firestorm
that made the allegations that were later lodged against us (described below)—
tempting kids with cigarettes, for example—seem like a brushfire rather than the
inane shitstorm that it turned out to be.
For most researchers who are trained in ethnographic methods the idea that the
researcher should get to know the subject of the research and develop a long-term
194 A. Marcus and R. Curtis

ethical engagement with that person, as an equal and sometimes even as a col-
league, is not controversial. The value of qualitative data depends on its depth, reli-
ability, and above all else, understanding the context. It is this deeper understanding
and the surprises that it typically engenders that enable researchers and policymak-
ers to develop the new insights and hypotheses necessary for developing improved
evidence-based approaches to provide for a population. This process also typically
provides the foundations for new research to test the efficacy of policy and best-
practice implementation and the validity of the assumptions upon which they rest.
Central to this process is cooperation between the researcher and the individuals
being researched, the relationships they build, and the new worlds that are opened
for both parties in this intersubjective process of discovery. It is this combination
of depth of knowledge and understanding of social context that separates serious
qualitative data from scientifically informed and analyzed journalism.
In anthropology, much of the process of establishing ethnographic authority in-
volves providing evidence for such reciprocal and ongoing relationships. The prac-
tice of the researcher and the researched deriving a shared benefit from the research,
and developing a friendship that involves mutual concern, intersubjective under-
standing, and possibly love is the gold standard in anthropological research and tied
to the truth claims made by the researcher.
The following essay recounts our struggles in New York City and Atlantic City,
New Jersey between 2008 and 2012 to conduct finely grained, intersubjectively en-
gaged, and ethical empirical research into the life conditions of 16–24-year-old sex
workers like Sandy. In particular, we focus on the ethical challenge of implementing
in situ empirical research with sex worker minors while adhering to contemporary
research protocols for such populations that dictate reticence, aloofness, distance,
and the substitution of social workers, and other licensed professionals for the social
capital and emotional support of friendship, especially during times when friends
are most needed: when dealing with distress or crisis.
As researchers committed to an ethnographic approach that seeks to understand
the joys, sorrows, aspirations, existential choices, and social service needs of our in-
formants through observation and participation in their lives, we explicitly critique
contemporary research protocols that hold “mature minors” (Conner et al. 2014)
to be incompetent to consent to research and out of bounds for intersubjective eth-
nographic engagement. Instead, we argue for their “personhood” and the need for
a science that is ethically engaged with that personhood, rather than built around
protecting their childhood and instantiating their victimhood.

Fieldwork as Engagement with the Other

Clifford Geertz begins “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (Geertz
1972), perhaps the most famous discussion of ethnography ever written, by describ-
ing a difficult period of being ignored by the Balinese villagers he had come to
study. When he and his wife attend an illegal cockfight and are invited to run from
12  No Love for Children 195

the police with the rest of the village, he finds himself suddenly trusted and “let
in” to a world that outsiders are excluded from. It is the paradigmatic ethnographic
moment of gaining acceptance and becoming part of “the tribe.” However, what
has been less discussed is that he is only describing how his relationship with the
Balinese, as a general category, began, rather than how his individual field relation-
ships developed and what they became (Crapanzano 1986; Clifford 1983; Clifford
and Marcus 1986).
For most ethnographers, the nature of the relationship and its development over
time matters more than how it began. Less superficial accounts of research methods
and positionality describe ethnographic relationships built on changing combina-
tions of duplicity, engagement, risk, sacrifice, obligation, conflict, collaboration,
love, and hate—sometimes over many decades (Good and Chanoff 1996; Mattley
1998; McLean and Leibing 2008; Scheper-Hughes 1993, 1987). Central to this pro-
cess is the gift exchange identified by Mauss (1954) as the temporal expression
of meaningful human relationships. These relationships are built on self-interest,
concern for the other, and reciprocity in an open-ended future and stand in contrast
to quantitatively oriented surveys in which the exchange of information for money
occurs at one discrete point (or several for longitudinal studies) in time with no
promise of further exchange or relationship.
In this ethnographic framework, the study of childhood has always been dif-
ficult, due in part to the legal inability of minors to grant research consent (Best
2007). However, parents and guardians typically provide the consent, effectively
giving the ethnographer permission to develop a relationship (see for instance Ahn
2011; Chin 2001, 2003; Corsaro 1981, 2003). Alternatively, studies of “runaway”
and “throw away” teenagers have typically taken the absence of a parental author-
ity as de facto evidence for independent decision-making (see for instance Aptekar
1988; Kovats-Bernat 2006). However, studies focusing on sex, prostitution, and
minors have always presented ethical difficulties (Calhoun and Weaver 1996; Cole-
man 1989).
The passage, in October 2000 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA),
by the United States Congress made research into the intersection of childhood and
commercial sex far more problematic. The TVPA defines any individual who trades
sex for money before his or her 18th birthday to be a victim of child sex trafficking
or the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). Correlatively, any indi-
vidual who has already passed his or her 18th birthday, who aids, abets, or supports
a minor in the exchange of sex for money can be tried as a human sex trafficker
and face prison sentences running from 15 years to life. This includes pimps, boy-
friends, girlfriends, taxi drivers who knowingly transport a minor to a transaction,
landlords who knowingly rent to sex worker minors, friends in their later teens who
provide credit card numbers to post an internet advertisement, and juridical adults
in a variety of other roles.
All at once victim and pariah, sex worker minors are now legally quarantined
from their adult support networks and excluded from ongoing relationships with
adults who are not in a position of authority and trained in anti-trafficking best
practices to rescue or punish (Cojocaru 2015). Post-Trafficking Victims Protection
196 A. Marcus and R. Curtis

Act socio-legal institutions have created a new framework in the USA for research
with “children,” as well as a new set of social actors who patrol the boundaries of
that research.

Methods, Ethics, and the Law

Our research team was contracted in 2009 by a not-for-profit with a large US gov-
ernment grant. We were hired to develop a pilot project for a six-city national study
that would use Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) to recruit 1800 young adults
between the ages of 13 and 24. The goal was to understand the nature and scope
of CSEC in the USA, through the first large-scale research engagement with this
population in situ, rather than postarrest or rescue. We were chosen because of our
success in a previous project that recruited over 300 sex worker minors in New
York City in 2008 (Curtis et al. 2008). The plan was to hire a lead investigator and
a research team in each city, with Atlantic City, New Jersey as the pilot, due to its
proximity to New York City (our home) and a widespread belief that child sex traf-
ficking was highly prevalent there, due to the beach and casino gambling.
It did not start well. The institutional review board (IRB) officer began by criti-
cizing our previous study, informing me (Marcus, the lead investigator for the At-
lantic City) that my colleague and collaborator (Curtis, the staff trainer for the sub-
sequent sites) is unethical because he “cares more about research than the lives of
young girls.” I informed her that I hoped our research might help girls and boys. In
a subsequent e-mail she informed me that “research subjects are helping researchers
do their jobs and the only thing they really get back is the money.” I countered with
the hope that we might influence policy and help some of the individuals we expect-
ed to befriend in the field. I was surprised at how much this upset her. In response
she warned me that I should beware of Curtis, since “people choose their research
topics for personal reasons that never get discussed.” I tried to deflect the obvious
implications of sexual misconduct, telling her that “people who had a difficult ado-
lescence do have personal reasons to want to help today’s youth.” Her response was
to sarcastically ask if I had read his report on the New York City research, as if to
suggest I was innocent and stupid.
When the IRB finally approved our application to do research, they insisted that
“[i]n all cases, either in the research site or in the field, at least two researchers will
be present at all times when working with the CSEC youth.” The main purpose of
this rule, we were told, was not to protect research participants, but rather, to protect
the organization from exposure to accusations of researcher misconduct that could
not be refuted by a second party. Furthermore, we were required to have a social
worker on call at all times, in case a participant had a problem that needed to be
solved or an outburst that suggested distress.
The idea that ethnographic research—participant observation—might lead to a
relationship with research subjects that encompasses more than merely extracting
information from them, at one point in time, in exchange for money is anathema
12  No Love for Children 197

to most IRBs whose rules are governed by assessing the legal risks that social re-
search may bring to institutions. Indeed, insuring that researchers do not develop
relationships that venture beyond the narrowly defined parameters of a study is an
unspoken, but ironclad rule that the IRBs impose. When research involves sex or
sexuality, those risks are considered to be very high and if minors are involved the
level of risk is amplified manyfold. In the following pages we recount some of our
struggles with a research regime that denies the possibility of ethical research about
minors and sex.

Drowning the Ceremony of Innocence in Atlantic City

At first we attempted to seek out “seeds” or first interviews to begin the RDS social
network recruitment chains through law enforcement and social service providers
participating in the local federal anti-trafficking task force. Nearly all members of
the task force were explicitly hostile to the research, suspicious of us and our young
and mostly female team of researchers from John Jay College, and concerned that
the research would endanger the lives of child sexual captives. One social service
provider informed us that we were “no better than the pimps who hold these girls
captives,” another warned us that we would be responsible if a pimp killed or dis-
figured a girl because of our interviewing, and the Federal Bureau of Investiga-
tion (FBI) agent assigned to the task force told us, menacingly, that he would be
“watching us carefully.” As we came to know the situation better, we realized that
the task force members had very little contact with or knowledge of the sex worker
minors in the Atlantic City, despite their claims to the contrary (for more on this,
see Marcus and Curtis 2014). When we discovered this we decided to find our own
seeds, which we did, through developing contacts among street hustlers working the
Pacific Avenue stroll.
We quickly discovered that, in contrast to New York, the juridical minors trading
sex for money in Atlantic City were too few to grow the RDS recruitment chains
necessary for making a population estimate. Moreover, rather than existing in a
tightly networked and isolated market, the small number of minors in sex work
that we initially recruited using RDS were scattered throughout a larger sex mar-
ket and networked with other adolescents, adult sex workers, and a wide variety
of third parties playing ancillary roles in the local sex market. The discovery that
there was not a critical mass of sex worker minors led to the decision to augment
the recruitment strategy with one more suited to the resources available in the field,
that is, classic ethnographic recruitment using key informants. Nearly all of these
key informants were African American male street hustlers, drug dealers, and varied
third parties to sex markets—especially “spot pimps” who referred customers to sex
workers on a nonexclusive per transaction basis for a small commission (for a more
complete description of our methods, see Marcus et al. 2012).
In those first few weeks of active interviewing we met several adolescent sex
workers who expressed interest in our project and offered possible entrees to
198 A. Marcus and R. Curtis

ethnographic relationships through offers of unpaid information or work recruiting

others like them. However, we were too wary of the formal and informal messages
from the IRB, warnings from task force members, and the sporadic presence of
federal agents standing and observing our work on the streets to effectively engage.
The missed opportunities filled our field notes and haunted our research debrief-
There was a young woman who told us she wanted to be a researcher someday
and dreamed of enrolling in college. She wanted to help with the study and offered
sound advice about the RDS recruitment-coupon design that led us to change it. De-
spite her taking the initiative to support our research, we paid for her breakfast, in-
stead of providing an appropriate reciprocal gift in kind, such as a day of paid work
as an interviewer or an invitation to join us at a research team dinner and debriefing
session. We could not allow her to get too close to the project out of fear of the
authorities and their draconian sanctions. Throughout the summer we encountered
young people like her, who expressed interest in our work. We engaged and dis-
cussed as much as possible, but rarely went beyond the talk aspects of ethnography.
The more important aspect of ethnography is participant observation, requiring
an upwards spiral of reciprocal exchange and engagement. In other research we
have conducted, including with high school students, we have brought interested
and talented individuals into the research team, as interviewers, ethnographers, or
consultants—sometimes through paid employment, but more often as part of an on-
going process of reciprocity connected to educational opportunities, help with local
officials or service providers, or unspecified promises of help in the future. Howev-
er, the mix of juridical childhood and sex work made such reciprocity problematic
and our poor standing with the authorities suggested danger, rather than influence.
One of the classic forms of ethnographic engagement, especially with marginal
and economically disadvantaged individuals, involves sharing research resources—
allowing use of space, such as offices and hotel rooms, or giving informants rides in
research vehicles. Like Geertz’s run from the police, sharing such spaces can be a
first test of the trust, intimacy, and reciprocity that eventually builds great research
relationships. We interviewed a boy and a girl who wanted to use the shower in
one of our team’s boardwalk casino hotel rooms, “we’ve been out on the streets so
long and just want to take a shower, watch some TV and chill with a beer.” Again,
fear dissuaded us from extending hospitality to these two seemingly decent young
There were dozens of young people with whom we developed a promising initial
rapport in the course of interviews and pre- and post-interview administration. We
sometimes discussed getting them a room next to our rooms when we were staying
at cheap motels on the Black Horse Pike just out of town. The idea was that they
might develop relationships with members of our group of a half dozen student in-
terviewers by hanging out in the parking lot. However, we were too cowed to ever
make such a potentially illegal offer.
Finally, in what seemed more like a traditional anthropological field engagement
than street ethnography in the USA, two informants offered us “native” hospitality.
A 16 and a 17-year-old sex worker had a motel room that had been left by a cus-
12  No Love for Children 199

tomer from the previous night. It was an hour or so before checkout time and they
invited us to do the interview in their room, offering to make coffee and share their
donuts while we talked. We turned down this most classic anthropological offer of
hospitality and the opportunity to conduct an interview in the comfort and privacy
of their room because, as one of us said to the other, “what kind of idiot goes into a
16 year old prostitute’s room with the IRB [institutional review board], the FBI, and
the CIA watching us.” It was as if Clifford Geertz and his wife had stayed behind
and showed their US passports to the police, rather than running off with the “na-
We continued to interview adolescent sex workers, but did most of our real eth-
nography with street hustlers, drug dealers, and other third parties. In particular, we
worked with “spot pimps” and even ran from the police with them, one morning
at dawn in the fog. We drank beer in empty lots at midnight. Our hotel rooms were
filled with disreputable characters. Our cars smelled of cigarette and marijuana
smoke. Our clothes reeked of crack smoke and our personal expenses went through
the roof from dinners, lunches, bar tabs, and other gift exchange offerings that could
not possibly be reimbursed by a government grant. We became part of the tribe that
was most closely connected to the subjects of our study.
However, the process of building relationships did not end with running from
the police and sharing the temporary urban real estate of research resources. Our
dialogues with these varied third parties to sex markets continued long after the
data-collection phase of the project ended, primarily through letters and phone calls
from jail, where several of them ended up shortly following the close of data col-
lection. We filled their commissary accounts and listened to their lonely ramblings
on the phone. One professional pimp turned out to be highly articulate and agreed
to be a guest speaker, by telephone from prison, in several classes that members of
the research team were teaching.
Finally, our most prolific recruiter and field collaborator was a spot pimp who
had been homeless when we met him, but proved that he had a significant gift for
research. He has become a valued colleague, through a “plan C.” When he was re-
leased from prison in 2012, he came to the New York City and we gave him a place
to stay, helped him obtain his first job as an interviewer for a social research project,
and reconnected him with members of our research team who he had befriended
in the field. He now manages funded projects and has coauthored several journal
articles. Our relationship with him has changed over nearly 5 years from a field
contact to a professional colleague. Such long-term engagement, even with former
criminals, is not unusual for ethnographers, except when it is forbidden by social
conventions and laws that force distance, a strict object/subject relationship, and the
hierarchies of institutionally sanctioned research.
So many of the young people that we met had heartbreaking or tragic stories that
practically screamed for more than we were allowed to give, so it is more than a bit
ironic that the only enduring relationships that we developed as an outcome of our
work in the Atlantic City were not with these kids who were so desperately in need
of meaningful adults in their lives, but rather, with pimps and other third parties who
were among the other actors on the scene.
200 A. Marcus and R. Curtis

Out of the Field and into the Fire

For many researchers leaving the field provides a sense of relief, safety, and satis-
faction. For us, there was none of that escape. Shortly after leaving the field, the US
government froze funding to the national study and probably permanently compro-
mised the value of most of the data, accusing us of endangering the health and cor-
rupting the morals of minors by enticing them into interviews with free cigarettes,
conducting interviews with underage girls in cars, and allowing student researchers
to act inappropriately in face of emotionally distressed child victims. Based on a
telephone tip from somebody whose name remains unknown to us, an investigation
was initiated that was led by a major international litigation firm.
We were informed by the organization that was employing us as researchers that
the charges were probably the result of the training session that had been done for
prospective project staff in Las Vegas. The same training had already been complet-
ed in San Francisco and Miami without incident; besides the basic mechanics of the
RDS, we described gaining our initial contacts by conducting classic ethnographic
fieldwork, which included hanging out and offering cigarettes to street hustlers in
exchange for information. The accusation that we provided cigarettes to minors was
surprising to us since we had been fearful about gossip and FBI surveillance, and
our sex worker minor respondents nearly always brought their own cigarettes. How-
ever, we spent a summer being deposed by several-thousand-dollars-an-hour law-
yers and worrying about our jobs. The university legal counsel let us know that as
consultants, the college could not help us, but that if the charges stuck we should not
expect that our jobs would be secure. Our student researchers were questioned, and
as it became clear that the cigarette rumor was false, the investigation increasingly
focused on other matters, including the interviews that were conducted in cars and
the claim of inappropriate behavior in face of emotionally distressed child victims.
The original protocols specified interviews in an office that had been rented for
us in Atlantic City. However, we were rarely using it and the organization that was
employing us as researchers terminated the lease in order to save money, instructing
us to expand our practice of conducting interviews in semipublic places. At first,
we used fast-food restaurants, but the crowds of young sex workers made managers
angry and we were soon banned from many locales, including their parking lots.
Furthermore, there was no privacy for discussing sensitive topics. We began using
benches on the boardwalk, but this provided little privacy, made audio recording
impossible, and became increasingly uncomfortable as it got hot and humid in July.
We could not use our hotel rooms and respondents wanted an air-conditioned
setting where they could get off the streets. It was one of our interviewees who first
suggested using our car and a box of Dunkin Donuts. Typically, the setting for these
automobile interviews was a lightly used parking lot at a bank at midday, with a
young female interviewer in the car, a PI just outside the car, and the interviewee’s
friends standing around the car waiting for their turn. However, questions from the
ethics investigators seemed to hint at middle-aged men in raincoats, driving through
the red light district at 2 a.m., beckoning teenage girls to get into their cars, possibly
12  No Love for Children 201

with the permission of a predatory pimp. We had been concerned about the comfort,
safety, and privacy of our respondents and found ourselves facing hints of sexual
misconduct and open accusations of endangering their lives.
Ultimately we received a low-level censure in the final report for the automobile
interviews, not because of ethics violations, but because we had not specified use of
cars for interviews in our IRB application and there was a general “feeling” that a
car is too intimate of a space for such a “vulnerable population.” We were informed
that interviews in cars had the potential to endanger the lives of respondents, since
their only escape from the interviewer, if they felt threatened, was jumping out of
the car, which we were told could be life threatening.
One of our most active PhD student interviewers was also censured for inappro-
priate conduct in face of emotional distress in a respondent. In one of our training
sessions in Las Vegas, we had described an interview with a 17-year-old who had
started to get teary near the beginning of the interview to suggest the ways in which
it was possible to use such an emotional moment to the benefit of both parties. In-
stead of terminating the interview, this researcher had comforted the young woman
and allowed her to regain her composure and finish the interview laughing. How-
ever, it was determined by the investigators, based purely on “best practice” regula-
tions, rather than inquiry into the specifics of this situation, that she had endangered
the child. This, it was argued, was due to her failure to terminate the interview and
immediately contact a trained trauma professional when the first emotional distress
had manifested. The concern was that this “child” may have been “retraumatized”
despite the evidence presented of the offered sympathy having created a rapport
between the two women.

Conclusion: The Sacred, the Profane, and the Human

In the decade and a half since the TVPA of 2000 transformed “teenage prostitutes”
into child sex trafficking victims, there has been little in situ research. Nearly all
scholarship has taken post hoc narratives from “clients” and prisoners in institutions
of rescue and punishment, where the population is sampled through having entered
the institution, narratives are frozen and retrospective, and those being interviewed
are typically dependent on renouncing their previous lives and complementing anti-
trafficking discourses to participate in the programs that provide their shelter, health
care, and livelihood. Much of this research openly recognizes the weakness of these
methods and rationalizes it through claims that rigorous research is impossible due
to the hidden and illegal nature of sex work, the violence of pimps, and the difficulty
of recruiting active sex workers (see for instance, Raphael et al. 2010, p. 90, 102).
Very much to our surprise, we found that pimps and other third parties to sex
commerce were generally articulate, cooperative, and interested in supporting our
research, including encouraging sex workers to speak with us alone and freely. Sim-
ilarly young sex workers, whether they had pimps or not, were usually approachable
202 A. Marcus and R. Curtis

and sometimes interested in our project. In a situation where the primary adults in
their lives were social service providers and “trained professionals” trying to rescue
them from their independent lives, police trying to imprison their adult support net-
works, customers in search of cheap sex, and third parties seeking a share of their
income, researchers were often welcome for their neutral empathies and the new
social capital they might provide.
We believe that the disconnect between our experiences on research and the
largely untested assertions about the impossibility of studying trafficking victims in
situ may be a function of the sacralization of childhood, sexuality, and victimhood.
Our project sought to discover how young adults who have been defined as children
and sexual victims live, experience and engage the world, and make choices about
their lives. The authorities such as the FBI agents and social service providers in the
Atlantic City anti-trafficking task force made clear their belief that such research
should not be done. This is because from the perspective of contemporary socio-
legal institutions, a priori, such individuals do not have choices and do not experi-
ence and engage the world, but are victims of it without the personhood to even
consent to being interviewed. Simply to ask questions that go beyond victimhood
is to challenge these assumptions in a way that is subversive and threatens the dis-
cursive formation around anti-trafficking, to say nothing of threatening the ample
funds that sustain it.
We encountered this sensibility among some of our counterparts in the other
cities, on the national project. When presented with our proposed methods, several
senior researchers rebelled, arguing that (a) we were encouraging victimization by
paying children for their continued connections to this world; (b) we were alibiing a
crime by looking for agency on their parts; and (c) their research careers depended
on good relationships with local law enforcement and social service providers who
had offered to let them interview victims in their institutions. To recruit sex worker
minors in situ was, according to them, impossible or undesirable because it un-
dermined the work of social service providers and anti-trafficking advocates and
endangered their future community research access. As one senior sociologist, who
was running the project in one of the cities said, “I have cultivated a cooperative re-
lationship with local providers and police for many years, I am not going to destroy
it because of your belief that CSEC victims have agency. If they had any agency
they would not be prostituting themselves at the age of 16.”
While this researcher is likely correct in his claim that no 16-year-old dreams of
being a sex worker, it is our contention that there is nothing so sensitive, sacred, or
profane in human life that it should not and cannot be researched, and the process
of research can be collaborative and empowering if the individuals involved are
ethically engaged with each other’s personhood. The contemporary regime of sa-
cred childhood, victimhood, and sexual identity has created a population of young
people who are effectively too profane and too sacred to engage as persons, and
therefore too unknowable to target with effective policy—beyond rescue and pun-
We believe it is the current laws, institutional understandings, and discourses of
sex, trafficking, childhood, and personhood that have isolated and made alien this
12  No Love for Children 203

population, not pimps, traffickers, and other moral boogeymen. Most of the more
than 500 young people we met in the two cities studied were much like Sandy, dis-
cussed in the beginning: very ordinary teenagers struggling to find a livable adult-
hood in desperate and isolated circumstances, made more desperate and isolated by
the sacredness of their legal identity as children, the profanity of their commercial
sexual activity, and a contemporary legal framework that defines juridical adults
who participate in their lives as child sex traffickers. We wonder how many “Plan
Cs” have been missed and how many inappropriate policies have been developed
and implemented because of this socio-legal framework that systematically inhibits
the reciprocal and scientific engagement that is central to qualitative research?


Ahn, J. (2011). “You’re my friend today, but not tomorrow”: Learning to be friends among young
US middleâ class children. American Ethnologist, 38(2), 294–306.
Aptekar, L. (1988). Street children of Colombia. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 8(3), 225–241.
Best, A. L. (Ed.). (2007). Representing youth: Methodological issues in critical youth studies. New
York: NYU Press.
Calhoun, T. C., & Weaver, G. (1996). Rational decisionâ making among male street prostitutes.
Deviant Behavior, 17(2), 209–227.
Chin, E. (2001). Purchasing power: Black kids and American consumer culture. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Chin, E. (2003). Children out of bounds in globalising times. Postcolonial Studies, 6(3), 309–325.
Clifford, J. (1983). On ethnographic authority. Representations, 1(2), 118–146.
Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnogra-
phy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cojocaru, C. (2015). Sex trafficking, captivity, and narrative: Constructing victimhood with the
goal of salvation. Dialectical Anthropology, 39(2), 183–194.
Coleman, E. (1989). The development of male prostitution activity among gay and bisexual ado-
lescents. Journal of Homosexuality, 17(1–2), 131–150.
Conner, B., Mago, A., & Middleton-Lee, S. (2014). Sexual and reproductive health needs and
access to health services for adolescents under 18 engaged in selling sex in Asia Pacific. Am-
sterdam: HIV Young Leaders Fund
Corsaro, W. A. (1981). Entering the child’s world: Research strategies for field entry and data
collection in a preschool setting. Ethnography and language in educational settings 117–146.
Norwood: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Corsaro, W. A. (2003). We’re friends, right? Inside kids’ culture. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry
Crapanzano, V. (1986). Hermes’ dilemma: The masking of subversion in ethnographic description.
In J. Clifford & G. E. Marcus (Eds.), Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography
(pp. 51–76). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Curtis, R., Terry, K., Dank, M., Dombrowski, K., Khan, B., Muslim, A., & Rempel, M. (2008).
The commercial sexual exploitation of children in New York City. New York: Center for Court
Geertz, C. (1972). Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight. Daedalus, 101, 1–37. (Reprinted in
his The interpretation of cultures, New York: Basic Books, 1973)
Good, K., & Chanoff, D. (1996). Into the heart: one man’s pursuit of love and knowledge among
the Yanomami. New York: Longman.
Kovats-Bernat, C. (2006). Sleeping rough in Port-au-Prince: An ethnography of street children and
violence in Haiti. Journal of Haitian Studies, 13, 126–129.
204 A. Marcus and R. Curtis

Marcus, A., & Curtis, R. (2014). Implementing policy for invisible populations: Social work and
social policy in a federal anti-trafficking taskforce in the United States. Social Policy and So-
ciety, 13(04), 481–492.
Marcus, A., Riggs, R., Horning, A., Rivera, S., Curtis, R., & Thompson, E. (2012). Is child to adult
as victim is to criminal? Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 9(2), 153–166.
Mattley C. (1998). (Dis)courtesy stigma: Field-work among phone fantasy workers. In J. Ferrell
& M. Hamm (Eds.), Ethnography at the edge (pp. 146–58). Boston: Northeastern University
Mauss, M. (1954). The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London: Co-
hen & West. (Norton 1990 [1950], 11)
McLean, A., & Leibing, A. (Eds.). (2008). The shadow side of fieldwork: exploring the blurred
borders between ethnography and life. Chichester: Wiley.
Raphael, J., Reichert, J. A., & Powers, M. (2010). Pimp control and violence: Domestic sex traf-
ficking of Chicago women and girls. Women and Criminal Justice, 20(1–2), 89–104.
Scheper-Hughes, N. (1987). The best of two worlds, the worst of two worlds: Reflections on cul-
ture and field work among the rural Irish and Pueblo Indians. Comparative Studies in Society
and History, 29(01), 56–75.
Scheper-Hughes, N. (1993). Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Stamler, B. (11 January 1998). Neighborhood report: Bushwick: The professor and the prostitute.
The New York Times

Anthony Marcus PhD  is a professor of anthropology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
He has studied vulnerable, hidden, and stigmatized populations since 1991 when he provided the
ethnographic component for a randomized control trial studying African, American, and Latino
men transitioning from the New York City municipal shelters to transitional community housing.
In the late 1990s he studied white professional heroin users in the New York City before morph-
ing into an international development researcher who studied poverty and livelihoods assistance
in Indonesia and Nepal, post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka and Islamic family law reform,
and divorce in the Republic of Maldives. The essay in this volume derives from the 2010 pilot for
a national study of commercially sexually exploited children in the USA. When not busy with the
anthropology of poor, stigmatized, hidden, and vulnerable populations, Dr. Marcus uses his leisure
to raise two small children and write American History textbooks to support that habit.

Ric Curtis  is a professor of anthropology at the John Jay College of the City University of
New York. He has been researching illicit drug use, studying hidden, vulnerable, and stigma-
tized populations, and advocating for harm minimization for three decades. He designed, led, and
implemented the 2008 New York City census of commercially sexually exploited children and
codirected the 2010 Atlantic City pilot for a national census of sexually exploited children. His
current projects involve the use of social networks and participatory research and pedagogy to
understand and address fear of crime in the New York City, peer influence in adolescent develop-
ment outcomes, and HIV seropositivity conversion in rural highland Puerto Rico.
Chapter 13
Walking the Tightrope: Ethical Dilemmas
of Doing Fieldwork with Youth in US Sex

Amber Horning and Amalia Paladino

The Sex Market as “Carnivalesque” and Colliding Worlds

Doing fieldwork in “unofficial” contexts such as sex marketplaces creates a feeling

that everything is questionable, yet acceptable. This uncertainty results in cogni-
tive dissonance, where researchers question their actions or inactions. This is how
we operationalize our “missteps.” We engaged in ethnography and what Holstein

A. Horning ()
William Paterson University, Department of Sociology, 300 Pompton Rd. Wayne,
NJ 07470, USA
A. Paladino
Department of Criminal Justice, CUNY Graduate Center/John Jay College of Criminal Justice,
Social Networks Research Group, 619 W. 54th St/, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10019, USA
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 205
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_13
206 A. Horning and A. Paladino

and Gubrium (1995) termed “active interviewing,” where objectivity and social
distance are not desirable options and participants are viewed as agentic beings. We
use the image of the tightrope to show that we are included in the context and to em-
phasize that our missteps may influence outcomes in both unofficial and “official”
worlds. For instance, our decisions may impact the lives of young participants and
have personal and professional repercussions through official bodies, e.g., govern-
ment and academia.
Oftentimes, outsiders construct the social worlds of pimps and sex workers, sex
traffickers and the sex-trafficked, as spaces where sexual activities are always trans-
gressions, relationships are destructive, and their everyday behaviors are deemed
morally questionable and wrongly celebrated. Mikhail Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His
World, described the notion of “carnivalesque” as a “world turned upside down.”
In Bakhtin’s critical analysis of Rabelais, he deconstructed his use of “carnival folk
culture” that included the medieval carnival and the “culture of the marketplace,” de-
scribing them as “escapes from the usual ‘official’ way of life” (1984, pp. 7–8). The
accomplishment of escaping everyday constraints is obtained through the carnival’s
or “fair’s” nebulous rules and accompanying social disorder, with an emphasis on
bodily pleasures. Part of the “disorder” includes inverted social positions and jum-
bled social boundaries, where “fools become philosophers,” and it can be socially
acceptable to slap the king. This social chaos makes the fair confusing to outsiders.
In the sex trade, schoolyard peers can be pimps, boyfriends can be daddies,
strangers can be mommies, wealthy clients can be beggars, and social networks
can equal orgies or dollar signs. Many of us unknowingly live in other variations
of “worlds upside turned down,” but the exchange/benefit (through money or re-
sources) for sex is often illegal, and so this fair is viewed by outsiders as a space
where legal and moral realms are distorted, and even perverted.
In Mike Presdee’s (2000) book, Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime,
there are established links between Bakhtin’s carnival and modern-day transgres-
sions. Presdee focused on sensations in light of the historical progression of actual
carnivals to their contemporary manifestations in events like large-scale joyriding
or riots. He explained that because people no longer receive temporary relief from
life, previously garnered through the carnival, the fair can simply erupt. We argue
that this parallel can be applied to loosely regulated, illicit markets, which more
neatly link to Bakhtin’s “carnival folk culture” of antiquated marketplaces.
The metaphor of the fair conjures up ideas of “dual cities” (e.g., Bauman 1998),
sometimes used by subcultural theorists (e.g., Anderson 1984; 2000) and reflected
in fictional works such as China Miéville’s book The City & The City, where two
cities are superimposed. “Dual cities” are often used to draw lines of inclusion/ex-
clusion, to explore the process of “othering,” or at worst to illustrate the exoticness
of “subterranean worlds.” But these are not our points and are some reasons that we
are reluctant to use the concept of the fair. For us, the appeal of “unofficial/official”
worlds is that everyone has the potential to be included in both worlds and to move
freely between them. While doing fieldwork, we kept a foot in each.
Presdee rightly reminded us that “some ‘pleasurable’ performances in the fair
reflect on or articulate pain” (2000, p. 32). Our use of the fair to contextualize our
research in sex markets is not used playfully. Rather, we use it to illustrate how
13  Walking the Tightrope 207

what is “normal” in these markets, despite what we as outsiders feel, is ethically/

morally acceptable in context, making our decisions in the research process more
difficult. As researchers interacting with this young population who have particular
vulnerabilities, we are governed by Institutional Review Board (IRB) regulations,
constrained by own fears of over-involvement or inaction, and we struggle to re-
main on the tightrope.

Fieldwork with a Foot in Each World

While studying young populations, the first ethical area to consider is how to inter-
act with participants. Christensen (2002) described four ways that researchers per-
ceive youth. The first is seeing them as objects with little to no agency. In this case,
the study design reflects a desire to protect them as participants, at the expense, one
may argue, of their voice being drowned out. The second is seeing youth as subjects
acting, taking part in, and changing based on the social and cultural world in which
they live (Christensen 2002). The last two perspectives, where ethical issues are
more likely to arise, are seeing youth as active participants. With these approaches,
it is not as critical to devise a distinct set of ethical standards since it is undesirable
to respond in a standardized manner. These work best with an a priori assumption
of “ethical symmetry,” where all participants are seen as fully involved, consulted,
and heard. We abide by this approach, adding complexities and uncertainties to the
research process.
There are much more radical approaches to fieldwork, especially in anthropol-
ogy, where researchers call for unity of fieldwork and life (see Scheper-Hughes)
and advocacy activism yielding lifelong friendships. Marcus and Curtis (2015)1
abide by the Scheper-Hughes approach because it is humanist and desirable, and
we advocate for this approach with other populations. However, this is not strictly
our position, especially with sex-work-involved youth. In the study of Atlantic City
sex workers, Marcus and Curtis even pointed out that the risks were too great, so
lifelong friendships were limited to of-age, male participants who were not sex
workers. We agree with them that long-term reciprocity with youth would be an
appropriate gesture. However, even long-term reciprocity with youth could be a
balancing act. A more extreme gesture, such as plucking young sex workers out of
the marketplace to provide them with an official world life plan or “Plan C,” while
a different brand of rescue operation, is even riskier because there are no organiza-
tional protections.
Involvement and emotional entanglement is integral to good ethnographic field-
work and other in situ research. But, we argue that it may be important to keep a
foot in the official world, not only when researching the young but also in shorter
ethnographies. The trend is quicker ethnographies, often lasting a few months or

“No Love for Children: Reciprocity, Science and Engagement in the Study of Child Sex Traffick-
ing” is another chapter in this book. Marcus and Curtis were also the principal investigators in the
“Atlantic City Study.”
208 A. Horning and A. Paladino

a year, where a total immersion in the group is nearly impossible and thus worlds
are straddled. We are not advocating for this approach, but it is becoming the norm,
so adjustments should be made with mini ethnographies or studies using in situ
interviews. While Bakhtin’s “world turned upside down” may not always apply,
the concept of official/unofficial worlds is useful, with the idea of a “world turned
upside down” used as a device to remain open, even with one foot out.

Official Rules and Dilemmas

There are common ethical dilemmas found in interviewing, which can often be
foreseen and averted, but there are ethical problems that develop where fieldwork-
ers have little control over what happens. Blind spots inherent in this type of re-
search make it difficult for ethnographers to prepare for diverse problems such as
handling the researcher–participant relationship, maintaining anonymity, confiden-
tiality, and privacy, and guarding participants against exploitation (Dunlap et al.
2009; Goodwin et al. 2003; Sandberg and Copes 2013; Scheyvens and Leslie 2000).
Often unanticipated, ethical dilemmas are tied to the specific context of the situ-
ation at hand and therefore must be resolved on a case-by-case basis. How dilem-
mas are perceived and dealt with depends on the larger research setting and also
influences the reciprocal process where fieldworkers and participants shape the data
together (Ferdinand et al. 2007; Goodwin et al. 2003; Lee-Treweek 2000). While
out in the field, ethnographers typically are left on their own to make “standing
decisions” about how to properly address these issues (Sandberg and Copes 2013).
As researchers who are at least initially outsiders, we are asked to abide by the
rules of studying human subjects. The IRB sets forth protocols to protect partici-
pants, especially the young, with a focus on their voluntary consent, symbolic un-
derstanding of consent, and understanding the risks and benefits of their involve-
ment in studies. Researchers are obligated to report imminent danger and respond
to other “red flags” in participants’ accounts, but some areas are not clearly red,
especially in the sometimes topsy-turvy atmosphere of the sex marketplace. We are
careful to keep our balance despite the confusion of colliding worlds and honor our
responsibility to adhere to IRB regulations to protect; however, we grapple with
how we construct our moral obligation to assist.

Constraints All Around

The distinction between childhood and adulthood is arbitrary, especially in the teen-
age years. Some scholars have argued that there is a prolonged childhood in Western
societies (Baumeister and Tice 1986; Côté and Allahar 1996; Shanahan et al. 2005).
Further, age-related legal requirements, with many that constrain social activities,
limit the young. These prohibitions influence their everyday social activities that in
13  Walking the Tightrope 209

turn shape how they operate and are able to survive in licit and illicit spheres. Their
initial constrained agency often is derived from licit worlds and can debilitate them
in early adulthood (e.g., lack of job experience and savings).
The commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is a research topic that
overlaps with sex trafficking. Policy implications are often derived from the stand-
point that all individuals meeting the “sex-trafficked victim” criteria are forced into
sex work. Much like in statutory rape cases, underage sex workers are legally un-
able to consent, so they are considered to have been forced, even if they acted of
their own volition. The CSEC in the USA is an issue related to both the international
and domestic sex trade. When investigating estimates of sex-trafficked youth, one
is bound to come across cases of youth who have not been trafficked from abroad
but rather started in the very neighborhoods in which they live and were raised. The
Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 widened the legal definition of
sex trafficker to include pimps who profit from sex workers under the age of 18.
In the USA, a teenage sex worker who works locally for anyone is automatically
deemed trafficked and therefore exploited, lacking in agency and unable to give
consent. The most noticeable issue is a lack of distinction between children and
teenagers (Howard 2014) with 5 year olds and 17 year olds viewed as having the
same agency.
Generally, the public discourse about sex workers relies on tales of victimiza-
tion and rescue narratives that are touted as typical (Marcus et al. 2014). In many
Western countries, there is also a bright-line cultural rule that young sex workers
lack agency (Horning 2013). For instance, Dank (2011) and Lloyd (2011) argued
that the majority of underage sex workers are commercially sexually exploited,
despite voluntarily engaging in sex work, and thus they should never be labelled
as independent entrepreneurs. Dank’s reasoning was that their personal agency
is constrained by socioeconomic status and traumatic family backgrounds, which
mysteriously becomes less relevant when they turn 18. Dank admitted that some
participants in her study countered this discourse by portraying “themselves as in
charge of their own destinies” (2011, p. 55). She argued that their assertions of
agency are the result of being so damaged that they are “eager advocates of their
own exploitation” (2011, p. 55). This normative cultural position is derived from
the well-meaning idea that young people should be afforded special protections
because of their unique vulnerability. However, erasing agency may also have
deleterious effects. For example, they may feel stigmatized as victims (Bjonness
2012) or they may avoid helping organizations because they do not see themselves
as victims (Howard 2014; Weitzer 2007).
The media may sensationalize coverage of exceptional cases of the CSEC and
sex trafficking. Time and again, there is a regretful acceptance of child victim ste-
reotypes; however, not all youth who are trafficked have the same experiences.
Much like with adults, not all youth may consider themselves victims, fight off their
captors, or try to escape (Zimmerman and Watts 2003).
210 A. Horning and A. Paladino

Sex Work/Trafficking Fieldwork Dilemmas

Generally, when doing fieldwork with those in sex marketplaces, the most obvious
area to pay attention to is exploitation, which seems like it would be evident. This
is not so with the murky definition of coercion, especially in light of the social con-
structions of constrained agency.
Remnants of ethical issues in sex trafficking research have inevitably spilled
over in CSEC research due to issues of age and consent. Few definitions enable
researchers to clearly distinguish between sex trafficking (Tyldum 2010) and other
(consensual) sex work. As a result, researchers often fail to clarify what is neces-
sary for sex workers to be classified (and counted) as trafficked as there is confu-
sion around coercion such as withholding of incomes and what qualifies as formal
organization. A relatively clear definition of the target population is a prerequisite
for most studies. Other ethical dilemmas are: (1) complications obtaining informed
consent, (2) assessing if someone is a victim of trafficking or CSEC, especially if
they are reluctant to reveal experiences, (3) accepting their refusal to identify with
the standard exploited “victim” label (Tyldum 2010), (4) assessing if incentives are
coercive, (5) determining safe interview locations (Buchanan et al. 2002), (6) decid-
ing how to react to illegal activity (Bailey 2002; Cwikel and Hoban 2005; Sandberg
and Copes 2013), and (7) learning about physical abuse or violence (Cwikel and
Hoban 2005). Sometimes, our decisions are made quickly, multiple ethical dilem-
mas occur, and our decisions are not “correct” in both worlds.
From an ethical standpoint, it is difficult to defend using a research design that
entails identifying and interviewing individuals who view themselves as current
victims of exploitation. This is especially the case when, once participation is com-
plete, the identified victim is left behind continuing to be exploited (Tyldum 2010;
Zimmerman and Watts 2003). It is problematic if there is no form of assistance,
remedy, or exit provided with participation in the study (Tyldum 2010; Zimmerman
and Watts 2003). On the flip side, Brunovskis and Surtees (2010) discussed issues
in providing assistance to those who identify as victims. Though the researcher
may see this type of intervention as beneficial, they may inadvertently be over-
stepping boundaries; contacting authorities can “create distrust between persons in
prostitution, facilitators (e.g. pimps, brothel owners, etc.) and those who work on a
day-to-day basis to assist them, thus potentially compromising on-going access and
intervention opportunities” (Brunovskis and Surtees 2010, p. 12).


We explored how we traversed/crossed paths with the “carnivalesque” atmosphere

of underground sex markets. We used Bakhtin’s idea of a “world turned upside
down” in two ways:
1) What we are told is that a young victim with constrained agency may not be a
victim and may demonstrate agency. We explore the overt and hidden ­dimensions
13  Walking the Tightrope 211

of this constraint, which manifested during the countless hours of observing and
interviewing these young people.
2) What we are told is what we should do in a situation where we see coercion, but
this may not be the right thing to do. We explore walking the ethical/moral line
of doing research with underage participants, the dangers involved in near mis-
steps, and the social and cultural processes involved in these scenarios. What do
you do as an interviewer?


We were both ethnographic field researchers in the first study, which is referred
to as the “Atlantic City Study.” This research was an investigation of the CSEC in
Atlantic CityNJ.2 This laid the foundation for our continued research of commercial
sex markets.
The Atlantic City study involved observing and interviewing more than 150 sex
workers between 16 and 24 years old in Atlantic City from 2010 to 2012. Atlantic
City is known for its casinos, boardwalks, and beaches. Through this fieldwork, we
became familiar with accounts of agency as it pertained to youth and our own ethi-
cal/moral decision-making.
The second study was carried out by the first author of this chapter. The study
was an in situ exploration of pimp labor and constructions of risk, informally called
the “Pimp Study.” Eighty five pimps/traffickers were interviewed in housing proj-
ects in Harlem, NY and in nonprofits3 from 2011 to 2012.4 The average start age
was 17 years old, so many began as teenagers. Many of the young pimps worked
with similarly aged sex workers, often legally classifying them as sex traffickers.
The third study conducted by the second author, informally called the “NYC
Sex Work Study,”5 explored violent victimization as well as the resilience that is
fostered over time by female and male-to-female (MTF) transgender street-based
sex workers. A total of 34 in-depth interviews were completed with 15 MTF trans-
gender and 19 female street sex workers between the ages 18–30 (many participants
were young). Interviews were conducted in private places and the vehicle of the
field researcher in New York City from 2012 to 2013.

Atlantic City was chosen as the pilot for an Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Preven-
tion (OJJDP) study across six cities that sought to replicate the New York City CSEC Study. This is
because it is the second-largest gambling market in the country and reputed to be a hub for CSEC.
The ethnographic study that we are reporting was a self-funded side study done by researchers in
the OJJDP study.
Two nonprofit organizations in Harlem agreed to allow me to use interview rooms in order to
continue the project. The first was CitiCare, a health center and the second was FACES, formerly
the Minority Task Force for the Prevention of HIV/AIDS. Both organizations hoped that partici-
pants would be interested in their free and low-cost services.
Funded by the CUNY Graduate Center Doctoral Students Research Grant.
Funded by PSCCUNY cycle 43 project grant in 2012.
212 A. Horning and A. Paladino


We used the sensitizing concepts, or central organizing ideas (see Blumer 1954)
of constraint, including constrained agency as a way of exploring our fieldwork
decision-making, including areas where our balance on the tightrope was shaky.
Through our extensive discussions and reviews of our field notes from the initial
Atlantic City study, we decided that these were the most relevant topical areas. We
honed these general themes.
We used an analytic framework derived from Ferninand et al. (2007), where
they explored ethical dilemmas of doing fieldwork. They used cases, with an entire
study making up each case, to illustrate specific fieldwork conundrums and fol-
lowed this with subsections titled: the dilemma and response. We did not use single
cases or single studies, but rather we treated the themes, often comprising several
accounts and sometimes using examples across studies, as a type of case. The stud-
ies were similar in that they all entailed research interactions with young people
in US sex markets in the same region (2011–2013). We felt that the studies were
similar enough to warrant integrating cases across studies into single themes, and
we also realized the benefit of having different swathes of young people in US sex
markets, including pimps, to explore often ignored dimensions. We discussed how
issues came up in interviews from typical to extreme and our feelings of what could
have/should have been done.


Teenage Constraint and Questions of Coercion

Constructed and Real Families Who Sell Sex: Exploiters or Saviors?

[“Atlantic City Study” based on field notes and an interview in Atlantic City, NJ
It was the height of the summer, and word spread that we were doing interviews
in a local fast food restaurant. Soon, we were swarmed with young people, girls and
boys and young mothers, waiting to be interviewed about their activity in local sex
markets. Each of us occupied a booth and interviewed the stream of participants for
much of the day. I sat down and a young mother said “I’ll take her.” She explained
that she lived with a much older woman called “Mama.” One perspective is that
Mama provided her with food and shelter and helped her take care of her young
child by helping with childcare and buying diapers. In the world right side up,
Mama was a master manipulator who targeted vulnerable young mothers and with-
held resources and threatened eviction if they did not sell sex and give her a large
portion of the money. There were several other young mothers in the same situation,
also living with Mama. Legally, the young woman qualified as sex-trafficked before
she turned 18, but now at just barely 18, the question of coercion arose.
13  Walking the Tightrope 213

As a researcher, I was concerned about Mama coercing young people because

they had limited resources and places to turn. This participant was very forthright
about her feelings and experiences and we spoke for a long time. Eventually, I asked
if she needed help leaving or if she would like to connect with social services. She
looked down and laughed lightly, and she looked up and said that there were free
bus tickets for people who wanted to go home. She explained that she went home
a few times, but that things were so bad there and she received no help raising her
child. She talked about how Mama was very good helping them care for the children
and she was “a witch, but reliable.” “I always come back,” she explained. During
the course of the interview, I asked her in other ways if she needed assistance, but
she said that unless I had a job for her, that this was her best option for now. She
reassured me, but in the end I still wrote down a few numbers on a piece of paper,
which she reluctantly took, crumpled up, and put in her pocket while shrugging
about the futility of the gesture.
Dilemma and response: Who decides the best options?  A case could be made that
Mama coerced her into sex work, and that she was currently being exploited, but as
field researchers we are limited as to what we can offer. With her explanation of sex
work as her best alternative and no one being in imminent danger, I had few options.
Negotiating options with this participant was a balancing act for several reasons: (1)
She most likely did not view herself as coerced or as a victim, (2) she felt she chose
the best option for her and her family, (3) she tried to get help from the systems of
family and state and they both failed her, (4) she was technically an adult at 18 and
able to legally make her own decisions, which she had already been doing since
15, and (5) her child was not in harm’s way and likely was receiving better care as
compared to other alternatives.
Her choice to sell sex was influenced by her inability to secure housing and ad-
equate employment in the licit system, which is typical of the constraint imposed
on the young by the state. This may have been compounded by the structural con-
straints of being a poor, African–American woman in the USA. While the possibil-
ity of Mama’s coercive strategies were troubling, the ineffectiveness of family and
state systems took center stage, all occurring in the world that is supposedly “right
side up.”
[“Pimp Study:” Based on field notes, memos and interviews in Harlem, NY
Mista Warbux talked about his biological and step fathers both pimping. He was
well past underage, but he described hanging around sex workers since 8 years old
and being more “ardent” about pimping around 13. The theme of families selling
sex and encouraging and sometimes requiring the young male family members to
pimp was typical. Teenagers who live in families where this business exists are
often employed by their legal guardians and are expected to carry on the family
legacy. The older males are fathers, uncles, or cousins, and they initiate the teenage
pimps into the business. Sometimes, they describe this initiation as “a test” or “a
challenge.” Dantes started when he was 15 years old:
214 A. Horning and A. Paladino

My father’s a pimp. It started with me when I was real young. You know what I’m saying
so I first started, I had my first two. When I first had my first bitch though, I was like 15. I
was 15 when I started. My father actually gave me or introduced me to her. You know what
I’m saying. Ha. My father wanted to see if I could do it, so I showed him I could.

Other times, they did not enjoy the work but were required to contribute. The family
business sometimes operated out of the house, making nonparticipation difficult.
Daryl lived with his uncle and his uncle’s sex workers, and the family business
operated in the home. He discussed his first turnout, the training process, and his
feelings about pimping. Daryl said that he did not want to keep pimping because he
did not like it.
I mean someone was basically training me on what to do…not physically training me, but
telling me oh you can do this. You can make some money off of it and you can make a
whole lot of money so. So when I was introduced to it that’s when I started doing it. I had
one girl and then she knew a couple other girls and I have to live with my uncle. My uncle
who has two bedrooms that are empty so they sleep there. I mean he’s pretty much with
everything that’s going on. But it’s not mainly me it’s him. I don’t really like it, but it so
much money. I do it, but…

Dilemma and response: What boy does not enjoy pimping? Technically, when
Daryl and Dantes were teens, they both could have qualified as labor trafficked
based on the UN definition. The scenarios where young males are given something
akin to a masculinity test (in the case of Dantes) could be construed as a form
of coercion, especially within families. However, I indirectly probed Dantes about
“the test” to see if he felt coerced into the work. He portrayed his initiation as an
apprenticeship where he learned the family trade and was happy that he found a way
to be financially solvent. I was more concerned about Daryl (now in his late teens
and barely adulthood) and the other similar cases where coercion was still possible.
Early in the interview, it was unclear if he was forced to work for family. To under-
stand the scenario fully, I probed in different ways about his willingness to work and
as reflected in the above passage he eventually admitted that he was not forced and
also that he felt that he could not quit because of money.
For most people, these scenarios do not qualify as ethical dilemmas because of
how we construct male sexuality and agency, even with teenagers. If you replace
the young family member with a young female who is forced or coerced into selling
sex or even pimping, as part of a family business, this is more palatable as a human
trafficking case. What is necessary to constitute having an “ethical problem”? Of-
ficial cultural rules were not violated. This distinction brings up who is more readily
categorized as a trafficking victim, despite legal definitions. This is a murky area
because of how agency is constructed based on gender and lived realities of males/
females. However, while a call to social services, a nonprofit for victims, or law
enforcement may have been received as a prank, I was left with the moral dilemma
of having no options (if needed) and questions about the construction of “ethics”
around teenage males.
In this theme, young people are constrained by the formal sector and therefore
denied tools for basic survival. The sad, paradoxical reality may be that families
who provide transferable skills to their children and the Mamas who support them
13  Walking the Tightrope 215

are often the only people around to play the part of heroes and heroines in the
“world turned upside down.” Further, these participants demonstrated agency, in
their practical decisions, to survive within and for their families.

Lovers, Con Artists, or Egalitarian Business Partners?

[“Pimp Study:” Based on field notes and interviews, Harlem, NY (2011–2012)]

Early on in the study, I spoke with Samuel who described walking around his
neighborhood at 12 years old and being asked by a woman to stand near her and
make sure that she returned when she went off with various men. He would eat din-
ner with his family and leave to help her late into the evening. He says he did not
realize that he was pimping for a long time, but when he did, he could not give up
the income. This theme of sex workers luring young males into pimping arose in a
few other cases. Jean, who is 19 years old, met his sex worker (who was in her late
20s), while she was working and she took him in, gave him a “freebie,” and taught
him how to be a “daddy.”
She what she explained to me was that she says being a daddy like that’s what they call
it, being a daddy is it’s a responsibility like. It’s like having a daughter even a that’s a sick
twisted way but it’s like having a daughter cause’ she says all I have to do is provide hair,
nails, clothes, food, and like um protection. When she said the protection see that’s what
had me at first like I’m not too sure, but when she said the whole protection part I was I
was like “I was a bad kid” so like when she said protection I was like “alright I’m for it.”

Dilemma and response: Mrs. Robinson as a sex worker?  Older women manipu-
lating teenage male sexuality, by banking on them feeling pressured to pass mas-
culinity tests and using these as coercive strategies to employ them as pimps or
traffickers are not palatable as coercion narratives. Most people would say there is
no victim here, despite wide age differences and sometimes initiation through sex.
Interpretations of coercion are always intertwined with gender and lead to questions
about ethics in general and leave researchers with moral dilemmas where a foot in
both worlds does not help.
[“Pimp Study:” Based on field notes and interviews, Harlem, NY (2011–2012)]
Jason, who started pimping at 16 years old, described how he and his first turnout
(or his first sex worker) grew up in the system.
I ain’t gonna’ lie; it was my high school sweetheart. I met her through goin’ to classes, you
know I was feelin’ her, but um she was lost. She wasn’t even like girlfriend material. She
was raised in the system so she didn’t have a mind of her own. She was in and out of the
foster care system. She needed someone to take care of her, so…. Me, I’ve been on my own
since I was 12, used to just be me and my uncle, from there it was jail, streets, jail, drugs,
I was already fucked up so I just brought her in with me. I molded her and she became
something extravagant and she just brought mad girls. You know she was more the boss,
you know what I’m sayin’.

The scenario of similarly disenfranchised youth banding together to sell sex was
a recurrent theme. This is also illustrated in the case of Mike J who met his first
216 A. Horning and A. Paladino

“turnout” at a local shelter for runaway teens called Safe Horizons, where they were
both getting a free meal. They hatched a plan to sell sex.
Dilemma and response: Boys do not go hungry?  While vulnerable youth such as
the homeless are sometimes targets to be sex workers, their pimps can be in similar
dire situations. The collaborative efforts of at-risk teens to sell sex may begin with
coercion and segue into a mutual agreement, and sometimes what is construed as
coercion is just the start of an entrepreneurial dyad. More typically, both teens are
at risk. While “constrained agency” is easy to ascribe to females, it is not the same
for young males. Jason was at a more stable place in terms of basic survival, that is,
food and shelter, whereas Mike J was living in an abandoned building and still get-
ting free meals in local youth shelters. I asked Mike J if he needed help connecting
to any other services, and he shrugged this off by telling me that he was fine. If Mike
J was a female, or even a female pimp, I probably would have been more persistent.
My own gender biases got in the way.
[“Atlantic City Study:” Based on field notes and interviews, Atlantic City, NJ
The participant was an 18-year-old high school dropout, who had been in “the
life” since she was 17 years old. She had no permanent residency and lived alone
in a hotel room she rented out. Her reason for leaving home was not uncommon.
“My family left me. I took care of my brother and myself since I was 11.” She stated
nonchalantly, “some guy started pushing on me and he wouldn’t leave it [sex] alone.
He started offering me stuff and he offered me $300 so I took it cuz I was gonna’
need it. I been poor for a long time.” Soon it became her only form of employment.
She initially stated she had no pimp but later revealed that she had a special
someone with whom she shared all the money she earned. “I give all [of my money]
and he manages it for me.” When asked if this was a pimp, she indicated that he
was more than just that; it was a complicated relationship. She talked about her
pimp as one would talk about a significant other/boyfriend. Her “pimp” was being
interviewed outside the car by the study’s principal investigator, and the age differ-
ence was clear; the participant was clearly younger, and he had been in the busi-
ness a long time. They met after she had run away from home at 17, and he got her
involved in sex work. She stated:
I actually have feelings for him…you also have sex with your pimp, too…you know, to
make sure your game is up there. If your game is not up there, he’s not gonna put you out
there. Because you’re not gonna’ catch as many dates. And then he’s gonna’ have to worry
about…like…cuz you break him [e.g., give money]…if you’re not putting money in his
pocket he never gonna’ put you out there. All the pimps that I know fuck their girls.

When I asked how she felt about that she said, “In the hustle, in the game, it’s not
wrong but technically, you know it’s wrong. You know it’s wrong but once you get
in the game…” she trailed off.
Dilemma and response: Ambiguous relationships?  In cases like this, researchers
expect to deal with the consent dilemma in terms of respondent’s age and con-
strained agency. However, that was not the case here. The respondent seemed very
willing to participate in the sex market. During a discussion about youth in sex
13  Walking the Tightrope 217

work she stated, “…When you’re younger you’re vulnerable. But I still have rules.”
Despite having rules, the vulnerability still exists, and she seemed well aware of
that. When asked if she carried protection, she stated, “I should, but I really don’t
want to get stopped by the cops….” She explained that once she got beaten and
raped after sex; the client took all her money and she went after him. “It made me
feel fucked up.” However, instead of feeling scared she stated, “I was mad. I was
really mad.”
The part that made me question her agency was not so much the age difference
with her clients and pimp, but rather the description she gave of her relationship
with her pimp, which seemed rather complicated…or perhaps not. She did not seem
to view him as her pimp and seemed conflicted at the thought of telling people he
was anything but a boyfriend.
Other than listening, there was very little I felt that I could do. Since there was
no clear-cut case of sexual exploitation or imminent physical force, I did not have
the power to intervene. Nevertheless, even if one might argue that there was sexual
exploitation at play—given her age and the dynamics of the relationship with her
pimp (or boyfriend)—I was in no position to tell her to leave him or the sex market;
in fact, it most likely would have offended and undermined her. However, looking
in, we may judge this as being a case of exploitation. I decided the best course of
action was to just listen.
Toward the end of the interview, a patrol car began to circle our vehicle, which
was parked outside a convenience store. I remained in the car with the respondent.
I delayed the interview while the principal investigator, standing outside with the
respondent’s pimp and a couple of girls that were waiting to be interviewed, was ap-
proached by two police officers. After showing his credentials and documentation
pertaining to the study, he was told that the interviews had to be moved to another
location. The manager had complained about loiterers. It was then that a girl wear-
ing nothing but her bra and panties under a transparent yellow parka and no shoes,
jumped into the car stating that she did not want to be seen by the cops. The respon-
dent revealed that this girl was her friend and associate.
The principal investigator returned to the car and, after explaining the encounter
he had with the police, drove us to a secluded parking lot a few blocks away. The
respondent, with a shaky laugh, said, “At first I thought this was a set up. Ya’ll
motherfuckers gonna’ get me arrested.”

Almost Naked Girl and the Official World

The almost naked girl from the previous story asked to be interviewed. The two
participants stayed in the car and we drove to another parking lot. “I don’t want to
get stopped by the po po again!” she yelled and we realized she was also drunk. The
beginning of the interview was spent primarily trying to explain how the principal
investigator and I had no affiliation with law enforcement or any organization or
agency that would get them in trouble with the law. We went to another parking lot
where the possibility of the police showing up was lower.
218 A. Horning and A. Paladino

The participant said she was 19 years old and had been in the life since she was
14. “I did it before, but it was nothing serious [only did it when desperate].” But
now this was her only source of income. She still lived at home with her mother,
who received supplemental security income (SSI), and her father was deceased. She
started selling sex because she stated:
I’m not a follower or nothing but you know I was thinking cuz they was making nice good
money, having nice phones, nice clothes, nice uggs, nice shoes, whatever. So I was inter-
ested and I was like “hey, I wanna’ have that stuff’ so I did it too cuz I wasn’t getting that
shit at my house. Yeah, I dunno, I’m no follower or nothing like that at all but hey if you
doing good…they just trying to help me out and I was like “alright.”

She worked alone, or rather side by side with other sex workers, both on and off the
street. She stated, “I don’t really get [clients] from pimps. They don’t really help out
that much.” After being asked to specify whether she had someone who helped her,
she stated: “Not really. Myself kinda…I was supposed to be in one of them madam
things and there’s a whole bunch of chicks and no pimps.”
Despite her independence from pimps and being the sole price negotiator with
clients, she made less money than her friend. She set her own rules and own time,
but her rules depended on the situation; for instance, she stated that if she was
desperate for money she would have sex for $20. No substance abuse was appar-
ent; however, she did say that the month prior to the interview, she started smoking
crack. She stressed, “I’m not addicted.”
She was enthusiastic about sex work. In addition to the easy money, she said
she also enjoys the work itself. The only pitfall was that it took too long for her
clients “to finish.” When asked if she would like to leave sex work she stated, “…
not ­really.”
Dilemmas and response: Aiding and abetting or something? This participant
jumped into the car for obvious reasons: she was avoiding the police who would
have stopped her because she was almost naked. Had I told the girls to get out
of the car, most likely the girl in the parka would have gotten arrested for public
Once she provided informed consent, I told her I could not ignore the elephant
in the room and asked why she was half-naked. She laughed with me. “I got into
a little situation. In a little argument with somebody. I wasn’t actually wearing my
clothes…and I took them off and I asked if I could have some stuff. I still had
this [parka] on.” She said there was a person who had a bag with her clothes (and
money) and that she had to get it back. She did not provide any more information
regarding why she could not get her clothes back or who had them.
I continued with the interview protocol. Life on the street is fast, and as a re-
searcher interviewing in the street, you have no control over what happens. One has
to respond quickly; otherwise, potential participants will lose interest or be unable
to participate. Moreover, in this particular situation, assuming the respondent (1)
had somewhere to go to get changed and (2) had clothes to change into, there was
no other time the interview could be scheduled, as she had been waiting (in that
state), anxious to finish in time to get to work. Furthermore, given the state she was
13  Walking the Tightrope 219

in, I felt uncomfortable telling her to get out of the car (i.e., it would endanger her).
I said I did not feel comfortable with her getting out of the car like that and offered
to drive her to a secure location to get her clothes once the interview was complete.
Not halfway into the interview, the previous participant (18 years old with the
pseudo pimp/boyfriend) walked up to the car and presented yet another dilemma.
She had an alcoholic beverage in her hand. Kindly rejecting her offer to have some,
I asked if she could wait to drink because having an open container in the car was
illegal. It is possible we could also have gotten in trouble for simply being around
underage girls who were drinking. Had I asked her to leave with the beverage, (1)
she could get stopped by the police and arrested, and (2) the current respondent,
still half-naked, would have left with her, resulting in an incomplete interview. I
suggested she wait outside the car and put the beverage away so as to avoid being
stopped. Despite my request, she continued to drink with the current respondent.
If I responded to these ethical dilemmas without the fair in mind, participants
would have been in harm’s way. Official rule enforcers were nearby, and this young
girl was in a general vulnerable position, so it seemed safest to let them stay in a car.
Each of my decisions brought up official/unofficial world issues where responding
would have been very different. In a “world turned upside down,” you do not kick
participants out of your car (especially when they can be arrested), bring up under-
age drinking, or lecture them about wardrobe choices. However, keeping my one
foot in the official world allowed me to have the wherewithal to decline drinking
with teenage sex workers. These interviews were a balancing act.

Role as an Interviewer: Counselor, Savior, or Pest?

[“NYC Sex Work Study:” Based on field notes and interviews, (2012–2013)]
The participant was a 19 year old female who had been selling sex on the street
for a few years. She talked about sex work as an outlet from everything she had
experienced in life; it was a good topic for her as she was able to show strength by
describing her independent business side. The only violence in her life that she had
experienced was by her former boyfriend.
Similar to other participants, she had experienced emotional, physical, and
sexual abuse at various points in her life. Not all respondents who described rela-
tionships where they had been assaulted, beaten up, manipulated, controlled, and
sexually taken advantage of by those they loved were as free to leave their abusive
boyfriends. The intimate partner violence that this respondent experienced was, by
far, the most horrific of all cases. The last month of abuse, leading up to her escape,
was the most violent; in fact, she revealed that during this month she was pregnant.
He had controlled her every move and beat her on a daily basis, also threatening to
kill her family if she left.
Following her accounts of abuse that led to her escape, I inquired whether she
had been in touch with the police. She stated, “Yeah, but they can’t find him.”
She also mentioned that “they” (referring to his associates: other drug dealers and
pimps) could be hiding him.
220 A. Horning and A. Paladino

I don’t know how I’m dealing with it. I feel like…as a person I don’t know who I am any-
more now. I feel I changed a whole lot…I don’t feel the same. My attitude changed. It’s just
weird, I dunno how to deal with it. And sometimes I catch myself…thinking about it and I
start tearing up and getting very emotional about it and then it’s like…sometimes I feel like
committing suicide. I’m not gonna’ lie.

Mentions of suicide and self-mutilation, unfortunately, were not uncommon in this

study. However, most of the other respondents had received therapy, had support
systems, or had stopped destructive behaviors. I asked when she started having
them. It was then that she started crying and stated that the doctors had told her that,
due to the abuse, her twins were likely to be birthed crippled or stillborn; therefore,
the best option was to terminate the pregnancy.
Since these were recurring and recent thoughts of suicide, I was unsure of how
to respond. I felt that her life was in my hands. I asked how frequently she thought
about killing herself. She said, “when I really get depressed. Like…the other day I
felt like it.” She talked about not having tried to kill herself yet. So far, it was just
a thought, but that at the pace she was going, it was very possible she would do it.
There was very little I could do besides offer counseling and follow up with her.
I told her that she must talk to someone else, as I’m not a counselor or equipped to
help her. This was the first interview where a respondent openly asked for a coun-
selor and had never received any therapy.
Dilemma and response: Determining where help ends and harassment begins The
following day, I reached out to some counselors, one who was assigned to the proj-
ect and another from a community-based organization that deals specifically with
intimate partner violence. Although I did “my part” as a researcher, and followed
IRB regulations, I still felt terrible leaving the respondent behind. Up until that
point, it seemed like a no-brainer to just get her counseling. For the next 2 weeks,
we stayed in touch and I checked in on her.
Giving professional help is easier said than done. How do you ensure the safety
of your respondent without crossing over into the “danger zone” of harassment?
The counselor was ready for her within 1 day after the interview, but due to the
respondent’s schedule, there was never a meeting. She never told me to stop con-
tacting her, and I did because I was afraid that she was feeling harassed. This fear
was especially overwhelming when she quit responding to my calls. After 2 weeks
of calling her, she finally responded saying that she was “too busy” to meet with a
This is an ongoing dilemma as I still have her number and want to check in on
her and make sure she gets the counseling she appeared to need and want.


Our approach to fieldwork with sex-market-involved youth was to have a foot in

both worlds allowing for inter-subjectivity. This approach diverges from the pop-
ulist manifesto of total immersion, where fieldwork and life are intertwined but
13  Walking the Tightrope 221

where everything is “right side up.” We do not advocate for our “two-world” ap-
proach with all types of populations or even when doing research with other par-
ticipants in the sex marketplace. However, doing research with a population who
is vulnerable because of official world constraints and a strongly voiced and heard
official discourse that socially constructs their lives, having one foot in both worlds
was an important device that we used to stay on the tightrope in both.
“Two-world” does not equal only two interpretations. For instance, in the story
about Mama being an exploiter and savior, it seems that we are advocating for an
either/or story line and also merely boasting about being able to see the two stories
or relaying that participants experience both. We are also skeptical of dichotomies.
The two poles are presented to allow the reader to imagine the variations and in-
betweens of these stories, with most readers probably not agreeing fully with either
story. The two poles allow for a range, and the possibility of multiple accounts, even
in single stories.
As researchers, we experienced constraints in how we interpret coercion and
danger in a fair that we only temporarily joined. We quickly learned that coercion is
not always what it seems and that what we are told we should do in scenarios where
we see coercion may not be the right thing to do. For instance, in the story where
the participant appeared to also be a victim of domestic violence, persistent offers
of help may have pushed her away. Also, in situ or short-term ethnographies do not
always allow for multiple and extensive contacts with the same participants, so this
kind of over-involvement can be the wrong thing to do.
We as fieldworkers entered the sex marketplace as informed scholars with par-
ticular questions in mind and an awareness of moral values, especially in terms
of exploitation, which influences and often challenges our moral responsibilities
(Ferdinand et al. 2007). The contours of exploitation were not clear-cut. For in-
stance, some young sex workers voiced agency in the face of seemingly contrary
circumstances. Some pimps, despite talking about voluntarily pimping, portrayed
vulnerabilities and in some cases described what could be construed as coerced la-
bor imposed by family members. Often, participants voiced contrary positions and
many shades of grey.
Where do moral responsibilities begin and where do they end? Should we take
participants home with us, provide them with food and try to find them jobs? Is
this the best case, non-secular “rescue operation” scenario? Should “rescue” or any
type of “Plan C” be part of the research protocol, or do we only rescue the safe bets,
the willing, and the of-age? The boundaries are unclear, and the rules are ambigu-
ous, especially with inter-discursive accounts and in light of assessing whether we
would lose our balance in one world or both. However, losing that balance might
not always be perilous—despite usually trying our best to walk it, in some situa-
tions, one can only act ethically and transcend official and unofficial constraints by
deliberately jumping off the tightrope.
222 A. Horning and A. Paladino


Anderson, E. (1984; 2000). Code of the streets. USA: W. W. Norton & Company.
Bailey, J. (2002). Conversations in a brothel: Men tell why they do it. Sydney: Hodder.
Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bauman, Z. (1998). Work, consumerism and the new poor. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Baumeister, R., & Tice, D. (1986). How adolescence became the struggle for self: A historical
transformation of psychological development. In J. Suls & A. Greenwald (Eds.), Psychological
perspectives on the self (Vol. 3) (pp. 183–201), Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
Bjonness, J. (2012). Between emotional politics and biased practices: Prostitution, policies, social
work and women selling sexual services in Denmark. Sexual Research and Social Policy, 9,
Blumer, H. (1954). What is wrong with social theory? Journal of American Sociological Society,
19(1), 3–10.
Brunovskis, A., & Surtees, R. (2010). Untold stories: Biases and selection effects in research with
victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. International Migration, 48(4), 1–37.
Buchanan, D., Khoshnood, K., Stopka, T., Shaw, S., Santelices, C., & Singer, M. (2002). Ethical
dilemmas created by the criminalization of status behaviors: Case examples from ethnographic
field research with injection drug users. Health Education & Behavior, 29(1), 30–42.
Christensen, P., & Prout, A. (2002). Working with ethical symmetry in social research with chil-
dren. Childhood, 9(4), 477–497.
Côté, J. E., & Allahar, L. (1996). Generation on hold: Coming of age in the late twentieth century.
New York: New York University Press.
Cwikel, J., & Hoban, E. (2005). Contentious issues in research on trafficked women working in the
sex industry: Study design, ethics, and methodology. Journal of Sex Research, 42(4), 306–316.
Dank, M. (2011). The commercial sexual exploitation of children. El Paso. : LFB Scholarly Pub-
lishing LLC.
Dunlap, E., Johnson, B. D., & Randolph, D. (2009). Ethical and legal dilemmas in ethnographic
field research: Three case studies of distressed inner-city families. In D. Buchanan, C. B. Fish-
er, & L. Gable (Eds.), Research with high-risk populations: Balancing science, ethics, and law
(pp. 207–229). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Ferdinand, J., Pearson, G., Rowe, M., & Worthington, F. (2007). A different kind of ethics. Eth-
nography, 8(4), 519–543.
Goodwin, D., Pope, C., Mort, M., & Smith, A. (2003). Ethics and ethnography: An experiential
account. Qualitative Health Research, 13(4), 567–577.
Holstein, J. A., & Gubrium, J. F. (1995). The active interview. Qualitative research methods series,
37. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Horning, A. (2013). Peeling the onion: Domestically trafficked minors and other sex work in-
volved youth. Dialectical Anthropology, 37(3), 299–307.
Howard, N. (2014). Teenage labor migration and anti-trafficking policies in West Africa. American
Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 653, 124–140.
Lee-Treweek, G. (2000). The insight of emotional danger. In G. Lee-Treweek & S. Linkogle (Eds.),
Danger in the field: Risk and ethics in social research (pp. 114–131). London: Routledge.
Lloyd, R. (2011). Girls like us: Fighting for a world where girls are not for sale, an activist finds
her calling and heals herself. New York: Harper-Collins.
Marcus, A., & Curtis, R. (2015). No love for children: Science and engagement in the study of
child sex trafficking. In de Wildt & D. Siegal (Eds.), Ethical issues of researching human traf-
ficking. Springer.
Marcus, A., Horning, A., Curtis, R., Sanson, J., & Thompson, E. (2014). Pimping dynamics:
Conflict and agency in pimps’ relation with underage trafficking victims. Annals of American
Academy of Political and Social Science, 653, 225–246.
Miéville, C. (2010). The city and the city. New York: Random House.
Presdee, M. (2000). Cultural criminology and the carnival of crime. London: Routledge.
13  Walking the Tightrope 223

Sandberg, S., & Copes, H. (2013). Speaking with ethnographers: Challenges of researching drug
dealers and offenders. Journal of Drug Issues, 43, 176–197.
Scheper-Hughes. (2004). Parts unknown: Undercover ethnography of the organs-trafficking un-
derworld. Ethnography, 5, 29–73.
Scheyvens, R., & Leslie, H. (2000). Gender, ethics and empowerment: Dilemmas of development
fieldwork. Women’s studies international forum, 23(1), 119–130.
Schlegel, A. (1996). Adolescence: An anthropological inquiry. Free Press.
Shanahan, M. J., Porfeli, E., Mortimer, J. T., & Erickson, L. (2005). Subjective age identity and the
transition to adulthood: When does one become an adult. In R. A. Settersten, F. F. Furstenberg,
& R. G. Rumbaut (Eds.), On the frontier of adulthood: Theory, research, and public policy, (pp.
225–255). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tyldum, G. (2010). Limitations in research on human trafficking. International Migration, 48(5),
Weitzer, R. (2007). The social construction of sex trafficking: Ideology and institutionalization of
a moral crusade. Politics & Society, 35(3), 447–475.
Zimmerman, C., & Watts, C. (2003). WHO ethical and safety recommendations for interviewing
trafficked women. Gender, women and health, 30. World Health Organization. http://www. Accessed 2 July 2014.

Amber Horning  is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at William Paterson University. She has
been researching and publishing about commercial sex markets and human trafficking for several
years. Her dissertation is titled Pimps of Harlem: Talk of Labor and the Sociology of Risk. Her
research is based on one of the largest and most comprehensive data collections about “pimps” in
the USA. This study has resulted in several peer-reviewed publications and two books. The first
book is an edited volume titled Third Party Sex Work and “Pimps” in the Age of Anti-Trafficking.
The second is a coauthored monograph called Street Teens and Moral Entrepreneurs: Ethnogra-
phies of Sex and Commerce.

Amalia Paladino  is a criminal justice doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center/John Jay
College. She has a BA in forensic psychology and a Masters in criminal justice. Paladino is a grad-
uate recipient of the Dean Harrison Award (2012–2013), the CUNY Writing Fellowship (2011–
2012), and the Graduate Teaching Fellowship (2007–2012). She became interested in life-course
trajectories and, specifically, violent victimization and the commercial sex market after conducting
ethnographic work on the commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) population in Atlantic
City. Currently, she is working on a study exploring the life experiences, specifically involving
violent victimization, and resilience among transgender and female individuals participating in the
sex market. She is also working on a series of projects examining sex offender sentencing trends.
Part IV
Organ Trafficking
Chapter 14
At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search
of Kidney Sellers

Monir Moniruzzaman

The Setting

The trade in live human organs, such as kidneys, livers, and corneas, has risen
in Bangladesh, since cadaveric donation does not exist in that country to date. Its
kidney market has expanded for more than two decades, while the liver trade has
emerged in the last few years. The government of Bangladesh enacted the Organ
Transplant Act 1999, which imposes a ban on trading body parts and publishing
related classified ads. The act explicitly states that anyone violating this law could
be imprisoned for a minimum of 3 years to a maximum of 7 years and/or penal-
ized with a minimum fine of 300,000 Taka (US$4300; Bangladesh Gazette 1999).
Nonetheless, organ trade is openly defied by the Bengali media, which regularly
publish newspaper advertisements seeking vital organs and any other transplantable
parts of the human body. The recipients are domestic and diasporic residents (Ban-
gladeshi-born foreign nationals) who solicit organ sellers in Bangladesh and then
obtain transplant surgeries in Bangladesh as well as in India, Pakistan, Singapore,
and Thailand. The sellers are poor rickshaw pullers, petty farmers, and slum dwell-
ers who sell their body parts to get out of poverty and pay off microcredit loans.
Amid this trading, a number of organ brokers have expanded their networks from
local to national to international levels. Some medical specialists also benefit from
this illegal exchange. The quoted price of a kidney is 100,000 Taka (US$1300); a

I did not tell the story to anybody, not even to my wife. How could I? Selling a kidney is
the most humiliating thing a person can do. You are the only person whom I trusted. It took
enormous courage to come and talk with you. I was worried, however very relieved after sharing
it with you—Nozrul, a 27-year-old kidney seller, following the interview.

M. Moniruzzaman ()
Department of Anthropology and Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences,
Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 227
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_14
228 M. Moniruzzaman

liver lobe is 300,000 Taka (US$4000) in Bangladesh, where 50 million people live

on less than US$1.25 a day (United Nations 2011).1
In doing my ethnographic research on the illicit organ market, spanning more
than a decade, I faced tremendous difficulties, particularly in gaining access to or-
gan sellers, an extremely hidden population of Bangladesh (Moniruzzaman 2010,
2012, 2013, 2014a, b). Many sellers did not disclose their actions to or even share
their stories with their own family members, as selling body parts is considered an
outlawed and repulsive act. In addition, sellers reside in every part of that country,
so they are unknown to each other; as a result, I was unable to employ snowball
sampling in locating them. When all avenues were exhausted, I gained the trust of
Dalal, a major organ broker in Bangladesh, who helped me connect with 33 kidney
sellers (30 males and 3 females) during my yearlong fieldwork in 2004–2005. My
new methodological grounding, that is, employing an organ broker to find organ
sellers, raises major ethical challenges, however: Should Dalal be my key infor-
mant when he was involved in illegal activities and potentially exploiting others?
To what extent should he be involved in my research? Why did he decide to support
my research? Should I financially reimburse him for his support? In this chapter,
I outline in detail how I gained access to 33 kidney sellers by employing an organ
broker as my key informant. Relevant ethical issues, such as challenges and risks
as well as roles and responsibilities of the researcher in conducting fieldwork on an
illicit practice, will also be explored. As my research would not have been possible
without the organ broker’s support, I demonstrate that a key informant technique is
beneficial in gaining access to hidden populations.

Fieldwork on Hidden Populations

Hidden populations are defined as groups of people who reside outside of main-
stream society and who are often involved in clandestine activities (Watters and
Biernacki 1989). Their activities frequently go unrecorded and remain concealed
due to illegality. It is therefore challenging to contact and conduct research with
hidden populations. Despite many difficulties, ethnographic fieldwork has been car-
ried out on these groups because they reveal a deeper understanding of outlawed but
ordinary practices in our society. Several terminologies have been used to classify
these groups, such as “underground,” “subterranean,” “informal,” “clandestine,”
“concealed,” “unofficial,” “submerged,” and, most commonly, “hidden.”
Hidden populations can include drug users, unseen sex workers, homosexuals,
carriers of infectious diseases (HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis), illegal migrants, alco-
holics, school dropouts, unmarried pregnant teens, runaways, abused women and
children, sexual abusers and pedophiles, street youths, gang members, criminals,
and organ traffickers (Singer 1999). Among these hidden groups, some are more
invisible than others. For example, organ traffickers are often more concealed than

All monetary values are presented in US dollars, as US$1 is equivalent to 75 Taka.
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 229

sex workers, and criminals are more concealed than alcoholics. Even within a par-
ticular hidden group, some subgroups are more hidden than others. For example,
men who receive money for having sex with men are frequently more invisible
than paid female prostitutes. The invisibility of hidden populations varies depend-
ing on the illegality, concealment, and stigmatization of their actions. Merrill Sing-
er (1999) therefore points out four types of hidden populations: highly accessible,
semi-hidden, hidden, and quite invisible in terms of research accessibility (p. 130).
Each of these groups presents different challenges for researchers wishing to study
hidden populations.
Ethnography—in particular “street ethnography”—is especially important in
studying hidden populations (Weppner 1977). Ethnographers have unique tools to
explore hidden populations as well as collect first-hand, insightful, and in-depth
information through fieldwork. Ethnographers’ natural inquisitiveness, wandering
around, casual approach, techniques of rapport building, and grounded knowledge
through participant observation as well as their long-standing fieldwork experience
in noninstitutional settings offer a unique perspective to study hidden populations.
As Singer (1999) notes,
Ethnography takes the researcher out of the academia or institute suite and into the street
(or other settings) where members of the target population live out their lives. Through rap-
port building, concern with the subject’s point of view, and long-term presence in the field,
ethnographers often are able to gain access to places, events, and information that might be
hard for other methodologies to achieve. (p. 150)

Ethnographic fieldwork is imperative to explore the unseen lives of hidden popula-

One of the classic pieces of ethnographic fieldwork among hidden populations
was carried out by William F. Whyte in 1937. In Street Corner Society, Whyte noted
how a social worker in a local settlement house hooked him up with Doc, a street
gang leader. After Whyte established rapport with Doc, Doc agreed to give Whyte
access to his community. As a result, Whyte carried out interviews with the corner-
boy gang as well as its members of a community of poor inner-city Italian immi-
grants who were otherwise unseen to those outside it (Whyte 1981). By a similar
token, Philippe Bourgois gained trust of Primo, the manager of a crack house, and
befriended street-level drug dealers, addicts, and thieves in order to study the crack
culture in New York City’s Spanish Harlem (Bourgois 1995). Thomas Ward ap-
proached his Salvadoran friends and acquaintances, who served as his initial inroad
to the study of a street gang in Los Angeles, and arranged for him to meet active
gang members, either in their homes or in local restaurants (Ward 2013). The com-
mon thread of these ethnographies is that a key informant, who is often a central
figure of the outlawed groups, supported the researchers to gain access to hidden
Laud Humphreys used a different, rather intrusive, approach that is often called
“going native” to examine the sexual practices among homosexuals. In Tearoom
Trade, Humphreys describes how he “hung out” in public washrooms and studied
the men who were engaged in sex with other men. Unconventionally, Humphreys
recorded the men’s car license plate numbers and obtained their home addresses
230 M. Moniruzzaman

from the Department of Motor Vehicles. He visited their homes, introduced himself
as a researcher, and obtained private data (Humphreys 1975). His ethnography was
challenged as he “snooped around,” “spied on,” violated privacy and freedom, and
took advantage of some powerless people to pursue his research (Hoffman 1975,
Warwick 1975). In an even greater level of “going native,” Ralph Bolton himself
participated in casual sex with gay men to study their private sexual practices in bars,
saunas, parks, streets, and private rooms in Brussels (Bolton 1992, 1995). Bolton’s
“sexual ethnography” is subject to serious criticism, as he used sex as a technique to
diminish the distance between himself and his field subjects (Beusch 2007). These
studies offer highly inaccessible data from different enclaves of hidden populations
but raise serious ethical concerns to conducting underground fieldwork.
Since the mid-1990s, ethnographic studies on illicit organ trafficking have pro-
vided invaluable insights about methodological approaches to hidden populations.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2004) addresses how she investigated covert and crimi-
nal networks of organ trafficking in various global settings. As she notes, the flow
of organs follows the modern route of capital: from south to north, from Third to
First World, from poor to rich, from black and brown to white, and from female
to male (Scheper-Hughes 2000). To collect the data, Scheper-Hughes conducted
“undercover” research in numerous sites—from the impoverished shantytowns of
the Third World to the privileged and technologically sophisticated medical centers
of the First World. Her multisited ethnography recruited graduate students, field
assistants, human rights workers, private detectives, political journalists, documen-
tary filmmakers, and “fixers,” a class of paid research “intermediaries” long used
in media reporting (Scheper-Hughes 2004, p. 32). Scheper-Hughes’s research leads
the way to map out global organ trafficking; however, it is subject to several criti-
cisms. For example, in some field sites she posed as a patient (or the relative of a
patient) looking to purchase or otherwise broker a kidney (Interlandi 2009). Some-
times she visited transplant units and hospital wards, posting as a patient’s friend or
family member looking for another part of the hospital. At times she introduced her-
self as Dr. Scheper-Hughes, while leaving it vague what kind of “doctor” she was
(Scheper-Hughes 2004, p. 44). Her unorthodox approaches pose an ethical ques-
tion: Should researchers conceal their identities and introduce themselves as poten-
tial end users to conduct “undercover fieldwork”? In addition, Scheper-Hughes col-
laborated with investigative reporters and documentary journalists, stating that she
had no other option except to team up with them. I was unable to identify from her
meager description the procedures of recruiting respondents, such as sellers, buyers,
dealers, and doctors (I assumed that it was done through fixers, but I did not find
out about her transactions with fixers), how she approached her respondents to par-
ticipate in interviews, and whether she faced any difficulties in dealing with friends
and fixers (Scheper-Hughes 2004, pp. 42–43). Further, Scheper-Hughes noted that
she reported some of her findings to criminal investigators from the US Food and
Drug Administration, the US Attorney’s Office in New York, Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) special agents, and the State Department’s Visa Fraud Division.
She stated, however, that she provided information only about the traffickers and
surgeons and not about the people who had been trafficked. Neither was I able to
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 231

identify how Scheper-Hughes guaranteed confidentiality, promised to protect iden-

tities, and obtained informed consent, nor was I certain whether she disclosed some
of the organ recipients’ names to government officials. Her research techniques
raise another challenge: Should researchers report their respondents’ actions and
disclose their identities to law enforcement agencies if respondents are involved
in an illegal activity? Furthermore, Scheper-Hughes noted paying a kidney seller
US$20 for an interview (Scheper-Hughes 2004, p. 47); however, she did not dis-
close her payments, if any, to other participants, such as sellers, recipients, brokers,
and doctors. As Scheper-Hughes herself noted that she was not fully comfortable
with what she has taken on—not to mention the fact that her methods make some
of her colleagues uneasy (Scheper-Hughes 2004, p. 41)—I did not follow her ap-
proaches to an “undercover ethnography,” but rather focused on ethically grounded
and methodologically sound fieldwork on domestic organ trafficking, particularly
on kidney sellers of Bangladesh.
As there was no formal set of procedures to follow and methods of hidden popu-
lations were problematic, limited, and unclear, I could not formulate a codified ap-
proach to organ trafficking before going into the field. Based on preliminary field
trips in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I gathered that it would be extremely
difficult to gain access to organ sellers and conduct fieldwork in the black market
of human organs. Yet, I was able to interview 33 kidney sellers who had already
sold their body parts and whose surgeries had been performed within and outside
of Bangladesh. In the following section, I outline my means and methods of find-
ing kidney sellers during my yearlong fieldwork in Bangladesh. My ethnographic
fieldwork exemplifies how I advanced and applied an ethical but effective approach
to studying the hidden population.

In Search of Kidney Sellers

Access to kidney sellers was the most arduous task in undertaking this research. In
the first 3 months of a yearlong fieldwork, all of my initial attempts were in vain.
The turning point of my research occurred when I met a transplant recipient and he
connected me with his kidney seller. Following this interview, I was unsuccessful in
finding any other organ sellers for a while. After trying all feasible means, I finally
employed an organ broker as a key informant and a kidney seller as a research as-
sistant. With their support, I located, contacted, and interviewed a total of 33 kidney
sellers in Bangladesh.

Going Nowhere

At the beginning of my fieldwork, I asked a range of local Bangladeshis for advice

on finding organ sellers. Suggestions included contacting doctors, recipients, news-
232 M. Moniruzzaman

paper advertisers, lawyers, and slum dwellers, some of whom might be able to lo-
cate kidney sellers. However, all of these approaches turned out to be unsuccessful.
First, I attempted to search kidney sellers through local health professionals af-
filiated with major transplant centers in Bangladesh. In October 2004, I attended a
conference titled “The End State Renal Disease: A Global Issue,” held in a hotel in
Dhaka. In this meeting, local nephrologists and urologists repeatedly claimed that
the lack of infrastructure hinders the establishment of a successful kidney transplant
program in Bangladesh. They highlighted that kidney transplants from commercial
donors/unrelated sellers are performed in other countries, but not in Bangladesh.
Through connections I made at the conference, I then met with the chief ne-
phrologist working in a leading transplant hospital of Bangladesh. When I asked
him if he could help me to connect with kidney sellers, he handed me a copy of the
Organ Transplant Act, stated that trading kidneys is “strictly illegal,” and noted that
transplants from nonfamily members are not operated in Bangladesh. At the end
of our meeting, I sought his permission to conduct interviews in his hospital. After
several bureaucratic encounters, I finally obtained his verbal consent to carry out
my research there. However, the permission did not ensure my access to nephrolo-
gists, urologists, and postgraduate trainees performing transplants in that hospital.
In most cases, transplant specialists’ lack of availability was attributed to their busy
schedule, aloofness, and attitude. During brief encounters, they typically denied
the existence of illegal organ transplant in Bangladesh. Surprisingly, I then noticed
two posted advertisements for kidney sales in the hallway of the hospital (one ad
was on a wall next to the elevator, and the other was in the doctors’ seminar room)
(Fig. 14.1).2
The transplant specialists explained to me that kidney classifieds are periodi-
cally posted in Bangladesh but all unrelated (and therefore illegal) transplants are
performed outside the country. A nephrologist added that many of his clients were
transplant recipients who had purchased kidneys from local Bangladeshis, travelled
to India for transplants, and then returned to Bangladesh for postoperative care. I
asked him if he could put me in touch with some of these recipients, but no meet-
ings ever materialized. I suspected that the doctors were reluctant to discuss organ
trafficking with an outside researcher due to its illegality.
Second, I approached transplant recipients, whose operations were performed
both in Bangladesh and India, in attempts to find kidney sellers. I interviewed a
few recipients who had been admitted to that hospital for postoperative compli-
cations. These recipients typically discussed the inadequate organ infrastructure,
poor health-care services, the high cost of surgery, and postoperative complexities
involved in organ transplants in Bangladesh. When asked where the kidney came
from, recipients claimed to have obtained kidneys from family members, yet often
avoided revealing the donors’ identities. After I gained the trust of one particular
recipient, he disclosed that he had purchased the kidney from a college student,
but did not reveal the seller’s identity. I also contacted some would-be recipients

During the fieldwork, several advertisements for selling kidneys were posted in this hospital. All

of the advertisements were soon removed because of my physical presence.

14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 233

Fig. 14.1   Advertisement for

selling kidneys posted on the
entrance door of the doctors’
seminar room in a leading
transplant hospital in Dhaka,
October 28, 2004. (Transla-
MENT One kidney will be
sold urgently. Blood group
B+ . Contact me to discuss in
detail. Tel:)

who were in the process of arranging transplants. The potential recipients similarly
stated that they would be receiving kidneys from family members. One patient and
her donor seemed unrelated to me, but both of them claimed to be close relatives
by showing me an official certificate of their kinship. All of my attempts to locate
kidney sellers through doctors and recipients thus failed.
Third, I searched organ classifieds published regularly in Bengali national news-
papers to locate kidney sellers.3 As I had previously experienced, recipients were
not interested in connecting me with their donors/sellers; therefore, I focused solely
on the sellers’ ads. From these collected ads, I attempted to contact several sellers
through their telephone numbers. However, only six phone numbers were in ser-
vice, and I was unable to communicate with any of them. In one instance, a sister
of the potential seller told me that her brother had not been in touch with the family
for the last 2 months; I assumed that the seller went to India for the surgery. In other
cases, the people did not answer my phone calls, or the phone service had been
switched to a new customer.
Fourth, I contacted journalists and lawyers who specialized in medical crime.
This process did not prove successful in obtaining any useful information for find-
ing kidney sellers. One lawyer referred to newspaper coverage that reported that
Bangladeshi children are smuggled to other countries for organ harvesting (Khayer
and Badal 2004). However, he could not validate the claim, and the newspaper cov-
erage seemed sensationalistic.
Lastly, I thought that slum dwellers and drug addicts could have been involved in
selling kidneys, but I chose not to contact them. I realized that finding kidney sell-
ers within this very broad group would be greatly challenging and time consuming.
Indeed, it was frustrating not to be able to locate a kidney seller in 3 months despite
my efforts to follow the leads I had been given.

So far, I have collected 1288 organ classifieds published in five national Bengali newspapers
between 2000 and 2008.
234 M. Moniruzzaman

The Turning Point

The turning point in my fieldwork came when a fellow anthropologist introduced

me to Kamal Chowdhury, a transplant recipient. With his support, I was able to in-
terview Manik Miah, his vendor.4 Kamal is a 43-year-old university professor who
had bought a kidney from Manik, a 32-year-old slum dweller, who had to sell his
kidney to repay his debts. Their operations were performed in a renowned and luxu-
rious hospital in India in January 2004. After the operation, Kamal flew to Australia
to obtain better organ care, and Manik traveled back to Dhaka to pay off his debt.
Kamal agreed to facilitate my research largely because he himself was a re-
searcher and had strong opinions on his life-saving medical procedure. In our first
meeting, which lasted over 3 h, Kamal discussed the inadequacies of kidney trans-
plant infrastructure and the poor health-care service in Bangladesh. He compared it
with his transplant experience in India and postoperative care in Australia. We met
again in a coffee shop the next week. In the 7 h that followed, Kamal described how
he began his search for a kidney by posting ads in three major Bengali newspapers.
He received phone calls from about 90 potential sellers. Based on blood group and
initial screening, he selected 30 sellers for a tissue-typing test. Only six were then
selected, based on the matching tissues. As tissue typing is often erroneous in Ban-
gladesh, Kamal invited these six sellers to a major diagnostic center in India, where
the tissue-typing results were reexamined and verified yet again.5 Kamal finally
selected Manik Miah, as their tissues matched closely, and Manik had asked for less
money for his kidney than the other sellers had.6 On the basis of this single encoun-
ter, I was able to gain access to a kidney seller, as Kamal connected me with Manik.
Manik wished to discuss the issue in a concealed setting, so we chose to carry out
the interview in my apartment in Dhaka. In a conversation lasting over 8 h, Manik
revealed his experiences of selling his kidney. He emphasized that finding a buyer is
the most difficult job for a kidney seller as the tissues seldom match. Manik sought
a buyer for over 8 months, competed with other sellers, and finally managed to sell
his kidney. He received 120,000 Taka (US$1700) for the kidney plus 15,000 Taka
(US$111) for 3 months of living expenses. He spent most of the money to pay off
his debt, which was compounded due to high interest rates. He also managed to pur-
chase a television and some clothing for his family. When the money nearly ran out,
Manik started a clerical job in a medical college at a monthly salary of 3500 Taka
(US$50), which was arranged by Kamal. Unfortunately, he lost his job within a year

To conceal the respondents’ identities, all names used in this text are pseudonyms. I am also
careful to avoid describing the personal information, interview details, and any other factors that
could reveal their identities.
Kamal, as did other recipients, noted to me that the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) test and
other medical diagnostic tests are often inaccurate in Bangladesh. The recipients would have all
preferred to reexamine the result of the HLA test in India but could not afford the travel expenses.
Kamal told me that his tissue was matched as nearly perfect with that of Johra, another potential
seller. However, he noted that Johra was “greedy” because she asked for three times more money
for her kidney. It was difficult for Kamal to select Manik over Johra, but he opted for “needy” over
“greedy”, as he stated.
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 235

and became a cell phone vendor, earning as little as 1500 Taka (US$22) per month.
Currently, Manik is living without debt but with only one kidney.
Since I was eager to find additional informants, I tried to approach other kidney
sellers by applying a snowball-sampling method through Manik, but this approach
did not prove to be productive. The sellers usually tried to conceal their identities,
if they ever met with each other. I also asked the recipient Kamal about the other
sellers who contacted him through his newspaper ads. Unfortunately, Kamal no lon-
ger had that information, and many sellers did not disclose their identities. Kamal
noted that the only way I could find kidney sellers was through organ brokers, who
were connected with the sellers like a spiderweb. Kamal offered me the telephone
numbers of four major organ brokers in Bangladesh. Of them, I was able to establish
rapport with Dalal, who had delivered three prospective sellers to Kamal before his

A Novel Approach

While a key informant technique can be effective in gaining access to a hidden

population, it can also be ethically and methodologically problematic. For example,
searching kidney sellers through an organ broker posed several challenges: To what
extent should Dalal participate as a key informant? How should he be approached,
persuaded, and compensated? Why would he support research that might reveal, re-
strict, or ruin his illicit business? After exhausting all the avenues to finding kidney
sellers and even considering changing my research focus, I decided to approach Da-
lal and explore the possibilities of finding organ sellers, as Whyte had done through
Doc, a street gang leader.
Over the phone, I told Dalal that I was a Bangladeshi citizen currently residing
in Canada. At that point, I did not mention my research to Dalal, as my previous
experiences had taught me that he might not be interested in discussing this illegal
business with a researcher. Instead, I stated that I wanted to meet him in person
to discuss kidney transplants in Bangladesh. Dalal asked how I had obtained his
phone number; I told him that I had received it from his client, the transplant re-
cipient Kamal. Dalal wrote down my residence address and said he would visit my
apartment when he was in my neighborhood. One late morning, Dalal did phone
me and knocked on my door. In our first brief meeting, I openly introduced myself,
informed Dalal about my research and its progress since its inception, and asked
for his support to find organ sellers. Dalal confirmed that he was connected with
numerous kidney sellers but chose to ponder the entire issue and notify me of his
decision later.
Both my insider and outsider insights influenced the dealings with Dalal. My
familiarity with the local culture aided me in determining my initial approach while
my fluency in Bengali provided an easy medium for sharing our thoughts with-
out any confusion. My identity as halfy (half-Bangladeshi, half-Canadian; see Abu
Lughod 1991) and the distinctiveness as bedeshi (foreigner) of my partner, who
236 M. Moniruzzaman

accompanied me in the fieldwork, played an essential role in acquiring his trust. My

personal connection and professional affiliation as a university professor in Bangla-
desh reassured Dalal that I was not an undercover police officer or journalist, but a
“harmless” researcher. As Dalal and I were born in the same region of Bangladesh,
our local ties may also have influenced his support for the research.
Dalal agreed to support the research when I contacted him a week later. But the
question remains: Why did he do so? It may have been that his broker business is
secure, as his clients were senior state officials, political leaders, police officers, and
lawyers who could help him resolve any potential legal troubles. He may also have
thought that my research would help to expand his business outside of Bangladesh
as he often insisted on including his name and photo in my publications. I refused
his requests, pointing out the potential legal and ethical risks involved. Dalal also
assumed that he would receive lofty monetary benefits, but after bargaining I agreed
to reimburse him 500 Taka (about US$7) for his transportation and communication
costs to locate each seller. As Dalal explained to me that he would need to travel to
other places and make phone calls to contact the sellers, I decided to compensate
these reasonable expenses considering that the payment would not create undue
pressure on him to take part in the study. However, I was in constant negotiation
with Dalal as he contacted the sellers in Dhaka but fabricated stories about their
origins to exaggerate his transportation costs.
Dalal entered the organ market as a kidney seller after losing his job in the mid-
1990s. He came to know about kidney vending through newspaper advertisements.
He collected several organ classifieds and contacted the advertisers, all of whom
were potential recipients. They examined his tissue-typing tests; after several at-
tempts, he managed to match his tissues with a recipient. Eventually, Dalal and
the recipient travelled to a private hospital in southern India for the surgery. As the
recipient declined to pay him before the operation, Dalal returned to Bangladesh
without selling his kidney. Within a month of visiting the Indian hospital, Dalal met
other Bangladeshi recipients and sellers who also flocked there for kidney trans-
plants. He realized that if he could start an organ-brokering business by collecting
tissue-typing reports from them, it would be “handy for everybody,” as he expressed
it. Dalal approached Bangladeshi organ recipients in the hospital and shared his
idea. With their support, Dalal commenced his business after returning to Bangla-
desh. In less than 5 months, he was able to match the tissues of his first client, and
the operation was successfully performed in India. Dalal claimed that he received
10,000 Taka (US$143) from the recipient and did not ask any money from the seller,
which became a typical “business policy” he continued to follow. At the time of
my interview, Dalal said he had collected more than 500 tissue-typing reports from
both recipients and sellers and had arranged 97 transplants that were performed in
Bangladesh and abroad.
The meeting that followed with Dalal seeded my research to explore this ex-
tremely hidden population in Bangladesh. Dalal and I outlined three possible ap-
proaches to connecting with kidney sellers: first, phoning the sellers who were still
in touch with Dalal; second, visiting the sellers whose dwelling addresses were
available to Dalal; and third, contacting Dalal’s recipient-clients, some of whom
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 237

could still be maintaining the relationship with their sellers. We both agreed that
Dalal should approach the kidney sellers as sellers might not disclose their activities
to an unknown researcher.
Dalal immediately made arrangements for me to meet Shamsu, a 30-year-old
kidney seller who lived in Natore, a northwestern town in Bangladesh. Shamsu had
sold his kidney to a Bangladeshi-born American citizen living in New York. The
operation was performed in southern India in July 2003. With the support of Dalal,
I had interviewed four more kidney sellers within a month. All of them were male,
and their ages ranged from 27 to 41 years. Their professions varied, from barbers to
street vendors to commercial artists. All of their recipients resided in Bangladesh,
except a female Bangladeshi migrant, who was living in Italy. Of these cases, three
transplants were performed in India, and the remaining one was in Bangladesh.

A New Lead

My fieldwork faced challenges when Dalal decided to go on a business trip to In-

dia for 2 months.7 Due to time constraints and financial concerns, I asked Dalal to
provide me with some kidney sellers’ contact information. After persistent attempts,
I collected nearly 30 sellers’ and recipients’ contact addresses and phone numbers
from him. Dalal demanded a payment for providing me with the leads, but I refused
to pay, stating that my ethical consideration regarding his payment was limited to
reimbursing his expenses for locating each seller: for example, transportation and
communication costs. I explained to him that I was not authorized to pay finders’
Soon after, I realized that Dalal had provided me with sellers who were difficult
to reach. At first, I attempted to contact the sellers through their telephone numbers.
Unfortunately, many of these were no longer in service. I was successful in locating
one seller and scheduled an interview with him. However, this seller did not meet
with me, despite several attempts on my part to reschedule our meeting by phone.
In addition, I found out that some of the addresses that Dalal had given me were
incomplete or incorrect. Some sellers resided in remote parts of Bangladesh, but I
could not go to them in person, as transportation was extremely inaccessible there.
However, I contacted several recipients from Dalal’s list over the phone. These re-
cipients expressed concern about my phone calls and asked how I had obtained their
contact numbers. Using Dalal’s name as a reference did not help them to trust me.
I was stuck again. I reviewed Dalal’s list and saw that I could successfully contact
several sellers through their residence addresses, including some of those who were
remotely located. However, I realized that if I approached them directly, I might not
instill full trust and gain access to their hidden life. It was only then that I realized
that a kidney seller might establish the trust between the sellers, recipients, and me.

On average, Dalal traveled to India twice a year with his recipient-clients, who paid for his trans-
portation, accommodation, and compensation for arranging kidney transplants in India.
238 M. Moniruzzaman

After careful thought, I contacted Shamsu (the first interviewed seller through Da-
lal) and employed him as a research assistant. Shamsu had extensive knowledge of
the kidney trade as he had traveled to India twice: once to sell his kidney and once
to accompany his brother who was attempting to sell his kidney. Shamsu and I dis-
cussed ethical protocols, upcoming tasks, and the payment of 1500 Taka (US$20)
for locating each seller as he had to travel to distant places, stay in hotels, and spend
money on a cell phone.
Based on Dalal’s list, Shamsu and I deduced that most sellers lived in the north-
ern part of Bangladesh. To locate sellers, Shamsu agreed to travel to Natore, Dina-
jpur, Rajshahi, Ishwardi, and Mymensingh, some northern towns (see Fig. 14.2).
When Shamsu met sellers at their homes, he usually invited them to go to a tea stall
and a vacant property afterwards. At first, Shamsu identified himself as a kidney
seller, then introduced my research to them, and finally asked for an interview. He
gained most of the sellers’ trust simply because he was a seller as well; they were
able to share their sorrows, sufferings, and scars. At the end, Shamsu called me
from his cell phone, and I talked with each seller in detail. I explained to them the
research project, informed them of the ethical principles, obtained their consent, and
scheduled their interview. Only one seller refused to meet with me, while another

Fig. 14.2   Interviewed sellers

on the map of Bangladesh.
The numbers represent their
regional locations. (Map
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 239

seller set up an interview but did not show up. Following my instructions, Shamsu
also contacted several transplant recipients residing in Dhaka, but they did not re-
veal their sellers’ identities. Only one recipient agreed to introduce his seller. He
later approached me, and I successfully interviewed the seller.
With the support of Shamsu, I entered into the lives of seven more kidney sell-
ers in the next 2 months. Of them, only one was female: a 37-year-old divorced
woman, who was living with her two children and selling fruit on the streets of My-
mensingh. The other six sellers were all males, aged between 25 and 42 years and
had diverse occupational backgrounds, from farmers and butchers to day laborers.

The Final Cut

After interviews with 13 kidney sellers so far, I discovered that a man named Batpar
Azam was the key broker operating the organ trafficking networks in Bangladesh.
Many sellers went to Batpar and concurrently kept in touch with Dalal to maximize
their chances of matching tissues with potential buyers. I obtained Batpar’s tele-
phone number from an interviewed seller, who warned me that Batpar was a dan-
gerous thug who would do anything to protect his business. My connection with the
local elite and familiarity with the culture, however, led me to believe that Dhaka
was a safe place for me, so I decided to pursue my goal. In February 2005, I called
Batpar and said that I would like to meet with him instead of talking over the phone
in order to discuss kidney transplants. Batpar proposed an evening meeting, but I
changed it to early afternoon to minimize my risks in dealing with this kingpin in
his private office, located in a dilapidated building in old Dhaka.
Conducting fieldwork in a black market can be risky and challenging. I still
remember that afternoon, walking through dark alleys in old Dhaka to meet with
Batpar. My bedeshi partner accompanied me, as meeting with Batpar could be risk-
ing my life. I also informed a friend about the meeting location and time and asked
him to call the police if we did not return by evening. When we arrived at Batpar’s
office, we noticed that the solid door was closed and no sign was posted on it. I
called his cell phone, and a man opened the door and showed us the way to the
boss’s personal room. Batpar was sitting on a black leather chair and encircled by
three bodyguards and four ordinary men, who were most likely organ sellers. His
office assistant served us tea, as Batpar was busy with his clients on the phone.
When Batpar finally greeted us, I introduced us at length; I told him that I was nei-
ther a journalist nor an undercover police officer hiding my identity in an attempt
to reveal his business. After guaranteeing confidentiality, I explained my research
project and sought his support in search of organ sellers. With a cold face and calm
voice, Batpar looked straight at me and asked: Who had informed us that he could
be involved in such a nasty business? He utterly denied his organ brokering and
warned us that we were playing with fire. As we did not have any power to chal-
lenge him, I naively thought that he might be cautious about discussing his business
in front of other people, so I hastily handed him my address and phone number, hop-
240 M. Moniruzzaman

ing that he would help me at a later time. After leaving the office, we felt relieved
to return to lively Dhaka.
Batpar never contacted me. I quickly realized that it was an inept mistake to give
Batpar my residential address. On numerous occasions, I noticed that someone was
following me in my neighborhood; I was frightened by possible attacks by Batpar
and constantly looked behind me. Sometimes I walked faster towards a crowd,
sometimes I entered a store, while at other times I avoided going out at night. Yet, I
did not report my risks to local police as they were widely known for corruption and
could have created bureaucratic obstacles to my research. Despite this threat to my
safety, I still wished to interview Batpar’s clients in order to obtain deeper insights
about organ-trafficking networks in Bangladesh. I asked both Shamsu and Dalal
about the possibility of interviewing Batpar’s clients in confidence.
Often, sellers did not receive the full payment from Batpar, so I learned (from
Shamsu and Dalal) that if we were able to find them, they would be willing to share
their experiences with me. I decided to strictly protect these sellers’ identities, so
they would not face danger from Batpar. Shamsu had met a few sellers who had sold
their kidneys through Batpar during his transplant in India, while Dalal had come
across some of Batpar’s clients for brokering business, but neither of them had
contact addresses for the sellers in question. Based on Dalal’s advice, Shamsu tried
to contact one of Batpar’s clients in Dhaka. After several attempts, Shamsu was suc-
cessful, but the man refused to discuss his selling experience with a researcher. It
was a long time before I met some of the sellers who had sold their kidneys through
Dalal had already arrived back in town by then. He arranged for me to meet with
nine more kidney sellers, all of whom were his clients. All the sellers interviewed
were men who lived in various parts of Bangladesh, including Dhaka, Barisal,
Khulna, Bagerhat, and Rajbari districts. Six sellers went to India for the surgery,
while three had the surgery performed in a prominent hospital in Dhaka. Dalal was
disappointed with the amount of his reimbursement, so I agreed to raise it from
500 Taka (US$7) to 750 Taka (US$10). I considered this amount to be acceptable
and appropriate to local standards, and so Dalal’s travel and phone expenses, as well
as his time and inconvenience, were compensated.
The research gained momentum when Shamsu bumped into Sodrul, a 22-year-
old college student who had sold his kidney through Batpar. When I received Sham-
su’s phone call, I met with Sodrul right away in front of the Dhaka public library.
The three of us sat down in a busy tea stall; I explained my research to Sodrul,
guaranteed his anonymity (of course to Batpar), and convinced him to meet again
for a detailed interview. I scheduled Sodrul’s interview in my apartment in order to
ensure our safety and to respect confidentiality. In an interview lasting over 9 h, So-
drul revealed how Batpar, a predatory organ broker, profoundly exploited the kid-
ney sellers. Batpar usually transported four or five sellers at a time to India, where
they lived in a bachelor apartment, which he continually rented for that purpose.
Batpar charged the kidney recipients up to 700,000 Taka (US$10,000) and paid
the poor sellers as little as 50,000 Taka (US$700). Like many other sellers, Sodrul
failed to collect his entire payment from Batpar. The poor sellers never attempted
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 241

to challenge Batpar as he was a rich businessman and well connected with the pow-
erful class of kidney buyers. Sodrul mentioned to me that he might have contact
information for some kidney sellers who went to India with him. He promised to
connect me with these sellers, but he never picked up my phone calls afterwards.
Perhaps Sodrul was afraid to play with Batpar’s business.
My research was advancing when Dalal hooked me up with a 48-year-old trans-
plant recipient who had purchased a kidney through Batpar. During the interview,
the recipient stated that he was still connected with his seller, Dildar, a 32-year-old
rickshaw puller from Bhairabbazar in the central part of Bangladesh. When the
seller Dildar visited his recipient in Dhaka, he phoned me; I promised to protect
his identity and convinced him to proceed with an interview in my apartment. Dur-
ing the interview, Dildar described in depth the process and experience of selling
a kidney through Batpar. Dildar was still angry, as he did not receive full payment
from Batpar, even after he phoned the broker 30 times and visited his office nearly
10 times. Dildar and Sodrul, who had sold their kidneys through Batpar, told similar
stories. Auspiciously, Dildar provided me with the contact address of the four other
kidney sellers with whom he stayed in Batpar’s apartment in India. I arranged inter-
views with three of these sellers shortly afterwards; the snowball-sampling method
was successful, and phone calls were effective for these cases. Upon guaranteeing
confidentiality and anonymity, these sellers and I met in my apartment and dis-
cussed the murky business of Batpar and documented the exploitative nature of the
kidney trafficking of Bangladesh.
I wished to interview other sellers, but my fieldwork was close to an end. After
several failed attempts, I managed to locate and interview two female kidney sellers,
Hena Begum and Nergis Begum, two sisters-in-law who lived in Pirozpur, a south-
ern town in Bangladesh. They disclosed that their husbands had asked them to sell
their kidneys; after snatching their wives’ kidney payments, the men started busi-
nesses and bought cell phones for themselves. I also interviewed three more kidney
sellers, whose surgeries were performed in Pakistan (both recipient and seller were
Bangladeshis, but the surgery was performed in Pakistan), Singapore (the recipient
was a Bangladeshi-born US resident living in New York, the seller was from Ban-
gladesh, and the surgery was performed in a prestigious hospital in Singapore), and
Thailand (both the recipient and seller were from Bangladesh, but the surgery was
performed in a renowned hospital in Thailand). During these interviews, one seller
stated that he initially went to India for the surgery, but his recipient died before
the surgery, so the seller matched his tissues with a new recipient and the surgery
was performed in Thailand. These sellers revealed how their recipients evaded the
legal system, passed the hospital committee verification, and engaged in transplant
tourism in various transnational places. Finally, I interviewed another seller who
sold his kidney directly to the recipient through newspaper ads; no broker mediated
the trade. I was privileged to document the extremely inaccessible data, rich narra-
tives, medical records, legal papers, and graphic images from 33 kidney sellers in
242 M. Moniruzzaman

Conclusion: Reflections

Following the late Pierre Bourdieu’s call for “an engaged and militant intellectual,”
Nancy Scheper-Hughes has embraced a dual vision of anthropology as a disciplin-
ary field, a traditional field of study, and a forced field—a site of political struggle
and resistance (Scheper-Hughes 2004, 1995, 1992). Scheper-Hughes’s moral reflex-
ivity towards an engaged anthropology is grounded in epistemologically challenged
and politically committed engagement that “stands-on-its-own-feet.” To achieve
such clarity, Scheper-Hughes departed from traditional anthropological discourse:
She deliberately “loosened up” her methodological techniques, collaborated with
several journalists and fixers, reported some of her findings to law enforcement
agencies, and released names and photos of her respondents in publications. While
I strongly support Scheper-Hughes’s call for a “militant anthropology,” I somewhat
differ from her methods of multisited ethnography, undercover fieldwork, and loy-
alties to research subjects. My argument is that ethnographers should be truthful to
their interview subjects, minimize their risks, and commit to the change by relent-
lessly exposing exploitation without revealing their identities. This not only crystal-
lizes the ethical integrity of engaged ethnographers but also upholds professional
responsibility, unlike to journalistic reporting, which is often labeled as “quick and
dirty research.”
Scheper-Hughes explores a multisited ethnography to map out global organ traf-
ficking, while I delve into the domestic organ trade and its actors, processes, and
experiences that intersect in the local, transnational, and global setting. The quin-
tessence of Scheper-Hughes’s multisited ethnography was “to follow the bodies”—
what George Marcus formerly described as “follow the things” (Marcus 1995). One
of the critiques of this approach is that following things leads followers away from
the unique perspectives of the locals, who experience things removed from particu-
lar cultures (see the sapphire trade in Madagascar; Walsh 2004). I therefore contex-
tualize the assemblages of the transplant economy, local processes of organ trade,
and cultural meanings of damaged bodies, rather than capturing fleeting glimpses
of transplant tourism from a large number of global settings.
Unlike Scheper-Hughes’s “undercover ethnography,” I did not pose as an organ
buyer to quickly gain access to transplant traffickers, but rather I upheld ethical in-
tegrity, promoted methodological innovation, and minimized my respondents’ risks,
amid facing serious challenges to locating kidney sellers in Bangladesh. Through-
out my field notes, transcripts, and publications, I used pseudonyms and released
photographs of my respondents without revealing their faces in order to protect
their identities and minimize any harm to them (unlike Scheper-Hughes and main-
stream media reports). I did not report my research findings to a law enforcement
authority, and if the local police were ever to ask me to unmask my respondents,
I decided to fulfill my ethical obligations to protect their anonymity. Of note, the
Bangladeshi police busted an organ racket in 2011, and major brokers (including
Batpar and Dalal) were arrested immediately; however, a local journalist, not I,
served as the whistleblower. In my fieldwork, I was truthful to the participants,
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 243

outlined my research objectives completely, and obtained proper informed consent.

When some participants presumed that they would receive financial benefits from
me, I clarified that there is no direct benefit for their involvement (except the reim-
bursement of travel expenses and work hours) and then asked for their voluntary
participation in the study. The respondents willingly participated in my research
because they wished to expose the violence, exploitation, and suffering incurred
in this unethical trade. Some sellers were relieved to share their stories with me as
they could not reveal it to anyone, not even to their own family, as selling body parts
is considered an unethical and outlawed practice (as expressed by seller Nozrul,
quoted at the beginning of this chapter).
Scheper-Hughes advanced a radical approach by endorsing that we ought to ex-
pose gross exploitation by any means, even if it evades professional ethical stan-
dards. Such a moral position raises thorny ethical challenges, such as the following:
In the process of seeking justice, should researchers report their respondents’ illicit
acts to law enforcement agencies while the respondents are not informed that their
participation could bring harm to themselves or others? Do the perceived benefits of
legal intervention outweigh harms to the study populations, researchers’ obligation
against sham practices, and an emergence of overall mistrust towards the profes-
sions? While a number of anthropologists faced serious challenges to study hidden
populations, they were truthful and loyal to their study subjects (see Nordstrom
and Robben 1995; Green 1999; Bourgois 2003). Scheper-Hughes’s large-scale re-
search indeed brings justice to the world, but it has been criticized for breaching
privacy, withholding information, and imposing harm on the subjects (see Schrag
2010; Gledhill 2000).
Scheper-Hughes felt the urgency to research, reveal, and report her data to a
broadly concerned public as quickly as possible so that measures could be taken
to curb gross human rights violations and correct abuses that undermine transplant
medicine as a humane practice (Scheper-Hughes 2004, p. 42). However, one may
extend similar reasoning to a range of other extraneous situations. For example,
when researchers carry out clinical trials with trivial deception, they may consider
that they promoted it for the sake of humanity, as the new drug could save million
lives (Elliott and Abadie 2008); or when medical students perform pelvic examina-
tions on anesthetized patients, they may justify that it has been practiced for pro-
fessional benefits, without any harm done to the patients (Wall and Brown 2004);
or if physicians exaggerate the severity of their patients’ conditions to insurance
companies, they may argue that they play (if game) the system to ensure medical
treatments for poor patients (Bloche 2000). Such reasons often exist for short-term
or personal gain; however, dodging a system has damaging impacts on the profes-
sion and on the public, in the long term. They also shadow the distinction between
institutional regulations of research versus self-governing modalities of practice. So
too, they beg a question: To what extent can an ethnographer breach standard prac-
tices of ethical enforcement and professional tenets in the struggle to do fieldwork
in underground settings?
In this chapter, I illustrated how a researcher can conduct challenging fieldwork
without compromising his or her ethical integrity and professional responsibility.
244 M. Moniruzzaman

As ethnographic fieldwork on illicit practices, particularly on organ markets, has its

own problems and perils, the pivotal issue the researcher faces is how to gain access
to and conduct fieldwork with hidden populations. I therefore described in detail
my approaches to locating, contacting, and interviewing 33 kidney sellers—an ex-
tremely hidden population of Bangladesh. When all of my conventional means and
methods (i.e., snowball sampling) of finding kidney sellers were barred, I appointed
a broker as my key informant and a seller as my research assistant, and with their
indispensable support, I successfully interviewed the invisible vendors from various
parts of Bangladesh. As my collaboration with an organ broker could be ethically
problematic, especially when he was involved in illicit activities and was potentially
exploiting others, I embodied a fine balance between efficacy and ethics as well as
delays and dangers, in conducting fieldwork in a black market. My ethical neutral-
ity and negotiation, along with my identity and familiarity with local culture, aided
me in gaining the key informants’ trust and collaboration. I embraced the view that
ethical integrity, professional transparency, and long-term involvement are essential
for building rapports with research participants, retaining their friendship, and ac-
cessing their hidden life in order to gather rich, reliable, and retrospect narratives
from the field.
Although my ethnographic research stemmed from various methods, open-ended
interviews remained the key methods for collecting data. As sellers resided in every
part of Bangladesh and often asked for a confidential place to meet, I arranged their
interviews in my apartment in Dhaka. On average, the sellers travelled 7 h to visit
me; I met them at the bus or train station, invited them to my apartment, and shared
meals with them. Each interview lasted about 10 h, starting in the morning and end-
ing in the evening. At the beginning of my interview, I outlined to them the ethical
guidelines of the Ethics Review Board at the University of Toronto, explained the
nature and scope of my research, guaranteed strict confidentiality, ensured that they
could withdraw their participation at any time, discussed their reimbursement, and
obtained their voluntary consent. At the end of the interview, I accompanied the
sellers to the bus or train station and compensated them with one day’s salary plus
their transportation cost, which ranged between 750 Taka (US$10) and 1000 Taka
(US$15). I tried to record their interview using an audiotape, but I realized that the
seller was uncomfortable with this (i.e., he was not spontaneous about recording his
illicit action on tape), so I handwrote all the interviews, which constitute about 1500
pages of field notes.
Unstructured, narrative-based interviews allowed me to establish a casual rela-
tionship with kidney sellers and gave them the opportunity to talk. My responsibil-
ity was to guide the conversation according to the purpose of the study. I developed
an informal way of exchanging ideas followed by a thematic arrangement of their
interviews. First, I enquired about the socioeconomic conditions of the sellers, such
as name, age, education, occupation, income, religion, and family composition, to
initiate conversation and generate a preliminary rapport with them. Second, I fo-
cused on the processes of selling kidneys, such as when they became aware of
kidney selling, why and how they sold their kidneys, and what are the health, social,
and economic ramifications of selling a kidney. Third, I expanded the critical issues
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 245

of organ commerce, such as who benefits from the organ trade, what roles the gov-
ernment should play to curb this practice, and whether a market of human organs
should be regulated or banned. The thematic interviews aided me in generating pre-
liminary rapport with the sellers, gather deeply moving narratives from them, and
explore their critical understanding of organ commerce in Bangladesh.
My fieldwork not only recruited 33 kidney sellers but also included other re-
search subjects, such as organ brokers, transplant recipients (and their families),
medical specialists, state officials, political leaders, police officers, legal advisors,
social workers, media reporters, documentary filmmakers, university researchers,
Kidney Patient Welfare Association advisors, and Bangladesh Private Body Dona-
tion advocates, who shed light on organ trafficking during their interviews. I also
used the participant observation method to collect in-depth data from them, while
I spent time in transplant units, as doctors were on rounds, nurses were on duty,
patients were prepared for surgery, family members were preparing meals in the
kitchen or photocopying false documents in nearby stores, and brokers promised
would-be recipients to find sellers. I also used case study methods by closely fol-
lowing three transplant surgeries (both recipients and sellers were interviewed and
cross-checked in depth) to gain insights into organ trafficking in Bangladesh. In
addition, I collected 1288 organ classifieds published in five national Bengali news-
papers between 2000 and 2008. I also gathered other supporting documents, such
as forged passports, notary certificates, medical reports, written agreements, bodily
photos, personal notes, and Bengali publications to enrich my data.
One of the major drawbacks of my fieldwork was that I could not use the partici-
pant observation method to document the processes of selling kidneys, but rather
collected interview narratives from kidney sellers to examine the organ trade. My
fieldwork is also limited in terms of gender representation, as I interviewed 30 male
kidney sellers, but only 3 females; as a man in the predominantly Muslim society
and facing challenges for finding kidney sellers, I was certainly fortunate to inter-
view this handful of female sellers. Despite these limitations, the account of my
fieldwork is noteworthy in how it expands, examines, and compares ethnographic
approaches to hidden populations. As I proved, the key informant technique could
be ethically appropriate and methodologically effective in gaining access to hidden


Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology

(pp. 137–62). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
Bangladesh Gazette. (1999). Transplantation of human body parts act (In Bengali, Manobdehe
Anga-Protongo Shongjojoner Bidhar Korar Uddeshe Pronito Ayen) Additional volume. Dha-
ka: The Parliament of Bangladesh.
Beusch, D. (2007). Textual interaction as sexual interaction: Sexuality and/in the online interview.
Sociological Research Online, 12(5), 1–14. Accessed
3 Aug 2015.
246 M. Moniruzzaman

Bloche, G. (2000). Fidelity and deceit at the bedside. Journal of American Medical Association,
283, 1881–1884.
Bolton, R. (1992). Mapping terra incognita: Sex research for AIDS prevention—an urgent agenda
for the 1990’s. In G. Herdt, & S. Lindenbaum (Eds.), The time of AIDS: Social analysis, theory,
and method (pp. 124–58). Newbury Park: Sage Publications.
Bolton, R. (1995). Tricks, friends, and lovers: Erotic encounters in the field. In D. Kulick, &
M. Willson (Eds.), Taboo: Sex, identity, and erotic subjectivity in anthropological fieldwork
(pp. 140–67). London: Routledge.
Bourgois, P. (1995). In search of respect: selling crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press.
Bourgois, P. (2003). In search of respect: selling crack in El Barrio (Second updated edition). New
York: Cambridge University Press.
Elliott, C., & Abadie, R. (2008). Exploiting a research underclass in phase 1 clinical trails. New
England Journal of Medicine, 358, 2316–2317.
Gledhill, J. (2000). Power and its disguises: Anthropological perspectives on politics (2nd ed.).
London: Pluto Press.
Green, L. (1995). Fear as a way of life: Mayan windows in rural Guatemala. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Hoffman, N. (1975). Sociological snoopers and journalistic moralizer: Part I. In L. Humphrey
(Ed.) Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places (pp. 177–180, Enlarged edition). New
York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Humphreys, L. (1975). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places (Enlarged edition). New
York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Interlandi, J. (2009). Not just urban legend. Newsweek.
Khayer, A. & Badal, H. (2004). Teenagers are smuggled for their organs, while drugs including
fencidil are coming (In Bengali, Kidneysoho Anga Protanger Jonno Kishore-Kishore Pachar
Hocche Asche Fencidil Soho Madokdrobbo). The Daily Ittefaq.
Marcus, G. (1995). Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of the multisited ethnog-
raphy. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 95–117.
Moniruzzaman, M. (2010). “Living cadavers” in Bangladesh: Ethics of the human organ bazaar
(Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Toronto, Toronto.
Moniruzzaman, M. (2012). “Living cadavers” in Bangladesh: Bioviolence in the human organ
bazaar. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 26(1), 69–91.
Moniruzzaman, M. (2013). Parts and labor: The commodification of human body. In A. Quayson,
& G. Daswani (Eds.), A companion to diaspora and transnationalism (pp. 455–472). Malden:
Moniruzzaman, M. (2014a). Domestic organ trafficking: Between biosecurity and bioviolence. In
N. Chen & L. Sharp (Eds.), Bioinsecurity and vulnerability (pp. 195–215). Santa Fe: School
of American Research.
Moniruzzaman, M. (2014b). Regulated organ market: Reality versus rhetoric. The American Jour-
nal of Bioethics, 14(10), 33–35.
Nordstrom, C., & Robben, A. (Eds). (1995). Fieldwork under fire: Contemporary studies of vio-
lence and survival. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Scheper-Hughes, N (1992). Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil. Berke-
ley: University of California Press.
Scheper-Hughes, N.(1995). The primacy of the ethical: Proposition for a militant anthropology.
Current Anthropology, 36(3), 409–20.
Scheper-Hughes, N. (2000). The global traffic in human organs. Current Anthropology, 41(2),
Scheper-Hughes, N. (2004). Parts unknown: Undercover ethnography of the organs-trafficking
underworld. Ethnography, 5(1), 29–73.
Schrag, Z. (2010). Ethical imperialism: Institutional review boards and the social sciences, 1965–
2009. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
14  At the Organ Bazaar of Bangladesh: In Search of Kidney Sellers 247

Singer, M. (1999). Studying hidden populations. In J. Schensul, M. LeCompte, R. Trotter, E.

Cromley, & M. Singer (Eds.), Mapping social networks, spatial data, & hidden populations
(pp. 125–92). United Kingdom: Altamira Press.
United Nations. (2011). Bangladesh: Country profile: International human development indica-
tors. Accessed 22 Feb 2014.
Wall, L., & Brown, D. (2004). Ethical issues arising from the performance of pelvic examinations
by medical students on anesthetized patients. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology,
190, 319–23.
Walsh, A. (2004). In the wake of things: Speculating in and about sapphires in northern Madagas-
car. American Anthropologist, 106(2), 225–237.
Ward, T. (2013). Gangsters without borders: An ethnography of a Salvadoran street gang. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Warwick, D. (1975). Tearoom trade: Means and ends in social research. In L. Humphreys (Ed.),
Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places (pp. 191–211). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Watters, J., & Biernacki, P. (1989). Target sampling: Options for the study of hidden populations.
Social Problems, 36, 416–30.
Weppner, R. (1977). Street ethnography: Problems and prospects. In R. Weppner (Ed.), Street
ethnography: Selected studies of crime and drug use in natural settings (pp. 21–51). Beverly
Hills: Sage.
Whyte, W. (1981). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum (Third edition,
revised and expanded). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Monir Moniruzzaman  teaches in the Department of Anthropology and Center for Ethics and
Humanities in Life Sciences at Michigan State University. His research centers on human organ
trafficking, focusing on the violence against malnourished bodies of marginalized populations.
Based on ethnographic fieldwork with kidney and liver sellers, spanning more than a decade,
his research reveals how organ commerce constitutes profound bioviolence against the poor, at
the cost of severe suffering to them. Some of this work has published in Medical Anthropol-
ogy Quarterly, American Journal of Bioethics, and by the School for Advanced Research. His
interviews have regularly appeared in national and international media outlets, including
ABC,BBC,CBC,NPR,Atlantic, Global Post, and Globe and Mail. His research has transformed
into a multimedia art installation piece, which was exhibited in InterAccess, a gallery in Toronto.
Chapter 15
On Adopting Heretical Methods: From Barefoot
to Militant to Detective Anthropology

Nancy Scheper Hughes


A that has defined my lifework, derived from a tradition of critical theory, is a

concern with the little violences of everyday life. In my work on mother love and
child death in Brazil, I used the concept of “everyday violence” to refer to the
routinization and normalization of violence through institutions, bureaucracies and
professionals—the agents of the social consensus, politicians, teachers, agronomic
engineers, urban planners, sugar plantation managers, civil servants, physicians
and surgeons, municipal coffin makers. When plywood coffins were produced in
great number, and distributed freely to afflicted families on the Alto do Cruzeiro,
structural violence was amplified by symbolic violence—here—the coffins for your
children are ready and waiting. When tranquilizers and appetite stimulants were
prescribed for hungry babies by doctors in the municipal clinics, we enter the moral
and ethical grey zone shared between the mothers who were desirous of the drugs
and the doctors who were more than happy to supply them.
The structures of violence that produced premature death, slow starvation, infec-
tious disease, along with the despair and humiliation that destroys human spirits
are misrecognized. Dom Helder Camara (1970) the “little red archbishop” of Re-
cife, railed against military police attacks on violent landless peasants by reminding
those in power of the violence of hunger and the bombs of sickness and destitution.
It was almost 50 years ago that I first walked up, slowly and fearfully, to the top
of the Alto do Cruzeiro, in Timbauba, Pernambuco with a hammock and a plastic
suitcase. I was looking for a small mud hut nestled in a cliff where I was to live with
Nailza da Silva, a recent migrant from Mato Groso, and her husband Ze Antonio,
an itinerant railroad worker. It was December 1964, 4 months after a military coup
toppled the left-leaning Presidency of João Goulart amidst headlines in the New

N. Scheper Hughes ()
Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology, Chair of the Doctoral Program in Medical
Anthropology, and Director of Organs Watch, University of California, Berkeley, USA
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016 249
D. Siegel, R. de Wildt (eds.), Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking,
Studies of Organized Crime 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-21521-1_15
250 N. Scheper Hughes

York Times warning of peasant insurgency in Pernambuco. The junta, with US sup-
port, was especially fearful of a peasant organization, the Ligas Componese, led
by a lawyer from Recife named Francisco Juliao. Juliao had made headway with
landless peasants and sugarcane cutters who worked on large plantations and sugar
mills, like many of the residents of Alto do Cruzeiro.
It was the beginning of an anthropologist’s life’s work, somewhere between an
obsession, a trauma, and a romance with the shantytown, home to 5000 dispos-
sessed sugarcane cutters cast away from one of a dozen plantations and usinas
(industrialized sugar mills) where they had lived and worked, and were suddenly
turned into seasonal contract workers, earning roughly a dollar a day to cut and
sack canes. Impoverished, hungry, disoriented, they threw together homes made of
straw, mud, and sticks, and found scrap material. They threw together families in
the same bowdlerized fashion, taking whatever was available and making do, like
the bricoleurs of Claude Levi-Strauss.
Lacking water, electricity, and sanitation, facing daily food scarcities, epidemics,
and military police violence, premature death was an everyday occurrence and the
former members of the demobilized peasant leagues explained that their goal was
not to overthrow the government but to claim the right to a grave of one’s own—6 ft
under and a coffin—rather than being shoved into a common grave from a bor-
rowed municipal paupers’ tin coffin, known as the chin-chopper, batendo queixo.
That was the extent of the Marxist threat in rural Pernambuco in 1964.
Structural violence determines the timing of death and the depth of one’s grave.
Structural violence begins with body counts and is often preceded by soul murders,
the forms of symbolic violence that make victims complicit with their perpetra-
tors, turning them into their own executioners. James Gilligan (1997) in his book
Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic defines violence very much like a
demographer as “the increased rates of death and disability suffered by those who
occupy the bottom rungs of society.” Structural violence can only be recognized
through its consequences.
The writings of my colleagues Philippe Bourgois (2011) on drugs and everyday
violence in urban inner cities of the USA and of Angelia Garcia, on family-based
drug addiction in rural New Mexico, the beautiful Espanola Valley exemplify the
double jeopardy of structural and symbolic violence on spatially segregated and
contained communities, on lives without livelihoods and reduced to a kind of endo-
cannibalism. Angelia Garcia (2010) captures heroin addiction in rural New Mexico
in the cozy scene of a grandmother, adult daughter, and a 10-year-old granddaughter
shooting up together in front of a broken and blinking color TV set. Family addic-
tion is, we are told, “cultural” what is left of a strong Hispanic tradition of intergen-
erational ties of affection.
Philippe’s street corner drug dealers in Philadelphia kill each other to preserve
territories that are the length of a single street of boarded-up buildings and deserted
warehouses. In his new project, Philippe (Bourgois et al. 2015) takes his study of
drug dealers into the new millennium where the stakes are higher and even more
desperate. Death, he tells us, is a new commodity within the “moral economy” of
the hood. The “gift of death” is circulated in the defense and protection of one’s
15  On Adopting Heretical Methods: From Barefoot to Militant to Detective … 251

family, co-workers, brothers, as a code of honor. If Roland has to die young in the
defense of his turf, or his drug-wasted mother’s honor, then so be it. “I’ll be smil-
ing in my casket,” he tells the anthropologist. Philippe argues that violence can be
understood as a commodity of exchange within a morally regulated gift economy
that facilitates survival and sociability, punctuated by occasional fits of un-reflexive
rage and murderous violence. What is buried in these lives is the enormous tragedy
of useless suffering and premature death captured in the “dash,” that is, the dash on
the tombstone: “Here Lies Roland X, 1989–dash –2013. Rest in Peace, Roland.”

On Structural Incompetency

My first assignment in Brazil in 1964 for the Pernambucan Health Department was
to immunize babies and school children, to educate midwives (what did I know?),
attend births in an emergency, treat infections, bind up wounds, visit mothers and
newborns at home, monitor their health, and refer them as needed to the district
health post or to the emergency room of a private hospital owned by the mayor’s
brother, where charity cases were sometimes attended.
Summoned in the middle of the night to the lean-to of a 15-year-old neighbor
on the Alto do Cruzeiro, I assisted Lourdes, who gave birth in her hammock to a
scrawny and mottled little infant, barely alive, who died a few hours later and was
buried in the back yard next to an open pit latrine by the father, an older man, named
Valdimar. His dark face was paralyzed into a menacing grin, but a gentler human
being I have not encountered since. Valdimar hung himself a few months later, after
Lourdes ended the relationship, blaming him for the infant’s misbegotten death-in-
birth. I do not remember who cut him down but I do remember the barking puppy at
his dangling feet, a little bitch named Lika after the Sputnik space dog. So perhaps
they were Marxists after all.
I spent several months cycling through the miserable huts on the Alto with a little
black public health visitadora medical kit officially equipped with a bar of soap, a
glass syringe, needles, syringes, scissors, aspirin, bandages, and a pumice stone to
sharpen the needles that were used over and over again to immunize hundreds of
Alto babies and children against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, small pox,
and drops of BCG against tuberculosis.
What haunted me then, in addition to my own incompetence, was something
I did not understand, had neither the skill nor the wits to comprehend: Why the
women of the Alto did not grieve the deaths of their infants and babies. Moreover,
I could not fathom how women had the stamina to get pregnant and give birth 8,
9, 10 times in a row. I spent the next two decades returning again and again to my
field site on the Alto do Cruzeiro before I was confident and competent enough to
explain the meanings of mother love and child death in a community so beleaguered
that life there resembled a refugee camp or the emergency room of an inner city hos-
pital. Eduardo Galeano (1973) described Northeast Brazil as a concentration camp
for more than 40 million people. Decades of nutritional studies of sugarcane cutters
252 N. Scheper Hughes

and their families in Pernambuco, showed evidence of slow starvation and inter-
generational stunting. These Brazilian nanicos, nutritional dwarfs, were surviving
on a daily caloric intake—camp rations you might say—similar to the inmates of
Buchenwald death camp. The camp analogy was a subtext in my account of mother
love and child death on the Alto do Cruzeiro. Life on the Alto resembled prison
camp culture with a moral ethic-based triage and an ethics of survival.
Mothers and infants were sometimes rivals for scarce resources. Alto mothers
renounced breastfeeding as impossible, sapping too much strength from their own
wasted bodies. I was once scolded by my Alto neighbor Dalina:
Why grieve the death of infants who barely landed in this world, who were not even con-
scious of their existence? Weep for us, Nancy, for their mothers who are condemned to live
in order to care for those who do survive.

Scarcity made mother love a fragile emotion, postponed until the newborn dis-
played a will to live, taste (gusto), and knack (jeito), or talent for life. Infants died,
mothers said, because they had no desire to live, they were elusive creatures, more
like birds—here today, gone tomorrow—it was all the same to them, I was told. It
was best to “help them go” quickly. The angel-babies of the Alto were “transitional
objects” neither of this earth nor yet fully spirits. In appearance, they were ghost-
like: pale, wispy haired, their arms and legs stripped of flesh, their bellies grossly
extended, their eyes blank and staring, their faces wizened, a cross between startled
primate and wise old sorcerer. These babies were kept at arms length by their moth-
Primo Levi (1988) would have called those babies miniature “musselman,” a
reference to the cadaverous “living dead” in Auschwitz known in camp argot as
“Muslems.” These were the victims whose state of exhaustion was so great, despair
was so palpable, collapse so complete, that they looked and behaved like walking
mummies. Sometimes unable to stand of 2 ft; these “given up” inmates were said
to resemble Muslims at prayer. Their lethal passivity and indifference seemed to
announce “availability for death/execution.” Thus, they were isolated and reviled
by those in the camps who still clung, however absurdly, to hope, and to life itself.
The given-up babies were described as “ready” for death. “Dead or alive,” one
Alto mother said. “It’s all the same to them.” Thus, were infants transformed into
transitional or sacrificial “objects.” One mother explained: “The first nine of mine
had to die to open the way so that the last five could live.” “I think,” said her neigh-
bor Edite Cosmos, “that these deaths are sent to punish us for the sins of the world.
But the babies don’t deserve this since we are the sinners, but the punishment falls
on them.” “Be quiet,” said Beatrice. “They die, like Jesus did, to save us from suf-
fering.” And so, the paradox of the death of some serving the lives of others, but in
this case, the lives of the mothers. It was hard to take and when I dared to question
this brutal ethos I was chided: “ Don’t cry for our babies who are allowed to die; cry
for us who are forced to live to take care of the others.”
This constellation of motherhood was neither pathological nor abnormal. More-
over, it was a discipline, it required women to be stoical and courageous. I recall
a birthday party for a 3-year old on the Alto do Cruzeiro in which the birthday
cake, decorated with candles, was placed on the kitchen table next to the tiny blue
15  On Adopting Heretical Methods: From Barefoot to Militant to Detective … 253

cardboard coffin of the child’s 9-month-old sibling who had died during the night.
Next to the coffin, a single vigil candle was lit. Despite the tragedy, the child’s
mother wanted to go ahead with the party. “Para bems para voce,” we sang to the
4-year old, clapping our hands—Congratulations—Good for you!—the Brazilian
birthday song and in the Alto it had special resonance—“you survivor you—you
lived to see another year!”
When Alto mothers cried, they cried for themselves, for those left behind to con-
tinue the luta, the struggle that was life. They cried hardest of all for their children
who almost died, but who surprised everyone by surviving against the odds. Moth-
ers would speak with deep feeling of the child who, once given up for dead—“the
candle already burning ‘round’ his little hammock”—suddenly beat back death by
displaying a fierce desire—a desejo and a gusto—a real taste for life. Ah, these
tough and stubborn children—you couldn’t kill them if you tried—were loved
above all others. And they were raised to be fierce and wild, brabo, to know when
they had to “eat shit” in the favela (be self-effacing and obedient) and when they
could lash out and spit in the eye of the oppressor, whoever that person was defined.
The “gray zone” is populated by a thousand little betrayals in the desperate,
covert, and continuous struggle to survive. Like Primo Levi, the women from the
drought- and famine-plagued Northeast were keenly aware that the “good” die
young and the survivors are not always the best—survival tactics are not always the
most morally edifying. “No one is innocent.” I was often reminded, least of all the
anthropologist, least of all the physician.
If there is a lesson here for physicians, it is surely one about knowing the material
and moral grounds that define sickness and death. Life—survival at all costs—is
not always better than death. A “liberation medicine” is a modest medicine, with
scaled back expectations, and based on an understanding that life by its very nature
is scarce, which is my segue into the Organs Watch project, a project that also began
with the question of scarcity and lack, sacrificial violence and a multitude of gray
zones. In this instance, the dilemma concerns the so called “scarcity of organs”—
whatever that chilling phrase might mean. I have resisted the term, referring to the
scarcity of organs as an artificial need and an invented scarcitiy.

The Commodity Vs. the Commons: Invented Scarcities

and Artificial Needs

The specter of long and then impossibly longer legally mandated transplant waiting
lists—as of September 16, 2013 there are a total of 119,591 people on a US UNOS
Waiting list for a donated organ, of these the vast majority—104,1217 people—are
waiting for a kidney. Thus back in 2013, there have been 14,105 transplants using
both deceased and living (kidney) donor organs. No wonder people on the wait list
are ready to do almost anything to get the organ they need to save their lives (heart
or lung or liver) transplanted or to greatly improve the quality of their lives (as in
cornea and kidney transplants).
254 N. Scheper Hughes

The UNOS waiting list creates an irreconcilable situation, raising expectations

that cannot possibly be filled. While organ trafficking has always been accompa-
nied by myths, panics, and urban legends—the kidnapping of children as organ
donors for example, the real moral panics concern the scarcity of fresh organs. The
scarcity, invented in the sociological sense—is amplified by allowing those who are
too sick, suffering from multiple medical conditions—to remain on the waiting list.
Ivan Illich (2001) would certainly have seen “organs scarcity; as an artificially
created need, created by transplant technicians for an ever-expanding sick, aging,
and dying population.” Organs are scarce for everyone; we are all on a death panel
and waiting list of sorts. This is one scarcity—that lacks producing organs like pop-
corn from a machine—that can never be satisfied. Underlying organs scarcity is the
unprecedented possibility of extending one’s life indefinitely with the organs of the
How should we think about these scarcities?

The Moral Economies of Transplant Trafficking

Scarcity for organs has driven the global traffic in humans to supply them, creating
a new body tax on the poor who are being offered an opportunity they cannot resist
(Scheper-Hughes 2000). Choice hardly seems the appropriate word. Here is neither
the time nor the place to discuss the spread of organ trafficking, the different ratio-
nalities and practices employed, the damages wrought to bodies, individual, social
and political. Rather, I want to address the moral lives of outlaw and complicit
transplant surgeons who are rarely, or ever, interrupted or sanctioned for participat-
ing in unethical, illegal, or patently exploitative transplants with ruthlessly negoti-
ated bargain basement organs from living persons.
What motivates an intelligent person of high professional standing to enter an
illicit human trafficking scheme that pits stranded kidney patients in one country
against the appalling “bioavailability” of desperate peasants from demolished agri-
cultural villages in Moldova, displaced stevedores from the watery barrios of Ma-
nila, and hungry men from the decaying slums of a Brazilian port city? What kind
of moral worlds do outlaw surgeons, kidney hunters, human traffickers, and their
brokers inhabit? The traffic in hope and in life-giving body parts concerns more
than medical necessity and life saving. It entails complicated histories of suffering,
disease, different degrees of freedom and mobility, redemption, resurrection, repair
vie with violence, extortion, resentments, and retaliations. These conflicts (often
hidden) make the illicit traffic in humans for organs a dangerous proposition and a
tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
Trust me. The organs trade is extensive, extremely lucrative, and illegal in almost
every nation of the world. Organ trafficking is also prohibited by national and inter-
national governing bodies of the transplant and medical profession, from the Inter-
national Transplant Society to the WHO, the European Union, and the UN office on
crime and human trafficking. Therefore, transplant trafficking is covert and taboo. I
15  On Adopting Heretical Methods: From Barefoot to Militant to Detective … 255

refer to transplant trafficking, because it is the transplant that is being bartered and
sold by surgeons, their brokers, and other intermediaries. The fresh organ, normally
a kidney from a living stranger, is a part of the larger package. Once one manages
to get inside the surgical units where these operations take place, one learns that the
crimes are committed in plain view, normalized, the surgeons and patients secure in
the assumption that they are protected.
I have seen thousands of dollars in backpacks, or concealed in a bubble wrap
going up elevators in some of the best hospitals in the USA as well as in Turkey,
and the Philippines. I saw how kidney sellers wrapped their kidney loot, always in
greenbacks, underneath the bandages of their fresh wounds. Over time, the hard-
est part of this almost 20-year study—anthropology is not like journalism in that
regard—we are like slow food, slow grazers, we chew the cud for a very long time
before we reach our conclusions. The hardest part is watching one’s informants
die—the transplant tour of patients and the kidney sellers—sometimes in a year or
two after their failed bids for a new life, a life with wings in either case. The kidney
is nothing if not like a winged bird in flight—for the buyers and the sellers.
Organ trafficking links elite surgeons in the prime of their careers to the low-
est reaches of the criminal world (Scheper-Hughes 2004, 2008). It is, I argue, a
protected crime—protected by the transplant profession (that wants to hide it and
manage it, like the Vatican managing clerical sex abuse, in its own way). Hospital
administrators, police, ministries of health, government officials, and in some na-
tions also protect it by the military. There is also complicity by medical insurance
companies, visa control officers, travel agents, and Ministries of Health. The or-
gan trafficking crime bosses and their enforcers, sometimes private security firms,
sometimes local hit men, death squads, and ambulance drivers provide protection
of a more intimate sort.
My research was guided by a few basic questions:
Whose needs are being served, whose needs being overlooked?
Whose voices are being silenced?
What invisible sacrifices are being made in the name of saving lives?
What “public secrets” and “noble lies” are concealed within the conventional
transplant rhetoric of gifting, compensated gifting, life-saving, medical self-de-
fense, agency, choice, altruism, organs scarcities, supply and demand?
I drew on Oliver Sack’s (1995) felicitous phase, “the Anthropologist on Mars”
to describe my trafficking with the traffickers, my adventures in the organ trade. In
the same vein, one of the surgeons involved in the Rosenbaum Kidney Trafficking
Scheme, Dr. David (just his first name) said that when I first visited his transplant
unit in Philadelphia in 2001 to question their involvement illicit transplants with
living unrelated foreign kidney suppliers of unknown backgrounds and clinical his-
tories—people who I knew from my research in Eastern Europe and in Israel had
been recruited and in some instances coerced into traveling and selling a kidney to a
stranger—David told me a few weeks ago that he and his staff were insulted by my
questions (Scheper-Hughes 2000, 2004).
To tell you the truth, Nancy, we thought you were nuts, like someone from out of space land-
ing in our transplant unit. You didn’t seem to revere our work. You asked rude questions.
256 N. Scheper Hughes

You suggested that Mr. Rosenbaum, a man we saw as an angel in our transplant wards, was
an illegal organs broker. Now, after all the facts are on the table, I see that we were living in
a bubble, a kind of utopia. Living by our own rules, because, well, after all we were doing
the work of the gods! When you said that ‘saving lives’ ended any possibility of moral
inquiry, we had no idea what you were talking about. I had to look up a word you used that I
never heard have: commodification. You said we were using ‘commodified’ kidneys. Well,
I thought then, what’s so wrong with that? Organs are commodities. Commodities are good
things, precious objects. Organs don’t grow on trees after all.

The plot thickened with the appearance of sophisticated, international criminal net-
works, and human traffickers who operated trans-nationally to link affluent or well
insured transplant patients with desperate or displaced or depressed kidney sellers
and to locate enterprising surgeons not afraid of breaking the law. Each illicit trans-
plant involves an extensive and highly organized criminal network of well-placed
intermediaries with access to leading transplant surgeons, excellent public and pri-
vate hospitals, laboratories, offshore bank accounts, police protection, and some-
times even the tacit approval of and blessing of government officials. Transplant
trafficking is a dangerous game and the high-risk players in the global “transplant
mafia,” who think they are invincible and above the law, can suddenly find them-
selves shoved up against a wall and handcuffs slapped on their wrists. Surgeons
have been pulled out of operating rooms, and transplant tourist patients carried out
of illicit private transplant units in stretchers and taken to nearby public hospitals.
In Istanbul, in 2008, Dr. Sonmez and his Israeli partner Dr. Zaki Shapira were
arrested during a shoot out in the operating room of Sonmez’s private hospital in
Yesilbahar. Police and angry relatives of a Turkish kidney donor stormed the hospi-
tal to rescue the donor in an exchang of fire. The surgeons were ready and armed.
Even after four arrests, however, Dr. Yusuf (Dr. Yacup) resurfaces from time-
to-time to give TV interviews to the same journalists he curses as the cause of all
his problems with the law. He dares to appear at an international congress of trans-
plant professionals in Kiev, Ukraine in 2008, to present a “PowerPoint” boasting his
2200 + illegal and hit-or-miss (i.e. poorly matched) transplants (2008).
In his presentation, the outlaw surgeon defends his scheme as based on a clinic
scientific method that produces better clinical results. He argues that transplant sur-
geons must be in better control of their biomaterials. The surgeon must “know” their
transplant kidney; rather than wait to receive an official and anonymous kidney
from a deceased donor program, surgeons must take charge and “harvest their own
kidneys” from living donors, all but two of whom (in his series) were gotten from
the broker-trafficked kidney sellers. In his lecture, Dr. Sonmez argued that the sur-
geon who can choose and harvest his own kidneys has several advantages: “Time is
not wasted and the removed kidney can spend little time cooling outside the body
of its native owner…The surgeon has in his hands an organ about which he knows
all the technical details for its transplant. His living donor transplant patients conse-
quently have almost no surgical wound infections that are so common with cadaver
donor transplants” (Sonmez 2008).
A key to the success of his “commercial” transplants, Dr. Sonmez argues, is that
he prefers to transplant patients who were never subjected to dialysis treatments,
which inevitably weakens the body. Pre-dialysis transplant patients have healthier
15  On Adopting Heretical Methods: From Barefoot to Militant to Detective … 257

outcomes, although some nephrologists would disagree, noting that the incipient or
acute stage kidney patient’s failing kidneys might, given time, recover on their own.
But Dr. Sonmez maintains that it is always preferable to intervene earlier rather
than later, especially when the supply is readily available to meet the demand. The
audience raised objections following Dr. Sonmez’s rogue presentation at a normally
staid congress of transplant professionals. Among the dissenters was Dr. Igor Cor-
denau of Chisinau, Moldova who had witnessed the outlaw surgeon’s handiwork on
some of his trafficked donors who returned to Moldova mortally ill, a few of whom
died of infections and kidney failure after their nephrectomies. Dr. Sonmez replied
that the well being of contract kidney workers was not his responsibility.
The Spread of Illicit Networks in Global Transplantation  Global transplant surgery
as practiced today is a blend of altruism and commerce, gifting, barter, and sale,
care and callousness, choice and coercion. It was not always thus and throughout
these radical transformations, the high-stakes debates over markets in organs, the
right to buy and sell kidneys and half-livers, have been waged by philosophers, bio-
ethicists, lawyers, and economists based on abstract calculations of supply, demand,
and rational choice. The emergence in the late 1980s of strange markets, excess
capital, “surplus populations,” and “divisible” and excessively mobile bodies—of
anxious patients and desperate sellers—encouraged the spread of a global transplant
trade which promised to select individuals of reasonable economic means living
almost anywhere in the world an extension of their life through uninhibited access
to the bodies of the other, initially from a relative, a loved one, but even better from
a stranger, a refugee, an ethnic minority, and best of all, if plucked from the body of
the enemy1 (Scheper-Hughes 2012).
Until the 1990s, transplant organs were routinely harvested from deceased do-
nors or from living consanguine, blood-linked kin. The advances in the development
in immunosuppressant drugs like Cyclosporine, made it possible for emotionally
related kin to serve as organ donors (spouses and godparents, for example). Then,
things moved rather quickly. A US transplant surgeon, caught up in the Rosenbaum
kidney trafficking network explained to me in 2012, just prior to the sentencing of
the Brooklyn based Israeli “kidney salesman,” as he was disparagingly called in
the media, the from legal to illegal transplants at his prestigious, university-linked
transplant unit.
If we could transplant with emotional kin, then we thought, well, why not a person from
your church, or school, or trade union, and then, why not someone you just picked up at
Starbucks, and, from there it went downhill pretty quickly.

In the face this dilemma—these chilling “ends of the body”—the task of anthro-
pology seemed straightforward: to activate our discipline’s radical epistemological
openness and our commitment to understanding the diverse moralities and moral
logics that drive or that rationalize human action.

Here I am referring to the current EU investigations into the kidnapping, murder, and organ

harvesting of Serbs by KLA militants following the end of the Kosovo war, a disturbing example
of a relatively new war crime.
258 N. Scheper Hughes

Sharine Hamdy (2012) has brilliantly analyzed transplant debates and contrast-
ing ethical positions of doctors, clerics, and transplant patients in Egypt is a neces-
sary anthropological intervention. Her astute mapping of the shifting and evolving
biomedical, moral, spiritual, ecological, and political terrain in Egypt, a nation in
turmoil, helps us understand the “moving target” of transplant ethics among the dif-
ferent stakeholders—surgeons, nephrologists, clerics, patients, family members—
and what is at stake for them.
I have taken somewhat different and perhaps anthropologically heretical path.
The “ethical,” as I understand it (primarily through the writings of Emmanuel Levi-
nas), requires a bracketing of self and culture (their culture as well as one’s own)
insofar as ethics lies outside the culture. Ethics is what enables one to judge it. This
presents itself as an obvious paradox to the cultural anthropologist, whose primary
ethical orientation is to serve as sort of public defender of the communities, societ-
ies, and cultures in which we conduct our research. The stakes and ethics change
when the anthropologist is also an engaged scholar, human rights activist, and the
object of an anthropological study is an emergent form of internationally organized
transplant crime. Does one have to be a “neutral” bystander when crimes—traf-
ficking, conspiracy, deceit, fraud, medical abuse, and physical assault—are being
committed within one’s purview?

Heretical Methods

Of all the field sites in which I have worked, none compares with the world of trans-
plant surgery for its exoticism, allure, secrecy, power and claim to transcendence.
How does an anthropologist investigate criminal behavior? To whom does one owe
one’s divided loyalties? Under normal conditions, anthropologists proceed with a
“hermeneutic generosity” toward the people they study. By instinct and training
anthropologists tend to accept at face value, and not second-guess what we are
told. We hope to fashion our research subjects into “friends,” collaborators, and
boon companions rather than as the “objects” of our field studies. We strive to win
people over to what we believe can be a mutually rewarding experience. Our train-
ing in empathic listening and our habit of epistemological openness mean that our
lives become entangled with our informants, even when they might be criminals or
In the Organs Watch project—face to face with the renegade surgeons and the or-
gan traffickers—the normal rules of fieldwork practice and ethics were inadequate.
I had to enter into conversations where nothing could be taken for granted and
where a “hermeneutics of suspicion” replaced classical fieldwork modes of bracket-
ing and suspension of disbelief. These new engagements required certain militancy,
along with a relentless self-critical rethinking of the production of truths and the
protection of research subjects. Anthropologists hold anthropologist–informant re-
lations as a sacred trust. We are like doctors and patients in that regard. But surely
this does not mean that one has to be a bystander to international crime.
15  On Adopting Heretical Methods: From Barefoot to Militant to Detective … 259

I did use unorthodox methods to gain access to illicit activities. In Argentina, I

went “undercover” with an armed private detective to the Montes de Oca asylum
in BsAs Province to investigate allegations of blood, tissue, and organs stealing
from profoundly mentally deficient “NN (no name)” patients. In Istanbul, I posed in
cafes in working-class immigrant neighborhoods as the relative of a kidney patient
looking to purchase a “fresh” kidney. In Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Moldova, the
Philippines, and the USA, among others, I sometimes made unannounced visits to
dialysis and transplant units and sometimes, when stopped, excused myself as a
confused visitor looking for another part of the hospital. Sometimes, I introduced
myself to a nursing sister as a visiting professor from the USA, Doctor Scheper-
Hughes, without qualifying just what kind of “doctor” I was.
While surgeons occupy the highest and most prestigious ranks in modern medi-
cine, anthropologists occupy the lower ranks in the social sciences. Anthropologists
concern themselves with the ineffable, the strange, and the hidden side of things.
Because of our marginality and exclusion from the world of “real” power and influ-
ence, anthropologists are generally perceived as benign, even amusing characters.
We enter our research sites open-handedly and often without complicated research
protocols or standardized interview questions. We visit, observe as unobtrusively as
possible and try to make ourselves at home in the world, and useful wherever that
may be, even in the operating theatre, where I was once given a minor role in a liv-
ing donor transplant surgery in Brazil—to stand over the exposed body of the trans-
plant patient and to whisper words of encouragement while stoking his forehead.
But as I began to recognize the illicit traffic in organs as more than a problem of
ethics, but a crime and a human rights abuse, I decided that these departures from
classic anthropological practice were a risk worth taking. Like some of the outlaw
transplant surgeons I was studying—I too had entered an ethical gray zone.
In posing as a kidney buyer in order to understand the misery that prompts a
person to bargain over the value of his kidney, as if it were a thing apart from him—
a rug or a used car—I was complicit in the behavior I was studying. Similarly,
each time a kidney seller offered to strip and show me his large scar, sometimes
requesting a fee to do so, I became another sort of kidney hunter. As my Brazilian
informants like to say, “no one is innocent,” least of all, the anthropologist herself.

The Research Problem Defined

It was the dogs that did not bark, the prosecutions that did not happened, or that
were interrupted and overturned on technicalities despite excellent evidence and
proven damages and harms, even in the most egregious cases of organ traffick-
ing—that was the problem I chose to study and to engage in and with directly as a
critically applied medical anthropologist and human rights activist. What were the
obstacles to the recognition of illicit international networks of transplant and human
trafficking for organs as a crime and in the worst instances, a war crime and even
when done during the chaos of war and against the enemy combatants (as in Kosovo
in 1999) a crime against humanity?
260 N. Scheper Hughes

One obstacle was the field of bioethics with its emphasis on the individual,
“choice,” “agency,” and autonomy. These are the concepts that can unwittingly
conceal the material conditions that over-determine the way certain people live,
“make choices,” and die. Another obstacle was the denial of the transplant profes-
sion which for decades denied that illicit commercial transplants and organ traffick-
ing were widespread, and sheltered members of their profession who were actively
involved in the trade.
When confronted with ethnographic data confirming the transplantation of or-
gans from trafficked living donors from the third world or immigrants and refugees
in first world nations, complicit surgeons responded that they had been deceived,
unaware of the circumstances that brought together two strangers, each from differ-
ent nations, and world apart in terms of culture, class, privilege, and ethnicity, into
their operating rooms.
A few surgeons admitted that they knew what was going on—they were not that
naïve—but they were skilled medical technicians who were responding to a higher
authority beyond the laws and regulations of their profession: they were “saving
lives.” Yusef Sonmez, today a well-known public figure in the world of transplant
trafficking, indicted in the EULEX (EU rule of law mission) in the 2008 Medicus
clinic prosecution in Kosovo,2 told me (and my Turkish Organs Watch assistant) as
much he put transplant on the map in Turkey and beat out all of his more ethical
competitors. To do so, he admitted in 2000, he had to violate established norms and
Posing a right to survive places surgeons and their transplant patients into the
moral and ethical grey zone similar to the one described by Primo Levi: to what
lengths may an individual go in the interests of saving, prolonging, or even enhanc-
ing their lives at the expense of harming or diminishing another person’s life or
sacrificing cherished cultural and political values, such as social solidarity, justice,
fairness, and equity? An ethics of survival cannot possibly constitute the elementary
structure of medical ethics.
When did “life” become a “thing” amenable to endless manipulation, extension?
When did bodies become divisible? (“You have two kidneys—one for yourself and
one to sell?”) When did divisible organs become “surplus” appendages? When did
living organ donation become a new moral imperative linked to the patients’ right
to self-survival through what Lawrence Cohen (2008, 2011) calls “supplementar-

The Medicus clinic allegedly lured poor people from Istanbul, Moscow, Moldova and Kazakh-
stan, falsely promising to pay them up to € 15,000 for