Sex trafficking: an exploratory study interviewing traffickers


This paper presents the research methodology of an exploratory study interviewing human traffickers. Utilizing open-ended, semi-structured qualitative interviews with traffickers, exploratory research was conducted in 2003. With an overall goal of understanding the human trafficking phenomenon from the standpoint of those individuals who support, reproduce, and actively work to sustain it, our research questions focused on how traffickers make sense of their position within the illegal market of sex trafficking. Other thematic questions included characteristics and personal dimensions of the traffickers, reasons they entered the business, their perceptions of the business, and their opinions of those they traffic. For the purpose of this paper, we will address the difficulty and simplicity of conducting interviews with human traffickers. Information about the research project in general, methods used, ethical considerations, and thematic scope will also be addressed with a final discussion section highlighting advantages and disadvantages of methods used.

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  1. 1.

    Here, intracountry trafficking is defined as those human beings trafficked within their own country of residence.

  2. 2.

    Though trafficking of humans is an age-old phenomenon, it was not until December of 2000 that the international community reached a consensus on a common normative definition on trafficking in humans (called “trafficking in persons”). During the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime held in Palermo Italy, The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children was the first international agreement to provide a framework for law reform and the criminalization of human trafficking (Bindman 1997; CATW 1998; GAATW 1996). For the purposes of this research, the definition of “trafficking in persons” within the casually known Palermo Protocol remains a core reference and reads:

    “Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the position of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

    For further information on conflicting opinions on this above definition, please see Bindman (1997), CATW (1998), GAATW (1996), McMahon and Stanger (2002), and Troshynski and Blank (2006).

  3. 3.

    Our research team included Jennifer K. Blank as Principle Investigator (PI) and Emily I. Troshynski as Co-Investigator (Co-PI). For all functions of the research project, Blank performed primary research activities, created the script, conducted all interviews, and lead all observations while Troshynski helped with research and worked as the note-taker and secondary observer.

  4. 4.

    Please see Blank (2007) for several preliminary research findings with more publications to follow.

  5. 5.

    Here, qualitative research is understood as that which produces findings without the use of statistical procedures. This process is contrasted to quantitative verification of research hypotheses derived from general theoretical ideas.

  6. 6.

    While searching for our contact, we both kept a running journal of notes and observations. This quote was remembered and recorded within our research journals.

  7. 7.

    Again, this quote was remembered and recorded within our research journals. To us, “an extra buck” was just a term used by the contact when casually discussing money. Future interviews would reveal that those “extra buck(s)” were actually United States Dollar bills and not British Pounds as originally assumed.

  8. 8.

    Again, this quote was remembered and recorded within our research journals.

  9. 9.

    Other than Kvale (1996), please see Emerson (2001) for a very thorough review of ethical considerations including issues and dilemmas (pp. 134–41, 301, 312–15), avoiding harm to those studied (pp. 139–41, 312–16), and preserving informant confidentiality (pp. 270–71, 276–79). For information regarding ethical considerations and personal safety, please see Berg (2004).

  10. 10.

    Many researchers and academics recommend that social science research maintain a value neutral position where researchers are expected to study the world around them and their participants as external investigators neither imposing their own views nor taking any stands on social or political issues. Involving agreeable strategies that listen more and talk less, feminist researchers have developed research orientations that are comfortable for both researchers and subjects involved. We aligned ourselves with this epistemological standpoint and encouraged a humanized research process where we became involved with our subjects while still maintaining a very reflective awareness of our own thoughts. For further information, please see Reinharz (1992).

  11. 11.

    We did not have access to research offices or institutional classrooms. Knowing this location limitation beforehand, we agreed and arranged to only meet participants at public locations.

  12. 12.

    We were also worried about other disadvantages associated with academic repercussions. Since most of the previous research conducted on trafficking tends to focus predominately on the powerlessness of the victims rather than the super-ordinate position of the men, personal concerns included negative feedback from both intended and unintended audiences. Being young academics just starting out in our careers, we were worried about conflicting findings, contradictions to previous research, or differing opinions of preconceived notions about trafficking.


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Correspondence to Emily I. Troshynski.

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Troshynski, E.I., Blank, J.K. Sex trafficking: an exploratory study interviewing traffickers. Trends Organ Crim 11, 30–41 (2008).

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  • Trafficking
  • Human trafficking
  • Sex trafficking
  • Interviews