Getting the Balance Right: The Ethics of Researching Women Trafficked for Commercial Sexual Exploitation

  • Helen EastonEmail author
  • Roger Matthews
Part of the Studies of Organized Crime book series (SOOC, volume 13)


This chapter discusses the ethical issues associated with researching women who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. It refers to two studies conducted by the authors. The first was a study commissioned by the Scottish Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as part of a wider Inquiry into Human Trafficking in Scotland. The second was a study of women exiting prostitution which included a small sample of trafficked women accessed through the Poppy Project in London. What became apparent during both of these studies was the way in which researching those who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation can become a balancing act between gathering and presenting robust evidence about women’s individual experiences and ensuring the physical and emotional safety of the research subjects. Throughout both studies, the researchers needed to negotiate the methodological approach, work in partnership with stakeholders and manage issues around the limits of confidentiality and anonymity. A further balancing act was progressing fieldwork and analysis at a suitable pace for the commissioner while also being reflexive and taking care of the needs of women participants and the researcher’s personal responses to the subject matter. Although alive with ethical and moral issues, research that examines women’s experiences and presents these clearly without causing harm is fundamental to both the policy process and to the development of knowledge about human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation as well as how to conduct sensitive research with vulnerable victims.


Human trafficking Commercial sexual exploitation Research ethics Qualitative interviewing Counter transference Vicarious trauma 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Law and Social SciencesLondon South Bank UniversityLondonUK
  2. 2.School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social ResearchUniversity of KentCanterburyUK

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