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Dissertation Diary Part 1: Helping the Sex Trafficking victim

Welcome to the Dissertation Diary 

<Please note that this “Dissertation Diary” 5 part blog post series is formatted very differently than the rest of my articles– much longer and more academic than the others…well it is about a dissertation afterall! For a peek at the other articles, please refer the right navigation panel of the site.>



My dissertation process has been long in the making…a key requirement for completing my doctorate in Psychology and Counseling, the dissertation must encompass many key elements and filling an identified gap in research where there isn’t much knowledge about. I recall sitting in my grad school’s cafe with my professor, now Dissertation Chair, dialoguing about the topic possibilities…

At first, I was quite determined to work on a topic about cultural curses, a book idea I’ve had for years, with the expressed purpose to turn my dissertation into a book upon graduation.

That bubble did ‘burst’ a bit when professors recommended that I don’t bite off more than I could chew, emphasizing that the dissertation is not supposed to be your life’s work! The last thing I wanted to be is a “EBD”- an “Everything but dissertation” grad student who can’t quite graduate in the 5 year allotment because they can’t finish the dissertation!

In a 2 year process of self-reflection, an examination of my giftings/passions,  an artistic experiment where I collaborated with Christian St. Jacques on a spoken-word piece called “Bravebird” that I danced to, and experiences counseling women coming out of sex trafficking/prostitution/sexual trauma, discussions with my professors, etc– I finally felt led by God to the PERFECT dissertation topic.

My dissertation topic examines several things:

  • The real impact of sex trafficking on a victim’s body and psyche
  • The magnitude of help needed worldwide for the millions in/rescued out of sex trafficking
  • Taking what works well in Western psychology framework to scale to another cultural context to bring healing
  • How to successfully work around the limitations aftercare shelters face
  • How movement arts can uniquely unlock the trauma “the body remembers” more than any verbal intervention
  • Using the Philippines as an experimental grounds to examine the topics listed above


I feel that I am uniquely positioned to this research as a(n):

  • Asian American woman: causes me to have a natural affinity to this work – examining movement arts/sex trafficking aftercare within the SE Asian context– they are my “sisters” over there, I really refuse to do nothing
  • Dancer: I have the first hand experience of how powerful art/dance is for healing and providing an outlet for self-expression, getting in touch with one’s ‘boundaries,’ and fostering a source of confidence and value
  • Psychologist: I consider it a great privilege to have the opportunity, resources, and time to pursue a doctorate and I first entered this field with a strong correlation between psychology and justice. To me, psychology needs to be used to bring justice!
  • Business Woman: After years in the corporate world, the bottom line in my mind will always be– what’s the ROI (Return on Investment)? With that frame of reference applied to the dissertation, I strongly desire that my dissertation turns into something tangible, ultimately helping the sex trafficking victim. I am not interested in writing a dissertation that sits in an academic bubble, and in a way using the plight of these victims to have a ‘sensationalized’ topic to write on…No, if this dissertation doesn’t have practical, tangible impact for the victim, I’m not interested! That is also why I am so passionate about this topic– particularly examining the “democratization/scalability of western psychology interventions applied abroad”– if we can find a way to equip aftercare shelter workers who may not have the same level of training/education/resources with more ‘tools within their toolbox’ when working with the victims–this has the potential to impact the landscape of aftercare and forge new treatment


We have a problem on our hands

Consider the case of “Anna,” who in early 2007 was abducted and trafficked from her home in the Philippines to Malaysia. Assured of a waitress job, her manager later told her she would work as a prostitute. “Anna” was pushed to authorize a contract which claimed she owed her traffickers an exorbitant amount of money. Caught in a predicament, “Anna” was held under the premise that if she did not pay off her debt, she could not return to the Philippines. Seven days a week, she was forced to work up to 17 hours a day. In June 2007, “Anna” was miraculously rescued and returned to the Philippines.  She is currently free but not well. She was shortly diagnosed with human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical and other cancers (Anna, 2007).

The stories of sex trafficking victims around the world are heart-wrenching, eye-opening, and somber.  Each story is unique but they all seem to have common threads— characterized by deception, abuse, psychological breakdown, poverty, and disease…

Consider again the case of “Anna”– ok, she gets rescued (which is amazing!) but what then??

Usually what happens is that she would get medical treatment to check…broken hips, broken teeth,…HIV….but that’s it!

Maybe she’ll land in an aftercare shelter but who is paying attention to her psychological/mental needs?? She may be taken out of the traumatic environment/experience but can you take the trauma out of her?! Many times aftercare shelters do not have the resources/training to handle the severity of these issues…

I write more about this later but PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) will keep her locked in a cycle of reliving the experience in her psyche until she gets help and someone hits the “stop” button or breaks the record playing in her head.

<Definition check: According to the United States Department of State, sex trafficking is defined as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion (Hu, 2011)>

Now take this one case study and multiply it by 1.39Million (Estimated in 2008, nearly 12.3M in trafficking worldwide- that includes labor– and then about 1.39 M of those are in sex slavery) that’s like saying all of the city of Philadelphia, PA are in sex trafficking. 600,000 – 800,000 people are bought and sold across international borders each year…98% are children and females (U.S. Department of State, 2004, Trafficking in Persons Report, Washington, D.C.)


And according to the 2011 paper published in Human Rights Review, “Sex Trafficking: Trends, Challenges and Limitations of International Law,”  since 2000, the sex trafficking industry has only grown more lucrative: “Coupled with the fact that trafficked sex slaves are the single most profitable type of slave, costing on average $1,895 each but generating $29,210 annually, leads to stark predictions about the likely growth in commercial sex slavery in the future.”

Just in the Philippines as a microcosm of the greater global problem, the picture is bleak: Filipino women have been recruited by organized crime and prostitution rings in Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea (Lerderer, 2001). Additionally, trafficking of Filipino women also occurs within the country. Often times, the trafficking routes run between Philippines and Kuwait and Bahrain, and some illegal recruiters also use the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia to smuggle Muslim Filipino women.

We have a real problem on our hands.



We have a real problem on our hands not only because of the sheer volume of people but also because of the implications it has on so many aspects of the global landscape (such as public health, policy, the economy, tourism) …also for its untold impact on our capacity as psychologists, aftercare workers, and other roles to restore victims once they are rescued/if they are rescued!

The rescue component is obviously critical but…what next?

There seems to be a shortage of help to cater to the relatively greater amount of people who would need help. The math doesn’t seem to add up. Additionally, the care we do give…is it truly sufficient?


Filling the gap

Trauma is considered an autonomic, physiological, and neurological response to devastating events or experiences that generates a secondary psychological response (Malchiodi, 2012). According to Peter Levine, a trauma specialist, sexual abuse is a unique type of trauma because it primarily serves as a utter violation and invasion into an individual’s sacred space. This breach of emotional and sexual boundaries and can result in a deep sense of being soiled, dirty, and damaged (Levine, 1996).

While there’s relatively little empirical research on the impact of the sex trafficking experience on a victim’s mind and body or proven aftercare interventions for healing, thankfully there is a wealth of research examining the impact of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) and sexual assault/sexual abuse that we can look to for insight…

When treating  the somatic and psychological damage of sex trafficking in aftercare, a variety of experts of sex trauma agree that because the body is the center of violation, integrating the body into therapy (instead of just the traditional ‘talk therapy’) is really required to bring holistic healing to the victim… The theory behind it upholds that the body and mind are very interrelated and should be treated together (Malchiodi, 2012).  Somatic trauma therapist, Babette Rothschild, upheld that “the body remembers” and psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk stated that ”the body keeps score (Wainrib, 2006).” Along with traditional psychotherapeutic methods, creative arts have been found to be an effective treatment modality and dance therapy, in particular, plays to this concept of integrating the body…offering the victim a personal language of sorts to re-access feelings, memories, and images associated with their trauma (Leventhal, 2008) (Koch & Fischman, 2011).

With this research, I hope to fill several gaps that I have identified:

  • Gap in the research: There really is scarce research on sex trafficking victims (seems to be more on only CSA, sexual abuse, trauma, dance therapy) including the impact of the experience on them as well as what intervetions work most effectively
  • Gap in addressing the complex nature of the abuse: There really is a need for interventions that go beyond the traditional “talk therapy” but for non-verbal mechanisms that really help unlock the trauma found in the body


All hands on deck

  • Gap in examining the democratization of Western interventions to the sex trafficking victim population: Because sex trafficking is a world-wide issue, I really believe psychologists and other professional in the field need to have an ‘all hands on deck’ mentality and mission– if we don’t work together to come up with scalable solutions that do not work just in the western context but across multiple cultural contexts….frankly put, we’re in big trouble.

Who is looking at what we can offer from the Western tradition of psychology? Western traditions have the resources, the empirical research backing, and the influence that is often lacking in other schools of thought and therapy.

But with influence and wealth of resources, comes great responsibility.

When western interventions are applied abroad, they often times do not translate perfectly across cultural contexts. Given the poverty and education levels of aftercare settings, many aftercare programs abroad may not have all the resources (the ability to acquire the full training/degree to administer psychological interventions or the money to pay experts) required to successfully implement a full version of something like Dance Movement Therapy.

Not only are resources a barrier, you also have to consider the cultural context. Particular western traditions (like dance!) may actually not work very well with cultural contexts that do not have cultural dances as a part of their cultural makeup. (think: Germans!) Aftercare workers, although often lacking the letters behind their name (like a masters or doctorate degree), are on the grounds intimate with the cultural context of the victims, often times from the same ethnic background and speaking the same language. Since aftercare shelters are limited already (in relation to the number of victims out there!), we really need to look to equip the aftercare shelter workers that are already ‘on the grounds’ with as many tools as possible to help them successfully help the victims.

What if we could provide a simple, effective therapeutic tool that translates well across cultural contexts they can easily use with victims to usher healing with the potential to scale out as an additional ‘tool within the toolbox’ for shelter workers around the world to use…something that empowers and amplifies effectiveness of aftercare work…

This is an epidemic of global proportions…Western psychology has a lot to offer but it will forever be limited if it’s stuck with only those with the money and privilege and not pragmatically helpful to those that need it badly.  This is the mission of my dissertation and my work—to take what works in the Western realm and see- what does it look like to transport that to another cultural context? What does it take to democratize that so it works abroad but scalable to even more cultural contexts?

..And that’s where the concept of democratization and scalability in my research comes in–


Formally put, the two primary research questions I will examine in my study include: What does a contextual approach to movement therapy look like in the Philippines sex trafficking aftercare setting? What factors contribute to the democratization of movement therapy as applied to an international aftercare setting for sex trafficking victims?

I want to use the Philippines as the experimental grounds for examining this concept of ‘democratization’ of what works in the West therapy-wise and to my second question here, I want to understand what factors that I find in the Filipino sex trafficking aftercare context will translate to other cultures/countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, China, Greece, Bulgaria, etc. I suspect that there will be multiple threads of commonalities that I will discover that will shed light on this…and because this dissertation research is qualitative in nature, it provides the perfect platform to be exploratory and open-ended as I step out and find out!



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