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Robina Conference Mini Series Number 3- The Difficulties with Data: The Promise and Perils of Empirical Research on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, Panel 3

Posted: October 20, 2016

Welcome back! This is the third installment of a month-long series presenting the videos from the Robina Conference, held on June 24, 2016 at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. The CSE Institute collaborated with the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice to host the conference, entitled: Commercial Sexual Exploitation: Shifting Perspectives and Policing Practices. During the conference, panelists discussed the changing law enforcement practices, policies, and reform strategies for handling cases related to commercial sexual exploitation.

This week, the CSE Institute invites you to watch the third panel, “The Difficulties with Data: The Promise and Perils of Empirical Research on Commercial Sexual Exploitation.” The panelists included Dr. Joel Filmore, Clinical Assistant Professor of the Family Institute at Northwestern University and survivor of sexual exploitation, Eliza Reock, Director of Programs at Shared Hope International, and Christine Stark, Community Faculty Member at Metropolitan State University and survivor of sexual exploitation. Michelle Madden Dempsey, Faculty Advisor for the CSE Institute, served as panel moderator. The panelists discussed data collection in relation to commercial sexual exploitation.

All three panelists referenced data collection as an essential component of both the funding and furtherance of social science research initiatives. Particularly in the context of commercial sexual exploitation, each panelist focused on the issue of antiquated data that no longer accurately reflects a typical “day in the life” of a sex trafficking victim. The panelists noted that ironically, incorrect data is still referenced because researchers do not want to publish a study unless it is “perfect.” Determining how to produce “perfect” research on commercial sexual exploitation, thus, fosters debate as to what exactly “counts” as sex trafficking. This umbrella of uncertainty extends to conceptualizing what exactly “counts” as force, fraud, coercion, and even abuses of power. All panelists recognized that questioning the boundaries and attempting to define victimization not only does a disservice to this field of research, but to the victims themselves.

The lack of accurate research on commercial sexual exploitation is a multi-faceted dilemma, but a topic in which the panelists chose to focus on two issues in particular. First, the panelists addressed the various levels of stigmatization victims face not just as prostituted persons, but as prostituted minorities. Dr. Joel Filmore was able to speak to this issue through his experience as a prostituted person of color. Dr. Filmore emphatically said, “until the victim looks more like ‘you’ and less like ‘me’, things change very slowly.” Dr. Filmore’s words bring to light the insidious racist notions rooted even in the darkest corners of American society. Christine Stark elaborated on the additional stigmatization of prostituted racial minorities and LGBTQ individuals through her study on trafficked Cherokee women entitled Garden of Truth. Ms. Stark’s study focused on Cherokee women born into families with a long history of people being subject to trafficking. Ms. Stark explained that the participants in her study were constantly being told to be ashamed of their history, particularly by their families. Ultimately, discouraging victims from coming forward prohibits researchers from producing honest, accurate reports with reliable data.

Second, the panelists addressed the way ineffective commercial sexual exploitation data collection distances the issue, which prolongs society’s ability to devise effective methods to combat sex trafficking. Eliza Reock spoke to this issue by referencing § 230 of the Communications Decency Act. According to Ms. Reock, § 230 of the CDA is an outdated, twenty-year-old law written to protect “freedom of expression” on the internet—a law that she describes as good in theory, but not in practice. This legislation has enabled companies such as Backpage.com to remain immune from both civil and criminal liability for user content posted to websites—even if the company is aware that the purpose of the posted content is to sexually exploit and traffic individuals of all ages—including children. The issue arises not just in the ineffectiveness of twenty-year-old internet law in a technological age, but in the practice of trafficking people from behind a computer screen. Selling and buying people and their bodies from behind the comfort of a screen removes the human element from the equation, thus distancing the issue of commercial sexual exploitation. Not only is this ineffective for combatting the local instances of sex trafficking, but it allows people to deflect responsibility from making serious changes to eradicate commercial sexual exploitation, overall.

By openly criticizing contemporary commercial sexual exploitation research as inaccurate and inconsistent, the panelists posed a challenge for empirical researchers to conduct accurate studies and produce consistent reports, if not only for the sake of the victims and survivors.

Our panel included:

  • Joel Filmore, Clinical Assistant Professor, the Family Institute at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois)
  • Eliza Reock, Director of Programs, Shared Hope International (Vancouver, Washington)
  • Christine Stark, Community Faculty Member, Metropolitan State University (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
  • Moderator: Michelle Madden Dempsey, Faculty Advisor, Villanova Law’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation (Villanova, Pennsylvania)

Click here to watch Panel 3: The Difficulties with Data: The Promise and Perils of Empirical Research on Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

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