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  • Human Trafficking and Sex Work: Foundational Social-Work Principles
  • Crystal DeBoise (bio)

For over a decade, at three different agencies, I have practiced social work and case-management with survivors of human trafficking and sex workers. The first agency was a substance-abuse clinic for women in the Bronx where a number of clients were sex workers. The second was an immigrant services agency where I started one of the first human-trafficking service programs in the nation. My current position is at the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center (SWP), the only legal and social services program in the United States dedicated to those working in the sex industry, whether their involvement is coerced via trafficking, circumstantial, or chosen. SWP works with approximately 200 clients annually. Over half of them meet the legal definition of human trafficking. Clients are both United States and foreign born, youth and adults, and are widely diverse demographically. I will use the word “counselor” to denote anyone providing direct services and “client” to signify the person seeking services. I’m going to use the pronoun “she” throughout; however, clients seeking services are of all genders.

Since we have been fortunate to be at the forefront of an emerging field of social work, my colleagues and I have been thoughtful about how to develop best practices in the field and have tried a variety of outreach methods, treatment tools, and overall approaches. We have found that a [End Page 227] return to foundational social-work principles is extremely valuable. We have also found that these values are often not applied to those who have been involved in sex work and human trafficking, most likely because of the emotionally triggering subject matter and the ubiquitous stigma of being involved in the sex industry. However, using the foundational principles of modern social work is required if our work with survivors of human trafficking and sex workers is to be effective and empowering. These principles are also helpful for guiding discussions on legal and social policy and the allocation of funds to assist survivors of trafficking.

Professional social work has developed a Code of Ethics that lays out a series of values. The following list translates those values into the principles of practice that are the bedrock of what is taught in graduate schools of social work (Dubois and Miley 1992, 135–41) and correspond directly with the NASW Code of Ethics. This essay will promote these values and address barriers to realizing them, as they relate to survivors of human trafficking and sex workers who are clients in social-service programs.


The collaborative relationship between the counselor and the client will be built on a foundation of acceptance. This principle asks the counselor to cultivate respect for her client and acceptance that her client’s story about her own life is authoritative.

A number of clients who have sought counseling services at SWP have done so because numerous counselors have failed to accept the stories they tell about their own lives. For instance, several clients report counselors spending substantial time in counseling sessions trying to convince them that, since they have been sex workers, someone in their family must have sexually abused them, even though a number of clients are sure that didn’t happen. Clients have been told that they are brainwashed because their reasons for making the decisions they have made don’t make sense to the counselor, whether it is to stay in a trafficking situation, or to leave a minimum-wage job for a higher-paid one in the sex industry in order to support their families.

Acceptance means that we believe people’s stories about themselves, their histories, and their motivations. It also means we understand that all of us, including our clients, grow and change our ideas about ourselves, [End Page 228] sometimes withhold truths when it doesn’t seem wise to be transparent, and require a relationship develop before we are ready to lay it all out on the table. Acceptance also means that we understand that identities are fluid, and we extend the compassionate truths we know about human nature to those who are seeking assistance...