All of these victims were children forced into prostitution—young people who, because of the psychological scars they’ve incurred, will likely struggle to avoid future sexual exploitation, says Alexis Kennedy, an associate professor of criminal justice at UNLV.
Kennedy is investigating ways to help these and other victims end the cycle of abuse, work that was recently funded as part of a $44 million U.S. Department of Justice grant to combat traffickers and support survivors. Kennedy, a forensic psychologist and former attorney with an extensive research history interviewing exploited adults and children, received more than $623,000.
The funding, she says, will allow her to further explore the physical and psychological barriers that hinder young people’s attempts to exit prostitution. Sexually exploited children, she indicates, often run away from services offered—placements, treatment programs, etc.—in part because of their strong psychological attachments to traffickers and pimps. Very little is known about the mental barriers associated with leaving commercial sexual exploitation, including victims’ readiness to change.
Kennedy will be joined on the project by two prominent colleagues from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Michele Decker is an associate professor of population, family, and reproductive health at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. A social epidemiologist with expertise on the health effects of trafficking for sexual exploitation, Decker also directs the Women’s Health and Rights Program of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights. Andrea Cimino, a postdoctoral fellow who works with Johns Hopkins’ Interdisciplinary Violence Research Project, is also a co-investigator.