How can medical professionals best help? Healthcare providers need to know the community resources available and have a clear protocol in place so they know exactly what is available for referral and how to proceed. They must be trained and feel safe, themselves, as one panelist pointed out.
Mental health intervention may be needed. Those who try to exit the industry usually need ongoing counseling or emotional support. Most sex workers suffer from severe post traumatic stress disorder. Melissa Farley, Ph.D., director of the Prostitution Research and Education in San Francisco, performed the first study in 1998 of post traumatic stress disorder in prostitutes. Her study revealed that ongoing physical and sexual assault in this cohort created a high level of PTSD. Sixty-seven percent of the sex workers she interviewed met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. In her study, the level of PTSD in her sample was actually higher than for a sample of Vietnam veterans.
The first time someone acknowledges the level of fear and horror the sex worker often experiences during her time in the sex industry may be a turning point in her recovery. This can be that medical professional.
The exit experience is not always a sudden "light bulb" experience. Usually sex workers don't wake up one day and say, "I think I'll leave the life today." A sex worker may try several times to leave, only to relapse and return to that life. We know that the model looks much like this:
It's important that medical practitioners understand that they may simply be planting a seed by emphatically asserting: "You no longer have to live like this." The sex worker may not be ready to leave, or in some cases, may be held hostage by her pimp's family having control of her children.
One great point brought up by Dr. Rollins: "Nothing about us without us." While she didn't use those words, she did acknowledge that including survivors in efforts to develop protocol and train is imperative. As former sex workers, we are best situated to provide practical advice and an understanding of what it's really like to survive in that environment and what resources we needed to get out.
This panel is part of an ongoing effort by the McCain Institute and other organizations to address the issues of human trafficking. Visit their website to sign up for future symposiums.