How do you solve a societal problem no one wants to talk about? This is the question that Dawn Bounds, an assistant professor at Rush University College of Nursing, faced when beginning her research on the underground world of commercial sex trafficking. It's a simple question without an easy answer.
Sex trafficking refers to someone using force, fraud or coercion to cause a commercial sex act with an adult or cause a minor to commit a commercial sex act.
Identifying the problem
Bounds, Ph.D, PMHNP-BC, first became concerned about the world of sex trafficking of minors after attending a presentation on the commercial sexual exploitation of children at a forensic nursing conference. With 16 years of experience working in psychiatry and mental health, and a primary focus working with adolescent girls, the presentation struck a chord with her.
"Systems set up to care for these young people were failing them by criminalizing their behavior — responses to trauma," she remembers. "I felt that this area was under-researched, but of particular importance to the girls I was working with."
Bounds recollects that while working with teenage girls at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and in Rush's school-based health centers in Chicago, "I often heard about their traumatic experiences and subsequent relational challenges. The relationships they described were often unhealthy — and with boys much older than them."
This is when she realized that the mental health, school and juvenile justice systems set up to care for these young people were failing them, and that she could do something to help.
Shining a light on the issues
To better understand the commercial sex industry, Bounds analyzed online conversations from a popular website where men involved in commercial sex shared information. She read through over 1,300 posts looking for patterns and hoping to better understand how the men's repetitive posts shaped discourse about commercial sex.
What she found went against some preconceived notions.
"It has been suggested in the past that men who buy sex may not know that they are buying sex from vulnerable girls and women," Bounds states. "My research findings, however, suggest that they do know and use the vulnerability of girls and women to exploit them for (the men's) own personal gain."
This finding surprised her. She recalls men exchanging insider tips on women, meant to capitalize on their possible weaknesses. Bounds found it exceptionally shocking to read comments such as, "She's recently divorced and has kids to take care of." There were also comments about women with disabilities, substance abuse issues, and who looked very young.
While she admits that much of what she read moved her to anger and frustration, she also stresses the importance of understanding the communication between men who deal in the commercial sex industry. "The significance of studying discourse is that discourse has the power to influence beliefs, relationships and, ultimately, actions."
Finding a solution
Bounds' actions and research have led to a wider knowledge and discussion of this once little-known world. Her Ph.D. dissertation, "The Complexities of the Demand Side of the Online Commercial Sex Industry," and published article, "Commercial sexual exploitation of children and state child welfare systems," have helped shed light on the dark and dangerous world of sex trafficking.
Wrenetha Julion, Ph.D., MPH, RN, FAAN, Bounds' academic adviser from her doctoral program at Rush, stresses the value and influence of her work.
"Dawn's research in sex trafficking is important because it is not only novel and innovative; it can change the life course of vulnerable young people," Julion says. "Dawn's work has the potential to save lives and make a sustained impact."
While Bounds made great strides in drawing attention to this secret world, she is quick to point out that there's still much work to be done.
"There are vulnerable people who are being exploited every day," she says, "I feel morally responsible to challenge injustices that impact basic human rights, particularly those of young people. I believe all adults have a responsibility to protect our youth. We have a long way to go."
Next, Bounds is hoping to partner with both the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre, in British Columbia, Canada, and The Runaway Intervention Program, here in the U.S. These programs work to assist at-risk youths, and she is hoping to analyze the data they have already collected and explore how to someday implement The Runaway Intervention Program in Chicago.
Additionally, Bounds is interviewing community youth providers in Chicago for a separate research study. "It is my hope," she explains, "that this research will help us better understand how youth providers are currently prepared, and what they need to therapeutically respond to youth who disclose trauma."
Bounds hopes it's another step toward raising awareness of and providing healing for this difficult societal problem, that, thanks to people like her, is now being talked about.