Episode 223 - Amber McDonald: The Underground Sex World and Vulnerable Youth: A Professional Social Worker's Perspective

Monday, September 11, 2017, 7:40:10 AM

Image of Amber McDonald, LCSW, PhD Candidate

Human sex trafficking is the largest illegal trade in the world, and the issue has gain increased attention over the last several years. In this episode, Amber McDonald describes her research involving vulnerable minors' involvement in sex trafficking and the reasons why youth engage in trading and selling sex. She summarizes current federal legislative initiatives targeting sex trafficking and discusses implications for social work practice.

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Average Rating: 4.9 stars (13 listener reviews )

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Average Rating: 5stars  a clearer picture of the reality of human trafficking, Thursday, February 04, 2021

By Anonymous :

I chose to listen to this podcast because quite frankly, I wanted to learn more about human trafficking and found that I have very little knowledge about the subject. I went into this podcast with a vague idea about what human trafficking is, and after listening to the whole podcast, I can now say that I was severely misinformed and mislead about what human trafficking really is. Amber really painted a much more clear picture of the reality of human trafficking. I always believed that the majority of individuals involved in human trafficking were victims that were forced into it and were essentially enslaved; Amber made it quite clear that this is not the reality. I had never heard the term “survival sex” before, but it makes quite a lot of sense that some people engage in survival sex because they have no other options and need a way to support themselves. The thought of making $500 a night versus working a minimum wage job is what really struck me as how it truly is a survival tactic. I enjoyed the way Amber discussed the stereotypes that are associated with sex trafficking and brought the reality of the issue to light. It was also comforting to hear Amber discuss how most of the literature is misleading, because it explained why I had so many misconceptions about the subject. I really liked how Caitlin asked how we approach this issue as social workers, because I was wondering the same thing. I liked how Amber responded with how we as social workers need to attend to the person and meet them where they are at, rather than immediately try to fix them and tell them that what they are doing is wrong. I still have many questions about human trafficking, but I feel as though I learned more from listening to this podcast than anything else I have ever read or watched that pertained to the subject.

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Average Rating: 5stars  a much needed conversation, Saturday, February 09, 2019

By Bri Anderson :

I just wanted to start out by saying thank you for having this conversation. I think that this podcast does an excellent job having conversations that we all need to be having. Sex trafficking has gotten so out of control in the recent years, and identifying the different subgroups that we as a society should pay attention to is invaluable. A lot of conversations around sex trafficking have to do with populations other than homeless youth, and I think expanding this conversation really allowed me to think about who is really at stake. I read an article the other day about a nurse who created a program that teaches hospital personnel to identify a patient coming in who may be a victim of sex trafficking, and I think that something can be done on the subject of homeless individuals as well. Is there a way to "easily" track down victims on the street like it might be in a hospital setting? I think there was definitely a gap in the literature surrounding these vulnerable demographics, and it's refreshing to know that the research is expanding to include populations that others don't come into contact with as readily.

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Average Rating: 5stars  different perspective, Tuesday, February 05, 2019

By Anonymous :

I loved this podcast for many different reasons. I have always had a passion for ending human trafficking. I have been blessed to be able to advocate for those suffering from human trafficking in Mexico and a bit in Peru as well. That being said, I sadly do not know a huge amount about human trafficking in the United States. This podcast called my attention to a different perspective of those who are in the industry because they want to be for financial purposes. I personally would think that all view this industry as oppressive, however, after listening to the podcast it does make sense that it is easier to make $500 a night working in this industry vs. a job working at minimum wage. Often times, people who advocate for those in the industry, aim to "save" all of those there. The advocates don't usually ask if they are there on their own free will or against. Amber McDonald spoke about those who are in the industry because they are having "survival sex". I had never thought of that term before. In my mind I also never thought of this industry as a place to work and then leave, as McDonald mentioned some aim to do. As a MSW student, I think, as mentioned, it is extremely important to meet the client where they are at, especially in this circumstance. It's important to try to put aside our views of "how horrible" we thought things were for them, etc. Even though, if I had a client who left or escaped human trafficking, I would want to help her/him through the trauma. I know now that I should listen to what he/she has to say before assuming that their situation was horrendous.
Great podcast! This really has me thinking!

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Average Rating: 4stars  an msw student's perspective, Monday, February 04, 2019

By sarah baker :

When it comes to the

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Average Rating: 5stars  an interesting topic with a new point of view to offer, Monday, April 23, 2018

By Brandon DuFrane :

The topic of this podcast interested me right off the bat. About 5 minutes into it however, I realized that it was going to get me to think about child sex trafficking in a way that I haven't thought of before. The gaps in the way legislation and society view child sex trafficking, and how it is actually experienced by the victims got me thinking. I felt as though this podcast did a very good job of correcting any misinformation I had on the topic, and allowed me to connect dots that I had no idea society itself had a hard time connecting. A point I found very interesting was the "victim worthiness" discrepancy that society has because of the perceived separation between trafficking and survival sex. What shocked me was the Trafficking Victims Protection act, and the rather late year (2015) that it was enacted. The final note-worthy point I noticed was the issue of biased samples taken for research from a population that was long removed from danger. Considering these points, my understanding of how society views trafficked children has changed.

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Average Rating: 5stars  important topic for sw, Saturday, February 10, 2018

By Aubree J. :

This is an important topic for everyone to be aware of because it is happening everywhere. I recently attended a full day conference that dug into this issue and what is happening locally and globally. Part of the conference was dedicated to what we need to watch for as professionals that may come into contact with the victims. Sadly, everyone seems to have an attitude that this is not happening here, but it is. It’s happening everywhere.
It was interesting for me to hear about how slow the legislation was to come about and how it is still lacking. I am interested in macro social work and this is a perfect example of why advocacy is needed. As Amber said, we need to continue having a dialogue with different people to continue making progress. As social workers, we need to be aware of red flags to watch for and we have to know how to approach someone with a person-centered approach. On a macro level, there is a lot of work to be done. This topic requires our advocacy and fighting for updated policies and legislation. On a micro level, I agree that we need to listen to our clients and understand their experiences from their lens before we can begin to help them.
I enjoyed this podcast. The interviewer, Caitlin, had great questions for this podcast that were thoughtful and allowed Amber to talk about the many issues she has faced in her research. As a student, I found the details about her research and peer review interesting and helpful. Hearing from someone that is working on such an important topic leaves me feeling hopeful. We all need to continue researching and learning about this topic in order to help those that vulnerable.

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Average Rating: 5stars  review of podcast , Wednesday, February 07, 2018

By Savannah Figueroa :

I really enjoyed this podcast by Amber McDonald on Sex-Trafficking. She really puts it into perspective the differences between sex trafficking in the United States and in international countries. I am happy she distinguishes the differences because many Americans do not believe this is actually happening in our country and belittle international countries for this unjust behavior. In the United States, there are many children who are victims of Human Sex-trafficking. She made an obvious and hidden suggestion that we need to address the issues with the youth that are entering this "world" and not only focus on adults who are victims. In the United States, survival sex is very real and common within society. This can happen within corporations and organizations with people that may think that they need to engage in this to keep their job, for example. Therefore, survival sex is not only within the homeless and marginalized communities. There are similarities between survival sex and sex-trafficking, therefore it should not be ignored. It is true to what she says that we as a nation do not have a absolute and clear view of what is happening in the United States with Human Sex-trafficking.

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Average Rating: 5stars  the underground sex world and vulnerable youth, Wednesday, February 07, 2018

By Jennifer Cardona :

I found this podcast to be very interesting. I thought Ms. McDonald did an incredible job breaking down the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of our youth. Prior to listening, I had no idea just how large of an issue it is in this country. My passion has always been working with young people so it was heartbreaking to hear that the majority of youth engaging in sex trafficking is due to survival sex (either to pay bills, support their family or some sort of other social problem). Ms. McDonald spoke clearly on the notion that survival sex means something different for everyone who is engaged. To my surprise, some are involved in order to have a sense of community. I’ve known that some people join gangs for that purpose but I never thought youth would involve themselves in the sex trade for that reason. Some get involved for reasons of sexual identity exploration and some simply desire designer clothing in order to feel meaningful in society. Whatever the reason, most youths want to get out but until we can offer some sort of alternative to having their basic needs met, we cannot expect to have this social problem disappear anytime soon. This puts the responsibility on the shoulders of every social worker and legislator to figure out how to provide an alternate solution.

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Average Rating: 5stars  sex trafficking and youth , Sunday, February 04, 2018

By Meaghan Jewett :

I like that this podcast focuses on youth, because youth cannot consent. Whether they are opting to trade and sell sex or are being sold, in both cases there cannot be consent but there is a difference in agency. What I found the most interesting was the distinction Amber makes between survival sex and sex trafficking. Personally I never combined the two, I understood sex trafficking as being sold for sex by another individual, where as survival sex is engaging in trading and selling sex in order to survive, whether it be with money, a place to stay, etc. Now hearing that only 10% of instances considered sex trafficking are the idea of "sex slavery" is interesting for me to hear going into this with my already held distinction. In the beginning, and carried throughout, Amber did a great job discussing how working with youth involved in sex trafficking is rescue based and the issues surrounding that. Everyone wants to get the youth out of the situation, but aren't addressing the situations that got the youth involved in sex trafficking and survival sex to begin with. By addressing the fact that many of these youth have needs that aren't being fulfilled, and used trading and selling sex to fulfill those needs, seems to be the real first step while working with these clients. It's about meeting the client where they are, and taking the time to learn and understand what has lead to their current situation. If we aren't helping these youth fulfill those needs elsewhere or implementing preventative interventions, you can "get them out" but you haven't actually helped them or provided them with what they need. Moving forward with my MSW and into my career this has reinforced the importance of meeting clients without judgement and taking the time to understand where their decisions are coming from in order to provide the best long term solutions for achieving what the client hopes to achieve rather than what we have decided the client should achieve.

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Average Rating: 5stars  love this episode - nuanced understandings of sex work are vital!, Sunday, February 04, 2018

By Teresa :

I’ve worked with CSEC youth, sex workers and activism groups like SWOC ( and STROLL (, and though research-based literature is becoming available, the majority of what I find is about trafficking.

Therefore, I’m enamored with Ms. McDonald’s proposed Maslow-based theory. It may help capture the nuances of the industry and offer alternative narratives to abuses- abuses that flourish partly because of criminalization and the trafficking policies Ms. McDonald discusses.

I do worry that even those of us who advocate for sex work let moralizing into our thinking, or that we advocate apologetically; for example, Ms. McDonald says more than once that “Most of the people that you talk to in the industry don’t want to do this forever”. But near the end of the podcast she states that when the other options are unattractive, people will stay in the sex industry. If the alternative is janitorial services or manual labor jobs which wear out the body and pay poorly, why we don’t talk about how the people in THOSE industries don’t want to do that work forever, or why those alternatives aren’t more appealing than the sex industry? I have privileges that allowed me to stop working as a cook, but restaurants were how I paid my bills for a decade; the sexism and poor working conditions weren’t anything I wanted to handle forever.

While I don’t believe that anyone (especially youth) should be in a position that necessitates survival sex, I’m also a queer person who knows this current reality: somewhere around half of homeless youth are trans and queer- and in particular trans youth are often denied employment (even if they are old enough to work). This problem magnifies when intersected with other issues, like racism or mental health struggles.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. McDonald’s assertion that social workers must engage people in the sex industry from a client-centered perspective, as we would with all other clients.

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Average Rating: 5stars  sex trafficking review , Thursday, February 01, 2018

By Molly Ritter :

Amber McDonald describes the differences between our legislation's view on sex trafficking and the victims' experiences. She uses relevant legislation to explain that the people making the laws regarding sex trafficking do not know what is best for the victims. The language that is used like "sex slavery", as McDonald states, or seeing "pictures and media of girls being chained", gives us a misrepresentation of what it means to be a sex worker in the United States. McDonald explains that we don't have a lot of unbiased research on young sex workers in the United States. I was extremely surprised that only 10% of sex workers are enslaved in our country. It is so interesting to me that prostitution literature shows that the prostitutes with agency don't want to be prostitutes full time. In our field, I find the interconnectivity between adverse life experiences and mental health disorders to be staggering. The same is true between adverse life experiences and prostitution. According to McDonald, many sex workers are using their prostitution to pay the bills due to an adverse life experience that has misplaced them in some way. When working with our clients, we should avoid judgement. This podcast made me think about how we treat and work with our own clients. I think it's important to remember that we need to listen to our clients. As social workers, we should be working with the clients side by side, and our clients should have input on the interventions that we use. In addition to this, we must not make assumptions based on what we have heard or seen in the media, and should instead listen to what our clients' personal experiences have been. As i enter this profession, I hope that I can listen to my clients' stories without judgement.

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Average Rating: 5stars  interventions ii review, Thursday, February 01, 2018

By Abbie Burd :

Being a current MSW student, there is a lot of valuable information Amber gives about this topic. In classes, we are always taught to "meet the client where they're at." I always have this in mind while working with clients at my field placement. Amber touches on this and you can't meet the client where they're at if you don't know where they're at. It is often hard to understand where they are at. It is also important to always remember that though we are the professionals, we should not be telling them what we think they need to do. It is crucial to not judge the client on how they decide to pay that bill or buy the purse as Amber stated. Instead, it is valuable to ask them what they think they should do. The person-centered approach is important to use with the clients we serve.

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Average Rating: 5stars  survival sex, csec, and sex work., Wednesday, January 31, 2018

By Jessica Brown :

I appreciate this look into the complexity of responding to commercial sexual exploitation of children. Listening to this podcast gave me an aha! moment like you describe when I heard about the separation between the research on “survival sex esp. In LGBTQI youth populations” and “commercial exploitation of children”. I would love to read more about this and understand if, as you suggest, there might be oppressive biases in our own research.

I lead a program focusing on strengthening families and resources for youth who are currently or at risk of runaway and homelessness In Tompkins County, NY. As a county we have been working on a coordinated response to the problem of youth who trade or sell sex, often to meet basic needs. The options currently available are inadequate, as you discuss. It can be difficult to get youth to see themselves as “homeless” or runaway” let alone “victims of sex trafficking”.

The nuance that is available in your theory of survival sex hierarchy is fascinating. I would love to hear more about that as it relates to feminist thinking on sex work. Does the assertion you make that everyone who is trading sex is, at some level, engaging in survival sex square with the concept of women’s agency in sex work? For adult women is sex work always a tool of oppression (Rosewarne 2017)?

Lauren Rosewarne. (2017). Radical feminists’ objection to sex work is profoundly un-feminist. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from

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