Research Overview

Artwork of a woman’s face.
Somebody’s Sister, Art credit: Artworks for Freedom

The STREETS research agenda is led by Dr. Lara Gerassi whose research focuses on enhancing the health and wellbeing of people who are involved in the sex trade and/or are at risk of sex trafficking.  Her work uses an intersectional, anti-oppressive approach to 1) understand how sex trafficking experiences differ based on race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation among other identities; 2) improve sex trafficking identification practices among health and social service providers; and 3) strengthen the health and community responses for people at risk of sex trafficking and those with lived experiences of sex trafficking and homelessness.  She uses community-engaged approaches to increase methodological rigor of her studies and translate knowledge into practice.

Dr. Lara Gerassi has won the following awards for her astounding committment to anti-trafficking education and research:

  • International Scholar Award at the International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference
    • Watch Lara’s accceptance speech here.
  • Chancellor’s Inclusive Excellence Award from the UW-Madison Distinguished Teaching Awards Committee
  • Exceptional Mentorship Award (June 2021). Undergraduate Research Scholars
    Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Founder’s Award Recipient for Commitment to Academics (May 2009). New York

Additionally, STREETS has been able to promote the research of other partners through the UNESCO Chair’s Paper Series and other ad hoc projects. Several research tools have been applied and refined through STREETS and our partners to better identify victims of trafficking and understand the needs of survivors for recovery and wellbeing over the long term. 

Research Projects

Preparing Practitioners to Identify and Address Sex Trafficking in Northeast Wisconsin. This study assesses social service providers’ knowledge of sex trafficking red flags, screening questions, and engagement practices with young people who are at risk of sex trafficking. The project will result in the development of tailored sex trafficking trainings for regional providers across multiple service sectors (i.e. Child Protective Services, Youth Justice, Social Services).

Healthcare Providers’ Perspectives on Sex Trafficking Risk Assessment. This project is supported by a 4W Innovation Award and explores perspectives on sex trafficking in a large healthcare organization. The purpose of the study is to understand healthcare providers’ strengths and challenges of assessing patients at risk, the relevance and utility of sex trafficking indicators, and the screening and assessment strategies used in clinical practice.

Youths’ Perspectives on Sex Trafficking Assessment Strategies. This study surveys young people with lived experiences of homelessness and/or sex trafficking. The purpose of the study is to understand the relevance to young people of language and strategies that professionals (i.e. social workers, teachers) use to discuss sex trafficking from the perspectives of youth at risk.

The Professional Leadership and Development of Young People with Lived Experiences of Sex Trafficking and Homelessness. This study uses an intersectional, grounded theory approach to understand how young people with lived experiences (ages 16-24) become professional leaders in housing, youth, and ST organizations, and how their professional roles impact their perceived well-being.

Prior Research             

Sex Trading Prevalence Among Dane County Students

Gerassi, L. B., Klein, L. B., & Rosales, M. del C. (2021). Moving Toward Critical Consciousness and Anti-Oppressive Practice Approaches With People at Risk of Sex Trafficking: Perspectives From Social Service Providers. Affilia.

UNESCO Paper Series

The UW-Madison UNESCO Chair Working Paper Series plays a key role in the early access and dissemination of research results that focus on gender and wellbeing to improve the quality of life for women and girls, and promote a culture of peace for all through education and feminist leadership. These working papers target both practitioners and researchers, and place a premium on clear and readable writing as well as careful research and analysis.

001 A Baseline Assessment: Analysis of Women Escort Advertisements Posted on in Madison, WI

002 The Construction of Silence: Narratives of Nigerian Women Crossing into Europe

003 Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: Dane County Needs Assessment

004 Policies and Services for Survivors of Sex Trafficking: A Report of the 4W STREETS of Hope Fora at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, July 2015 – September 2018

005 A Threat to Healing and a Barrier to Recovery: An Assessment of Health Impacts of Criminalization through the Stages of the Domestic Sex Trafficking

The four research covers for the UNESCO Working Paper Series

“We bring rigorous, scientific work and advocacy to STREETS. I now feel less afraid of the truth than I was, and more hopeful about making change.”

Lori DiPrete Brown

Research Methods & Tools

Research article cover page for Motivational Interviewing.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is an evidence-based practice designed to collaboratively strengthen a person’s commitment to change. Used in a wide variety of practice settings, motivational interviewing is recommended for use with individuals who are at risk of sex trafficking when discussing sex trading or relationships with potential traffickers. This study explored perceptions of motivational interviewing use, applicability, and engagement practices by conducting in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 24-hour service providers in a Midwest region.

Gerassi, L. B., & Esbensen, K. (2021). Motivational interviewing with individuals at risk of sex trafficking. Journal of Social Work, 21(4), 676–695.

Body Mapping Tool

The “Body Mapping for Trafficking Identification Tool” was developed by STREETS affiliate Esperanza Jorge-Barbuzano for use with migrant women in detention centers and other precarious situations where direct questions about trafficking could be dangerous for vulnerable women.  It is based on the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children to identify elements of human trafficking in the narratives of women’s lived experiences and health status.  The tool is trauma-informed and has been used successfully to identify trafficking survivors in need of protection who had been overlooked by other authorities. 

Explore the Body Mapping tool.

Women body mapping illustration.
A colorful daisy demonstrating what wellbeing means for trafficked survivors.

The 4W Wellbeing Model and Trafficking

The 4W Wellbeing Model, “Gender, Wellbeing, and the Ecological Commons,” recognizes multiple dimensions of wellbeing, which enable people to sense and express more specific and contextualized understandings of their lived experiences. STREETS worked with our colleagues who developed the 4W Wellbeing Model to enlist trafficking survivors in helping us understand what wellbeing means to them. An outcome of this collaboration was a peer-reviewed article in the journal Dignity titled Lifelong Wellbeing for Survivors of Sex Trafficking: Collaborative Perspectives from Survivors, Researchers and Service Providers.

Other Resources

Sexual Violence Research Initiative 

STREETS benefits from other campus partners like the Sexual Violence Research Initiative that includes researchers from the Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies, Psychology, Sociology, Social Work, and the La Follette School of Public Affairs. The participating faculty were chosen across multiple disciplines and engage in research that focuses on (1) psychological aspects of sexual violence; (2) societal aspects of sexual violence; and (3) policy related to sexual violence, at multiple levels (e.g., the university, the state, the nation, or internationally).

Text that reads, “Sexual Violence: Connecting Social Science Research with Policy”, for the Center for Research on Gender and Women.

Human Trafficking Institute

The Human Trafficking Institute combats trafficking at its source by empowering justice systems to stop traffickers. When justice systems have the tools and training to effectively stop traffickers, they protect the vulnerable and prevent potential victims from being trafficked in the first place.

Their approach implements a proven 3-part model designed to decimate trafficking at its source by stopping traffickers and preventing them from exploiting more victims. Our model helps justice systems more effectively prosecute traffickers, allowing cases to run more smoothly through the pipeline from investigation to trial. Our programs provide prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and social workers with the tools and expertise to decimate trafficking in their home country. The model includes specialized teams, targeted trainings, and embedded experts. 

Learn more by reading the 2021 Federal Human Trafficking Report. 

Other Publications

Borland, R., & Zimmerman, C. (Eds.). (2012). Caring for Trafficked Persons Guidance for Health Providers Training.

Chiara, G., Romaioli, D., & Contarello, A. (2022). Self-positions and narratives facilitating or hindering posttraumatic growth: A qualitative analysis with migrant women of Nigerian descent survivors of trafficking. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication.

DoCarmo, Tania; Vanntheary, Lim; and Chantha, Nhanh (2021) ““I Don’t Know Where Else to Go”: Pathways to Re-Exploitation After Female Sex Trafficking Survivors in Cambodia Return Home,” Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 6: Iss. 4, Article 8. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2021.06.04.08

Gerassi, L.B. & *Esbensen, K.. (2020). Motivational Interviewing (MI) among providers in a Midwest region: Perceived use, applicability, and challenges to engagement with individuals at risk of sex trafficking. Journal of Social Work. DOI: 0.1177/1468017320919856

Gerassi, L.B. (2019). How Adult Women Who Trade Sex Navigate Social Services: A Grounded Theory Study. Feminist Criminology. DOI:10.1177/1557085119885444

Gerassi L.B. (2020). Experiences of Racism and Racial Tensions Among African American Women Impacted by Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Practice: A Qualitative Study. Violence against women26(5), 438–457.

Gerassi, L.B., Nichols, A.J., +Cox, A., *Goldberg, K.K. *Tang, C.. (2018). Examining Commonly Reported Sex Trafficking Indicators from Practitioners’ Perspectives: Findings from a Pilot Study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. DOI: 10.1177/0886260518812813

Gerassi, L.B., +Colegrove, A., +McPherson, D.K..(2018). Addressing Race, Racism, and Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Practice through an Action-Based Research Partnership. Action Research. 17:2, 220-236. DOI 10.1177/1476750318807545.

Gerassi, L.B. & Nichols, A. (2017). Heterogeneous perspectives in coalitions and community-based responses to sex trafficking and commercial sex. Journal of Social Service Research, 44 (1). DOI 10.1080/01488376.2017.1401028

Gerassi, L.B., Edmond, T.E., Fabbre, V., +Howard, A., & Nichols, A.J. (2017). Disclosing sex trading histories to providers: Barriers and facilitators to navigation of social services among women impacted by commercial sexual exploitation (CSE). Journal of Interpersonal Violence. DOI 10.1177/0886260517746130

Gerassi, L.B. & *Pedersen, A.C. (in press). Knowledge of and Practice with LGBTQ+ people at risk of sex trafficking: Perceptions (and Assumptions) from Social Service Providers in a Midwest Region. Social Work Research.

Office of Justice Assistance. (2012). Wisconsin Human Trafficking Protocol & Resource Manual.

Rafferty, Y. (2019). The Identification, Recovery and Reintegration of Victims of Child Trafficking within ASEAN: An Exploratory Study of Knowledge Gaps and Emerging Challenges. Journal of Human Trafficking.

Rafferty, Y. (2013).Child trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation: A review of promising prevention policies and programs. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 83(4), 559–575.

Reed, G. L., & Enright, R. D. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5), 920–929.

Rosenthal Phelps, S., & Miyasaki, J. (2011). Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: Dane County Needs Assessment.

Zimmerman, C. et al. (2014). Health and human trafficking in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Findings from a survey of men women and children in Cambodia, Thailand and Viet Nam. International Organization for Migration and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Zimmerman, C., & Borland, R. (Eds.). (2009). Caring for Trafficked Persons Guidance for Health Providers. International Organization for Migration and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.