When Dr. Stacey Litam began her career in the counseling profession, she quickly found her place of calling working among a specialized and often stigmatized group: sex trafficking survivors.
Early in her career, she realized that many counselors needed a “deeper understanding [of these differences] to better support this unique population.” The differences Litam refers to are based on a question she heard a licensed counselor once ask at a conference, which was “How are sex trafficking survivors different from prostitutes?”
It was then that she decided to devote her area of focus to this specialized population and work to educate counselors to better understand the weight that their words and societal labels have in “impeding our abilities [as counselors] to demonstrate empathy.”
At the inaugural Bridging the Gap Awards Ceremony held at this year’s Bridging the Gap Symposium in Atlanta, Georgia, Litam was recognized by the NBCC Foundation for her efforts when she received the “Outstanding Service to Specialized Populations” award.
Litam was selected for this award because of her commitment to serving and better understanding the clinical implications of counseling sex trafficking survivors. She has facilitated over 50 state, national, and international presentations on topics related to sex trafficking, human sexuality, decolonizing the minority myth stereotype, and the influence of internalized racism and intra-ethnic othering on Asian-American identity development.
Her research was the first to specifically investigate the role of “labels” on the attitudes of counselors working with sex trafficking survivors. To strengthen intervention strategies that prevent instances of forced child sexual exploitation, she has published two research case studies that outlined the processes of international child sex buyers.
At this year’s Symposium, she presented a workshop titled, “She’s Just a Prostitute: The Influence of Labels on Rape Myth Acceptance and Empathy in Counselors Working with Sex Trafficking Survivors.” During this presentation, she discussed her research findings as they relate to the use of stigmatizing vs. non-stigmatizing language when counselors refer to their own clients who are sex trafficking survivors, the ways in which these labels influence counselor’s work with this underserved population, and how to differentiate sex work from human sex trafficking.
She additionally has two solo-authored publications outlining best practices for counselors working with sex trafficking survivors and three research-based manuscripts submitted for publication, including an exploratory research analysis on the contributing factors of entry into the human trafficking trade in Nairobi, Kenya.
Though Litam is passionate about her work, it does not come easy. She says the most challenging part is “to set and maintain emotional boundaries” in order to preserve self-care practices.
Litam still comes up against societal barriers as it relates to working with a highly stigmatized population. When asked what myth about her target population she would want to dispel, Litam is straightforward: “People seem to believe that sex trafficking and human trafficking only occur in Third World countries. People also believe that only certain groups of people are being trafficked.”
On the contrary, she points out, “sex trafficking happens everywhere, in every country; even in the United States.” She has seen individuals from every socioeconomic status be affected and experience varying levels of trauma. That’s part of why she feels humbled to be able to hear the stories of her clients and the groups with which she works. Ultimately, she says, her passion for working with survivors is driven by her desire to leave the world better than she found it.
As an alumna of the NBCC Minority Fellowship Program, Litam has built an extensive network of relationships that have provided “support, mentorship, and connections to countless sources of support.”
Litam has a simple answer when asked what she would tell someone who is thinking about applying for the fellowship or scholarship program.
“Do it! Applying for an NBCC fellowship or scholarship will open doors and provide opportunities you did not even know existed,” she says. “My own selection as a 2016 Doctoral Minority Fellow continues to be a highlight in my career.”