Native American Women: Child Abuse, Prostitution, Trauma, Medical Problems

By David H. Nguyen, Ph.D.

Native_American_little_girl_at_Celilo_Falls_(3229174441)An article from 2011 highlighting the plight of Native American women in Minnesota who were prostitutes reveals the ugly side of prostitution. The abuse these women endure leaves with them PTSD, brain damage, and drug addictions (1). Cancer InCytes focuses on the healthcare needs of disadvantaged populations in order to raise awareness, spread information, and learn about the links between childhood trauma and cancer.

Arthur Michalek, Ph.D., an expert on cancer disparities for several decades, wrote an article for Cancer InCytes about the disproportionate rates of cancer in Native American women in the United States (2). Childhood trauma is associated with many chronic diseases during adulthood, which is a public health concern for children who are coerced into sexual slavery (3). Since childhood trauma also associated with the risk for developing cancer during adulthood (4, 5), the reasons behind the high cancer rates in Native Americans becomes clearer.

Quotes from Leslie Bennett’s “Native American Nightmare.”

Conducted by the nonprofit Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and the San Francisco–based Prostitution Research & Education, the study is based on interviews with more than 100 Native women. “Before this, nobody had ever done research speaking with Native American women used in prostitution and trafficking,” says Nicole Matthews, executive director of the coalition.

The report, released today, found that 92 percent of the women had been raped, 84 percent were physically assaulted, and 72 percent suffered traumatic brain injuries in prostitution. Almost all the women—98 percent—were either currently or previously homeless. Seventy-nine percent of the women interviewed said they had been sexually abused as children by an average of four perpetrators.

Nearly half the women in the study had been used by more than 200 sex buyers, and 16 percent had been used by at least 900 sex buyers. At the time of their interviews, 52 percent of the women had posttraumatic-stress syndrome, a rate comparable to that of combat veterans. Seventy-one percent manifested symptoms of dissociation. “There’s times I’d walk around in a space-out because when I stop and think about reality, I break down and can’t handle it,” one woman said.

Most of the prostitutes had sought help for their problems, with 80 percent using outpatient substance-abuse services, 77 percent using homeless shelters, 65 using domestic-violence services, and 33 percent using sexual-assault services.

Although 92 percent of the women said they wanted to escape prostitution, the study reported that “there are currently few or no available services especially designed for Native American women in prostitution.”


1. Leslie Bennetts. “Native American Nightmare.” The Daily Beast. October 27, 2011. Accessed July 19, 2014


2. Arthur Michalek. “Cancer in Native Americans in the U.S.” Cancer InCytes. Volume 2, Issue 1, Summer 2013.


3. Vincent Felitti. “Childhood Trauma Linked to Chronic Diseases in Adulthood.” Cancer InCytes. Volume 2, Issue 1, Summer 2013.


4. Monique J. Brown, Leroy R. Thacker, Steven A. Cohen. “Association between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Diagnosis of Cancer.”PLoS ONE 2013, 8(6): e65524


5. Michelle Kelly-Irving, Benoit Lepage, Dominique Dedieu, et al. “Childhood adversity as a risk for cancer: findings from the 1958 British birth cohort study.” BMC Public Health 2013, 13:767



David H. Nguyen, Ph.D., is Editor-in-Chief of Cancer InCytes magazine. He is a tumor biologist interested in the links between childhood trauma and cancer. He studies both the biological and cultural components of cancer.

Image by OSU Special Collections & Archives : Common from Wikimedia Commons.

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