“When you build a house, the house builds you”: Transitioning methodologies in research with Southeast Asian youth

Posted: Fri Jul, 2022

Author: Glenn Miles PhD, Senior NGO Researcher in Human Trafficking and Safeguarding, UK; Jarrett Davis MA, Social researcher on child and vulnerable person’s rights, USA; and Madeline Stenersen PhD, Postdoctoral research fellow, Yale School of Medicine, USA. 5 min read


Research involving sexually exploited youth can look like many things, involve many people, and impact many lives. Over the past 14 years, we have focused our research in Southeast Asia on those who are often overlooked – primarily young men and transgender youth. Looking back on our research portfolio, it’s become clear that a spectrum of control has existed in our work. That is, that in every research project, donors, researchers, social workers, and research participants themselves, have all had varying levels of control in the research conduct and process. Any project must include discussion and consideration of control by donors, researchers, social workers, and the participants themselves.

This blog guides readers through five research projects we have undertaken in Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand. It considers the notion of control in the research process and, ultimately, the value of methods which seek to maximise the control of participants with lived experience to achieve more meaningful data and understanding about – and responses to – child sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Project 1: Love146 (Cambodia)

A small piggy bank

At Love146 we started with a few thousand dollars – a relatively small amount for most NGOs and nowhere near enough to do, what some may call, "proper research." However in retrospect, it may be that some of these financial limitations were actually quite helpful. They forced us to question what scholarly research was. We had the advantage of not being controlled by an external donor and were free to do what we felt was helpful to improve knowledge and practice.

In this project, it was very much the researchers who were in control of the research design, focus, and implementation. Whilst we spent some time learning from organisations who worked with sex workers on what research was needed, being fully in control with no NGO partner made it much easier to ask the questions we wanted to ask in our research ON transgender sex workers in Cambodia. When the time came to analyse the data there was no doubt about whether it would answer the questions because we had planned it exactly that way. We had our foundation, built on community knowledge, but the control and power of the research and the data captured, was held by us as the researchers.

Project 2: Street Children in Manila (Philippines)

Proving the concept

In this research project, a bit more control was given over to communities as the approach and methodology applied here was focused on working with NGOs to train the ‘social worker’ staff to conduct research with street children in Manila (Philippines), among other locations. This project utilised the direct, practical knowledge and skills of NGO staff in relation to sexual violence as well as their connection to the boys/men who they already had a relationship with. While these benefits were invaluable, the research team having less control in the project also came up against unexpected challenges. For example, though already connected with NGOs, this relationship did not always mean staff knew about how to ask difficult and sensitive questions and/or talk to participants about their lives in sex work, as was crucial to the research project. Less control also meant increased reliance on, and cooperation from, NGO leaders. This was more difficult in some locations than others and challenged us to navigate and manage dynamics between both local staff and participants, and between NGO leadership and us as researchers.

Project 3: ‘Boys for Baht’ in Chiang Mai (Thailand)

Furthering partnerships

Considerations of control come not only in project design and implementation, but also in ownership and dissemination of research data and products. Our previous research and relationship with a local organisation, Urban Light, in Chiang Mai (Thailand) enabled us to work with an experienced NGO who had excellent relationships with other NGOs, donors, and the young men themselves. Through this more collaborative, partnership-based approach, we were able to listen to and involve participants in the community, asking them to help us map where sexual exploitation was happening on the streets, in masseur parlours and in 'sex show' establishments. We presented the results to the wider NGO and research community and the press, alongside experienced practitioners who could answer questions about context we, as researchers, could not.

"Our skills are meaningful only in collaboration

with people working and living 'on-the-ground'."

Project 4: Online Male Empowerment Project (Thailand)

Putting participants first

Our most recent project involved gaining knowledge from boys and young men about their experiences of online ‘sex trade’ and exploitation. Though the original plan was to survey only youth assigned male at birth, the final sample also ended up including the experiences of a large number of transgender women and young adults. Though not originally planned for, allowing for flexibility in the data collection process, led to an entirely new line of enquiry and a dataset that was equally – if not more – valuable than that expected at the outset.

Though exciting to us as researchers, one of the anticipated challenges was having to update the funder…who didn’t quite anticipate (or pay for) a sample of this profile. Luckily, our funder at that time shared our values about the power of knowledge in all forms – and the importance of hearing the perspectives of all those affected by sexual exploitation in efforts to combat it. In doing work WITH, we also need to encourage and recommend funding that can grow and adapt with the research itself. By allowing for research that is able to take on an organic shape and adapt to the dynamics of the world (say, a global pandemic!) we can begin to do justice to the complexity of the human experience. Furthermore, there is a need for researchers, funders and other stakeholders to consider and value the relinquishing of some control in the research process and, for example, invest in hearing what those affected by sexual exploitation (or related experiences) think is important to explore and how such issues could be addressed.

Project 5: The Butterfly Project (Cambodia)

Control Over Time

The Butterfly Project was developed to do just that. This ten-year longitudinal research project commencing in 2010 has followed and worked with 100+ individuals who have experienced sexual exploitation and trafficking (a number of these being boys) and 14 NGOs. Through the evolution of this rare longitudinal project, we have learnt how researcher-participant control dynamics and relationships can change over time. For example, initially, participants were simply asked questions as part of the research project, however, as relationships of trust with researchers were able to develop over time, participants shared more honest, and in-depth experiences and opinions about their lives, in their care and in the research process. It is with this trust and time that rich and authentic information was gathered about how policies, programs, and research could be improved.

"There is a need for researchers, funders and other stakeholders

to consider and value the relinquishing of some control

in the research process."


More recently we have moved heavily to the side of working WITH participants in research, giving up much of that control that we are sometimes taught is central to “rigorous” research. This intensive and equitable collaboration brings with it some fears for us as researchers for sure. We have a vision at the beginning of every project and knowing that the execution of that vision is not something we can control is scary. It is, however, necessary to ensure that our research truly reaches and is informed by those we seek to serve. In this process we need to trust our partners and their expertise, knowing our skills are meaningful only in collaboration with people working and living 'on-the-ground'. This includes the honoring of those affected by sexual exploitation and trafficking as experts of their own experience, and the acknowledgement that children and young people can participate in research that is with them and for them.

For fun, we thought it would be interesting to try to self-score the five projects mentioned in this article. Using a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most participatory and one being the least participatory in the context of developing research questions specifically, we’ve considered the involvement – and control – of donors, researchers, implementing partners (NGO(s)), and survivors themselves. Ideally, we would like donors to have the lowest score and survivors to have the highest.

Involvement in the development of research questions:





Project 1





Project 2





Project 3





Project 4





Project 5



5 -2 over time

1-10 over time

About the authors

Glenn Miles is a Senior Researcher with up! International. He has pioneer led three INGOs in Cambodia and has facilitated a number of research projects listening to survivors of sexual exploitation; prostituted men, women, boys, girls and transgender as well as male sex buyers. He is the academic research advisor for the Chab Dai Butterfly ten year Longitudinal Research Project. He teaches/lectures up to PhD level and does PhD supervision on issues around child exploitation. He also speaks widely at International conferences. He has had a concern for active child participation for 30 years. He is an active member of GAHTS, EFN and GLC www.gmmiles.co.uk .

Jarrett Davis has spent the past 15 years designing and evaluating evidence-based research and programming for children and vulnerable persons who have experienced sexual exploitation and other forms of violence. His work spans the globe and includes specialist projects on harmful sexual behaviours, street-involvement in the Philippines, Cambodia, and Thailand, as well as children and young people who trade sex. Most of his work has developed in post-colonial settings, often at the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality. These perspectives guide his work by placing the lived experiences of children and vulnerable people at the forefront of research outcomes.

Madeline Stenersen is a psychologist, researcher, and an incoming Assistant Professor of Psychology at Saint Louis University, Missouri, United States beginning Fall 2022. Madeline uses community-based research and evaluation and big data methods to combat violence against people involved in sex trade in the United States and globally.

All three authors are members of the Our Voices University Network (OVUN)


Davis, J., & Miles, G. (2018). “They Chase Us Like Dogs”: Exploring the Vulnerabilities of “Ladyboys” in the Cambodian Sex Trade. Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence, 3(2). https://doi:10.23860/dignity.2018.03.02.01

Davis, J. and Miles, G. (2019) "They Shamed Me": An Exploratory Study on the Vulnerabilities of Street-Involved Boys to Sexual Exploitation in Manila, Philippines," Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 4: Iss. 3, Article 2. https://doi.org/10.23860/dignity.2019.04.03.02

Davis, J., Glotfelty, E., & Miles, G. (2017). “No Other Choice”: A Baseline Study on the Vulnerabilities of Males in the Sex Trade in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence, 2(4). https://doi:10.23860/dignity.2017.02.04.10

Miles, Glenn M.; Havey, James; Miles, Siobhan; Piano, Eliza; Vanntheary, Lim; Channtha, Nhanh; Phaly, Sreang; and Sopheara, Ou (2021) "“I Don’t Want the Next Generation of Children to Be in Pain Like Me”: The Chab Dai Ten-Year Butterfly Longitudinal Research Project on Sex Trafficking Survivors in Cambodia," Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 6: Iss. 4, Article 2. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2021.06.04.02. Available at: https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol6/iss4/2

James Havey, Glenn Miles, Lim Vanntheary, Nhanh Chantha, Ou Sopheara, Sreang Phaly and Eliza Piano (2021) “I shared my experience and what it was like.” An Introduction to the Butterfly Longitudinal Research Project – a collaborative NGO Project Part 1. https://thetcj.org/in-residence-articles/i-shared-my-experience-and-what-it-was-like-an-introduction-to-the-butterfly-longitudinal-research-project-a-collaborative-ngo-project?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=email_this&utm_source=email

James Havey, Glenn Miles, Lim Vantheary, Nhanh Channtha, Sreang Phaly, Ou Sopheara, Pheouk Phallen, Kang Chimey, and Wayne Hancock, J., (2021) “Staff need to believe in those children; to give them a chance and have confidence in them”: Survivor Recommendations from the Chab Dai Butterfly Longitudinal Research Project, Cambodia.Part 3: Therapeutic Care Journal Link: https://thetcj.org/in-residence-articles/6091?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=email_this&utm_source=email

Davis, Jarrett D.; Havey, James; Miles, Glenn M.; Channtha, Nhanh; Phally, Sreang; and Vanntheary, Lim (2021) ""Going It Alone": Following the Male Cohort of Survivors of Sex Trafficking of the Chab Dai Butterfly Longitudinal Research Project," Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 6: Iss. 4, Article 3. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2021.06.04.03. Available at: https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol6/iss4/3