Psychology, Department of


First Advisor

Richard Wiener

Date of this Version



Petty, T. E. (2021). Victim or offender? The response to sexually exploited minors (Publication No. 28712805) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Nebraska-Lincoln]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduated College of the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Psychology, Under the Supervision of Dr. Richard L. Wiener. Lincoln, Nebraska: July 2021

Copyright © 2021 Taylor E. Petty


Despite US Federal legislation mandating legal professionals treat anyone under the age of 18 involved in commercial sex acts as a victim and not an offender of prostitution, US States differ in their treatment of sexually exploited youth. One potential explanation for the differing treatment of sex trafficked youth could arise from the decision-makers emotional reaction towards these youth. Thus, I conducted two experiments to explore the impact of negative moral emotions on decisions involving child sex trafficking under varying case fact patterns. In Experiment 1, I manipulated youth sex, vulnerability background, and prior arrest history, and trafficker sex to determine under what circumstances emotions influence child sex trafficking decisions. Two different paths emerged depending on the youth’s sex, such that participants reported greater victim responsibility and greater negative moral emotions towards Chris (male youth) when he had a prior arrest for a commercial sex act, which in turn predicted a lower likelihood and certainty in recommending social services over legal consequences, but only when he was trafficked by a female. For the female youth (“Sarah”), participants reported lower believability ratings when she had a prior arrest for commercial sex acts, which in turn predicted a lower likelihood and certainty in recommending social services over legal consequences, regardless of trafficker sex. Experiment 2 sought to combat the emotional biases by engaging participants in one of four emotion regulation conditions. Similar to Experiment 1, I manipulated youth prior arrest history and vulnerability background in addition to the emotion regulation manipulation for the female youth and male trafficker vignette. Unlike Experiment 1, I failed to find any effects for prior arrest history, but I did find that participants who were instructed to suppress their emotions significantly reduced their negative moral emotions between Time 1 and Time 2, which in turn predicted a greater likelihood of recommending social services over legal consequences. Future directions and limitations are discussed.

Advisor: Dr. Richard L. Wiener