Trafficking, whether for labor or sexual exploitation, is a form of human slavery. By necessity, traffickers always use violence, fraud, or coercion to subjugate their prey — because there is no such thing as consensual slavery — and often enough, after days, months, and years of trauma, the violence becomes so engrained in the minds of its victims that they come to believe in the validity of their exploitation. They cease to understand themselves as victims and instead become unwilling participants in subjugation.
It is impossible to quantify how much trauma it takes to do this to a human being. But we know that, for many survivors, their lives end up being irrevocably changed. Doctors have long known that trauma exposure occurs along a continuum of complexity, covering single-incident events to more far-ranging, reality-shattering instances of trauma.
On the low-end are things like car accidents — where the victim’s life remains relatively stable beyond the traumatic event. But for the victims of sex trafficking, their entire lives become a recurrent series of intrusive traumas, often involving stigma, shame, and violence. Indeed, the tactics used by traffickers to control their victims can only be compared with prolonged torture.
As such, sex trafficking lies on the extreme far end of the spectrum when it comes to human trauma. And the consequences of that trauma result in severe maladaptive behaviors, depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
The Spiral of Suffering and Exploitation
Traffickers, in many instances, seek vulnerable individuals as their prey. They know vulnerability makes someone easier to exploit, and since vulnerability comes in many forms, there are many options for the trafficker to choose from.
Homeless persons, emotionally or psychologically vulnerable individuals, runaways, the disenfranchised, the poor, anyone without social or institutional support. All of these are targets. Not only do these conditions make it easier for traffickers to exploit victims, but it also allows the trafficker to create states of dependence, which means as time goes on, exploitation becomes easier.
By replacing reality, bit by bit, traffickers gain an increasingly tighter stranglehold on the lives of their victims. This results in a never-ending spiral — a loss of personal control.
First, victims lose the ability to understand who they can trust. Being able to escape, at least on their own initiative, becomes increasingly difficult. The possibility of finding safety becomes synonymous with a chance to suffer more abuse.
Next, the ability to understand truth itself slips away amid a cacophony of lies. For victims, traffickers become the sole source of “trusted” information, and the only outside connection with reality comes from “clients,” men who pay for rape.
Finally, the very identity of the victim is stripped away. As a coping mechanism, many victims lose their ability to maintain a clear sense of self in relation to the world around them. They come to identify the intentions of their trafficker as their own intentions. At this stage, victims will believe that they have always consented to their own exploitation, but this is impossible. They have merely lost the ability to practice self-determination and make informed decisions.
When victims become survivors — when they are finally freed from the control of their traffickers — they realize that they had lost the ability to make their own choices.
The Lingering Effects of Sex Trafficking
The consequences of sex trafficking never end when the trafficker is caught. In most cases, the psychological trauma that results from sexual exploitation lasts a lifetime. According to a study conducted by American Public Health Association, 78% of women involved in sex trafficking reported “high levels” of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Victims of sex trafficking can experience any of the following disorders or symptoms:
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic disorders
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders
- Shame or Guilt
- Substance Abuse/Addiction
- Identity Confusion or Disturbance
- Suicidal Ideation
In addition to these symptoms and disorders, researchers also noted that there is an increased risk of compulsory psychiatric admissions for victims of sex trafficking. Indeed, even among those admitted, sex trafficking victims typically experience a longer stay in mental health facilities than people who have not been trafficked.
None of this means survivors are “ruined.” With help and guidance, every person has the ability to reclaim their life. But the sheer amount of violence and manipulation inherent in sex trafficking means that most victims will need to receive that help and guidance if they want to find a full recovery. And there’s no shame in that.
And that’s okay, but before anyone can take the path to recovery, victims need to realize they are victims in the first place. It’s important to understand that victims of sex trafficking might not be receptive to help or even committed to making changes, and that doesn’t mean they don’t need help. On the contrary, it often means they need even more help.
If you believe that you or someone you know has become the victim of sex trafficking, feel free to reach out to your local law enforcement agency on a non-emergency number. Or, if you simply need more information, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be more than happy to help.