People tend to have many questions about the sex-trafficking industry, but one that is often skirted around and avoided is the question of why some victims “choose” to stay in their captor’s hands. “Why won’t she just run away?” “There are police officers everywhere at night! Why doesn’t she just flag one of them down?” “Why would she choose to stay with her abuser when she ‘has the option’ to leave?” These questions often lead people to believe that women, children, and also men, are choosing to be held in the lifestyle of sexual abuse. This view lacks understanding of the complex psychological issues at play.
How Trauma Impacts Victims
Patricia A. Resick’s study “Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD” discusses how people who experience traumatic events, certainly including sexual abuse, often experience a “learned helplessness resulting from the unpredictable and uncontrollable victimization experience”. Essentially, there is a lack of belief that they have the power to do anything to change their circumstances because what they have already experienced is too powerful for them to override without professional help. It will likely not surprise you to hear that victims also tend to struggle with trust and intimacy, not only with others but with themselves.
Something to consider about this conversation: If they cannot trust themselves to control anything in their own life, then how will they be able to make the decision to leave their abuser?
Furthermore, if they struggle to be intimate with themselves (in this context, intimate is referring to the ability to comfort and be alone with oneself), then how can we put the burden of escape on an individual? Expecting a sex-trafficked victim to run away from her captor on her own is much like placing the blame on a rape victim. In fact, they are rape victims, who experience abuse over and over again.
How a Victim Evaluates Her Choices
The Social Exchange Theory discusses the psychological process in relation to cost-benefit analysis (aka pros and cons) when making decisions. There are many factors a victim may have to consider prior to making an escape. Does she have resources once she is alone? Where will she get money to eat? Where would she go? Can she go to the police, or will they prosecute her for prostitution? Yes, that is a thing. While in California it is no longer the case, in more states than not (31 to be exact) children can be charged with prostitution. So if a child or an adult does escape their captor and approach someone in law enforcement, they would risk having to serve time in prison.
Imagine, you are finally free from your abuser, and then you are imprisoned, and your captor remains free.
Then there is the complex issue of Stockholm Syndrome, typically developed as a defense mechanism in abusive situations. In these instances, a victim develops a bond to the abuser in an effort to feel safe. But because of this, it can also diminish her will to run away or be rescued.
From an outside perspective, Stockholm Syndrome can appear frustrating. “Well, why would she let herself feel affection for someone who’s abusing her?” “Shouldn't it purely be a relief when someone comes to rescue her?” Try, with all your might, to push through these questions to the dire circumstances the victim is in. She is exposed to no other perspective but her captor’s. She has no belief that she will ever be rescued. She feels constantly threatened by her abuser. So she adapts. She is resilient. She adapts to preserve her own life.
So she adapts. She is resilient. She adapts to preserve her own life.
This is such an important thing to emphasize, the resilience of the human spirit and the strength that these women have to push through and fight for their lives.
Sex-trafficking victims have also been known to develop Multiple Personality Disorder as a means to escape “psychologically when [they] cannot escape physically. [Their] only escape may be to pretend the abuse is happening to another ‘part’ of themselves. If the sexual abuse is severe and prolonged, the ‘part’ [they] repeatedly escape to may develop its own identity, becoming separate from [their] conscious and accessible memory.” This is a not a weakness. It is a desire to survive, but it also requires thorough and in-depth counseling following leaving the life.
The importance of holistic healing cannot be overstated. PTSD, Multiple Personality Disorder, Stockholm Syndrome, deep guilt, a feeling of worthlessness, and emotional detachment hardly scratch the surface of the psychological trauma that these women, children, and men have endured.
It is critical to provide proper resources and psychological treatment to ensure that survivors are able to heal and move forward.
We can not just rescue them, provide a clean bed and some food, and expect them to be able to live regular lives. They have experienced severe trauma, and it is our job to support the importance of counseling and to make sure that they know their worth and can overcome their psychological battles.
Consider becoming a part of a survivor’s recovery by giving monthly through our Guardian program. The trauma-informed therapy we provide is not possible without people like you.
Special thanks to a friend (who has an MSW, specializing in Trauma Counseling) for sitting down and providing insight on these complex issues.
Resick A., Patricia, Monson M. Candice, Chard M. Kathleen, Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD.