After hearing about human trafficking — especially domestic human trafficking and its sheer prevalence in our society (the topics of my two last articles in this series, accessible here and here) — there is one specific question that most people ask. This question is not one that any polite person would direct personally to a human trafficking survivor, though many do regardless, but it is nonetheless asked anyway. It is a question often asked of victims of other forms of sexual abuse and domestic violence that in a sense aims to find discrepancies in the victim’s story and even shift the incident’s culpability from the perpetrator.
It is not an illogical question, considering that traffickers do not necessarily employ physical force in order to keep their victims and that the nature of domestic human trafficking generally differs greatly from what is seen in developing countries; after all, if not physically prevented from walking out of the situation, why didn’t a trafficked victim just leave?
The brunt of the answer to this question lies in the fact that psychological coercion is coercion nonetheless. Traffickers may not employ physical force to restrain a victim, but they make threats to do so or convince the victim that there is nowhere else she or he has to go. Through the grooming process, the trafficker gains the victim’s trust. Once the victim has been trapped in the situation or “initiated” into forced prostitution, the trafficker uses an equally intensive process to cause intense emotional trauma, building up a belief that the victim has no other options than to continue in the trafficking situation.
For many, it is not as simple as leaving their residence and alerting the authorities; regardless of the blackmail, threats, or trauma the trafficking victim may be dealing with, trafficked persons are rarely let out of sight of their trafficker or given enough free rein to escape even for an instant.
On average, the age of entry into forced prostitution is 12-13 years old, according to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. On average. This is not the youngest victims can be. This is a statistic that illustrates the complete depravity of this crime. Regardless of what you think an adult might be able to do to remove herself from this crime, it’s hard to justify that any 12 or 13-year-old girl should be capable of escaping a trafficking situation. There’s a reason that the definition of human trafficking for minors is simply that they are induced to perform a commercial sex act, without the qualifier of “force, fraud, or coercion” that is present in the definition for adults.
Many victims just don’t have the opportunity to leave, at least not without threats on their lives or severe blackmail. But occasionally, some do leave, and that’s what confuses people the most when considering this question. If she was in a position where she could contact the authorities without her trafficker knowing, why didn’t she take her chance? Doesn’t that mean she wanted to stay in her situation?
No, not really. It’s because of a psychological phenomenon used as a coping mechanism called Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome, sometimes called capture-bonding, is one of the most advanced psychological survival mechanisms a human can develop, and it puzzles outsiders every time a human trafficking case or kidnapping makes it to the media
In 1973, four bank employees in Stockholm, Sweden, were held hostage for six days by a couple of ex-convicts. After being released, they held what onlookers described as psychologically atypical views: They held feelings of sympathy toward and identification with their captors and resistance to the police and authority figures. These symptoms carried on for years after the original incident. Researchers coined this atypical relationship between abuser and victim “Stockholm syndrome,” though it’s actually not that atypical; this is an extremely common phenomenon in sex trafficked victims.
According to Shirley Jülich in the Fair Observer, the warped perception of an abuser arises from four factors: a perceived threat to survival, perception of kindness, isolation, and perceived inability to escape. Jülich explains that “for most victims of sex trafficking, there is a clear and direct threat to their physical survival… They are very aware that they cannot survive without the protection and support of the abuser. Some victims might experience threats to their family…”
Jülich goes on to stress the captivity’s effect on the victim’s ability to understand kindness and love. “Perceptions of kindness — even in the smallest form — can take on disproportionate understandings” such as displays of love. If physical or sexual violence ceases, this is seen as a display of kindness or love.
Human trafficking victims are not isolated in the same way that hostages are. The isolation found here is psychological and emotional. “Victims come to believe that they have no one else to blame but themselves,” Jülich says. There is a distinct isolation from the viewpoints of any but the abuser, who intentionally builds up a warped perception in the victims’ mind of the world around them. And similar to this psychological isolation, a victim may build up the belief that she or he simply cannot escape due to any number of factors.
Stockholm syndrome is not terribly different to understand, and it’s not an entirely new concept to most people either. So why the victim-blaming attitude and the same question every time? The answer to that is simple, according to Jülich: “Their perception is distorted by a need to believe that they would act differently if they found themselves in a similar situation.”
It might be easy to tell yourself that you would do something differently if you were in a trafficking situation. I mean, that would be the goal, and that’s what prevention efforts focus on most — if you ever are in a similar situation, you’d want to do something differently. But victims should never be blamed for their situations. At the heart of this issue is not poor choices made by victims themselves, but the pure depravity of the aggressors, the inaction of bystanders, and the flaws in our society, from social attitudes to the flaws of the foster care system. That’s why these incredibly resilient women and men and, as difficult as it is to face, children, when finally removed from their situation, are not referred to as victims, but rather as survivors.