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Exploiting The Vulnerable Part 4: Sexual Abuse and Sex Trafficking


If “trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability,” then a significant step in both prevention and intervention efforts is to understand what causes a person to be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. 

Over the past three posts in this blog series, we’ve discussed three reasons why foster kids are at risk for sex trafficking, two ways that homelessness sets a young person at risk for trafficking, and two ways that substance abuse and trafficking go hand-in-hand.

In this final post, we’ll talk about what is possibly the saddest and darkest of the four key triggers: sexual abuse. 

Some might argue that sexual trauma is the most significant factor that sets a young person at greater risk for sex trafficking and many studies reveal that 70-90% of trafficked youth were sexually traumatized prior to being exploited.

One study found that 70% of prostituted victims believed that being sexually abused as children influenced their decisions to become prostitutes.

We’ve heard many trafficking survivors say that they didn’t know any women in the life who had not been sexually abused or traumatized. 

 

So, we know that the correlation between sexual abuse and sex trafficking is obvious, but our friends at the Green Bay Sexual Assault Center have provided us with these facts on sexual trauma:

  • 1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
  • Sexual assault is a social problem crossing all racial, and ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, religions, genders, sexual orientations and ages.
  • 1 out of 5 individuals ages 10-17 received an unwanted sexual solicitation while using the internet.
  • 33% of sexual assaults occur when the victim is between the ages of 12-17.

 

But how does sexual abuse make a young person more vulnerable to sexual exploitation? Well, let’s look at how four core injuries of childhood sexual abuse are mirrored in victims of sex trafficking. 

 

INJURY #1: SEXUAL TRAUMATIZATION

The traumatic sexualization of a victim of such abuse causes a child’s sexuality to be shaped in a developmentally inappropriate and interpersonally dysfunctional fashion. It can happen when the child is repeatedly regarded by an offender for sexual behavior beyond the child’s level of development, or when there’s an exchange of affection, attention, privileges and gifts for sexual behavior. 

In trafficking victims, it happens in the seasoning process where the victim often experiences gang rape and/or sexual assault, is given a new name, is forced to watch and/or create pornography, and learns how to speak and act in the life. 

One of our friends told us that her entry point into the life of prostitution came immediately after she was gang-raped by her would-be trafficker and his friends. However, it began long before when she was sexually abused as a child.

 

INJURY #2: BETRAYAL

This is the dynamic by which a child discovers that someone on whom they were virtually dependent or someone whom they trusted on some level has caused them harm. 90% of victims of childhood sexual abuse know the abuser in some way.

In trafficking victims this happens a number of ways. It happens when her “boyfriend” or “daddy” figure becomes her boss. It also happens when the initial loving environment turns violent and is riddled with false promises.

When speaking of her trafficker, one young lady that we worked with some time back said “he was kind of like my dad, but kind of like my boyfriend. He would buy me things and pay for my cell phone, but then he’d force me to have sex with other men for money, but I never saw it.” Incidentally, she didn’t even realize the betrayal until she was out of that situation and we helped her understand what trafficking is and that she had been a victim.

 

INJURY #3: POWERLESSNESS

This is the dynamic of rendering the victim powerless and it refers to the process in which the child’s will, desires, and sense of worth are continually disregarded. The child literally feels that there is nothing that she/he can do to stop the abuse. One study showed that 91% of prostituted women who were sexually abused as children told no one.

For trafficking victims, this feeling of powerlessness is mirrored in many ways. Her trafficker often controls all the money, takes her ID, threatens her with violence, and brainwashes her into thinking that she has no other options and that she’s not worth helping.

The dehumanization of trafficking victims takes away their power. Our friend, Colleen, told us that during the two years that she was trafficked, she never heard her real name - her trafficker called her Emerald and that’s the only name she knew.

 

INJURY #4: STIGMATIZATION

This refers to the negative connotations that are communicated to the child around their experiences, which ultimately become incorporated into the child’s self-image. These are the feelings of badness, shame, or guilt that often accompany childhood sexual abuse. 

In trafficking victims, this type of stigmatization is very present. They are often arrested and treated as delinquents. They wear the societal labels of “whore, ho, prostitute, dirty, worthless.” They don’t feel that they belong anywhere outside of “the life” anymore.

In the book, Men Who Buy Sex: Who They Buy and What They Know, one man was quoted as saying, “Look, men pay for women because he can have whatever and whoever he wants. Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to them that real women would not put up with.” Victims of trafficking are treated as commodities, and they feel the sting of that stigma.

 

In one of the many books on pimping (yes, traffickers actually write manuals on how to pimp…!), one trafficker is quoted as saying “I’d like to thank all of those dads and uncles out there who started her training for me…”

Traffickers know that when they tell a girl to take her clothes off, there’s a part of that experience that feels normal for her because it’s been happening to her for so long. For many girls, their sexuality has been stollen from them for so long that it's an easy segue into using it to survive. Traffickers know that girls who have been sexually traumatized are prime targets.

The more we know what makes a person more vulnerable to exploitation, the more we can provide our young people with the support and services that they need to grow stronger, heal from their trauma, and find the resources they need to live full lives and avoid the traps that are set before them.

 

 

 

Sources:

Child Physical and Sexual Abuse as a Common Factor for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking

- Men Who Buy Sex: Who They Buy and What They Know