The stereotypical image we have of a child sex trafficking victim is something along the lines of coercion through extreme force: a young girl being abducted, thrown into a dark and scary place, subjugated against her will and yearning for a chance to escape. Once freed, she heals from her wounds and goes on to lead a normal life. While there are these kinds of scenarios, this is not always how it works. There is a wide spectrum of how children are coerced into sex trafficking.
Coercion By Force
The stereotypical image does happen, but truthfully, it’s not usually to the traffickers advantage to have beaten and broken victims. Sometimes they are drugged to induce compliance, and once dependent, it becomes more likely they’ll keep returning to get their “fix”.
Other times, the traffickers will threaten to harm family and loved ones to induce compliance. Victims don’t try to escape for fear of physical harm or violence coming to themselves or loved ones.
When victims seek help, they may encounter many challenges. Their traffickers typically exert tight physical and emotional control by doing the following:
Confiscating their identification, cell phones, and money
Forbidding communication with family or friends
Monitoring and restricting movement. (Source: APA)
However, there are also many less obvious ways to compel a person.
Coercion By Debt or By Need
Also known as debt bondage, this involves a situation where a family owes money, and in order to pay it off, a child is given into servitude to work off the debt.
Another form happens when the child knows the family needs money, and will go “willingly” to help support their family.
There are obviously different degrees of “willingness” to help their family, but the very tricky thing here is that to the extent that the child in any way agreed to do this to support their family, the less likely they are to perceive themselves as a victim. But of course they are victims because they are children, regardless of their choices, and when it comes to knowing their family needs their help, it is a completely unjust imposition on the child.
Even if the victim escapes from the exploitative situation, as long as the conditions that cause it–whether threat of the trafficker or financial desperation–remains, there’s always a chance they could return.
Coercion By Friendship
The more insidious form of coercion comes in the form of a friend. A trafficker pretending to be a serious boyfriend who wants to be in a romantic relationship, or a friend who gives the child or youth expensive gifts and affection, lures them away from family and then begins to traffick them. Sometimes this can mean sharing explicit photos of themselves online. Sometimes this can mean prostitution.
Wanting to please their love interest or friend, desperate for signs of love and kindness, the victim will do whatever they ask, even after they’ve been compelled to work in a brothel or similar environment. This kind of situation can lead to Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim so thoroughly identifies with their trafficker that they try to anticipate their needs and completely link the happiness of their captor with their own. Furthermore, it makes them resistant to accepting help from police or other authorities because they’ve been taught to see them as the “enemy” and they want to protect their lover/captor. Unraveling that kind of conditioning can be incredibly complex–which means returning to “normal life” is even more difficult when the victim is not even clear why they might want to.
Whether a trafficker gains compliance through physical or psychological force, we should not let it cloud our vision of the innocence of victims. What can appear on the surface to be a “freely-made choice” may not, to the victim, feel like a choice at all.