If you had to guess what the most reliable predictor is for someone to get trafficked in the U.S., what would you think it was?
The answer is likely: a history of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
“They’re not looking at trafficking as this isolated, horrible incident.
It’s just the next bad thing that’s happened,” – Andrea Powell, founder of Karana Rising
One study suggested that up to 70% of adult female trafficking survivors were also victims of domestic violence (including sexual abuse) prior to their exploitation by trafficking. Trauma from previous sexual abuse is likely to mess with a person’s view of their self-worth, mess up their view of who among adults can be trusted, and to the extent the abuse is on-going, might push them to run away from home in search of safety or escape from the abuse–but the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children says 1 in 6 runaways show signs of having experienced sex trafficking. For some, it can feel like there is no safety or escape to be found.
In an interview with Fox News, Andrea Powell, founder of a nonprofit to help survivors, had this to say:
“The problems associated with trafficking are myriad for survivors, she said. The vast majority of women she’s worked with were sexually abused before being trafficked, adding to the trauma and stigma they’re faced with when, and if, they escape the vicious cycle.
‘They’re not looking at trafficking as this isolated, horrible incident. It’s just the next bad thing that’s happened,’ Powell said. ‘It’s like that bad icing on the bad cake. So, when they’re out of that situation, all those other root causes and traumas are still present and are now just compounded with the abuse, the potential STDs, unwanted pregnancies, stigma they face as survivors of sex trafficking.’”
In helping trafficking survivors, there is often so much trauma to unpack–so much so that they may not even view the trafficking itself as the worst thing they had to go through.
In a survey of sex trafficking survivors, 71% reported having a pregnancy and 21% reported having 5 or more pregnancies during their exploitation. The question is what happened with those pregnancies? Were the children born into a trafficking situation? Probably many were. Where did they go? Large-scale studies almost never tell us what the outcomes were.
However, we do know that just over half of survivors reported having an abortion and 30% said they had multiple abortions. And of those who had multiple abortions, about half of the survivors said at least one of the abortions was forced.
Can you imagine trying to maintain a preganancy, give birth to and raise a baby while being trafficked? Many victims have complications from STDs that they worry about passing on to their babies, and the negative effects of stress on pre-natal and child development are also very well documented.
Cindy Collins, who works at a crisis pregnancy center in Louisiana says, “traffickers who allow women to have children often do so as another form of control….Several trafficking victims she’s worked with were allowed to keep one child — an ‘anchor baby’— that the trafficker then used to give the woman a false sense of family, or which the trafficker used as a hostage to keep the woman compliant.”
On the other hand, can you imagine being forced to terminate a pregnancy?
“That is a deep trauma, not only the abortion experience, but the deep feelings of regret because this is a life she never intended to live, and now it’s taken the life of herself and her child, a second victim.” – Cindy Collins
For these women, rescue and rehabilitation requires so much more than sending the traffickers to jail. While the medical and legal professions have made major headway in getting on-board with trauma-informed care, there is still need for systemic responses that see beneath the surface of a sex-worker to understand that there may be layers of victimization, that trafficked women who are pregnant or have children have another set of special needs (child care, safe housing, parenting-related therapy, etc.) above and beyond other victim-survivors, and that women seeking abortions may not always be doing it of their free-will–that the abortion itself might be another warning sign of a exploitative situation.
And how much of all of this could have been prevented, if it weren’t for the sexual abuse of women and children, and for whatever it is that induces an aggressor to tell themselves that any of this is okay.