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Traumatic Bonding in Survivors
July 8, 2020

At the end of this month, on July 30, we’re observing the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. As the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report was recently released, we’ll spend time this month delving into a couple of the issues highlighted in this year’s report that we’ve mentioned briefly in the past, but agree are worth a special focus of attention. The first issue is traumatic bonding of survivors.

There are often stereotypes about how a victim-survivor might think or behave when they escape from a trafficking or other exploitative situation. People assume survivors would be grateful to escape, harbor anger towards the person responsible for their exploitation, be trusting of law enforcement, and would probably want to do anything to help prosecutors secure a conviction against the trafficker(s).

Of course, the reality is far more complicated.

We know that traffickers often entrap people by offering love, affection, attention, money, or even shelter and other forms of material support. At the beginning of the relationship, the victim is encouraged to depend on the trafficker for these things, and so, even after the abuse begins, the victim may not see the trafficker as victimizing them. Even after enduring harm, victims may develop deep bonds of affection for their trafficker, in many ways as a coping mechanism. This kind of affection is called traumatic bonding.

What Traumatic Bonding Is

Trauma bonding refers to the feelings of loyalty one might have to a partner who is destructive, and is similar to Stockholm Syndrome. It’s not very well understood how or why this kind of bond forms or how to resolve it, and even though it has been observed among people who’ve been victimized through sex trafficking, domestic violence, sexual violence, and other forms of exploitation and abuse, the medical community still hasn’t recognized it as a true medical syndrome and hasn’t even really settled on a clear definition.

In general, though, it is understood that:

“The environment necessary to create a trauma bond involves intensity, complexity, inconsistency, and a promise.  Victims stay because they are holding on to that elusive ‘promise’ or hope. There is always manipulation involved. Victims are prey to the manipulation because they are willing to tolerate anything for the payoff, which is that elusive promise and ever present hope for fulfillment of some deeply personal need within the victim.” – Sharie Stines

An additional thing to be sensitive to is the way we talk about trauma–it’s often talked about in ways that suggest a traumatized person is somehow defective. The way the body responds to trauma is not defective; it’s protective. According to therapist Resmaa Menakem, “trauma is not primarily an emotional response. Trauma always happens in the body. It is a spontaneous protective mechanism used by the body to thwart further (or future) potential damage. Trauma is not a flaw or a weakness. It is a highly effective tool of safety and survival.” Where it gets problematic is when it gets stuck in the body and remains unaddressed, thus leading to a pattern of thoughts or behaviors that do end up leading to harm. This is the part that needs to mend and heal.

In the case of traumatic bonding, compounded harm can look like cases where survivors may not be willing to work with law enforcement or prosecutors to bring the trafficker to justice. The trafficker may have trained them to fear law enforcement, or the trafficker has credibly threatened harm if the victim turns to law enforcement. This can be further complicated if the victim feels they have some reason to fear or distrust law enforcement–for example, if they’ve been trafficked internationally and fear deportation, if they fear incarceration for prostitution or other crimes committed while trafficked, or if they or their community have a history of fraught relationships with police or the justice system.

This is one of the reasons why the gold standard in justice leans heavily on partnerships between law enforcement and social service providers who can provide the counseling, trauma-informed care, and sensitive treatment of survivors to help them navigate rebuilding healthy forms of trust and attachment and ensure justice is not just punitive for the trafficker but also restorative for the survivor.


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