With the bright lights of the Winter Olympics upon us, and the fading lights of the Super Bowl behind us, a recent article suggests that in the shadow of these global sporting events lies an increase in human misery, because "any location that sees an exponential increase in men travelling for entertainment will receive a proportional increase in those who purchase sex." While some of this activity is presumably conducted by adult prostitutes who have in some measure chosen "the oldest profession," the article reports some "hard data" from past years' events that a significant number of young girls are victims of human sex trafficking.
Once a hidden and silent crisis thought to be an issue primarily in third world countries, these events are bringing this tragic trade closer to home. Campaigns to increase public awareness are growing and legislative efforts to fight sex trafficking are being introduced, but the challenge is difficult. Estimates suggest that at any given time 2.5 million individuals are being trafficked, compromising the dignity of these persons and inflicting serious psychological harm.
The harm suffered by persons who are coerced and forced into sexual activity for the profit of others is enormous. These victims suffer drug and alcohol addiction, broken bones, STDs, miscarriages and forced abortions, shame, grief, self-hatred and a host of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms such as anxiety, depression, hyper-alertness and nightmares. The gravity of the distress suffered is attributable not only to the typically-deplorable conditions in which they are forced to live and the inhumane expectations of their 'work,' but also reflects the reality that the persons who are victimized by sex traffickers are targeted because of pre-existing vulnerabilities. Researcher Elizabeth K. Hopper, PhD who directs Project REACH (Rapid Evaluation, Assessment and Consultation for Human Trafficking Victims) states that victims are targeted "because of poverty and lack of opportunity, but (also)…have experienced previous trauma, whether it's witnessing domestic violence (or) having been previously assaulted themselves…"
Dr. Hopper goes on to say that "such situations render individuals susceptible to false promises that they'll have wonderful lives…" if they take the offer of starting a new life in a new country with the trafficker or his connections. These young women, desperate for a future different from their past, are lured into bondage.
In addition to the international traffickers who prey on women from impoverished countries, in the U.S., this same phenomenon is taking shape in communities everywhere. Some gangs have discovered that, in comparison to their more-traditional ventures, it is more profitable and less risky to "befriend" the lonely and vulnerable girl at the mall, initially under the guise of becoming a boyfriend, and then, only later, to enlist the girl's "help" with their "financial problems" through selling herself to others.
Given the harsh life and negative physical and psychological consequences which are suffered, how is it that the persons victimized don't try to escape or notify the authorities of their predicament?
To answer this difficult question, one has to realize that the persons are recruited and coerced into the position through a variety of grooming and manipulative means. By posing as boyfriends, with promises of a great life in the U.S., or by utilizing current female victims as recruiters who are perceived by the target as trustworthy, traffickers hold out the promise of filling the most deep-seated emotional needs of their target. Once they have gained some emotional and physical control over the victim, they then compel ongoing compliance through violence against them and threats against their family members.
By isolating these young girls, forcing upon them a constant flurry of activity and depriving them of comfort and food, traffickers create a world of fatigue and disorientation which prevents victims from realizing they have options or deprives them of the energy needed to pursue freedom. Furthermore, because the victims often lack language skills and an understanding of the legal system, traffickers lead them to believe they will be harmed or jailed if they try to escape. Consequently, these young women are caught in a state of learned helplessness, where they often retreat into a fantasy world and cease to think they can ever have a normal life.
The dynamics of human sex trafficking make it particularly difficult to identify victims and to provide the assistance they need to heal. The fear with which the victim lives is often a huge barrier to her self-identifying and seeking help. Even once identified, her trust in others has been so shattered that she may reject genuine assistance when it is offered. Psychological sciences have not yet established specific treatment standards for victims, but research on the treatment of trauma and torture victims provides a reasonable framework for guiding intervention.
Legislation like that introduced by Texas Representative Poe and colleagues (H.R. 3530: Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act) which boosts support and protection for victims, as well as increasing penalties for not only the trafficker but also the buyer of services, begins to provide a juridical framework that socially disadvantages rather than incentivizes trafficking. Other countries which have focused on the consumers of the sex trade have noted a decrease in trafficking as a result (Sweden, for example).
While there is much to be done legislatively and culturally, most important for the victim right now is that she be identified, that she come to know that she deserves better, and to know of, and trust in, her inherent dignity, which no measure of abuse or coercion can take from her.