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What Goes on in a Trafficking Survivor’s Mind?


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most prevalent diagnosis’ trafficking and prostitution survivors are faced with after leaving a life of sexual exploitation. PTSD, simply put, is the result of trauma. From the physical torture and emotional manipulation often inflicted by the pimps to the continual sexual assault they endure from the tricks, trauma is truly the cornerstone of sex trafficking and prostitution.

Trauma can be categorized in numerous ways through complex and non-complex situations. For example, you can develop PTSD from a single traumatic event, like a car accident. However, PTSD can also occur from something much deeper, like being physically abused by a caretaker as a child.

Trauma is multi-faceted and oftentimes difficult to navigate. The definition of trauma and the subsequent signs are described by professionals as “the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.”

Survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution experience a never-ending loop of trauma for years, and sometimes decades at a time. The fight-or-flight response is almost always on alert, so there is truly never a dull moment in their recovery. Sometimes even a trip to the grocery store can lead to full-on panic and despair due to the most intricate emotional triggers.

After spending nearly three years with survivors working on their long-term recovery, I’ve become adapted to the manic milestones that haunt them and the specificities of trafficking-related trauma.

In my opinion, trafficking trauma is the most daunting and devastating wing in the world of complex trauma. You see, complex trauma is different than “regular trauma.” According to psychologist and trauma expert, Dr. Christine Courtois, complex trauma is “a type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, usually over a period of time and within specific relationships and contexts.”

In my opinion, trafficking trauma is the most daunting and devastating wing in the world of complex trauma.

She later elaborates that complex trauma commonly occurs at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life, especially in early childhood or adolescence, but can also occur later in life and in the conditions of vulnerability associated with things like disability, disempowerment, and infirmity.

Let’s dismantle this definition a bit and see exactly how sex trafficking fits the mold of complex trauma.

1. Sex trafficking is repetitive.

In most cases, individuals are not trafficked only once or twice. These nightmarish situations are stretched across many weeks, months, and even years. The trauma is persistent. The rapes and beatings are ongoing, oftentimes being implemented for hours and hours on end.

2. Sex trafficking is relational.

Many times, the person who is inflicting abuse or enforcing exploitation is also in the role of caretaker, as well. Sometimes, they are trafficked by parents or uncles, other times, survivors can be trafficked by friends or boyfriends. Very rarely are trafficking survivors exploited by complete strangers. Relationships build trust and traffickers know this, which is why they typically choose to reel someone in emotionally before they use, abuse, and exploit.

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3. Sex trafficking is built upon vulnerability.

Traffickers are skilled artists in the areas of finding and exploiting a person’s vulnerabilities. A trafficker can target a potential victim’s vulnerability easily and efficiently once they begin to develop a relationship with them.

These vulnerabilities can range anywhere from family issues (like abusive or neglectful caregivers) or a lack of financial stability to a mental or physical disability. No matter what vulnerability they choose to target, the trafficker’s prime objective is to capitalize on the weakness of others and use it for their own gain.

Survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution feel the weight of their vulnerabilities every single time they are forced into another moment or another hour of sexual exploitation. This simple, yet continual reminder of powerlessness can keep them entrenched in the sex industry for obscene amounts of time, feeling as if there are no other options out there for them.

This simple, yet continual reminder of powerlessness can keep them entrenched in the sex industry for obscene amounts of time, feeling as if there are no other options out there for them.

Sex trafficking is by far one of the most catastrophic forms of complex trauma this world has ever seen. The survivors who make it out are left with a lifetime of emotional construction to clean up. The process of recovery is painful and brutal at times, but it’s also strikingly beautiful and remarkable to witness.

I have been extremely fortunate to witness many survivors fight (and win) some incredible battles in recovery from their exploitation. Facing a trauma-related trigger can feel like the fight of your life, and even the most minor battles can take on a life of their own.

Some of the most prominent victories I’ve seen include women testifying against their abusers in court, facing one of their former tricks at the local grocery store, or simply being brave enough to have a “normal” conversation with a man.

The look on someone’s face when they confront their worst demons and survive is by far one of the greatest miracles I’ve witnessed thus far. The path to recovery can often feel futile, but every trigger conquered is a reminder of their courage, strength, and resiliency. Facing their triggers, big or small, is further proof that they are one step closer to an exploitation-free life, and that is the greatest miracle of all.

Amanda Richardson is a professional health and wellness writer who specializes in creating content tailored to the female audience. She is especially passionate about social injustice, mental health, and addiction recovery.

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Photo Credit: unsplash-logoAndrei Lazarev