Although the injustice of domestic sex trafficking of girls and women is becoming more widely known, the extent of suffering they endure in their exploitation is rarely described adequately. Perhaps this shortcoming in reporting contributes to a lack of urgency to end sex trafficking and lack of commitment to restore those harmed by it.
A University of Rhode Island report stated that in addition to the human rights violation of being sold for sex, sex trafficking victims are also subjected to rape, domestic violence, physical assault, and psychological terror. A survey of 149 commercially sexually exploited (CSE) children in Alameda county by Oakland’s Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth (M.I.S.S.S.E.Y.) revealed that 61% of them had been raped.
The Pan-American Health Organization reports: “Trafficking victims experience violence by traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, clients and police. They are beaten, sometimes with weapons, and severely enough to require emergency room visits.” According to Dr. Melissa Farley of Prostitution Research & Education in San Francisco: “Sexual violence and physical assault are the norm for women in all types of prostitution.”
The psychological harm to sex trafficking victims is also severe. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services lists: “mind/body separation/disassociated ego states, shame, grief, fear, distrust, hatred of men, self-hatred, suicide, and suicidal thoughts. Victims are at risk for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) —acute anxiety, depression, insomnia, physical hyper-alertness, self-loathing that is long-lasting and resistant to change (complex-PTSD). Victims may also suffer from traumatic bonding—a form of coercive control in which the perpetrator instills in the victim fear as well as gratitude for being allowed to live.”
Such trauma bonding was indicated in Oakland’s WestCoast Children’s Clinic research of 113 CSE youth in Alameda and Contra Costa counties: “fewer than half recognize that their pimp or exploiter is not operating in their best interest.”
The Pan American Health Organization report also stated: “Considering the betrayal, violence and exploitation involved in trafficking, survivors may find it difficult to form meaningful, healthy relationships upon their return to ‘normal’ life. Numerous factors associated with trafficking (e.g. violence, isolation, betrayal) can have damaging effects on victims’ mental health. These conditions can provoke feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and low self-esteem.”
Wellspring Living is an Atlanta-based restoration organization for survivors of sexual exploitation. Their Women’s Program therapist Mindy Pierce said that sex trafficking victims have spent “years numbing, avoiding, ‘forgetting,’ or medicating the painful past,” which is a complex combination of “abuse, trauma, and lies.”
Therefore, pain processing involves patiently “peeling back the layers” of those experiences to address and correct the lies associated with each one. Yet it can be a shock to face the truth that the she was “never truly loved [by her exploiter] but only used as a replaceable commodity.”
The gallery of horrors that commercially sexually exploited children and women are trapped in demands prioritization in government, community, and citizen response. Any “delay means more days of unimaginable suffering for thousands of children in California,” according to a California Child Welfare Council report. That toll of anguish numbers in the hundreds of thousands for children and adults throughout the U.S.