There are no ‘happy hookers’: In US sex trafficking is complex, brainwashes victims

Varied tools of manipulation 

According to Kara, the physical, psychological and emotional tools that pimps and traffickers use to control their victims are highly complex, perhaps more dynamic than New York state law recognizes. Victims may also feel indebted to a trafficker who took them from a very bad situation.

“Individuals who were minors when initially trafficked, or individuals who came from a history of sexual abuse may especially not understand what normal life and normal relationships are meant to be like,” says Kara.

Danielle Douglas was 17 when she was first trafficked, and remained under the control of a pimp for two years between 2000 and 2002. Her story is a common one: she was “boyfriended” in.

Originally, Douglass met a man she thought was great. They dated for a while, doing things an average couple might do. Then, almost overnight, she says he changed into who he really was — a pimp.

She didn’t see it coming.

Victimized by shrewd coercion

“You’re being manipulated from the beginning,” says Douglas. “The pimps know exactly what they’re doing. It’s part of the psychological and emotional manipulation. Right when you start feeling like you need to get out of the life and go, they do something that keeps you hooked in.”

Aside from the promise of affection, coercion tactics including sleep and food deprivation, forced drug use, and physical and mental abuse. Through various means, traffickers “brainwash” their victims.

When explaining why someone might defend or refuse to leave their pimp, Douglas says the closest phenomenon she can compare such a mental state to is the diagnosis of Stockholm Syndrome. This is a psychological condition likened to post traumatic stress disorder in which victims come to identify with their captors and abusers.

“I’ve always related the experience to that of [kidnapping victim] Elizabeth Smart,” Douglas says. Smart was abducted by a couple as a young girl, but remained with them for years, despite enduring abuse, even though she likely had opportunities to escape.

“I try to make them understand through her story. She was kidnapped, raped, [‘married’] by her captor, and basically created a family with him. She was free to move about and was not looking for help. The help found her. I think she had Stockholm Syndrome and I think that’s what happened in this New York trial,” she said of the more recent case.

Douglas, who will be featured in Tricked, a feature length documentary about sex trafficking set to be released this fall, has survived the psychological abuse of her ordeal. Yet, women who are not able to break free of the mental bondage of sex trafficking might not fare as well without the support of more supportive laws.

Do sex trafficking laws need to change?

Conservative estimates by the State Department state that between 14,500 and 17,500 victims are possibly trafficked in the U.S. every year. Globally, 7,705 sex trafficking prosecutions were pursued in 2012, resulting in 4,746 convictions.

Human trafficking is prohibited under the Thirteenth Amendment, the section of the Constitution that abolished slavery in 1865. The amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

To further address sex trafficking, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) and has reauthorized it every two years. TVPA broadly defines sex trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” But, because TVPA applies only to federal cases, each state is also tasked with legislating individually against sex trafficking.

These varying laws might not address the psychological harm done to sex trafficking victims, who often come to categorize their victimization as a choice. Kara has found that only after months, or even years of recovery, do some sex trafficking victims slowly realize the nature and extent of their exploitation and ultimately rebuke their former pimps.

“For these and other reasons, every sex trafficking case needs to be considered with great attention to the details of the victim-exploiter relationship, especially where the victim entered the relationship as a minor,” Kara says. “Control comes in many forms and is rarely overt. The law on sex trafficking must therefore be designed to take into consideration the wide variance of conditions that are at play when one makes an assessment on issues like ‘coercion’ and ‘voluntariness.’”

Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR

This article has been updated to include information about the coming documentary, Tricked.