“Why doesn’t she just leave?” When we hear criticism of survivors, this is the question we most often hear. But the power and control a trafficker has is calculated, and often violent. Each survivor’s experience is unique but there is a general pattern to the way a person is trafficked. To gain a better understanding of this process, we sat down with Terry Forliti, Executive Director of Breaking Free in St. Paul, Minnesota to discuss the three stages of trafficking.
“Let me see your eyes,” asked Terry Forliti, as she searched every MY SISTER team member's eyes for a flicker of hesitation, break in eye contact, or lapse in self-assuredness. “I’m seeing if any of you are susceptible to recruitment.” As part of a training exercise, Terry assessed our level of confidence, our security within ourselves, and if she felt we might be manipulated or controlled by a trafficker. “None of you are susceptible,” Terry concluded. She called this “reckless eyeballing," a test that traffickers often use in the recruitment stage to gauge perceived self-assuredness and vulnerability. While eyeballing a potential recruit, a trafficker may shell out flirtatious compliments and praise, such as “you’re too pretty to be working here” or something similar.
This is only the beginning of the recruitment process. Once a trafficker has identified someone as potentially vulnerable, they will begin developing a “relationship” with the person being trafficked, and shower them with "love" and "intimacy". At the same time, they learn more about their target and identify other areas of vulnerability--whether economical, social, at-home, etc. We call this the grooming period. During recruitment, the person being trafficked is made to feel as though they are loved, safe, and secure, at the hands of their trafficker, who is taking care of them as a way to build their trust. Once trust and dependency is built, initiation is the next stage.
A note on vulnerability: There are multiple factors that make a person more vulnerable, and we know that all demographics, ages, and races are susceptible; however, certain factors increase the risk dramatically. We’ve summarized them below, but you can read more here.
- Individual risk factors, such as history of abuse, being a runaway, LGBTQ, etc.
- Relationship risk factors, such as family conflict or dysfunction
- Community risk factors, such as peer pressure, social norms, gang involvement, etc.
- Societal risk factors, such as lack of awareness of sex trafficking and exploitation and sexualization of minors
PLEASE NOTE: Initiation can be extremely violent and this is a warning that descriptions may be a trigger for some readers.
A person’s deepest insecurities and needs are preyed upon in the initiation phase. At this point, the person being trafficked may feel loved, and may feel as if they are in a positive, loving, and committed relationship. What happens next is horrifying. The story below is a shortened version of what happened to one survivor during her initiation--she was twelve at the time. We will call her Sarah.
Sarah (age 12) moved with her “boyfriend” to a new city on the promise that they were going to start a new life together where she would always be taken care of. Sarah loved her boyfriend, and trusted him. One day, her boyfriend came to her with a serious problem and stated that he owed someone $500, and he didn’t have the money. The person he owed was going to come after him and kill him, unless he was able to pay.
After long hours of deliberation and Sarah asking how she could help him, her “boyfriend” told her that he knew a guy who could pay them the money. He said that all she would have to do was “be like you are with me, but with him.” More deliberation ensues, and eventually, she agrees. He promised to be in the next room and to come running to her if she called out for him. Sarah was being set up by the trafficker and his “friend.” If that wasn’t the case, why else would there be a need for him to tell her that he’d be there if she called out for him?
The friend came over and they went into the guest bedroom. Sarah was raped, beat, defecated on, urinated on and sodomized, repeatedly. She screamed out for her “boyfriend” to help her. He never came. When it was over, Sarah came out of the room to see her “boyfriend,” while bruised and bloody, yelling that he never came for her. He got up, embraced her, and praised her for how good she was. He praised her for saving him, for saving THEM. He made her feel like she did something right, and that she was supposed to be treated this way.
Other accounts of initiation are just as demoralizing, although each person's experience is unique. During the initiation process, a person may be forced to take drugs, gang raped, tortured, threatened, and physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. The accounts of initiation are brutal and serve the purpose of breaking a person down, a process called being “turned out.” From there, if any attempt to leave is made, severe intimidation, threats, and violence trap the trafficked person.
After suffering extreme abuse, women may be enslaved with seemingly insurmountable barriers to escape--and we’re not talking about physical shackles. Many traffickers confiscate all forms of personal identification, take any money she earns, and make death threats against her or family if she tries to leave. He may also threaten to turn her over to law enforcement after forcing her to engage in illegal activity such as signing illegal documents or checks, moving drugs, stealing, or committing other crimes for the trafficker that could result in her arrest.
If someone tries to escape, retaliation can take the form of sexual violence, humiliation, and blackmail. One woman described having fireworks set off inside her vagina. Another woman was forced to perform oral sex on a dog in broad daylight as her trafficker looked on.
Homelessness, addiction, or a false sense of “love” or loyalty, may also be barriers. So no, she cannot “just leave." The barriers mentioned are why it is so important to have programs like Breaking Free, working to provide housing and aftercare for survivors of sexual exploitation. Sarah, the survivor we described in the initiation stage, has since gotten out of the life, with the assistance of Breaking Free. She shares her experience now to help others in similar situations. Without a safe and secure place to stay, hundreds more would be trapped. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is also prepared to answer any calls and provide assistance during all forms of human trafficking.
At MY SISTER, we support programs like these that are preventing trafficking, rehabilitating and empowering survivors, providing housing, and educating the community about how they can be a part of the solution.