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Why It Can Be So Hard for Victims of Human Trafficking to Seek Help

“Why did you stay?”

This question is often asked of victims and survivors of abuse, including human trafficking. Although it may be asked with good intent, it often works to put the burden of what happened onto the victim or survivor. The question also fails to acknowledge the dynamics of abuse that can make it challenging to leave. As with other forms of abuse, there are often complex reasons why a person may stay in a human trafficking situation, from the risk of physical violence to the effects of emotional manipulation.

Before talking about barriers to seeking help, it is important to understand how human trafficking most often occurs. While human trafficking can involve some degree of force, it most often includes psychological means like tricking, defrauding, threatening or otherwise manipulating victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor.

This often involves the process of grooming a victim. Grooming involves taking steps to draw a victim away from their homes and loved ones, or to gain the trust of a victim. While it may differ from situation to situation, the grooming process typically involves four steps:

  1. Targeting a vulnerable victim;

  2. Gaining the victim’s trust and gathering information about them;

  3. Using that information to fill a need in the victim’s life; and

  4. Isolating the victim from their friends and family.

For example, an older man may spend time on social media, looking for a young man who appears to be vulnerable, perhaps because he is LGBTQ, or maybe because he appears to suffer from a mental health disorder. The man befriends the youth, and starts to chat with him via direct message. Soon, the man discovers things about the young man and is able to use this information to his advantage. He may send money or gifts, buy him drugs or alcohol, or simply act as a supportive friend.

Over time, the man works to create distance between the youth and his friends and family — such as by telling him that his family doesn’t love him or understand him. Eventually, the abuse begins, often by demanding that the youth do something (such as perform a sex act) in exchange for what the man is providing.

The grooming process can make it exceptionally hard for a victim to leave a trafficking situation. Even without physical violence, the victim may feel bonded to their abuser and may even normalize the abuse in their minds. Victims may also experience:

  • Shame

  • Isolation

  • Psychological trauma

  • Hopelessness and resignation

  • Self-blame

  • Fear

Any of these feelings can make it hard for a victim to leave a trafficking situation. In the example above, the young man may blame himself for what has happened, and feel too ashamed to seek help. His abuser may also make false promises to make him believe that things will get better.

There are a number of other reasons why a victim may not leave, such as:

  • Being kept in captivity and/or under guard

  • The use and/or threat of violence

  • Threats of retaliation against loved ones

  • Debt owed to the trafficker

  • Drug addiction (often facilitated or encouraged by the trafficker)

  • Language barriers

  • Distrust of law enforcement or authority

  • Not identifying as a victim

  • Lack of awareness of available services

These barriers to seeking help can lead to a person staying with their trafficker, even if they had opportunities to leave. That is why it is so vital that we recognize the signs of human trafficking, raise awareness about this crime — and offer support, not judgement, to victims and survivors.

If you need help, we are here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call our hotline anytime at 1-888-832-2272 to talk to a trained crisis counselor. All calls are free of charge, and can be anonymous.



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