In regards to human trafficking, people often wonder: Why don’t victims just leave? Particularly in cases where pimps and traffickers don’t rely on overt violence and physical force, it can be difficult to understand what prevents women from leaving trafficking situations. The truth is that coercion and emotional manipulation can be the strongest factors preventing women and girls from recognizing their victimization and/or seeking a way out of their exploitation. While traffickers and pimps utilize an array of techniques, perhaps the most difficult for survivors to break free from is trauma bonding.
According to researchers Sanchez, Speck, and Patrician (2019) trauma bonding is “the invisible strong emotional tie that develops between two individuals, where one person frequently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses or intimidates the other person.” Intermittently, traffickers also incorporate acts of “kindness” which may include gift-giving, affection, or simply a brief reprieve from working. The cyclical nature of affection and abuse causes victims to internalize the positive interactions as meaningful and “the real” personality of the trafficker. Traffickers often identify women’s and girls’ unmet needs, whether for shelter, food, or love and self-esteem and fulfill them. They create both physical and emotional dependency. Trauma victims may also take on the worldview of their abuser and view their relationship as sacred, further strengthening their connection.
Trauma bonding is not a sign of weakness or naivety, rather it is a normal biological response to prolonged trauma and a psychological coping mechanism. Researchers have compared trauma bonding to Battered Women’s Syndrome in domestic violence or Stockholm Syndrome in kidnapping circumstances. Trauma bonds are a way our brains try to protect us during traumatic experiences but have harmful consequences both short and long term. First and foremost, trauma bonds prevent women from being able to exit trafficking. A key component of trauma bonds is the isolation from friends, family, and support systems and distrust in institutions such as law enforcement or social services. Without a concept of what it means to be safe, women may feel they have nowhere else to go. Trauma bonds can also be so strong that women may return to traffickers many times before they are finally able to escape, even if their needs are being met elsewhere. Trauma bonding may also lead to PTSD, depression, anxiety, and a number of other mental health issues.
While we must acknowledge the pain associated with trauma bonding and trafficking, we must also recognize the strength and resilience of survivors. By having an understanding of trauma bonding and its lasting impacts, anti-trafficking advocates and service providers can present more holistic, judgment-free care. Providing survivors with resources to address their immediate needs, as well as opportunities for decision making and autonomy, allows service providers to better support survivors’ restoration process.