Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: Human Trafficking

We want to begin by exploring how coercive control can be employed within human trafficking for a variety of reasons, primarily because human trafficking cases can begin as intimate partner relationships and because they may involve dyadic dynamics (two people), which is most similar to the dynamics within intimate partner relationships.

To begin, we want to clarify what we mean by human trafficking. Legally speaking, human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation or commercial trade of human beings by means of threat, force or coercion, for the purpose of exploitation” [1]. It has also been dubbed “modern day slavery” and Polaris Project, a non-profit that works to combat and prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking, estimates that the total number of victims in the United States “reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated.” [2]

Many organizations have researched the intersections and similarities between human trafficking and domestic violence. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence created a helpful worksheet on the topic. The Center for Court Innovation created a factsheet for jurisdictions to utilize as they plan or enhance their court responses to trafficking. UNICEF has also created a webpage that examines the shared dynamics between the two forms of abuse. Drawing from these sources, we want to review the following similarities between domestic violence and human trafficking:

Similarities: Gendered Dimensions

  • Like domestic violence, women comprise the majority of victims of human trafficking. “According to worldwide data from the United Nations, between 2007 and 2010, approximately 55% to 60% of the total number of detected victims of human trafficking were women.” [3]

  • According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “the majority of traffickers are male.” [4]

Similarities: The Abuser Tactics Employed

  • “Both batterers and traffickers use power and control to dominate their victims, and the range of tactics used by traffickers resembles that of domestic violence perpetrators.” [5]

  • Specific tactics may include “isolation, physical and emotional violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, financial abuse, threats to family members, use of children to manipulate and control their victims, withholding of food, sleep, and medical care, among others.” [6]

While it is important to know these similarities exist, the underlying power dynamics and structural inequality experienced by victims of human trafficking are what so closely mirrors the coercive control dynamic.

Similarities: The Power Dynamics Involved

  • “Individuals engaged in prostitution may be in an intimate relationship and have children with their pimp/trafficker, who may have threatened to or may have already used physical abuse, often as a mechanism to control and coerce the victim and to enforce silence when the victim comes into contact with the justice system.” [7]

  • “Human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, often involves the same dynamics of power and control present in patterns of domestic violence and sexual assault.” [8]

  • “When a trafficker is exploiting an intimate partner or family member, the familial relationship itself may be used to perpetuate an exploitative power imbalance. Sex traffickers may also utilize language that mimics familial relationships, such as insisting that a victim refers to him as ‘Daddy’ or other individuals he is exploiting as the victim's ‘family.’ Use of this language is meant to reinforce loyalty and strengthen the psychological ties between a trafficker and victim. When paired with other forms of or threats of abuse, leaving an exploitative situation becomes incredibly difficult.” [9]

Similarities: The Role of Structural Inequality

  • The most common victims of human trafficking are from already vulnerable populations [10]:

    • 25% of human trafficking victims are children

    • 75% of human trafficking victims are women and girls

  • In a study over calendar year 2016, The Polaris Project worked with 10, 615 victims of human trafficking. Amongst those:

    • 93% were minorities

    • The top five risk factors were:

      1. Recent migration/relocation

      2. Substance use

      3. Runaway/homeless youth

      4. Mental health concern

      5. Involvement in the child welfare system

The power and control dynamic between abuser and victim may also serve to prevent victims from having access to resources: “the dynamics of force and coercion may affect victims’ ability to use system resources. As in cases of domestic violence or sexual assault, the fact that an individual was coerced does not necessarily lessen the real or perceived blaming and stigma associated with trafficking. This, in turn, makes victims even more vulnerable to further trauma and less likely to seek help, especially from justice system stakeholders whom they do not know nor trust.” [11]

Coercive Control: Total Domination & Entrapment

Like victims of coercive control in relationships, victims of human trafficking can experience total entrapment and domination by their traffickers. The coercion, fraud, and threats of traffickers creates a real sense of imprisonment and makes victims (quite literally in many cases) another’s property. Because trafficking often involves multiple actors, rather than just an abuser and a victim, and because the abuse may occur within groups or organizations, it may be difficult for most to recognize that many of the dyadic and intimate dynamics utilized by abusive partners are utilized in trafficking cases to recruit and maintain compliance, as well as to threaten the victim if the person attempts to assert their independence or desire to leave.

That said, many victims do not know that this is occurring, and have to believe that they are free to leave and are choosing to stay. Advocates have drawn parallels between victims of trafficking who escape but return and victims of domestic violence who do not leave their abusers. Human trafficking advocates widely recognize this powerful pull toward the abuser as the “trauma bond.” Trauma bonds are created when “the victim must perceive a real threat of death and an inability to escape; they must be isolated; and there must be some perception of kindness.” [12] This bond is also utilized to benefit abusers in intimate partner relationships.

Dr. Evan Stark recently did an interview in which he explained the unique aim of coercive control:

"In coercive control abuse, you have a range of acts over time, a broad range of non-consensual and non-reciprocal tactics — isolation, intimidation, sexual abuse, stalking. And they’re not just used to hurt someone or to hurt their feelings, but to subjugate them in ways that make them unable or unwilling to escape, or to effectively resist a partner’s demands. The aim of emotional abuse is to hurt someone’s feelings so badly that they feel ashamed of themselves, and the aim of [physical] domestic violence is to hurt someone physically and make them afraid to resist in that situation, but the aim of coercive control goes beyond that. It uses a range of tactics to subjugate them, to make them dependent. The aim is total domination, rather than simply to win compliance on a particular issue." [13]

Seeing the ultimate goal of coercive control as total domination, we believe it is relatively straightforward to understand human trafficking as a commercialized extension via the ultimate exploitation of a woman’s body, viewed not just as property, but as an object seized upon for economic benefit.

This economic benefit is also seized upon by gangs, terrorist organizations like ISIS using women as prostitutes, and even religious cults like Children of God who pressure women to have sex with men as a recruitment tool. Cults and gangs may use branding to mark their female property, as seen recently with the sex trafficking cult, Nxivm. We will go into these topics near the end of our series when we tie these various fields together with more examples.

Trafficking laws and prevention programs, like the laws and prevention programs targeting domestic violence, must utilize a coercive control framework that goes beyond just criminalizing the end product (physical violence, kidnapping or stalking), but actually addresses the process that produces this sort of imprisonment and creates total domination over victims.  From a legal and policy standpoint, there have been many efforts recently to include coercion as a recognized part of the abuse victims of human trafficking face. Like coercive control in intimate partner relationships, trafficking policy and laws must recognize human trafficking as a "liberty crime" in which abusers strip their victims of their freedoms.

From a public safety perspective, we should attempt to obviate the abusive process by educating the public about how this sort of abuse works, that their labor is their own to employ as they see fit, and to be wary of anyone who attempts to assert that their own body is anyone's but their own.

Written by Chelsea Brass & Abigail Hazlett

[1] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2012). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012. Vienna, Austria. https://nrcdv.org/dvam/sites/default/files2/HumanTrafficking%26DV-TalkingPointsForm.pdf
[2] https://polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/facts
[3] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2012). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012. Vienna, Austria. https://nrcdv.org/dvam/sites/default/files2/HumanTrafficking%26DV-TalkingPointsForm.pdf
[4] https://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/UNVTF_fs_HT_EN.pdf
[5] Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2004). Domestic & Sexual Assault Advocate Handbook on Human Trafficking. Tallahassee, FL. https://nrcdv.org/dvam/sites/default/files2/HumanTrafficking%26DV-TalkingPointsForm.pdf
[6] ibid
[7]https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/documents/UnderstandingHumanTrafficking_2.pdf
[8] ibid
[9] https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/domestic-violence-and-human-trafficking/33601
[10] http://polarisproject.org/sites/default/files/2017NHTHStats%20%281%29.pdf
[11]https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/documents/UnderstandingHumanTrafficking_2.pdf
[12] https://nypost.com/2018/04/17/how-sex-traffickers-hunt-for-victims-and-brainwash-them/  
[13] https://www.yahoo.com/news/domestic-violence-expert-eric-schneiderman-214621191.html