I had an opportunity the other day to speak at length with a woman who had come out of 4 years of sex trafficking. She was quite open with her story and welcomed every question I had. I learned some tremendously important things in the course of hearing her story. Several times, during the course of her four-year ordeal, she had real opportunities to flee. She was hospitalized after being savagely attacked by a John. She could have escaped by involving the hospital staff and the police. She chose to go back to her pimp. She was rescued by a woman and brought into the woman’s own house. The woman offered her protection if she stayed and she agreed to leave her pimp. She was safe for only a few weeks before she went back into that life under a new pimp. She has chance after chance to leave that life and she either chose to stay or she chose to go back into slavery each time. Her body was not her own. She was not allowed to keep one single cent that she earned. She was housed, fed, and dressed at the will of her pimp.
What kept her there? The most insidious part of all. Even her thoughts and her will were not her own. She had been so thoroughly broken down, so cowed, so manipulated that her pimp’s psychological hold over her was absolute. She was beaten and threatened. She was attacked and made to watch as others were treated the same way. She was tortured and drugged and addicted to alcohol. Her initiation into this life was accomplished with what the military calls “shock and awe”. That means that she was brutalized right up front so that her will would be broken and she would learn to obey her captors unquestioningly and rely on them to meet all her needs. That assured that, even when she had an opportunity to escape, she would not take it.
So this, and the story of the distressed woman from the hotel a few weeks ago, got me thinking. We are out to set captives free. However, just because we correctly identify someone as a trafficking victim and intervene on their behalf, that does not mean that they will choose to cooperate with us. If there pimp’s hold on them is as strong as it was for this woman, they will go back to him. That is the nature of the psychological and emotional damage done. I asked her what we can do to influence a trafficking victim’s desire to cooperate with us. Her answer was profoundly simple. Establish a relationship and be a friend. Give the victim our contact information and be prepared to answer their call 24/7/365. She said that victims will not leave until the moment they are ready to do so. When that moment strikes, we must be ready to answer that call and take action right that minute. We cannot force, cajole, beg, plead influence, coerce, tempt, or threaten them out of their life of slavery. They have to walk away willingly. That is the only path to lasting freedom without recidivism.