We’ve all heard that sexual abusers “groom” their victims. They establish relationships with their targets, gradually increasing their emotional intimacy, crossing boundaries a little at a time, and eventually manipulating their trusting victims into consenting to their own abuse—or, at least, into staying silent.
Nowhere is this pattern more prevalent than in the domain of sex trafficking. Yet, as someone who has worked on the front lines of the anti-trafficking movement for nearly ten years, I believe that trafficking victims are being groomed for their abuse long before they come under the control of a trafficker. They are groomed by a sexually saturated society that tells them that, as women, their bodies exist for the sexual gratification of men. Traffickers, knowing young girls are insecure about their bodies and their value, exploit these insecurities to manipulate them into victimization.
Although many parents fear abduction by sinister strangers, sex traffickers in high-income countries such as the United States most commonly recruit their victims through psychological manipulation. Over time, through repeated contacts, traffickers convince their victims that they want to sell sex. Most commonly, male traffickers seduce young girls with the illusion of romance. A trafficker will convince a young girl that he is the only one who loves her. He will convince her that she has no worth outside of this love. Sex becomes the only thing that makes her feel like she matters. Gradually, he will convince her that selling sex is the only way to retain this love—and the best way express her love for him. She becomes unable to say no, thanks to trauma-bonding, shame, and fear.
Although girls from dysfunctional, financially precarious families may be most at risk for sex trafficking, none of us is immune to the lies that enable such abuse. In our culture, on a daily basis, we are being sold the very same lies that traffickers rely upon in their strategies for manipulating and recruiting victims. And these lies are so deep on our psyche that we barely notice them.
The Vulnerability of Children
Why do these lies make children vulnerable to sex-trafficking?
Let’s start with brain development. The prefrontal cortex, which controls the highest level of human functioning, is the last part of the brain to fully develop. It is responsible for executive decision making, self-regulation, and planning ahead. Those in their teens primarily process information in the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. At the age of thirteen, adolescents barely have the capacity to say no to a piece of candy, let alone to freely consent to sex or handle the responsibility and emotional bonds that result.
Unfortunately, today’s children and adolescents are exposed to sexual behaviors and activities that earlier generations didn’t encounter until late in their teenage years, if ever. Today’s pornography has normalized deeply harmful sexual practices like rape, incest, and bestiality, presenting them as mere entertainment. This sexually saturated environment steals children’s natural defense against those in our society whose aim is to abuse, use, and exploit them.
Innocence can protect a child. The natural response of a child being hurt, harmed, or exposed to something that frightens them is to cry, fight, scream, or run. They will also communicate their fear to trusted adults, seeking safety, protection, and reassurance. Conversely, if a child has been conditioned to accept deviant behavior, words, or actions through grooming, they tend to respond with either acquiescence or silence. Without proper external responses, those who seek to protect children have difficulty seeing the signs and knowing when a child is being victimized.
Sexual Freedom Requires Psychological Freedom
Our society’s obsession with safeguarding sexual freedom at the expense of any other sexual norms exacerbates the problem. Traffickers capitalize on this phenomenon by manipulating victims into the illusion of consent, thereby avoiding detection by law enforcement. Traffickers act in inappropriate ways towards children and young women, slowly and methodically breaking down their ability to freely choose through the ways they reinforce their lies. They begin to form emotional bonds with their victims, unbeknownst to the safe adults in the child or young woman’s life. Victims slowly become attached to these predators and are unable to recognize and set appropriate boundaries with these adults.
Once a bond is formed and the victim is desensitized, the victim acquiesces to sexual requests by the trafficker, believing that they are free in the relationship. In most cases, the victim will not realize or believe that she is being victimized.
In fact, over half of the survivors of sexing trafficking I have encountered admit to being in love with their first trafficker. Once the “romance” is transformed into a trafficker/victim relationship, the consequences of continuous trauma on the brain from the abuses, tortures, rapes, threats, and trauma bonding holds the victim captive. “As long as the mind is enslaved,” Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed, “the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.”
A case that I have been dealing with recently illustrates these phenomena. It concerns a fifteen-year-old girl who went missing after being deceived by a man online claiming to be her age. She suddenly acquired an exorbitant amount of cash, purchased a new phone, and then disappeared. Her disappearance was reported to local law enforcement, and although they were able to track her location through her phone, they did nothing to find her, because she left “willingly.” They also said she was out of their jurisdiction. These roadblocks are not legally founded, but they are culturally accepted. Eventually, a federal law enforcement agency was made aware of the situation, and the agency assisted in the child’s recovery. She was found traveling through multiple states with two adult men, and she had been having sex. She had been missing for almost two months. She consistently referred to one of the men, a 27 year old, as her boyfriend, and she was trying to get back to him, even weeks later.
Even with all of these factors, the men were not arrested, and the child was treated as if she was to blame. Though she is safe for the time being, chances are high that she will end up back in a similar situation. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. It is the norm.
Rejecting Sexual Domination
It might seem simplistic to say that sex trafficking is caused by the lie that a woman’s value is based on her sexual desirability. After all, this is a complex phenomenon. What about the contributions of our broken foster care and social services system? The lack of law enforcement training and resources? Pornography? The increasing acceptance of pedophilia? The border crisis? Or just bad and evil people who want to use, torture, and abuse others? To these, I answer: all are contributing factors, and each of these influences should be addressed in kind.
Nonetheless, at its core, sex trafficking is the monetization of sexual domination of one human being over another. Most often, this takes the form of male domination over women. In 2020, the federal Department of Justice reported that 92 percent of those charged with human trafficking in the United States were male. 2021 data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline indicates that an estimated 79 percent of sex trafficking victims are female.
To fight sex trafficking, we must reject all commoditization of the female body. We must teach women that saying “no” to objectification will be expected and supported. And we must teach men to protect women’s sexual integrity, and their own as men, not capitulating to a bro-culture that praises them for “deflowering” as many women as possible. Only then will there be no place in our world for men to manipulate children and young women to sell their bodies to satisfy the dehumanizing sexual desires of the market.