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Trauma and trafficking

Trauma can be defined as, “An experience that creates a sense of fear, helplessness, or horror and overwhelms a person’s resources for coping. The impact of traumatic stress can be devastating and long-lasting, interfering with a person’s sense of safety, ability to self-regulate, sense of self, perception of control and self-efficacy, and interpersonal relationships."1

Everyone undergoes difficult and challenging experiences that can leave an impression on their mental health and well-being. Not all of these experiences are necessarily traumatic and lead to traumatization, but some of them are and can leave a lasting impression. Below we have outlined the types of trauma, the effects on survivors and the long-term impact.

How trauma occurs

Trauma can occur from a single incident or ongoing events.

Type 1: a single incident

  • An unexpected event or emergency such as a motor vehicle accident, natural disaster such as a fire, or an experience of sexual assault.

Type 2: repeated events

  • Often have elements of predictability, yet also inescapability: illnesses, treatments/surgeries, domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse or sex trafficking.
  • Can involve a fundamental betrayal of trust in primary relationships; “interpersonal trauma.”
  • Can lead to a loss of self-worth and identity.

Trauma and sex trafficking

Occurrences of sex trafficking fall under type 2 trauma and can be particularly severe. For individuals who have experienced sex trafficking, the trauma is distinct in the intensity of violence and is often chronic in nature.

The response to trauma is instinctive and an innate effort to protect one’s self from further harm. The repercussions of this self-protective response are deep impressions made on the individual that can manifest in a number of detrimental and unexpected ways.

Long-term effects of trauma

Some of the effects of trauma and possible difficulties survivors face after exiting sex trafficking include:

  • Disruption of core psychological functioning (regulating impulses, dissociation, bodily distress, distorted thoughts of self, the trafficker and others).
  • Perceptions of the world and of men (greater fear and distrust).
  • Survival-based behaviours and thoughts (limited future thinking and planning).
  • Impact on the brain and nervous system.
  • Dealing with shame (fear of running into clients and one's identity being revealed).
  • Marginal living/lacking resources as a result of discrimination and stigma around involvement in the sex industry.
  • End of some relationships, and challenges to find a sense of belonging and reintegrate into mainstream society. Reliance or intensive support often required.
  • Dealing with close/intimate relations, which includes a diminished capacity to trust and assess safety, and a need to re-establish "normal" relationships.

Becoming familiar with trauma and its consequences can help service providers make sense of an individual’s behaviours, and equip them to better understand the experience, navigate responses and provide the appropriate support.

  1. Hopper, E.K., Bassuk, E. L., & Olivet, J. (2010) Shelter from the Storm: Trauma-Informed Care in Homelessness Services Settings. The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 3(2), 80-100. doi: 10.2174/1874924001003020080