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Why victims can’t leave

Exiting is not easy… I think that if I had known how many layers and how raw and what it is I would have had to face coming out, I wouldn’t have come out.1

Victims escaping or exiting sex trafficking often face a long and difficult process when trying to start their lives over. A common misconception is that there are clear and easy steps to exiting trafficking, especially if the victim is not being physically held captive.

It's important to note young men and boys may face an added layer of gender stereotypes that make it more challenging for them to leave. Gender stereotypes tell us "real men" are supposed to be strong, and being a victim implies that one is weak. Further, many male survivors believe trafficking can happen only to girls. For these reasons, males may experience denial and shame in identifying as a victim and reaching out for help.

The reality is victims are up against many barriers that impact their ability to exit sex trafficking. These barriers, based on learnings that emerged from our report on The Barriers to Exiting Sex Trafficking, are outlined below.

The barriers to exiting

Total reliance on the trafficker

  • The trafficker provides and controls all needs such as love, food, money, shelter, etc.
  • The victim may have an intense, often romantic attachment to the trafficker (trauma bond).
  • For some victims, leaving the trafficker may mean returning to a life of poverty and instability. Employment options can be limited for victims in the “mainstream world” because they may lack education, work experience, etc.

Lack of Trust

  • Victims often come to believe that the only person they can trust is the trafficker.

Hopelessness

  • Victims battle with feelings of hopelessness connected to needing to start again without resources or support.

Stigma and discrimination

  • Victims face judgment from service providers, friends and family and/or their community.
  • This is internalized into shame and self-blame for their current situation.

Not seeing themselves as a victim

  • A victim may not think or realize they need help due to the trauma bond they may form with the trafficker.

Previous and current trauma

  • Victims may have experienced various forms of trauma throughout their lives, including poverty, neglect and abuse. That experience of trauma continues while they are being trafficked and can impact their worldview, the way they see themselves and their overall mental health.

Fear

  • Fear of retaliation against themselves and/or family.
  • Fear of not being believed by others.
  • Fear of the unknown, including how to re-enter mainstream life.

Isolation

  • Victims are often isolated from their social support network by the trafficker.

Lack of support

  • Victims often don’t know where to go for help, or help isn’t available in their communities.
  1. Noble, A., Coplan, I., Neal, J., Suleiman, A., & McIntyre, S. (2019). Getting out: A national framework for exiting human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Canada. Toronto, ON: Covenant House Toronto & The Hindsight Group