“Give a girl a little bit of heaven and you can take her all the way to hell.” – A pimp
Human traffickers aim to replace a person's true identity with a new and different identity that will serve their needs. They do this by force, fraud, or coercion, usually to exploit the person sexually or for labor servitude or slavery.
The concept is horrendous and one of the worst examples of human rights abuse. But the fact that many victims who have been coerced into human trafficking form a positive, sometimes loving, bond with their trafficker is indescribably tragic. Yet, it happens all the time.
According to the U.S. Department of State, there are an estimated 24.9 million human trafficking victims worldwide at any given time. A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, published in 2017, there are about 40 million people in modern slavery at any one time. This does, though, include estimates for forced labor and forced marriages.
These are shocking statistics, but when you consider that human traffickers prey on adults and children of all nationalities, backgrounds, and ages, it’s not difficult to see how the numbers add up.
So, what is coercion and how does it play such a critical role in human trafficking?
What is Coercion?
Coercion has many forms, all of which result in victims acting in a way that is not in their own interests. While it often involves force or threats, psychological coercion or manipulation is less obvious to many people because it relies on mind or thought control. It is not something that people, in general, identify.
The use of psychological coercion by traffickers can be incredibly damaging. They use it to manipulate the emotions of their victims to gain control of thought processes. This mind control lowers the self-confidence of victims to such an extent, they do what they are told, eventually without question. They believe that what their trafficker demands is right and the best for them.
There is no healthy persuasion or influence in psychological coercion. This is because traffickers:
- Don’t respect any of the boundaries that lead to mutual respect, support, and acceptable expectations that are set in healthy relationships. Traffickers don’t discuss, they demand, and will never accept no for an answer.
- Aim to alter the reality and beliefs of the person a trafficker is targeting. This makes it hard for victims to make any sense of outside support systems. They start to doubt their own perceptions and beliefs and distrust themselves. This allows the manipulator to exercise even more control.
- Blame other people for their actions. Even if they harm their victims, emotionally or physically, it's the victim’s fault. This increases self-doubt and a feeling of severe inadequacy.
- Isolate their victims so that they can exercise more and more control. They build wedges between the victim and anybody who may be trying to help them, from family to professional. This, in turn, results in an “us versus them” mentality, that makes the victim believe the so-called us group, which the trafficker has opened up, is better.
- Weaponize love by making their victims feel special. They enmesh themselves in their victims’ emotions and use fake affection as a form of flattery. But for those who use coercion as a psychological tool, love is conditional on their needs being met. So, typically, they will withhold affection if they don’t get what they want.
Similarly, manipulation uses tactics that prey on other people’s weaknesses. Tactics include:
- Lying and denial
- Using intense emotional liaisons to control the behavior of others
- Exploiting people’s insecurities
- Using fear to control others
Eventually, people who have been coerced get to the point where they back the person who coerced them into human trafficking.
The Coercion Process
Ending The Game (ETG) describes the coercion process in four parts that:
- Bends by isolating the person and then confusing them, pushing key boundaries in their beliefs, thoughts, and actions.
- Breaks the person by stripping hope for a life without the trafficker or commercial sexual exploitation (CSE).
- Builds by introducing new rules, a new language of sorts, and a new belief system.
- Locks to complete the process, by completing the victim’s new identity and providing both positive and negative reinforcement.
Child trafficking, including CSE, is one of the fastest-growing, most lucrative criminal activities globally. It is probably the most common cause of modern slavery too. When you focus on the outlets used by traffickers, you will see that they are vast and varied. They range from various forms of prostitution and pornography to stripping, phone sex lines, escort services, and even interfamilial pimping when a child is sold by adults in their own family.
But how does it happen?
Examples of Coercion in Human Trafficking
Ultimately, if somebody manipulates any part of what makes up a person, they can coerce that person into doing anything. They can alter their behavior, their thoughts, their emotions, their spirituality, and the information they choose to accept. And they can do this in different ways.
The U.S. Office in Trafficking in Persons, which develops anti-trafficking strategies, policies, and programs to prevent human trafficking, defines strategies as:
- Threats of serious harm to any person
- Physical restraint against any person
- Psychological manipulation
- Confiscation of documents
- Threats to share information or pictures that will result in fear or shame
Those who have been trafficked feel desperate, but some manage to get justice if they have the courage to identify their traffickers.
According to the Statista, which researches, analyzes, and consolidates statistical data worldwide, there were at least 119,475 prosecutions as a result of human trafficking in the decade from 2011-2020. This is a small percentage of those who are involved in human trafficking. There are also not enough convictions, and sentences don’t always fit the crime.
Punishment for Coercion
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, if victims are younger than 14 years or if coercion, force, or fraud is used, the minimum sentence is 15 years, but a conviction can result in life imprisonment.
In 2008, a 32-year-old man from Georgia was sentenced to 15 years after a human trafficking victim outlined the manipulation and psychological coercion she was subjected to. The trafficker, named Jimmie Jones aka Mike Spade, was convicted of sex trafficking and related prostitution charges. This was only possible because the victim learned that she was being coerced, and was able to break her bonds of attachment to the trafficker.
More recently, in July 2021, Gregory Thomas Garcia, a 35-year-old man from Florida, was convicted of child sex trafficking and sentenced to 16 years. He used the Internet to entice a girl aged 16-17 years to engage in commercial sex acts which he paid her for. She willingly gave evidence against him in court. Once he has served his sentence, Garcia will have to register as a sex offender.
In October 2021, another sex trafficker, Sean Merchant aka Bronxwood, coerced and sexually exploited three young girls (all minors). He also fed them addictive drugs. He was convicted and sentenced to 196 months (more than 16 years) in prison.
On 22 October, 2021 Edward Walker, a 48-year-old Connecticut man was convicted of sex trafficking after coercing two women and a 17-year-old girl to have sex during the 2020 Superbowl. He also used force, so is currently facing the possibility of life in prison when he is sentenced in January 2022.
The Department of Justice releases information about human trafficking, including convictions, which you can read about here.
The problem is that too few victims are prepared to turn on the people who have abused and exploited them. So, why do victims of this horrendous abuse keep going back? Read about it in Coercion in Human Trafficking Part 2. For even more watch this 1-hour video about Psychological Coercion in Human Trafficking.
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