Why “victim” language may be a blockage when working with survivors of trafficking & commercial sexual exploitation (CSE)

Many victims of sex trafficking voluntarily walk through the doors of direct-serving facilities and do not see themselves as victims. Even more are sitting in jails, foster homes, and court-ordered programs, not seeing themselves as victims either. More likely, they acknowledge having a drug addiction, they talk about being in an abusive relationship, they share their challenges leaving sex work, or maybe even share an event in which they were victimized (i.e. being raped or robbed). But the overall label of “victim”—no. Most believe that they chose (or somehow fell into) sex work and almost nobody is comfortable with the vulnerable, disempowering feelings evoked by the term “victim”.

While “victim” is a fitting term according to legal definitions of what these women have endured, it is a label that each woman has to acknowledge for herself along her own healing journey. And, more importantly, it’s a self-label that we hope will soon be replaced by a more empowering word (i.e. “survivor”) after a woman has gained valuable insights, resources, community and hard-won progress on her journey to recovery.

In a series of interviews conducted by Ending The Game Curriculum over a 5 year period, it was found that “victim” language may present a barrier to services for clients who do not self-identify as such. It may cause defensiveness, anxiety, perceived lack of relevance in offered services, and a strained ability to build rapport with service providers. While this is not always the case, even a few instances of these negative impacts are worth making a change. For this reason, Ending The Game (ETG) Curriculum has decided to replace all remaining “victim” language with the word “person” in the Ending The Game Curriculum. Ending The Game Curriculum is purposed to help participants have their own ‘light bulb moments’ as a result of learning about psychological coercion, not to force labels on anyone. For participants who still participate in Ending The Game despite rejecting the “victim” language at first, it has been found that by the end of the curriculum, the majority agree that they had been coerced and victimized into exploitation rather than it being their choice.

If you are in direct-service work with trafficked or CSE persons, you already well know the importance of meeting your clients where they are. Have you ever used the word “victim” and seen a client pull away from services? What language do you use with clients? Do you change wording as the client progresses? Why or why not? We would love to hear your thoughts on what effect, if any, “victim” language has on the clients you work with, even if you disagree! Also, if you want to learn more about a powerful and effective intervention curriculum that is shown to reduce recidivism rates amongst trafficked and sexually exploited persons, visit www.EndingTheGame.com.

Author’s Note: When I finally joined an online community of survivors over a decade after exiting the sex industry, I wasn’t sure if I had been trafficked. I hung around the edges of this group, wondering if I really belonged, wishing someone could tell me with assurance what happened, but ultimately believing that I had chosen to exploit myself when I was younger. I reached out privately to one of the group’s survivor mentors and finally learned that I was a victim of trafficking and sexual exploitation over ten years after I had left the sex industry. In many ways, I thought the buyers were more victims than I was a victim; now I know otherwise. When money is exchanged, even when there is no trafficker, there is automatically an imbalance of power. On the one hand you have the powerful and on the other is the powerless. At one time I thought I was the powerful one. But over time I realized that the buyers filled that role and I was the powerless one. I am glad that today I finally see my time in the sex industry as a form of victimization because it’s helped foster self-compassion. Now I know that I was vulnerable to exploitation because I had experienced the perfect storm of past childhood vulnerabilities alongside cunning traffickers that used coercion and fraud to ensnare and deceive me. I don’t see myself as a victim today but identifying that I was once a victim has helped me find greater healing and wholeness as a Survivor.