Trauma & Dissociation in the News

Prostitution, Modern Sexual Slavery, Sex Trafficking and Bondage of the Human Mind: A Reflection Regarding Our Times

E Hitchcock Scott, PhD, LPCC917

Other than TV, the first time I heard about sex for hire, I was sixteen years old. I had just interviewed for my first job. During the interview, I quickly decided that I was not interested in the advertised role of emptying vender machines. As I was preparing to leave the interviewer said, “I have an escort service”. When I asked what that meant he explained, “All you have to do is get dressed up and go out with men for dinner and a show. You will make a lot of money.” Then he said, “There are men who would find you very attractive”. I was puzzled because I knew that I looked very young for my age. I was fortunate, my privilege protected me. I was able to say, “I need to ask my mother,” and leave.

But what of others less fortunate? When we think about this, it is worth noting that July 30th is the International World Day Against Trafficking of Persons. This World Day led me to reflect, as much as possible in a brief paper, about how we define and understand sex for hire, and how that sits alongside our understandings of consent.

While thinking about the meaning of consent, I could not help but think of bondage: not just bondage of the body, but of the mind and the way bondage of the mind restricts a fully informed or “knowing consent”.

I can remember the first time I heard about human bondage. It was in 1987 when I was working as a new counselor in Dallas, Texas. An extremely bright, middle aged client, with a successful career as a lawyer, began weeping in an hysterical panic. Shaking and covering her face, she said in a child’s voice, “And, and, and … he put a loaded gun in my vagina and said he would kill me if I screamed or told anyone.” At that moment the oppressed scream from 45 years earlier emerged with so much childlike angst I had to concentrate in order to suppress my own tears.

A few months before, the co-owner of the counseling center had warned me that I would hear about bondage. As she spoke, my mind drifted to consensual adult pseudo-sadomasochism. The owner and my supervisor, sensing that I had missed the point, looked me in the eye and said, “Of children.” I swallowed and said quietly, “Oh.” Even then I truly had no idea what she meant. That client’s scream, made it all too clear.

How can it be that one of the most wealthy, prestigious, “proper” Christian neighborhoods in the United States harbors this kind of criminal activity outside our sight and awareness?

And what does bondage mean when it involves the mind, not just the body? In the book Incest-Related Syndromes of Adult Psychotherapy, Dr. Richard Kluft reveals a conversation he had while he was traveling in Italy. Kluft was talking with a man in a bar who revealed that he was a pimp. The pimp volunteered, in a braggart sort of way, that the best prostitutes, like the two sitting with him, had been initiated to the world of sex by their fathers.

The pimp said that he looks for certain qualities in women he selects for sex workers, “Beauty, yes. Sexual expertise, somewhat. That can be taught easier than you think. What is important above all is obedience. And how do you get obedience? You get obedience if you get women who have had sex with their fathers, their uncles, their brothers——— you know, someone they love and fear to lose, so that they do not dare to defy. Then you are nicer to the women than they ever were, and more dangerous as well. They will do anything to keep you happy. That is how.” (Kluft, 1990, p. 25).

Yes, this is very shocking, but in fact, research suggests that the majority of prostitutes, as many as 60% or more, were sexually abused as young children, not necessarily by their fathers, but by a much older and often trusted person (Silbert & Pines, 1981).

Many prostitutes acknowledge that the early abuse has restricted their life choices, but they do not feel as if they have alternatives to prostitution, due to problems such as lack of education, low self-esteem, early pregnancy, poor health, sexually transmitted diseases, or mental health conditions. 

I have heard prostitutes, a few of whom were my clients, vehemently deny that prostitution as a career choice was associated with their early childhood abuse. Once, a very sophisticated call girl, when disclosing her profession for the first time, explained to me, insisted really, that she was in charge, not the Johns. While she was speaking, I could not help but notice the lack of congruence between her words and dress. She wore tiny, pink, plastic little-girl barrettes in her hair, black patent Mary Jane shoes that pointed inward as she fidgeted and a plunging and very revealing buxom décolletage.

The chains of her early trauma seemed to have kept her mind stuck in childhood even though her body was aging. If this is so, then how is prostitution a choice?

Although some consider prostitution a choice and define it differently from modern slavery and human trafficking, I see parallels. Exactly how different can prostitution be from modern slavery when there are such high levels of early childhood trauma and dissociation within and across the population. How can a sexualized child ego-state, sequestered within an adult human mind defend against predatory controllers? Thirty years ago, an adult client of mine explained how her “Pimp” called out a child part and demanded that she hand over all of her money, not just a portion. In fact, studies show that women in prostitution have much higher rates of dissociation than the general population (Ross, 2004) The prison bars of the mind are invisible and, when left untreated, more powerful than steel.

Unfortunately, the invisibility of those “prison bars of the mind’ undermines detection and intervention by those who could help. In fact, modern slavery or human trafficking violations are sometimes confused with domestic violence, or problems with employment laws, immigration laws, and breaches of civil or human rights (Machura et. al., 2019).

Margaret Thaler Singer, in her book, Cults in Our Midst, describes a class of victims as “those who have been in situations of enforced dependency” (Singer, 1995). This term appears to fit those involved in various forms of the sex industry, no matter the age, gender, race, or self-professed willingness.

In America, victims of human sex trafficking, in particular, are often afraid to seek help because in many states, even sexually exploited children and youth are remanded to the justice system. Instead of being treated as a victim in need of social services, there is a risk of arrest for victims of human trafficking. This problem is complicated when the person being trafficked or coerced into prostitution is also an undocumented immigrant.

Another problem is that due to the ways and means of coercion commonly used by traffickers, there are victims who do not perceive themselves to be victims, therefore they do not think there is anything to report. Machura et al (2019) writes:

Modern slavery is typically defined in terms of exploitation through the utilization of victim vulnerabilities. Cases are not only characterized by violent acts and threats, but also by the manipulation of victims, even to the point that they may claim that they are acting under their own free will. Thus, typical examples may include laborers who toil on fields under abhorrent conditions or prostituted individuals who believe that they are in a consensual relationship with their pimps. Stereotypical cases often associate modern slavery with human trafficking (or human smuggling) and evidence suggests that large numbers of individuals are trafficked for the purpose of slavery. However, modern slavery also involves the exploitation of local people and these cases are being exposed more frequently.  (pg 202).

There are also myths that the problems of modern slavery, which includes child sexual slavery and trafficking, are located primarily in third world countries like Thailand. Yet, America, like all nations in the world, has a significant child sex trade problem, although estimates of its prevalence are difficult to determine, given the hidden nature of the phenomenon (Miller-Perrin & Wurtele, 2017; Powell, Asbill, Louis & Stoklosa 2018). Sadly victims can go on to become perpetrators (Baxter, 2019).

If it true that sex trafficking is the fastest growing illegal industry in The United States of America, then how much more often are children being approached today, than when I was sixteen? To complicate the problem, today an offender can approach and even coerce a child from inside the family home, via the internet. According to Interpol/Europol, over 80 percent of adolescent provocative selfies posted on social media end up on adult web sites (Europol, 2017). Admitting that the veil between a healthy middle-class society with traditional values, and the criminal world, may be much thinner than we have assumed, challenges our assumptions. It is difficult to digest information that this may not a safe and fair world. Yet, coming to terms with this uncomfortable truth will help us as a society protect children better.

However, there were factors in the escort service scenario above that protected me. The outcome could have been very different if I had been a teenaged mother; a person of color; or what if I had an undocumented status; if my children or younger siblings were hungry or cold; if there was a language barrier; or I was running away from an abusive family; or I was transgendered.

The truth is, the criminal sex industry has a long history, is here still, and is growing quickly. Although prosecutions occur more frequently now, the profits of reselling a child over and over is calculated by some to be worth the risk.

Our clients may be reluctant to disclose their past or current involvement in the sex industry due to the shame of being a target, victim and/or a perpetrator. It is therefore vital that we be fully present with our clients and suspend judgement. This in itself is easier when we are well informed, not just about the psychological phenomenon of the sex industry, but also the cultural, sociological, political and economic factors that keep victims and perpetrators trapped. We must challenge the “us or them” divide, the separation we create to feel better, safe and distant. With regard to the future world we wish to create, all children must be our children.

References

Baxter, A.L.A (2019): When the Line between Victimization and Criminalization Blurs: The Victim-Offender Overlap Observed in Female Offenders in Cases of Trafficking in Persons for Sexual Exploitation in Australia, Journal of Human Trafficking, DOI: 10.1080/23322705.2019.

Europol (2017) https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/internet-organised-crime-threat-assessment-iocta-2017

Kluft, R. P. (1990). Incest related syndromes of adult psychopathology. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc.  

Machura, S., Short, F., Hill, V.M., Suddaby, C.R., Goddard, F.E., Jones, S.E., ….& Rouse, C.A (2019). Recognizing Modern Slavery, Journal of Human Trafficking, 5:3, 201-219, DOI: 10.1080/23322705.2018.1471863

Miller-Perrin, C. & Wurtele, S.K. (2017) Sex Trafficking and the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Women & Therapy, 40:1-2, 123-151, DOI: 10.1080/02703149.2016.1210963  

Powell, C., Asbill, M., Louis, E. & Stoklosa, H. (2018) Identifying Gaps in Human Trafficking Mental Health Service Provision, Journal of Human Trafficking, 4:3, 256-269, DOI: 10.1080/23322705.2017.1362936 

Ross, C.A., Farley, M& Schwartz, H.L.  (2004) Dissociation Among Women in Prostitution, Journal of Trauma Practice, 2:3-4, 199-212, DOI: 10.1300/J189v02n03_11  

Silbert, M. H. & Pines, A. M. (1981). Sexual child abuse as an antecedent to prostitution. Child Abuse and Neglect, 5(4) pp. 407-411.

Singer, M. T. (1995). Cults in Our Midsts: The hidden menace in our everyday lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.