When service providers assist survivors of sex trafficking, they often ask themselves, what holds survivors back from overcoming their trauma? A common invisible force that survivors face is victim blaming. As a societal norm, victim blaming is pervasive and can occur in overt and subtle ways. Survivors are often questioned or second guessed about what they could (or should) have done differently to keep the trafficking from happening. At the Open Doors Outreach Network, we hear countless stories of survivors believing that the trauma they endured is their fault. If only I had made better decisions, they say. However, the reality is that survivors of sex trafficking encountered such abuse because of the perpetrator.
One of Voices for Florida’s recent Perspectives Webinars focused on the topic of victim blaming. As the facilitator, I was able to focus on the insights of our speakers: Vicky Basra, President and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, the Northeast Florida Open Doors Outreach Network Provider, and Lindsay Smith, Open Doors Survivor-Mentor at More Too Life, the Suncoast Open Doors Outreach Network Provider. Basra and Smith, both experts on sex trafficking, helped explain what victim blaming is, its impact on sex trafficking survivors, and how the narrative can be changed for the better.
Understanding the Harms of Victim Blaming
Victim blaming arises not only from a culture of insensitivity, but also from collective values that we use to judge situations and try to protect ourselves. It fuels the misconception that there is a specific kind of person who becomes a trafficking victim, and that it is their fault that they were victimized. Because it was the victim’s “fault” trafficking occurred, victim blaming deems it acceptable to use suggestive and hurtful language and actions towards survivors.
It is easy to blame the survivor when there is a fundamental misunderstanding of sex trafficking. It feels more comfortable to assume that the reason trafficking occurs is a result of a choice they made. After all, a reason offers a reassuring explanation for how something as awful as being trafficked could happen.
However misconstrued, victims of sex trafficking do not have a choice, as pointed out several times by Basra and Smith. For individuals over the age of 18, force, fraud or coercion are necessary elements to be classified as trafficking. While these elements are not necessary to be classified as trafficking for those under 18, many survivors of all ages were groomed, recruited, then eventually experienced trafficking.
A Culture of Shame
One point highlighted during our webinar was that the portrayal of sex trafficking often pushes the narrative of victim choice. The more the public paints victims as catalysts of their own trafficking, the less responsibility is placed on the true perpetrator, the trafficker and/or the buyer. Victim blaming is also perpetuated by our cultural need to have logical explanations for bad deeds and assumption that things in life are fair. “If we start believing the world isn’t fair, then it becomes more apparent that anyone can fall victim to any tragedy,” says Basra.
Being blamed for the abuse endured directly counteracts the survivor’s healing process and “creates a culture of shame,” adds Lindsay. Along with shame, victim blaming causes survivors to experience invalidation and can begin to distrust the services and people that are meant to help them. Further, fear of legal repercussions in states that have not implemented protections for sex trafficking survivors also can silence victims.
The harmful results of victim blaming illustrate why services like the Open Doors Outreach Network are so powerful. With a network of care provided by Open Doors Outreach Teams, survivors are empowered to rethink why the abuse occurred in the first place, understanding that victimization is not a result of their actions and could happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, race or zip code.
Overcoming the Cycle
Both Basra and Smith suggest that services providers can help survivors heal by creating an atmosphere of support, listening and continuing to remind the survivor (and the public) that what happened to them was not their fault.
Practicing this self-reflection and recognizing that the experience of being trafficked is unlike anything we can grasp ourselves can help us to remain sympathetic. And above all else, we must remain supportive and remind survivors and the public that something terrible happened to them not because of them.
About the Author
Micheala Denny is a graduate of Florida State University, having attained Master Degrees in Social Work, Geography, and Political Science. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Idaho. Micheala brings with her a vast background and intricate knowledge in advocating for survivors of interpersonal violence. Some of her past employment experience consists of serving as the Executive Director for the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, Director of Program Development for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, and the Director of the Women’s Resource Center at Bucknell University.
As a member of the Voices for Florida Open Doors team, Micheala focuses on the programmatic elements of the Open Doors Outreach Network including program development, implementation and evaluation. To support these efforts, Micheala develops grant proposals and administers special projects including the Voices Housing Assistance Services project. Micheala also plays an important role as an advisor to senior management as well as teams in the field on the implementation of the Open Doors Outreach Network.