When we are talking about sex trafficking, the question that often arises is - "why don't they just run? If they want to be free, why don't they just leave?" I can understand why they are asking. In most global circumstances, victims of sex trafficking often appear to be free to do whatever they like.
In Cambodia, I have seen girls just meandering around the neighborhood, walking to the market, or talking with friends. In Greece, I watched girls eating at cafes, talking to friends, and walking along the streets during the day. Indonesia, the same. Vietnam, same. India, yeah, there too. The United States - yes, even there - the same. So, on the exterior of it all, the average person looking at sex trafficking victims must be a bit puzzled at the apparent solution to the problem - leave. Walk away from your circumstances and get help.
But, it is not that easy. First, I must add that I have seen the opposite side of the spectrum. It does exist. Girls held in chains, locked in rooms, and kept in horrendous living conditions in each of these places. That said, the majority of what we perceive looks to be a simple equation of self-will and action equalling freedom. Unfortunately, this is not the reality.
Anyone familiar with interrogation will know the power of psychological manipulation and control. The effect of having a person in a place of power and control over a person can have a serious effect. There is tremendous power in 'convincing' someone that something is true.
Let me give you an example - one of the girls that we work with in Cambodia was explaining the power her 'pimp' had over her. He never had to beat her or touch her. Many of the girls we work with, have had physical beatings, electrocution, and torture of unimaginable proportions. But, this particular girl told us of a different means of keeping her in control.
Having been taken from her home to a foreign city, she was out of her element. She didn't know anyone and had no bearings for where she was or how to get home. In the brothel, there were four other girls. She befriended one of them and they became like sisters - they trusted one another and depended on each other for strength. When this young lady would not 'obey' the brothel keeper, the pimp would bring her friend in and beat her in the girl's place.
She would be asked to follow the brothel keepers orders or her friend would be beaten repeadetly until she complied. This type of psychological manipulation trains the mind to believe and understand that there is nothing within your own control. Someone controls every element of your life.
This is why many sex trafficking victims believe that their pimps are everywhere and know everything. The pimps have created a false impression that they can control these young girls' worlds. It isn't true - pimps and traffickers are cowards - but, they have convinced their victims that they are somehow omniscent and worthy of their loyalty and obedience.
There are other ways of creating control - threatening family, promising hope for the future (money, marriage, etc.), having children with the girls and threatening to take them or harm them, and then of course, there is physical torture. Without getting into this too far, physical abuse can also become a part of the control, in that victims become 'addicted' to the abuse.
But, back to the question - why don't they just run? It would be so much easier for them if they walked away and got some help, right? Not so. First, victims believe that they are a part of the problem - that they are direct contributors to their plight. Most girls believe that they got into prostitution by being 'bad', worthless, or deserving of having men misuse them. They often believe that they are the criminals, which is re-enforced by the traffickers, pimps, and buyers.
They don't trust the police and they don't know where to turn for help. The reality in most places
is - you can't just walk up to a shelter and say, "I am a trafficking victim, can I stay here?" There are laws. In Cambodia, India, and the United States, there are specific laws that must be abided by to have custody of a minor. This means a process must be followed; a process that is often exploitive and intrusive by nature.
The truth of the matter is - we need more and better services that victims can access. Services that protect victims from the moment of rescue until they are in a rehabilitative service.
If you are interested in this topic and would like to explore this on your own, I would recommend Melissa Farley's book "Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada - Making the Connections". If you are not a 'reader', I would highly recommend GEMS video "Very Young Girls". This film will give you a much clearer understanding in how girls are manipulated and exploited. We will continue to write on this topic and we will have more in-depth information available on the 'new' Transitions Global website coming later this summer.