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The Impact of Victim-Blaming on Human Trafficking Survivors

woman wearing jeans

Wearing tight jeans is not an invitation to a sexual encounter. Indeed, nothing a person does, says, or wears makes that person in any way responsible for their own harassment, assault, or other victimization – including trafficking. 

That’s the short version of the message of Denim Day, an internationally-recognized day to support survivors of sexual violence and bring awareness to the issue of victim-blaming. Human trafficking survivors know this issue all too well. Many are dealing with criminal records that are the direct result of their having been victimized and forced into committing crimes by a trafficker – a very tangible form of victim-blaming. But the mental health and emotional aspects of being treated as if you are at fault for your own sexual assault are equally damaging to people who have experienced trafficking and the manipulations traffickers deploy so expertly to make victims believe they are making their own choices. 

Victim-blaming relies on the perception that the person had a choice – that they made a wrong decision that led to their trafficking situation. But human trafficking is never the victim’s fault. It can show up in any number of scenarios, including supposedly therapeutic environments or when interacting with law enforcement. It often looks like questioning what a survivor could have, or should have, done differently to “prevent” their trafficking situation – such as not engaging in commercial sex, having irregular immigration status, or accepting a job that turns out to be a trafficking scam.  

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The tendency to blame the victim in scary situations is challenging to address legislatively because it is often an unconscious decision or choice –  a way to psychologically separate ourselves from them and maintain the view that bad things don’t happen to good people. Telling yourself that the victim must have done something wrong may be self-protective. 

Unfortunately, what protects one person’s emotional well-being can have an extremely harmful, real world effect on others. This is particularly true when trafficking survivors are blamed for their own victimization. This social stigma and the fear of not being believed may prevent them from seeking help or resources after they leave their situation. The internalization of that blame could make survivors think they did do something wrong, and they might not see themselves as deserving of help.

This potential tragedy is compounded by the fact that people who are blamed for their abuse report greater distress, increased depression, worsened symptoms of anxiety, and more complicated post-traumatic stress disorder. Holding survivors responsible for the exploitation they endured or insinuating that they had a choice in being trafficked is unfair. It’s time to change the culture around victim-blaming. YOU can help by examining your own thoughts and reactions to victims of these crimes. Challenge yourself and your friends to recognize the harm this blame has on survivors and stop viewing survivors as responsible for their trafficking situations.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.