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Why Don’t They Just Leave?


Katya Slater


March 26, 2018

You know the facts. You’ve heard the stories. Now there’s just the question. It’s a common one and an honest one. Like most things involving human behavior, it’s easier to ask than it is to answer.

Why don’t trafficking victims just leave?

We could go deep on this topic, and we will in future posts, but here’s a Reader’s Digest version of the four main reasons why victims of modern slavery don’t escape their abusers.

1. They don’t know they’re victims.

Daddy’s been taking pictures of you in panties for years, so it’s not weird when his friends come over to do it.

You’re willing to work hard for your family, so the 16-hour days in stifling rooms with no breaks is just the way it has to be.

You barely speak the language and are new to this career, but your boss says clients asking for sex is typical in the massage business.

Grooming tactics, withholding information, and gaslighting are effective ways to keep victims compliant and in the dark. Victims are often innocent, vulnerable, and ignorant of labor laws.

If you think something is normal, why would you need to escape?

2. Fear and coercion.

You want out, but they’ll murder your family if you try.

You can refuse again, but you barely survived the beating last time.

You can leave him, but he’s the only person who ever loved you.

Victims live in a state of constant fear – for themselves or their families. Often, traffickers will leverage a victim’s need for love and security to coerce them into enduring abuse.

If escape is a worse alternative, why would you risk it?

3. Shame.

If your loved ones heard that you’ve been prostituting yourself this whole time... If people found out that you’d been duped into servitude...If you had to admit the disgusting things you’ve seen and been forced to do...

Shame is a powerful silencer, even when it is not earned or warranted. Victims may be mortified by the utter wrongness they’ve been subjected to, or may blame themselves for falling prey to it.

If asking for help means opening up about that much indignity and pain, why would you traumatize yourself more by advertising your stigma?

4. Lack of opportunity.

You’re watched 24/7 and you don’t have money, a car, or anywhere to go. You have no idea where you are or how to get home. Your trafficker took your ID and legal documents and you’re conditioned to fear police.

Escape is not as easy as it sounds. Victims are chosen because they are vulnerable, dependent, and powerless, and their traffickers use fear, threats, violence, and coercion to keep them that way. Additionally, many victims are betrayed by the very people who promised to help them.

If you have no resources and you can’t trust anyone, is freedom even possible?

The psychology of victimhood is a complicated subject – and one that traffickers have mastered. As fighters and advocates for freedom, we must do more than pity victims. We must develop empathy. Asking the question, “Why don’t they just leave?” is more than a request for clarification. At its root, it’s a statement:

I would never let that happen to me.

We like to think that no one could take advantage of us like that. Victims, therefore, must not be as intelligent as we are. As brave. As strong. Because if they were, they wouldn’t stay victims. The fact is, however, that unless you’ve been trafficked, you have no conception of how you’d respond. Given the same circumstances, you might just make the same choices.

Victims of human trafficking are as real, smart, and three-dimensional as the rest of us. The only difference is vulnerability. So, fighters and advocates, let’s cultivate more empathy for the ones who need our help. What if instead of asking why victims don’t leave, we asked the question none of us wants to consider:

What if it were me?