What Victims of Sexual Exploitation Need

Young victims of sex trafficking have experienced intense violence and psychological abuse. They need trauma-informed services that prevent them from experiencing additional harm to their safety and well-being while helping them to recover and heal.

A safe and secure environment. For exploited and trafficked young people, a major barrier to getting help is fear of reprisal from their exploiters. When reaching out to victims on the street or in other public places, talk to them away from others, particularly someone who seems controlling. Establish code words or signals they can use to let you know when to leave immediately or not approach. 

Similarly, during intake into a program and case management sessions, talk one-on-one and discuss safety issues upfront. Victims often know the best ways to keep themselves safe. Service providers must build a rapport with the youth in order to understand their needs and address emergency and basic needs first.

If a young person is being placed into a housing program, don’t assume that your facility or neighborhood shelter is secure. Pimps and other exploiters may hang out near homeless youth shelters and group homes, aiming to recruit new victims. Discuss safety concerns with your supervisor or the manager of your local shelter or transitional living program. Work to create a facilitywide safety plan for all victims of commercial sexual exploitation and relationship violence. The plan should include how to respond to internal security risks and therapeutic response to these incidents. 

Extensive medical and dental care. Victims are often prevented by their victimizers from getting proper care. Many have injuries from beatings and rapes that were never properly treated. They also are at extremely high risk for sexually transmitted infections and should have a complete medical screening as soon as possible. You may want to accompany youth to appointments to ensure trauma-informed services are provided and that youth are comfortable disclosing their experiences of exploitation to health care providers.

Mental health services. Victims may have mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and complex PTSD. They may also have “traumatic bonding” with their exploiters, also known as Stockholm syndrome. Find professionals trained to deal with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and the impact of trauma and physical or sexual abuse. You might start by contacting members of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

An honest, nonjudgmental listener. Victims of sexual exploitation are often fearful, mistrusting, and ashamed. To open up, they need someone who can listen to the details of their life compassionately and respond without judgment. 

Remember that relationships between victims and exploiters are often complex. Never badmouth the exploiter or tell the victim to “just leave.” Don’t expect the victim to tell you the full, true story right away, and never take it personally if they lie. You may want to ask a survivor advocate— someone trained in crisis intervention and working with victims of sexual violence—to take on this role of listener or to be there when you talk to youth about the details of their exploitation.

Culturally appropriate services. Enlist the help of others who speak the victim’s language and understand his or her culture when providing services. Make sure that the organizations you refer victims to are culturally competent as well. Culturally competent services include the ability to meet victims where they are by providing services tailored to their needs.

Educational services and vocational and life skills training. Exploited youth often need a whole host of basic skills to help them make a new start. Discuss and plan educational and vocational opportunities with youth. Contact your local transitional living program, GED, or vocational training program. (Transitional living programs funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau are listed on the FYSB website.)

Community ties. Because victims have been so isolated from their families, friends, and communities, they often feel that going back to their exploiters is the only option. Reestablishing healthy social connections is crucial. Consider creating community connections with faith-based and housing organizations, schools and mentors to ensure healing and restoration of young victims.

Time. It can take months or even years for young people to understand their victimization and recognize that help is available. Victims can leave their trafficking situations and go back multiple times before finally making a permanent break, so don’t give up on them. And don’t expect victims to suddenly be “fixed.” They might need a very long time to begin to heal and establish stable lives for themselves. Let them know that you will offer support as long as they need it.

Help navigating the legal system. Trafficking victims may have criminal records or may be asked to testify against their traffickers. You can get more information about meeting victims’ legal needs from your local Legal Aid Society, the American Bar Association or the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime.

Next: Considerations for Involving Law Enforcement and Family

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