Addiction and Trafficking

Human trafficking is the second biggest growing criminal industry in the world. When we think about human trafficking, we often think of women sold into sex slavery in other countries, the movie Taken, or high-level international crime rings. In reality, trafficking happens locally, as many people are trafficked by those they know and love. And perhaps the most startling statistic of all: the majority of people who are trafficked end up in the United States.

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is the exploitation of humans for either sexual or forced labor purposes, sometimes both. While this certainly includes forced prostitution, the forced labor part of trafficking is often overlooked. Forced labor shows up in a variety of ways: being deceived about the nature of your job, feeling unable to resign from your position, having payment withheld, or having some or all of your payment given to others. Many women in these situations don’t realize they were trafficked. Even some women who were trafficked for sexual purposes may believe they were in a consensual relationship until they begin the healing process.

Language Matters

The language we use when talking about human trafficking makes a big difference in how we think about trafficking and in how those who have experienced it think about their stories. Trafficking often involves unhealthy power dynamics between the trafficker and the person being trafficked. When we work with those who have been trafficked, we want to avoid creating another dynamic like that through our language.

There are words to avoid when talking about trafficking: victim and rescue. Because power dynamics play a critical role in human trafficking, when walking with someone on their healing journey, it’s important to make sure that they maintain control over their journeys.

When we talk about rescuing someone, it gives us the idea that we are the savior, and someone needs to be saved. This completely takes away a woman’s agency and mimics the unhealthy power dynamic she may have had with her trafficker. What is really happening is that someone needs healing, and we, as mental health providers, can help facilitate that healing.

The word victim becomes problematic for a few reasons. Mainly, it focuses on the part of the story where the hurt took place – not the healing. Some women don’t even identify themselves as victims due to the nature of the trafficking they may have experienced. We must be careful not to assign labels that women don’t believe are true of their experience. Instead, we use the word survivor. We focus on the healing, on the strength she has drawn despite her circumstances.

The Role of Addiction in Trafficking

There is a saying amongst those who do the work of eliminating trafficking. If you find the dope man, you will find victims. Drugs are used as a manipulation tool by traffickers in a few different ways.

  1. Traffickers rely on physical dependency to keep women controlled. Some women are manipulated into staying when they know that they have a steady supply of their drug of choice. If the option is to stay under harsh conditions and avoid withdrawal or escape and face the horrible symptoms associated with dopesickness, many choose to stay.
  2. Traffickers keep women high so that they aren’t 100% aware of what’s happening to them. Being under the influence of a substance can make women more malleable to whatever the trafficker needs her to do.

It’s impossible to tell what comes first – trafficking or addiction. Some women engage in behavior that puts them at risk because of their addiction, and some develop an addiction after being trafficked. What we do know for sure is that trauma makes a person more at risk for both addiction and trafficking.

How to Achieve Healing

It is not uncommon for us to welcome a woman to The Next Door for addiction and find out that she is a trafficking survivor. The addiction is only one piece of the complex trauma a woman has suffered. At The Next Door, we believe that addiction treatment goes beyond simply detoxing a woman from a substance. It involves case management (connecting women to community resources), therapy (finding a counselor with whom a woman can develop a safe and trusting relationship in order to address her underlying trauma), and stability (rebuilding a woman’s self-worth, family relationships, and community.)

For more information about trafficking, you can watch our Panel Discussion or visit the websites of one of our partners.

Nashville Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition

Justice Intervention Services of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County

Metro Office of Family Safety

End Slavery TN

Published on July 2, 2020

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