Guest blog by: Courtney Sharma, Communications Coordinator, Servants Anonymous Society of Calgary

According to the Polaris Project, sex trafficking is defined as “a form of modern slavery that exists […] globally. Sex traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will.” The lack of understanding that domestic violence is imbedded in the complexity of sex trafficking can hinder a survivor’s efforts to find help.

Not only is domestic violence rampant among sex trafficking situations, the tactics of sex traffickers to control their victims are eerily similar to those applied to victims of domestic violence.  Traffickers retain victims in exploitative situations by ways of social isolation, forcible confinement, withholding identification documents, imposing strict rules, limitation of movement, as well as threats and violence to victims and their families.

According to a participant of Servant’s Anonymous Society (SAS), a collaborative member of the Calgary Domestic Violence Collective’, “In one instance, my pimp wanted to rent a new apartment, and wanted me to buy us a very expensive couch to go with it. I did what I had to do to make ends meet. I eventually started recruiting women when my pimp would ask. However, after a month’s rent and a damage deposit, there was not enough money left for our new couch. This upset him to the point where he beat me up so badly, I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.”

Nonphysical tactics used by sex traffickers can be just as harmful. Many believe sex trafficking is synonymous with prostitution, implying the willful choice of a woman to sell sex. However, the reality is many victims are groomed, manipulated, and coerced to enter the sex trade by promises of love and understanding.  Another SAS participant recalled, “My first pimp trafficked me from the east coast to western Canada. Many times I wanted to leave, but I was brainwashed into believing I had nowhere to go.” It can be extremely dangerous for a victim in attempting to leave. Another past SAS Participant knows this firsthand: “I saw the opportunity to run away from my pimp and left, only to be kidnapped by him. I was then locked in a hotel room, unable to leave and working as much as he forced me to.”

Sex trafficking survivors are well acquainted with the cycle of violence, meaning the pattern of abuse that escalates over time, similar to other domestic violence relationships. “After he turned extremely physically abusive, I finally found the courage to leave him,” said a Past Participant of SAS of her first of what would turn into a number of pimps. “From that point on, I learned to always keep enough money to leave whichever pimp I was with at the time. However, working for a new pimp always ended in the same way: being abused so severely that I would finally leave, only to repeat the cycle with someone new.”

The transgenerational nature of domestic violence and sex trafficking alike is incredibly difficult to exit. Traumas early in life follow victims for years until they are able to break the cycle; a cycle passed onto them by family members who were abuse victims themselves. “As a child, I was sexually abused by my stepfather,” said a past participant of SAS. “This was the catalyst for my being drawn to older men, one in particular who eventually forced me to sell sex.”

Many assume that the typical sex trafficking survivor is poor and a visible minority. On the contrary, the RCMP stated in its report, ‘Domestic Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in Canada’ (2013) that survivors are typically Caucasian and increasingly people from stable backgrounds. Furthermore, as with domestic violence, anyone can become a victim of sex trafficking. K.J. Wilson, author of ‘When Violence Begins At Home,’ stated the truth of the matter well: “If anything is truly equal opportunity, it is battering. Domestic violence crosses all socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, educational, age and religious lines.”