Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Stockholm Syndrome: Why It’s Not Easy to Leave

While I was sitting in my living room talking to my mom, somehow the topic of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) came up.

“Do you know that this is going on in our own city? In the Bronx, Queens, Times Square?” I asked.

I tried to educate my mom on this major issue.

“Really? That probably happened a long time ago, but I can’t imagine it happening now.” My mom’s reaction didn’t really surprise me at all as I  was once also oblivious to CSEC myself, especially to the fact that it is going on in our own country. However, the truth is that there is an estimated 2,200 children being brought into the commercial sexual exploitation industry annually, solely in New York City, and an estimated 100 to 300 thousand are at risk of being victims of this exploitation each year in the United States.

My classmates and I read a copy of Rachel Lloyd's "Girls Like Us" for our feminism class. (Photo by Steve Neiman, used with permission).

CSEC is an issue that Rachel Lloyd, the executive director and founder of GEMS (Girls Mentoring & Educational Services), delves into in her powerful memoir, Girls Like Us. Her memoir answers all of the questions I had about CSEC and girls who are sexually trafficked; one of the biggest being: why don’t these girls just leave their abusers? We all hear stories about women who are in violent relationships and many believe that it is easy for girls and women to just get out of these relationships.

Now, in retrospect, I am embarrassed that I was ever so ignorant to have possessed such simplistic views on a much bigger problem. That is one of the main reasons why I am so intrigued by Stockholm Syndrome, which is a psychological condition in which people who have been taken hostage feel a sense of loyalty and a bond towards their captors. This is something that Lloyd expresses in her memoir in the chapter entitled “Staying” when she writes, “The desire to perceive kindness when there is none, or to magnify small, inconsequential acts of basic human decency to proportions worthy of gratitude and love, can also be seen in other victims.” She continues on to give examples of how girls who are being trafficked show signs of Stockholm Syndrome. She says, “the critical factor is not whether the kindness is legitimate or valid. Simply that the victim perceives it to be so…For some girls, the only kindness is the absence of violence, or at least the reduced levels of violence in comparison to what they knew [their abuser] was capable of…The gratitude and the relief are palpable.”

My interview with Rachel Lloyd. (Photo by Ileana Jiménez, used with permission).

In the interview that I conducted with Lloyd at our school, she elaborated on the topic of Stockholm Syndrome and how girls being trafficked experience a bond towards their pimps so much so that it becomes exceptionally hard for them to run away. She said, “When someone had the power to take your life away but doesn’t, you feel a sense of gratitude.”

This makes sense in psychological terms because developing a bond towards your captors, who are in this case the pimps, is a sort of defense mechanism for the victim of kidnap, or the girls being trafficked. Pimps make these girls believe that their best chance for survival is for them to comply to their demands.

This notion is even encouraged by police because they believe that bonding with one’s captor does in fact improve one’s chances for survival, however, at the same time this is what makes it that much harder for victims to cooperate with the police, as is expressed in the article, “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser” written by Joseph M. Carver.

In the film, Very Young Girls, I saw firsthand the hardships these girls have to go through when relapsing and going back to their abusers. It absolutely broke my heart when one of the girls went back to her pimp in Miami after  she returned to GEMS for a second time. Again I began to wonder why these girls would go back to their pimps. As I continued to read Lloyd’s memoir, I began to understand this more and more. Lloyd goes on in her memoir to explain,

Pimps make sure to isolate trafficked and exploited girls from perspectives other than their own…Everyone she meets is in some way connected to the life; her entire world becomes pimps, johns, and other victimized girls. Her wives-in-law are traumatized and bonded already, unable to offer a different perspective…[It] takes more than simply isolation from other perspectives to develop the intense relationship with their abusers that clinicians call trauma bonds…[There] comes a point where the pimp will begin to exert force and control in order to develop the strongest levels of loyalty and submission…For commercially sexually exploited and trafficked girls, the perception of threat is almost always based on the reality of violence. Girls believe that their pimps will act on their threats to hurt, to maim, to kill, and with good reason. So many of these girls have experienced rape,  had guns held to their head, heard their trafficker talk about other girls he’s killed—enough violence, in other words, to ensure that girls are hesitant about running away.”

After watching the film, Very Young Girls, reading the memoir, Girls Like Us, and interviewing Rachel Lloyd herself, I can honestly say that my life has been changed. I was extremely moved by all three experiences and can now say that I have the knowledge to become an activist against CSEC. This is an issue that I am passionate about and I want to begin to educate the everyone about it, beginning with this blog post.

6 thoughts on “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Stockholm Syndrome: Why It’s Not Easy to Leave

  1. Starting this blog with those numbers was really powerful in terms of fulfilling your goal that you mention at the end: which is to educate people on this topic. Even though I have been studying this topic for the past month or so, I had no idea that the number of girls trafficked in the United States were that high (I figured thousands but not hundreds of thousands). I felt the same way as you before this experience; wondering why these girls just didn’t leave. I’m always one of those people who scream at the TV screen, when a character who’s being abused is just sitting there when she’s home alone, to get out. But because of this class and you blog post, I realize it’s much more than just finding a time where he’s not home to leave.

  2. I wrote a very similar response to the question of “why don’t they just leave their pimps”. We had a very similar experience of realizing the deeper issues behind that question. There is a similar sense that this experience was very eye opening on our classmates blogs. I also really enjoyed the focus on Stockholm Syndrome throughout your post!

  3. The question, “Why don’t they just leave?” is the mindset that society and the justice system have. This is the reason why these girls aren’t receiving the justice that they deserve.

    The girls are only looking for the love that they don’t get from the people who are supposed to love them, there families. How can society point the finger at someone who has the natural instinct to love and be loved?

    Your original question and the question that many of us ask our selves has to do with the fact that we find that the girls are the ones to blame; there is no time spent considering why the girls ended up in that life and what was stopping them from leaving. We need to start addressing who the real criminals are.

  4. One of the things in Girls Like Us that really made me think was Rachel Lloyd talking about how high-profile abducted children don’t get questioned about staying with their captors, whereas victims of CSEC do. I had always followed this same ideology, and I know most other people do as well. This post explains perfectly why exactly these girls do stay with the pimps, and why that doesn’t mean that they’re choosing to be trafficked.

  5. I love how your post touches a very big and difficult subject and still you talk about with ease and calmness. And the fact that you started your post with the question to your mom, is a way to open your readers mind in a sense that this is really happening and know one really knows about it, so that we educate our community

  6. It is crazy to think that these girls who have these experiences of being trafficked and then suffer Stockholm Syndrome are seen in our society as the criminals! Thank you for pointing this out, as well as pointing out that the reason that these girls don’t leave is a problem recognized as a syndrome, not because “they like it” as so many people think. The reality is that these girls are the ones we should be protecting, helping and rehabilitating, and that fact comes out fabulously in your post.

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