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Trauma-coerced Bonding and Victims of Sex Trafficking: Where do we go from here?

Chitra Raghavan, PhD and Kendra Doychak, BA

Although well documented across multiple abusive contexts, trauma bonding (here referred to as trauma-coerced bonding or trauma-coerced attachment) has yet to be systematically studied within the context of sex trafficking. The theory surrounding trauma-coerced bonding posits that victims of abuse can form powerful emotional attachments to their abusers, as a result of a complex interaction of abusive control dynamics, exploitation of power imbalances, and intermittent positive and negative behavior. The attachment is marked by a shift in internal reality, whereby the victim begins to lose her sense of self, adopts the worldview of the abuser, and takes responsibility for the abuse. We argue that first, trauma bonding be reconceptualized as trauma-coerced attachment to adequately reflect the abusive dynamics at play. Second, we highlight that relationships of sex-trafficking victims often involve complex dichotomies (e.g., romantic and coerced with enforcers and competitive and violent with peers) and warrant individual consideration. Finally, we suggest that the unique role of sex within this victim population be explored using an integrated mind-body approach. Effective victim outreach begins with a comprehensive and integrative understanding of victims’ personal experiences, as well as their physical and psychological responses to abusive environments. Directions for future research are offered.