Empowering Sexually Exploited Victims Healing From the Sex Industry: A Treatment Approach.

Prostitution – Cultural Misconceptions and The Harm We Cause
September 17, 2018
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Empowering Sexually Exploited Victims Healing From the Sex Industry: A Treatment Approach.

Empowering Sexually Exploited Victims Healing From the Sex Industry:

A Treatment Approach

By: Brian Simmons, MA, LPC, CH

When providing treatment to a victim of for-profit sexual exploitation, a mental health provider must recognize and address the need to recalibrate the client’s understanding of power. Many victims of exploitation have a history of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect that predates their recruitment into sex trafficking or the sex industry. This past abuse or neglect often creates an unbalanced understanding of power. For victims, power is both a tool that guarantees survival and a weapon that punishes. For the victims, this translates into an internal meaning-making system that is highly self-critical and expects punishment. The victims become very tolerant of direct and indirect forms of exploitation as part of any relationship with an individual that cares for them or their needs. Sex trafficking victims who have been forced into prostitution settle into dissociative coping skills rather quickly after the initial realization of what they will be forced to do. This is due to the fact that organized sex trafficking operations tend to psychologically defeat their victims’ defenses very quickly, whereas exploitation that comes from voluntary entry into the sex industry is more subtle and slowly grows roots into the victim’s psyche over time. It will be a key function of the mental health practitioners to help clients find, connect to, and utilize their own power to bring about and protect change in their lives.

No matter their level of exposure to abusive versions of power, victims need to embrace and exert their own locus of control to bring about positive outcomes in their future interactions. To do this, therapists need to focus on growing a client’s sense of self-efficacy in three crucial ways: First, clients need to improve their overall sense of value. In any free-market exchange of goods, the price paid is dependent on the perceived value of the commodity. Sex trafficking victims are very aware of how this principle works. After all, their very survival as well as the different forms of exploitation they may experience is based on their individual value to a trafficker. Helping clients to transform their view from one of a commodity (i.e. a system of value based on external variables like appearance, sexual appeal, or performance) to one where they connect to a non-negotiable, intrinsic, positive identity that can be respected and appreciated. As mentioned previously, transitioning to this way of thinking is often complicated by complex and chronically abusive or neglectful family of origin systems, which have produced insecure attachment styles. For many clients, it is difficult to conceptualize one’s value when they have never felt valued. The therapeutic relationship is often the first secure/healthy relationship a victim has ever had. Therapists must be familiar with how insecure attachments affect the bonding process, coping skills, and overall personality development. Providers must also respect how difficult it is for clients to step out into this new way of functioning. To them, it often looks more like a turbulent sea than a golden pathway. Client’s will need to be educated on how to interact in relationships, what to expect, and how to spot danger in others’ behaviors or words where they didn’t see it before. Lastly, providers should expect that at some point if successful, the process of individuation can/will get turned against the provider. The client will grow strong enough to challenge the provider in some way. This is different from resistance or treatment non-compliance; and when it happens, it should be recognized, encouraged, and shown to the client as an example of their growth and healing. A therapist who is safe and effective for this client population is strong enough to manage this dynamic rather than allowing personalization to sabotage treatment.

The second element needed for the growth of internal power is purpose. Self-efficacy is built on a foundation of belief in self. It requires not only the desire to accomplish but the confidence that goals can be achieved. For victims of organized sexual exploitation, it was often times a lack of options that forced them into the industry in the first place. This, paired with repeated devaluation, makes hopelessness a common state of mind found in victims. Challenging this hopelessness is critical. Embracing power is predicated on a belief, no matter how fragile or untested in the beginning, that change is possible. One resource that can be useful in identifying a client’s state of hopelessness is “Hope in the Age of Anxiety” by Anthony Scioli and Henry Biller. In their book, Scioli and Biller have broken hopelessness down into different categories they call “varieties of hopelessness.” By identifying which type of hopelessness a client feels, a practitioner can establish a starting point from which to work forward. Purpose, in essence, is the antithesis of hopelessness and naturally takes over when this type of healing begins. 

Thirdly, an aspect of healing is direction. Developing and utilizing safe human connections is a necessary part of leaving the past behind. However, for many victims of organized sexual exploitation, they lack the necessary knowledge to assess, conduct, or maintain healthy relationships. This is another way that the therapeutic relationship can assist clients to restructure their lives. Once victims develop the courage to put themselves out into the world, they will need a safe place to process their decision-making and experiences with relationships. Initially, clients can be expected to be attracted to complex, sometimes dramatic relationships that have large amounts of interpersonal upheaval. Similarly, if clients do find a stable, balanced relationship, they are likely to use old behavior patterns to navigate it, which also may create difficulty for the client. Recovering victims need direction from practitioners to help them redefine their understanding of stable vs. unstable relationships. They also need the guidance of clinical professionals to help them learn how to identify inequitable relationships before they have a significant emotional investment. Once clients start to grow a usable knowledge of new successful experiences, then they can begin to apply their value to relationships, develop supportive relationships that can be the platform for a new sense of purpose, and ultimately direct their own lives and healing post-treatment. When such a systematic approach to therapy is applied, there’s hope for a difficult treatment population.

Brian Simmons has been a Licensed Peace Officer in Texas for 15 years beginning his career with the Dallas Police Department in 2000. He holds a Master Peace Officer’s License, is a Certified Field Training Officer, and a Certified Hostage Negotiator.

For information about becoming a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist – Sex Trafficking & Exploitation visit Trauma Institute International.

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