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When Sex Trafficking is a Family Affair

Written by Bridget Battistoni
on May 14, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, we posted a story involving six local men who were arrested during an undercover operation that involved child rape & domestic minor sex trafficking. These men ranged in age, race and profession. They lived in major cities, and in the outlying suburbs. As you can imagine, the story sparked strong reactions from our readers, most of whom were outraged because the men believed they were arranging sex acts with a mother of three who was seeking to profit off of her children’s rapes. And, the article went on to highlight that in the past few months, the city’s two-person detective task force made more than 30 arrests for similar child sex crimes.

For many of us, our stomachs ‘drop’ as our eyes scan a headline as heinous and unfathomable as child sexual abuse. And even fewer of us manage to click and read the details. That gut reaction is normal and is one of the ways our bodies alert us to something ‘off’ or dangerous.

When I hear or read stories that involve familial trafficking, my stomach drops too. Almost every time I get that sensation, I cannot help but think about the number of times that child’s stomach alerted them to the impending danger as their trafficker approached, but didn’t have the option to avoid knowing the details.

Familial Trafficking is when a family member abuses their power and exploits the vulnerabilities of the child, thrusting them into a trafficking situation. Familial Trafficking can be motivated by many things, including financial survival or gain, or ‘legacy,’ (generational sexual abuse), but it always involves a corruption of power:

  • A mother who has been raped and her child is a reminder of the violence, so she punishes her…
  • A child who was born into a family where incest and exploitation have been passed down for generations…
  • An extended family member who sexually abuses a child, and profits off of others who want to do the same…
  • A parent who grooms their teenager because that’s the only job the parent has ever had…
  • A drug-addicted or desperate caregiver who sells their child because they are the only thing of value they have, and they don’t know how else to meet their needs…
  • A teen who experienced sexual assault and rape who then sells a younger family member and they don’t understand why, but it helps them feel less of their pain…
  • A step-parent who marries into a family to sexually abuse, and profit off of selling child porn…

For each of the scenarios listed above, the incest and trafficking are not motivated by sex, but power which makes it extremely confusing for the child. The abuse often becomes normalized at a young age because family members have early access. It becomes extremely complicated for the victim to speak out about the violence because of the family dynamic of love, loyalty, shame, dependence, and fear of abandonment. What’s more, because Familial Trafficking also involves violence within what should be a caregiver relationship, healing is often much more complex.

Of course, many survivors of child sexual abuse and trafficking are not ready to talk about what happened to them. It is an incredibly brave, but extremely vulnerable thing to do. But, for those who are ready, whether because they believe it’s part of their healing journey, or because they feel empowered and want to prevent others from suffering in silence, they need compassionate listeners. While it may be instinctual to want to shrink from hearing about someone’s pain, we must resist. We cannot add to a survivor’s suffering by listening insensitively, or by inadvertently sending a message that they are “too much” for us.

####“Shared sorrow is endurable sorrow,” -Bob Kellerman

Most of us are not professional counselors and cannot provide certain insights, nor should we underestimate the sacredness of the invitation. But, we can listen intently, without probing. We can offer compassion and empathy, if not by our words, then by our presence. Our presence can bear witness to not only the experience of suffering but to the determination and resiliency of the human spirit. And that is humanizing for the person sharing their pain. And for those of us who are privileged enough to join them, even briefly, in their journey, they give us an extraordinary gift too. Awe transcends our fear, and our understanding of the world is changed forever.