Psychological Abuse is an Inherent Part of Human Trafficking

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By Seth Daire, Research Assistant

Monetary profit may be the tangible driver for human trafficking and other forms of slavery, but control is the psychological benefit. A person does not need to be bought or sold to be trafficked. Physical abuse or restraints aren’t required for it to be trafficking. Underlying the illegal force, fraud and coercion involved, there is psychological control, manipulation, and devaluation of the person while isolating and creating dependence. Nonphysical abuse through psychological and emotional means is an integral component of trafficking and slave-like practices.

Physical Coercion

Historical forms of slavery are associated with whips, chains, and physical restraints. People were bought and sold as legal property with the legal system giving slaveholders not just ownership, but the right to dominate another person completely. This included the freedom to use violence to keep the slave under control. The system compelled work be done through direct or threatened use of force, or physical coercion. Slavery remains with us today, although the look of it has changed.

Psychological Coercion

The methods of entrapment and enslavement are subtler in modern forms of slavery. Lawmakers and courts have categorized the non-overt means of enforcing slave-like conditions as psychological coercion, which can include poor working conditions, cultural isolation, or threats to harm loved ones. Legally, this was encoded in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed by Congress in 2000. Section 102.6 says that ‘force’ can include starvation, imprisonment, threats, psychological abuse, and coercion, in addition to physical and sexual violence. Section 102.7 says that traffickers often threaten “others should the victim escape or attempt to escape” and that this “can have the same coercive effects on victims as direct threats to inflict such harm.”

These psychological methods are similar to those used in domestic abuse, torture, cults, hostages, and with prisoners of war. Psychological coercion uses psychological means, which may be verbal or nonverbal, to cause emotional or cognitive learning to change beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. This produces ongoing anxiety, fear, and stress. Psychological coercion incorporates psychological/emotional abuse tactics, often delivered verbally, which may include criticism, threats, insults, humiliation, intimidation, invalidation, or harassment. Negating the desires of the other person and eroding their identity are key components.

As verbal abuse expert Patricia Evans says, “When the abuser’s projection is pervasive, he treats his partner as if she were an extension of himself…there to follow orders.” The victim may be treated like a child, told what to do, talked to as if they are stupid, etc. This happens in domestic violence. It also happens in trafficking. According to Orlando Patterson, it has been part of every slave system, including chattel slavery in the U.S. The relationship is based on the power of the master and the relative powerlessness of the slave, such that “the slave became an extension of his master’s power.” Slaves are not just passive victims. Those being dominated still make choices and exert power, but adapting to their situations takes a toll.

Post-Trafficking Recovery

Once a victim is freed or escapes from a trafficking situation, they have endured accumulated traumas and stress over time. Their trust has been abused repeatedly, so they may be suspicious about trusting anyone, including those who say they want to help them. They often need time to psychologically recover and may have physical health issues as well. Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are the most commonly measured and reported psychological conditions in human trafficking survivors. Men, women, and children in both sex and labor trafficking all experience these symptoms. Many survivors feel hostility and shame about what happened to them, as well as guilt for falling victim to trafficking. They may also fear retribution by their trafficker, so escape may not be the end of their ordeal.


While I don’t want to minimize the trauma of physical abuse, the loss of control and identity that can be a part of trafficking are also traumatic. To be controlled to the degree required for slavery and trafficking means that even if there are no rapes, threats or bruises, the person has been abused. The physically invasive aspects of trafficking receive a lot of attention at the expense of the psychologically invasive. This is especially true for labor trafficking, where conventional work settings make the indicators of trafficking harder to see. To effectively prevent and prosecute sex and labor trafficking, and to effectively assist survivors, we need to better recognize and understand the role of psychological coercion within human trafficking.

Photo Credit: Malik Earnest via Unsplash


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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