THE BLOG
04/20/2016 03:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sexual Assault--Tool of Power and Control in Sex Trafficking and Forced Labor

2016-04-19-1461078599-6612305-SexualAssaultToolofPowerandControlinSexTraffickingandForcedLabor.jpg

"Washing the hands" is how one South African sex trafficker described the systematic tactic he and other traffickers used to deter victims from attempting escape. It sounds potentially innocuous or ominous, depending on a person's life outlook and knowledge on human trafficking. It's certainly the latter. "Washing the hands" is what the rest of us call rape and it's what traffickers do worldwide to control victims. In Phoenix, Arizona, armed traffickers repeatedly raped a local teen and kept her in a dog kennel or hollowed out box spring when they weren't forcing her to have sex for their commercial gain. In Mexico, traffickers recruited girls and women by promising them employment as housekeepers and waitresses in Florida. Instead, the traffickers raped them and forced them to have sex in brothels.

Rape is often a key step in exerting control over and instilling justifiable fear in victims that they will suffer physical harm if they disobey or attempt escape.

When people read stories like this they tend to quickly try to gauge the ease of escape. They want to believe it's possible and may ask, "Why didn't she/he just leave?" So, let's examine the Mexico-Florida case a bit further. The girls and women victims were told that they were free to go once they paid their debts--roughly $2,000 per person in transportation fees. The traffickers never paid the victims but told them that $3 per forced commercial sex incident went toward their debt. That means each victim would be forced to have sex with more than 667 men before satisfying the alleged fees. That's without considering continually accruing costs like room and board that victims also allegedly owed. This is intentional. Traffickers make fees next to impossible to pay, placing victims in debt bondage. The traffickers in this case also confiscated victims' travel documents and armed guards prevented victims from leaving the brothels. Those who attempted escape were beaten.

This is not to say that sexual assault alone does not have sufficient impact to control and scare victims, but rather that it's often a key ingredient in a collection of abuse and coercive techniques such as shame, debt, humiliation, threats to harm the victim and the victim's family, and a general atmosphere of violence. Traffickers may also intimidate and coerce victims through restriction of movements, isolation and monitoring victims' communications. Traffickers often take advantage of a victim's vulnerabilities such as her/his immigration status, language and cultural barriers, and economic and social marginalization.

The layered and compounded trauma from combined human trafficking and sexual assault creates numerous short-term and long-term adverse physical, sexual and mental health effects. It's important to note that forcing a person to have sex against her/his will (for any reason, including commercial gain or bribery) is rape, which is commonly understood worldwide to be a method of torture. Repeated rapes create physical and psychological trauma. Victims often experience sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, forced abortions, sterility, miscarriage, acute fear and distrust, memory loss, flashbacks and vivid nightmares of being raped and abused, thoughts of suicide, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and addiction.

Traffickers use sexual assault and children produced from it to manipulate victims. As one would guess, escape is constantly on a victim's mind but it's carefully weighed against the risk of getting caught and potential harm to the victim and the victim's family. Traffickers not only threaten to harm or kill victims but also victims' family members, including children that result from traffickers raping their victims. In Israel, a husband drugged, beat and raped his wife and forced her to have sex for commercial profit. He threatened to harm their children and her family members if she did not comply. The trafficker used rape to reinforce the statement he told his wife each day, "You're mine. I control you. You are not yours. You do not belong to yourself."

In other cases, the traffickers tell victims they won't get to see their children if they don't comply. This is exactly what happened in a Mexico-New York case where men in a family-run sex trafficking syndicate courted girls--some as young as 14--and when the traffickers had gained the victims' trust, they raped them to force them into submission. The traffickers next isolated and psychologically degraded victims before forcing them to have sex in New York brothels. The traffickers' systematic rape of victims produced children; the traffickers then took the children to Mexico and told victims they would never see their children again if they didn't cooperate.

It likely isn't terribly surprising that sex traffickers use rape as a tool of control, but rape and other forms of sexual assault are also commonly used in forced labor. In Thailand, 800 shrimp factory workers (most from Myanmar) were imprisoned in a labor camp monitored by armed guards. The workers--children, women and men--faced public humiliation as punishment if they complained or made an error on the factory line. Traffickers stripped victims naked, beat them, sexual molested them, thrust metal rods up their nostrils, shaved their hair and paraded them in front of other victims. It was a clear message: If you don't follow the rules, this, or worse, will happen to you.

In the U.K., an employer hired a domestic worker but he didn't pay her, resulting in domestic servitude. He withheld her passport and forced her to sleep on the floor. He didn't allow her to leave the home and told her that if she attempted to do so she would be reported to police and deported. Under his close watch, the victim worked from six a.m. to midnight cleaning office buildings the employer's cleaning firm was hired to clean. One night the employer's son and his friends attempted to rape her. In this case, the attempted rape wasn't a tool to control the victim but instead a signature of the sense of ownership traffickers, and traffickers' family members, have over their victims.

Traffickers believe victims to be their property. To use how they want, whenever they want. That may translate to traffickers forcing victims to have sex with border patrol as bribery or to rape them when they so desire. Yes, it's about exerting power and control, but it's also about ownership. Traffickers believe they own their victims and have the right to do what they want with them, whether that's using victims for sex at one moment or labor at another. Forced labor traffickers force victims to have sex and sex traffickers force victims to work against their will. There are no tidy boxes when it comes to human trafficking and abuse, and this is becoming worse as the cost of victims plummets.

The more disposable victims become, the less traffickers are concerned about preserving their goods than using and getting rid of them. In 2005, Louise I. Shelley, founder and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, wrote in Human Traffic and Transnational Crime: Eurasian and American Perspectives that Russians treat their trafficking business as a commodity market and that "the human resource of women is plundered like the precious metals, oil, and gas of the former Soviet Union with no thought to the investment of the profit of this trade in the domestic economy". Today, this is an issue worldwide, says Kevin Bales, co-founder and former president of Free the Slaves and author of Blood and Earth, with victim disposability ever increasing.

It remains a very pervasive characteristic of slavery worldwide, says Bales, but there is a new wrinkle on disposability. Countries like Brazil, he says, are moving to shorter and shorter periods of enslavement, like a temp agency approach. This adversely affects the need for victim survival. "It's cheaper to kill and replace a slave than to take him/her to a doctor and purchase medicine."

(You can read more about the South Africa, Arizona, Mexico-Florida, Mexico-New York, Thailand and U.K. cases in Stephanie Hepburn's book, Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight.)

Photo credit: Liliana Porter - Forced Labour (Sand, 2008)

This post originally appeared on The Good Blog.