How Do Human Trafficking Survivors Assess Recovery?

journey to wellness (ending the game) Dec 27, 2021
How Do Human Trafficking Survivors Assess Recovery?
“Its not like recovery from drugs where if I stay clean I know I’m getting better. I don’t feel recovered from trafficking just because my body isn’t being trafficked. It’s still in my head a lot.”

This is a million-dollar question that begs the development of benchmarks that can measure validation. As a human trafficking survivor, I have personal experience of assuming total recovery before hitting painful lows that showed me that my recovery had only just begun.

Current buzzwords in the anti-trafficking community include:

  1. Victim
  2. Survivor
  3. Thriver

There is an assumption, even amongst survivors, that the recovery process will automatically progress from survivor to thriver, even if it takes time. It certainly can, but there’s nothing automatic about it. Even if you’ve ended the game of commercial sexual exploitation, and you think you’re okay, there’s a good chance you aren’t.


The Path From Victim to Thriver

Anyone who has survived human trafficking can tick the first two boxes (victim and survivor). It all starts with being a victim and once you get out of the sex industry, you emerge a survivor and start to thrive in your new life. But when you’ve survived the horrors of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), in a world where human trafficking is the norm, your new normal may be far from enabling you to be a thriver.

Before you can tick number three, do a little soul-searching and ask yourself if you are thriving after surviving. I thought I was. After all, I had a place to stay, I had food to eat, I had happy times with friends, and I was holding down a job that kept me out of the sex industry.

The truth is that I thought I had made it out of human trafficking unscathed. But I was wrong. And it wasn’t until I hit some painful lows in relationships, hopelessness, and overdrinking, that I started my own journey to really being okay.

For me, it meant finding and uprooting every single tainted belief and behavior pattern that had planted itself during my time in the game of sexual exploitation. What I learned changed everything for me. Later, I wrote the curriculum for Ending The Game (ETG) to help change things for other people too.

In a nutshell, ETG is a psychoeducational course for victims of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation (CSE). It follows a peer-support model and is open to victims, from minors to adults, who have experienced psychological coercion.

There’s no doubt that ETG works. A countless number of the 1,000+ ETG Graduates have told us that ETG was life-changing for them.

We've heard many stories from ETG Facilitators about the dramatic changes they've seen in the survivors they work with. We have seen how people who have suffered extreme abuse have been able to jump in and seize their own power, breaking binds that traffickers and the commercial sex industry had put them in.

But a major challenge is being able to show the impacts we are seeing without validated measures to evaluate recovery, specifically from the psychological and emotional impacts of human trafficking.

We have thoroughly researched the topic and surveyed dozens of survivors, and come up with our own measurement assessment. Additionally, Maria Usacheva and the research team at the University of California (UC) Davis have helped to fine-tune our measurements and conduct our nationwide research.

We’ll delve deeper into our findings in a future post. I will also discuss the three umbrella areas that ETG tests to evaluate improvement in survivors’ paths to recovery:

  1. Emotional and behavioral dysregulation that results in acting or reacting on impulse
  2. Relational difficulties that hamper the development of healthy relationships
  3. Identity disturbance that literally causes a lack of identity and loss of the real you

But right now, I want to explore basic benchmark options for defining and validating the different phases or levels of recovery.


Exploring Benchmarks for Validating Measures of Human Trafficking Survival

My journey of recovery began when I recognized that, while I had exited the world of human trafficking and could call myself a survivor, my concept of being okay was tainted. I wasn’t okay at all.

This realization also got me thinking about possible benchmarks that could qualify human trafficking survivors as thrivers.

Whether we are victims of human trafficking or survivors of the experience, what benchmarks qualify us for one or other category? Can somebody be a survivor physically but still a victim mentally? Can someone else be a thriver in some areas and still barely survive in other areas?

Substance abuse, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other issues that many human trafficking victims experience and suffer from have been studied. They have been defined well enough to be linked with tested, scaled, and identifiable measurements of recovery. This means that the measures have been validated.

While we can measure these symptoms or side effects separately for human trafficking victims, there is no university that has devoted millions of dollars and decades of research to human trafficking recovery measures.


The Need for Validated Measures to Assess Recovery from Human Trafficking

Without validated measures the anti-trafficking field cannot meaningfully move forward.

The fact is that victims of human trafficking are damaged by the coercive control they are subjected to. The challenge is to find ways to measure evidence of healing from the coercion process. This should be done using validated measures that can evaluate the effectiveness of coping strategies taught by ETG to help survivors improve things like impulse control, emotional reactivity, and their capacity for long-term planning.

Ultimately, I wish for a more thoughtful approach to ensure that human trafficking survivors really are okay after being trafficked. Psychological damage can hurt a lot more and last much longer than physical damage.

My dreams are that 1) every survivor will have access to meaningful tools that will help them reach true healing, and 2) that the academic anti-trafficking field will grow the teeth it needs through research and validated measures to gain credibility that informs policy, changes laws, stands up in court, and ultimately changes society for the better.

-Written by Rachel Thomas, M. Ed, Lead Author of Ending The Game (ETG) Curriculum
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