TW: sexual abuse, sex trafficking, sexual violence.
A husband filming his wife in the shower without her knowledge or consent, and selling the video online.
A boyfriend coercing his seventeen-year-old girlfriend for photos.
A man prostituting his long-time partner, then gaslighting her into feeling guilt and shame so that she feels unable to escape or press charges.
What does sex trafficking really look like?
It’s a depraved conglomeration of psychological, emotional, sexual, and physical coercion and abuse. It’s the disempowerment of women and children. And it’s all around us. Dr. Stephany Powell from NCOSE is on the BTR.ORG podcast; read the full transcript below and listen to this important episode now.
Let’s Define Sex Trafficking: Force, Fraud, Coercion
“By age alone, when you’re under the age of 18 and someone has used you for commercial sex, you’re automatically considered a victim of trafficking in a court of law. If you’re over 18 years of age, you have to prove force, fraud, or coercion.”
Dr. Stephany Powell
Understanding the “Coercion” Piece of Sex Trafficking
I think what happens oftentimes is that people only think of sex trafficking victims with the force and the fraud – so that coercion piece is a little hard to understand because people go, “Well, why didn’t they just leave?” What needs to be understood is that there is an emotional bond that one may have with their trafficker.
That emotional bond may be because their trafficker was a boyfriend or very good friend, or it could have been a girlfriend or it could have been a family member. Not to mention that it’s like brainwashing. I’m coercing you because if you leave something bad is going to happen to somebody you love. And by the way, this is your fault anyway because you chose to do this.
Dr. Stephany Powell
Coercion can include:
- Threats (subtle or overt)
- Emotional withholding
- Financial abuse
- Spiritual abuse
- Sexual blackmail
- Abusive persistence
The Most Important Take-Away
“If you’ve experienced sexual coercion and exploitation – whether or not it has resulted in sex trafficking – please know that it is NOT your fault.
What I really want to express to those women today is really understanding that it’s not your fault. You’ve been exploited.
It wasn’t something that you shared in and said it was okay; someone took advantage of you, and the really worst part, it was somebody that you trusted. And so when it’s somebody that you trusted that used you in that way, honestly, it is no different than a victim of sex trafficking that’s dealing with a trafficker or a pimp. Because lots of times, it was their boyfriend that ended up pimping them out or they got talked into it because it was showing “love”. The bottom line is it could really make one feel worthless: I shouldn’t have done that, I should have known.
And what I want to say to you is, you did what you were supposed to do. You trusted the person that was the closest to you; you were a wife, and so therefore this is no fault of your own. It is something that they did, meaning the husband, that shouldn’t have been done. So don’t beat yourself up over it. Try not to.”
Dr. Stephany Powell
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
NCOSE is an incredible resource for victims of sexual exploitation. Here at BTR.ORG, we are available to help you process your trauma and begin your healing journey – attend a Group Session today.
I have Dr. Stephany Powell on today’s episode. She is the Vice President and Director of Law Enforcement Training and Survivor Services at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Dr. Powell gained insight into the world of sexual exploitation and trafficking through her 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, coupled with her passion for education and her heart for community. She’s an incredible leader who uses her considerable skills and insight to educate the community about the complex and often misunderstood world of sex trafficking and to create positive change for victims. She’s been a powerful speaker and a tenacious educator and advocate for change, and one of the premier experts in this field. She’s been featured on CNN, HLN as well as local media in the Los Angeles area. Welcome, Dr. Powell.
Dr. Stephany Powell (00:53):
Yes, thank you so much for having me.
Sex Trafficking Defined
On social media, we saw a post from Fight the New Drug where you were talking about how sex trafficking is not only when victims are held against their will, and a lot of people don’t understand that. So can you start with the definition of sex trafficking?
Dr. Stephany Powell (01:13):
Well, when we talk about sex trafficking, I think it needs to be understood that by age alone, when you’re under the age of 18 and someone has used you for commercial sex, you’re automatically considered a victim of trafficking in a court of law. If you’re over 18 years of age, you have to prove force, fraud, or coercion. I think what happens oftentimes is that people only think of sex trafficking victims with the force and the fraud, so that coercion piece is a little hard to understand. People go, “Well, why didn’t they just leave?” And so I think what needs to be understood is that there is an emotional bond that one may have with their trafficker.
Understanding the “coercion” piece of sex trafficking
So that emotional bond may be because their trafficker was a boyfriend or very good friend, or it could have been a girlfriend or it could have been a family member. Not to mention that it’s like brainwashing: I’m coercing you because if you leave something bad is going to happen to somebody you love. And by the way, this is your fault anyway because you chose to do this. So that’s what human trafficking looks like. Someone can enter at the age of 11 or 12, but someone can also enter at the age of 21. It’s not so much where people think it only happens with children, it happens with adults as well.
When you say any commercial sex act of someone younger than 18, that age just automatically says, “This is a victim of sex trafficking”. Could that be perhaps a boyfriend and a girlfriend? Let’s say they’re 17. Let’s say he’s got a camera and then he records her and posts it online without her knowledge under any circumstances. If she’s under 18, is that going to be a commercial sex act?
Dr. Stephany Powell (03:19):
It could be considered a commercial sex act if they’re getting money by the posting, but by the mere posting of itself, and they’re under the age of 18, you’re looking at child pornography.
Do sex trafficking victims always KNOW they’re being sex trafficked?
Child sex abuse material.
Dr. Stephany Powell (03:35):
Okay. So do you find that some children under the age of 18 are unknowingly participating in sex trafficking? They think they’re just having a good time or something like that and they don’t realize what is going on?
Dr. Stephany Powell (03:54):
Yes. So under the age of 18, they could be unknowingly participating in child sexual abuse material. And so that’s why when I’m talking to teenagers, I tell them, “If you’re sharing pictures that you wouldn’t want to share with your grandmother, once you push send, you don’t have any control at all over that picture. So you could get yourself in trouble by sending it. You can get yourself in trouble by not only sending it and sharing it, but by sending it. Because unfortunately, the person who told you they would not share it with anybody else could possibly share it with somebody else. And so then now unfortunately, that image has gone viral.”
“They can post it without your consent anywhere online”
And they can also post it without your consent or without your permission anywhere online for non-commercial or commercial purposes.
Dr. Stephany Powell (04:53):
Exactly. And then the scary part is once it goes to one source, other sources can scrape it off, and that’s how it ends up going viral. So it could be different social media sites that image has now gone to.
So listeners to my podcast are women who are married to or have divorced men who they identify as sex addicts. And in several cases that I know, I’ve heard of women who are married and they are being recorded by their husband without their knowledge and they don’t find this out for sometimes years. And then they also find out that he has been posting these videos of them perhaps in their bedrooms or in their shower online for profit. And so she has been a victim of sex trafficking in her own home by her own husband. Can you talk more about why this is sex trafficking and why it’s so dangerous for women?
“It’s not your fault. You’ve been exploited.”
Dr. Stephany Powell (05:57):
Because of the fact that that photo has been used or video has been used for purposes of commercial sex and not to mention the exploitation aspect of it. Unfortunately for women, I think where the danger may come in is where they will start to blame themselves: If only I had known. And the danger part of it is the depression aspect of it, the blaming themselves, lowering their own self-worth. And what I really want to express to those women today is really understanding that it’s not your fault. You’ve been exploited. It wasn’t something that you shared in and said it was okay, someone took advantage of you.
And the really worst part for them, it was somebody that they trusted. So when it’s somebody that you trusted that used you in that way, honestly, it is no different than a victim of sex trafficking that’s dealing with a trafficker or a pimp. Because lots of times it was their boyfriend that ended up pimping them out or they got talked into it because it was showing “love”.
The bottom line is it could really make one feel worthless and that they “shouldn’t have done that”. They “should have known”. And what I want to say to them is, you did what you were supposed to do. You trusted the person that was the closest to you; you were a wife, and so therefore this is no fault of your own. It is something that they did, meaning the husband, that shouldn’t have been done. So don’t beat yourself up over it. Try not to.
When husbands traffic wives
In your experience with the LAPD, did you ever see any cases like this, and if you did, what types of legal ramifications were there for victims when their husband was the trafficker? Can you talk about that if you have experience with that?
Dr. Stephany Powell (08:14):
I didn’t see any cases where when we talk about videos, but I have had cases where the husband was the trafficker and he was prostituting out his wife, so he was pimping out his wife.
Did it make it harder to prosecute when she was married to him? Were there complications due to the relationship or in your experience, was it just kind of the same?
Dr. Stephany Powell (08:37):
The consequences when it is a husband or even a boyfriend is that there is an emotional bond, and so because of that emotional bond, oftentimes women did not want to testify. It’s no different than when you’re dealing with domestic violence where they felt that what their husband did to them was wrong, but what they don’t want is to see them go to jail. They don’t want to see them punished, and it’s like the woman ends up taking the hit, meaning, I’ll just deal with this. I’ll just deal with my own pain internally, but I don’t want to see anything happen to him. So it becomes that caregiver archetype where, I’ll sacrifice myself in terms of my feelings and my hurt and my pain because I don’t want to see this happen to him.
“You feel love toward him… but for him it was an opportunity to exploit you”
There’s also, at least from the women that I’ve observed, they’re wondering if he can get better or that he can get treatment or something and not be that way anymore. And so in testifying against him, or even taking the evidence to authorities to have him charged, they don’t want to do that just in case he’s going to get better, then they can stay married and their family can stay together. That type of an idea when it comes to that, I think the idea of: for you, you feel love toward him because you felt like this was the relationship that you had. But for him it was an opportunity to exploit you and he’s been exploiting you in that way and probably a bunch of other ways.
Can you talk about why this is a situation that is that rather than seeing it as a relationship, perhaps you should consider that it’s just an opportunity for exploitation, and maybe talk about what exploitation is in this circumstance?
Dr. Stephany Powell (10:37):
This circumstance, the exploitation is that somebody, what they did was took videos without someone’s knowledge and exploited them by benefiting from it, benefiting from it financially or benefiting from it in that they had the opportunity to share it and to see what the results of that were, whether they were positive comments or whatever it may be. But it is using an individual, and I think that sure, there are women that do not want to see that person go to jail because I think that there’s a possibility that they might get better. And we’ve all been through something. It may not be that, but as women, we’ve been through something where we stay with a person and think, Okay, well, they’re going to get better.
“Can he get better? isn’t really the question that I think victims should be asking”
Yeah. An example I’ve been using lately, I’ve been trying it on a little bit and I haven’t quite fleshed it out yet, so if you have any ideas, they are welcome. But the idea of someone who has a very severe contagious disease like Ebola, they’re saying, Hey, I want to be close to you. I want to be in close proximity to you because I want to make sure that our family stays together and stuff like that. You would be like, Okay, you need to stay away from me because if you’re close to me, I could get this infectious disease. I will interact with you again when you are completely healed and when there’s no danger. Can he get better? isn’t really the question that I think victims should be asking or survivors should be asking.
I think that victims need to say to themselves, Is he safe? Just like someone with Ebola, you would say, Is this person non-contagious right now? Not, Can they get better? Not, How long is it going to take?, any of that, but Are they currently safe enough to be in close proximity to? And if they’re still exhibiting any of these abusive behaviors. And then there’s also the grooming on top of it, so they could just be telling you all the right things and doing all the right things in order to groom you, to continue to exploiting you. It becomes a very precarious situation that is dangerous for women.
“You life is not actually about him – it’s about yourself”
Dr. Stephany Powell (13:02):
And what I would add to that is with the Ebola example is it’s not him telling you “I’m safe with Ebola”. It’s if the doctor says it’s safe, if the research says it’s safe. The idea of “it’s safe” not coming from the person who’s infected because that’s going to be the same person that says, “I won’t do this again”, and then they do it again. I think the key is, and sometimes we don’t want to hear this, but sometimes you got to be selfish. You got to look out for self. I think we’re taught as women that to be a wife, unconditional love is supposed to be really important. You always put your husband first, and I think we got to reserve a little bit of our self for ourselves. I can’t give you everything and then have nothing of my own.
Well, and also acknowledging that it is your life. It’s your life. It’s not his life that you are sharing with him. Your life is not actually about him, it’s about yourself. And if you choose to share it with him, that’s fine, but you don’t owe him anything. You’re not attached at the hip. If you separate, it’s not like your two circulatory systems are combined or something, and if you get some physical distance from this person, he’s going to drop dead, right? I mean, you really are your own person and this really is your life, and if you choose to share it with him, that is a thing that you’re choosing, but it does not necessarily mean that he’s become a part of you, even though it feels like it, especially when women separate and me included, it felt like I was cutting my own leg off. It felt awful, but I did survive. My circulatory system was not combined with his. So just thinking of how to realize that your life is important to you and you’re the only person who is going to advocate for your life the way that you will because you’re the only person whose life it is.
“If you give everything of yourself to a person, when that person walks out the door, they have taken all of you with them.”
Dr. Stephany Powell (15:16):
Yeah, absolutely. At the end of the day, really you are all that you have, and if you give everything of yourself to a person, when that person walks out the door, they have taken all of you with them. And if you don’t have enough of you to be able to gather up to get strength, it’s going to be devastating. I’m not coming from a standpoint of “this is easy”, it’s not easy. And it goes back to, you did what you were supposed to do in terms of loving and trusting someone that you wanted to spend your life with. You did your part, they didn’t do their part, and really understanding that what I think is really important ladies to understand is, you are the prize. They messed up, they crushed or tried to crush the prize, and they need to go. So at the end of the day, even though you may feel that it’s your loss, it really is their loss. And you probably aren’t going to feel this way at first. At the end of the day, you will figure out that it’s their loss and you’re going to be fine because you kept you in tact.
We’re going to pause the conversation here. Dr. Powell and I are going to continue next week, so stay tuned.