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Home / Articles / Human Trafficking / How Does Sex Trafficking Intersect with Domestic Violence?

How Does Sex Trafficking Intersect with Domestic Violence?

Traffickers first groom victims, brainwash them into believing they’re in a consensual relationship

human sex trafficking victim escapes abuser

In a case out of Wisconsin, a young sex trafficking victim named Chrystul Kizer is on trial for the murder of a man the defense claims was her trafficker. She faces life in prison if found guilty. Though the prosecution claims it was premeditated when the then-17-year-old shot Randall P. Volar III twice in 2018 before setting his house on fire, her lawyers are claiming self-defense per the state’s human trafficking statute, meaning her attorneys only need to show that Kizer was, in fact, a victim of sex trafficking. Vollar was previously arrested on child sexual assault charges

Kizer spent nearly two years in jail before a nonprofit group was able to raise the $400,000 bond that allowed her to be released from jail. She is still awaiting trial. 

Trafficking Can Start with Grooming, Love-Bombing

It’s unclear whether or not Volar and Kizer were in any sort of relationship before or during when she says she was trafficked, but it’s common for young trafficking victims to be groomed first by the trafficker before winding up a victim of modern-day sex slavery. Human trafficking can be that much harder to recognize by both survivor and support persons when it’s disguised as a relationship. 

Lillian Agbeyegbe is the Community Engagement Manager on the Sex Trafficking Team of Polaris, a national sex trafficking nonprofit that also operates the national human trafficking hotline (888-373-7888). She says sex trafficking is not always what movies and television shows portray—groups of young women brought over from other countries and sold to the highest bidder or coerced into sex work in order to pay off debts or secure citizenship. Surely, that scenario can happen. But in many cases, it’s also domestic victims, young women often from unstable homes, targeted by a trafficker who begins a grooming process, offering a victim “something they’re looking for,” says Agbeyegbe. This is often masked as a connection, security and love. A boyfriend and a place to stay, but with a catch. Many children of abusive parents or who run away from homes where there was domestic violence are highly vulnerable. 

“Soon, because you’re in love with them, they say, ‘Oh, rent is due. Can you sleep with this person to get the rent money?’ and tomorrow you’re sleeping with another person for food. And the partner is collecting money from the buyer, not the victim, so it doesn’t feel like prostitution.” Agbeyegbe says the young women lured into this scenario often don’t know they’re being manipulated until it’s too late.   

Data collected by Polaris released in 2020 shows that the proportion of victims recruited by intimate partners jumped from 22% in 2019 to 27 percent in 2020. Those recruited by a family member or caregiver also increased significantly—from 21% of all victims in 2019 to 31% in 2020, or a 47% increase.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be to blame for an increase in global human trafficking. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Ghada Waly, “Millions of women, children and men worldwide are out of work, out of school and without social support in the continuing COVID-19 crisis, leaving them at greater risk of human trafficking. We need targeted action to stop criminal traffickers from taking advantage of the pandemic to exploit the vulnerable.”

Sex trafficking is just one type of human trafficking. Labor trafficking is also prevalent, forcing many vulnerable individuals into modern-day slavery, working long hours at for little or no pay, often in abusive or unsafe situations out of fear of deportation, violence or consequences to their families. A survivor can be labor trafficked by an abusive partner as well, sometimes called a domestic servent. Other examples of this include farm and factory workers, and illegal child labor. Statistics show 38 percent of trafficking victims are exploited for labor while 50 percent are sex trafficked. 

Power and Control … and Trafficking 

While physical violence can be a consequence for not complying with an abuser-turned-trafficker, there are other ways that abusers can manipulate partners. Brainwashing plays a big role. You’d do it if you loved me. I’m the only one who can take care of you. Where else are you going to go? Survivors who hear these kinds of things may feel a sense of obligation or shame, leading them to justify the trafficker’s requests. 

This may also explain why some survivors end up recruiting other victims for a trafficker. 

“The victims themselves groom other victims,” says Agbeyegbe, explaining the mindset is similar to Stockholm syndrome. “You know things are bad, but you see a window of opportunity to get a benefit from this trafficker.” By recruiting another victim, the original survivor may receive privileges like a kinder trafficker, or slightly more freedom. 

“The more money your trafficker has, the happier they are,” explains Agbeyegbe. “And, the less likely they are to abuse you.”

Another way traffickers can get a survivor to comply is through the introduction of drugs, which Agbeyegbe says both numbs a survivor to what she’s doing while also making them dependent on the trafficker for their next fix. Of course, survivors addicted to drugs or alcohol can present very differently to law enforcement, medical personnel or the court system if these individuals are not educated in human trafficking tactics. To them, they may see a person strung out on drugs, using sex work to feed an addiction, when in actuality, the survivor has been taken advantage of, coerced and brainwashed. 

How to Break Free from Trafficking

Calling the police as a sex trafficking survivor may or may not be the best plan depending on several factors. Will you be believed? Will you be arrested, too? Will there be consequences from the abuser if you try to escape? Reaching out to a trained advocate may be a safer place to start and to figure out options. Here are some resources:

  • Call Polaris’ National Sex Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888
  • Text “BeFree” to 233733 (a Polaris resource).
  • Go to and click “Live Chat” at the bottom of the page for instant support.
  • Reach out to your local domestic violence shelter and ask about human trafficking resources in your area.Some domestic violence programs also help victims of trafficking.

Agbeyegbe says survivors should try to compile any financial documents they can before escaping. A trafficker will often try to exert financial control, so if there are shared bank accounts or assets, having documentation to show this can help should there be court proceedings. Other things to take with you when leaving are similar to that of a domestic violence survivor, and a complete list can be found here

Trafficking survivors who are undocumented may fear deportation if they come forward to report abuse or try to go to a shelter. Luckily, the Violence Against Women Act protects them. An undocumented immigrant can apply for something called a T-Visa, specifically for trafficking victims. 

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More Shelters Needed Specifically for Trafficking Victims

There are currently some 3,000 shelters in the U.S. designated for survivors of domestic violence, many of which have programs designed for human trafficking survivors. But with human trafficking on the rise, there is a growing need for shelters designed specifically with human trafficking victims in mind. 

In New Hampshire, Brigid’s House of Hope will open their doors later this year as the first human trafficking shelter in the state. Bethany Cottrell, the founder and executive director of Brigid’s House, named after her great-great-grandmother, talks about the different needs trafficking survivors often come with.

“Because of their trauma histories, there’s often times so much more to their situation. They may be coming out of what appears to be a domestic violence situation but it’s also prostitution, also substance misuse, also child sexual abuse. Where domestic violence victims may have some of that in their background, it’s not always a given that they’re bringing all of those with them.”

 While a survivor of domestic violence may be able to leave if they have a supportive family member willing to help them, sex trafficking victims don’t often have that option

Cottrell, who has a background in child advocacy and human services, has worked for the past decade with a collaborative task force on human trafficking in New Hampshire while also working with sex abuse victims. The idea for the dedicated shelter was born three years ago.

“I was just sitting in those meetings day after day hearing how those victims were returning to their traffickers or were homeless because there were not housing options.” When she asked who was going to do something about this, her coworkers replied, well, she would have to. And that was all that Cottrell needed. She found a landlord who would lease her a building made up of four 2-bedroom apartments at 50 percent of what the fair market value was. She applied for and received a federal grant that would cover the rent, facilities and three employees for the next three years. Then, she began raising the funds needed for renovations and other expenses. When COVID hit, she was only $3,000 away from her goal and everything slowed down. Still, should more donors step up, she’s hoping to open the doors by mid-April. Survivors will be able to stay for 12-18 months and can take advantage of healthcare services, work skills, schooling options, substance misuse support, and help with independent living in the future. 

Before Brigid’s House, Cottrell says trafficking survivors would need to find that one person who cared enough to intervene. 

“It was one person at a hospital that listened. One person at a crisis center that showed them that there was hope. There was one family member that became their constant. We’re able to give them that bridge to that next step. That’s our hope—that we can provide that lifeline for survivors and help them build up a network to escape.”

Other states that have or are planning to open human trafficking specific shelters include MarylandTexas and Florida. However, victims of sex trafficking can always reach out to their local domestic violence shelter for help and resources.