Psychological Chains: Coercion in Human Trafficking

I take a deep breath and stride into the classroom. Following my normal pre-presentation routine, I hastily unpack my bag and survey the classroom as students trickle in. Chairs scuff the floor and bags are plopped on desks, ready to inevitably be used as a headrest. As always, I watch for the token student who dutifully scrawls the name of the presentation on his or her notebook headline: “Step In, Speak Out: A Presentation on Sexual Assault on Campus.”

University class room

As the last of the students plod into the room, I edge towards the front of the classroom and begin the presentation. The presentation flow is standard: an introduction of rape culture, consent, coercion, and being an active bystander. Like clockwork, though, as I near the slide that covers coercion, I see the noticeable rise of eyebrows and the obvious question in most of my peer’s eyes. And, as always, a hand is raised.

Coercion in Sex Trafficking and Sexual Assault 

I have been a peer educator on sexual assault and rape at my university for half a year and coercion remains the most difficult subject for students to grasp. For many students, coercion was an unknown topic before the presentation because most people are taught that sexual assault and rape do not take place unless a person is forced by violence. Unfortunately for a lot of victims, this is not the case.

Teaching about coercion in the context of sexual assault and rape helped me understand how it works to victimize those impacted by sex trafficking. Sexual assault and rape are inextricably linked with sex trafficking. Although they are different crimes, they share many elements. For example, coercion is a common tactic used by both abusers and traffickers.


Coercion, as defined in the context of sexual assault, is “the act of using pressure, alcohol or drugs, or force to have sexual contact with someone against his or her will” and it usually includes “persistent attempts to have sexual contact with someone who has already refused.” While coercion is involved in sexual assault on campuses, coercion is also used by traffickers. In fact, coercion is included in the definition of trafficking, which is the “use of force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into labor or commercial sexual exploitation.”

How Traffickers and Abusers Use Coercion

Traffickers use several tactics such as threats, lies, blackmail, intimidation, humiliation, and debt bondage to coerce victims into sex trafficking. These tactics instill fear and a sense of obligation for victims to do acts they would not otherwise do. For example, traffickers might create a climate of fear by inflicting psychological trauma on their victim by being nice to them one moment and violent the next. This process instills a
deep-rooted fear in the victims and forces them into gratitude for being allowed to live.

Traffickers may take elicit photos of the victim and threaten to share them online or with her peers unless she obeys him. He may threaten the victim, her children, her parents, her siblings with severe physical harm. Traffickers might also rely on the tactic of “debt bondage,” an illegal practice where the victim has to pledge services in order to repay a false debt the trafficker has created out of thin air.

Using Relationships to Abuse

Coercion is often used in the context of a relationship by both abusers and traffickers. Guilt, anger, mood swings, accusations, and lies become physiological weapons wielded to inflict pain. Both a date rapist and trafficker will manipulate a person they have developed a relationship with to coerce the victim into doing what they want. Both types of abusers may use lines such as, “If you really love me, then you’ll do this for me.” In the sexual assault context, a boyfriend might threaten to spread gossip that embarresses his girlfriend if she does not have sex with him. Or he might take advantage of the girl he’s dating when she is drunk at a party, so that she later feels guilty for being drunk; therefore, it becomes “her fault.”

In a sex trafficking situation, coercion may look like a trafficker manipulating a victim into falling in love with him, then using the relationship to wield power over her.  Once he has gained the victim’s loyalty and trust, he may ask the victim to sell herself for sex “just this one time” to get her so-called boyfriend out of a bind. Either out of genuine concern or fear of losing him, she does it. That one time becomes a slippery slope and he begins selling her again and again. Often, the loving relationship devolves into tremendous violence and punishment if she does not comply.

What Should We Do with This Information?

As long as coercion remains an unfamiliar topic, abusers – be they date rapists or traffickers – have the upper hand. As long as people believe that sex cannot be forced on someone through means other than violence, sexual assault will continue on all levels and traffickers will continue to use coercion to lure victims into a sex trafficking situation. However, by understanding coercion, we can make a difference not only on a large scale with human trafficking, but in our day-to-day lives.

I finish the presentation with an encouragement that knowledge leads to change and watch as students stream out of the room. I weave around the desks, picking up the routine reviews of the presentation, when I notice a comment written on one card. It states: “Today I learned what coercion is. I now have the courage to break up with my boyfriend.” With a lurch in my chest, I add the card to the stack and know I’m making a difference — and that others can too.

Courtney Brady, Intern for Beautiful Dream Society

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