Intimate Partner & Familial Human Trafficking: when Domestic Violence & Human Trafficking Collide

By Becky Owens Bullard

Image source: preventconnect.org

Today marks the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), an awareness month that is particularly meaningful for me. Domestic violence was the first issue I worked on as an advocate, and I remember my first training vividly – the power and control wheel, the cycle of violence, and the myths surrounding intimate partner and familial abuse. I remember the women and children that I worked with in shelter, support groups and in the courtroom, and I can’t forget the devastating impact I saw this issue have on so many people’s lives. So, when I left my work on domestic violence in Nashville, TN and shifted my focus to the anti-human trafficking field in Washington, D.C., I carried my first passion with me.

Although I had little expectation that domestic violence would be so closely tied to human trafficking when I arrived in D.C. to work for Polaris Project, I did have an inkling that my work with domestic violence victims was far from over.  In my first week of training, I quickly realized that the power and control used by traffickers was incredibly similar to that of batterers and I subsequently developed the Human Trafficking Power and Control Wheel to raise awareness about these similarities in non-physical forms of control. The abuse was similar, cycles of violence and coercion were present, and to top it all off, the case that brought me to the anti-trafficking field in the first place was both a case of domestic violence and human trafficking.

On the surface, the case appeared to be a straight-forward domestic violence incident where a woman and her child had been physically abused by the woman’s live-in boyfriend. However, while waiting to testify, the woman expressed fear of being in trouble with the police because a Vice Detective had been questioning her about the defendant. I was confused, thinking she meant a DV Detective, and seeing my confusion she explained that her boyfriend had not only abused her and her child but had also forced her to engage in commercial sex. With this disclosure, I felt fairly helpless as an advocate.  I had worked on plenty of cases of intimate partner sexual abuse, but sexual exploitation (i.e. human trafficking) had not really occurred to me as a potential form of intimate partner abuse. The case and my feeling of incompetence stayed with me, opening my eyes to the intersections of domestic violence and human trafficking.

However, when I came to the anti-trafficking field, I couldn’t seem to find an appropriate place for this woman I had worked with. There was no mention of an intimate partner as a trafficker and her story was lumped into a fairly large category of “pimp-controlled” trafficking. While my take on pimp-control was that it was intimate partner violence anyway, she still didn’t fit the idea of pimps having a “stable” or controlling multiple women at one time. And what if her abuser had started selling her daughter for sex?  There was also very little recognition of family members or parents as traffickers.

Maybe it was just a rare case and not the norm for human trafficking? Maybe I was over-thinking it? Nevertheless, a few months into my work on the national hotline for human trafficking, I realized that her case was far from unusual. I ended up working on multiple cases where family members and intimate partners were perpetrators of both sex and labor trafficking and in 2010, we started to categorize them as such. In a few months, 10% of hotline calls were reports of intimate partner or familial human trafficking and I had heard multiple stories of intimate partners, parents and other family members who compelled their victims into commercial sex, domestic servitude, sexual servitude and labor.

Although it is rarely the type of exploitation or abuse highlighted by the media or by either field, it is happening and it’s time we start calling it what it is – both Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking.

When a mom and dad sell their daughter for sex to make their car payments – it is familial sex trafficking and child abuse.

When a husband forces his wife to sell herself for sex by threatening to take their child away – it is intimate partner sex trafficking and intimate partner abuse.

When a teenage boy convinces his girlfriend to sell sexual favors to feed his drug addiction – it is intimate partner sex trafficking and teen dating violence.

When a parent makes their child work long hours at the family restaurant under duress instead of going to school – it is familial labor trafficking and child abuse.

And when a husband forces his wife to work, taking all of her wages and beating her if she loses her job – it is intimate partner labor trafficking and intimate partner violence.

But why don’t we call these crimes what they are?  What stops us from understanding that domestic violence and human trafficking can not only involve the same types of power and control, cyclical violence and manipulative perpetrators, but can also directly collide, mixing the two crimes together completely?

Unfortunately, there are several myths that keep us from identifying these crimes and inhibit our understanding of intimate partner and familial human trafficking:

The myth that traffickers are usually someone unknown to the victim, not their mom or dad or intimate partner – even though we know that those closest to us, those who are supposed to love and care for us, can also exercise forceful bonds of control, manipulation and abuse.

The myth that abusive partners and family members wouldn’t go so far as to exploit – even though we know they commonly dehumanize, sexually abuse and economically manipulate.

And the idea that intimate partners (especially husbands) and family members (especially parents) somehow have a right to force their loved ones to work but not calling this forced labor – even though if the perpetrator were a stranger or an “official” employer, we would recognize it as human trafficking.

These myths and discriminatory ideas inhibit us from recognizing the intersections of these two issues, keeping domestic violence and human trafficking in separate silos. When we treat these issues as completely distinct, we risk misidentifying victims, providing inadequate and uninformed services, and missing out on crucial collaboration between the domestic violence and human trafficking fields.

So as we work to enhance the public’s understanding of abuse during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let’s also improve our own understanding of the types of abuse that we can encounter in our work. By acknowledging that human trafficking is one of these forms of abuse and that it can intersect directly with domestic violence, we can ensure no advocate feels ill-equipped when they come across their own case of intimate partner or familial human trafficking. By uniting the domestic violence and human trafficking fields around this issue, we can amplify our voices and work together to end abuse and exploitation by those closest to victims: their family members and intimate partners.

For more information on the intersections, please see the following resources:

Issue Brief on the Intersections of Domestic Violence & Human Trafficking

Intimate Partner and Intrafamilial Exploitation: How the Intersections of Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking can profoundly affect our Work by Becky Owens Bullard

8 Comments

Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Human Trafficking, Intimate Partner Violence, Labor Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Violence Against Women

8 responses to “Intimate Partner & Familial Human Trafficking: when Domestic Violence & Human Trafficking Collide

  1. Ruth Owens

    A thoughtful and compelling essay.

  2. John Vanek

    Great post!

    This post addresses the complexity of DV, HT, and the intersection of the two – an element often overlooked by the public and practitioners alike. Quality training and skills-building is necessary for all victim advocates, regardless of their focus. We need to see the complexity of the world in which we live, and raise our abilities and partnerships to meet that complexity.

    John Vanek
    Anti-Human Trafficking Consultant
    Lt. (Ret.) San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force

  3. Michelle Spradling

    Excellent article! I confess that it never even occurred to me that financial abuse intersects with labor trafficking. Wow! Thanks for making that connection.

  4. Deepa Gurung

    Informative and thoughtful article. Indeed DV is interlinked with human trafficking yet almost ignored by most of the Anti human trafficking programs. Yes, unless the isuue of DV is address it’s really hard to reslove the issues of HT. Thanks once again. We expect more on the issue.

  5. Thuy Tran

    What a wonderful yet disheartening article. I work mainly with international labor and/or sex trafficked minors but have very limited exposures to the domestic side of the coin. When it comes to the mental, emotional, and physical trauma these individuals have dealt or are dealing with, I’m sure it wouldn’t matter if the exploitation was done domestically or internationally. Thanks for sharing your experiences…I always appreciate a thoughtful, well-written article.

  6. I like this essay .. very informative , open the door for further researches on this field ..Many thanks

  7. Pingback: Intimate Partner & Familial Human Trafficking: when Domestic Violence & Human Trafficking Collide | gender:visual:communication

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