On February 4, 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a terrorist cult, kidnapped Patty Hearst. In April of the same year, she announced that she had joined the group and subsequently robbed the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco with its other members.

It took the SLA two months to transform Hearst from a victim of kidnapping to a perpetrator of crime, and the group did it in the same way that traffickers turn their recruits into valuable items on the commercial sex market: through masterful manipulation.

The foundation of such manipulation lies in what psychologist Steven Hassan has identified as behavior, information, thought, and emotional control.


First, traffickers control all behaviors--the food intake, clothing, and sleep schedule of the victims--and this behavior control is maintained through a system of punishment and reward. In fact, the very essence of sex trafficking is the provision of financial rewards in exchange for sexual behavior.

Once traffickers have behavior control, the victims try to protect their new identity with denial, rationalization, and justification for their unconventional practice of having sex for money. The traffickers will use information control to validate such defense mechanisms. They regulate how criticism is perceived, using an “us versus them” mentality, to remind victims that the rest of the world is unsafe and doesn’t understand.

Traffickers also often change the victim’s name to solidify their new identities under the trafficker’s control. Common ones are Baby, Diamond, Cherry, and Sugar. Under the instruction of her cult, Patty Hearst started calling herself Tania. Traffickers do this to gain thought control. They will also promise the victim a different life in the future. According to one trafficker:

A pimp sells a ho a dream like a manager promises to take her to Hollywood and make her a star…She can’t leave because tomorrow might be that day.
— Royal, in “Renting Lacy”

In addition to behavior, information, and thought control, the traffickers will use fear to gain emotional control over their victims. A prime example can be seen in cases of sextortion, in which traffickers tell their victims that they will share a photo or video of them partaking in sexual acts to their friends and family if they don’t obey.

Overall, the trafficker’s control of these facets of a victim’s life essentially alters the individual’s identity. By discouraging autonomy and individuality in favor of dependence and conformity, traffickers gain control.

And we, as advocates, frequently mimic the traffickers’ methods, which ultimately dissuades victims from accepting our help.


For instance, residential treatment centers, places meant for recovery, often strictly regulate the food and clothing of their clients, and law enforcement may practice sleep deprivation after arresting someone they first believed was a prostitute, not a victim of sex trafficking.

Advocates may also pit survivors against their traffickers, playing the same “us versus them” game as was played when they were being exploited. We may call survivors “Baby” or “Sugar,” as terms of endearment, or make false promises that we will see them again soon. We negligently miss the fact that these actions only victimize the survivors again.

And, lastly, we make them feel guilty for the actions that their traffickers photographed and filmed, or other actions committed under the duress of their traffickers. We sometimes ask, “Why did you...?,” instead of “What do you need?”

We need to stop this re-victimization of survivors.


After victims escape, they should have their autonomy and individuality restored, first and foremost. Residential treatment centers must give them choice in the food they eat and clothing they wear. They must make compromises to ensure rules are being followed without stripping complete control from the clients in their care.

Law enforcement must also use trauma-informed practices, such as Russell Strand’s Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, to prevent re-victimization through sleep deprivation, and advocates need to stop trying to win the “pick me, pick me” game over the trafficker. Victims will not leave their traffickers just because advocates request that they pick them over returning to their traffickers. Instead, victims leave when they build relationships with their advocates, and the foundation of relationships is shared power in their treatment.

In addition, advocates should never use nicknames or make survivors feel like it was their fault by asking questions like, “Why did you do get in the car?” or “Why did you believe the trafficker?” They didn’t know that the car was going to take them away or that their trafficker was going to lie and manipulate them.

It was not their fault.


And, most importantly, we must not exploit a survivor’s story for fundraising purposes, but instead acquire informed consent before sharing the story of a survivor. Otherwise, we are exploiting them for monetary purposes all over again.

We can do better, and we must do better. As advocates, we have a responsibility not to mimic the controlling behaviors displayed by traffickers. When we work with survivors to create an environment in which they are not re-victimized, they will feel safe. Then, and only then, will they be empowered to restore their identity and make sustainable change in their lives.

Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 3.30.33 pm.png

About the Author


Katie Watson graduated from the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, where she pursued her undergraduate and graduate degrees, respectively. In pursuit of her Master's of Public Administration, Katie produced research for the FBI to develop protocols related to human trafficking. Katie now works for a residential treatment center for girls who have been exploited through trafficking, and is excited to team up with Dressember in the fight against slavery.