Because NEDA recognizes that many struggling with eating disorders have experienced trauma, oftentimes sexual assault, we feel it’s important to raise awareness around related issues. In recognition of today’s designation as Human Trafficking Awareness Day, we asked Kristi Taylor, Education Director with the Advocacy Center in Ithaca, NY, to answer some related questions.
For starters, can you share with our readers some basic information about human trafficking? What it involves? Some warning signs?, etc.?
Human trafficking is generally considered a modern form of slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to force a person to engage in commercial sex acts or labor against their will. The defining characteristic of trafficking with adults is the presence of force, fraud, or coercion; this could be everything from kidnapping or physical violence, to luring a person to a particular place under false pretenses such as modeling and then forcing them into commercial sex work. It is important to note that when children or teens are found to be involved in commercial sex acts they are considered a victim of trafficking even when force, fraud, or coercion is not present. This means that in many states, and on the federal level, if a minor is found to be engaged in a commercial sexual act, they are presumed to be a victim who could likely benefit from supportive services.
In the past, when I thought of trafficking, I assumed it only happened in very large cities or internationally. I now understand that’s not the case. Who is affected by trafficking?
Human Trafficking is oftentimes seen as an issue in developing countries or outside of the United States, but the reality is that both labor and sex trafficking are happening in the United States to people who look like you and me. In 2018 alone, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 5,147 reported cases of Human Trafficking and responded to 14,117 calls (Source: Humantraffickinghotline.org). When looking at these numbers, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we have a problem right here at home. Trafficking is a form of abuse and the tactics used by traffickers are similar to those used by perpetrators of domestic violence or child sexual abuse. Frequently, traffickers will identify and exploit vulnerabilities in those they traffick. For example, youth who are commercially sexually exploited or trafficked are particularly vulnerable if they have runaway or are homeless, as they have multiple basic needs that a trafficker can exploit. In a number of cases, we have heard from victims of trafficking that they were approached by an individual who seemed nice and offered them a place to stay for the night only to find out later that they were forced have sex with men to “make their keep.” Other groups who are particularly vulnerable to traffickers are LGBTQ folks who have been rejected by their community, undocumented individuals, individuals with substance abuse histories, those with trauma histories, folks with disabilities, and chronically homeless individuals. However, while all of that may be the case, we also know that, especially for youth, anyone can be the target of a trafficker and traffickers can be anyone. It is important to understand that while some circumstances may increase the vulnerabilities of people, there is no one type of person who could be trafficked.
In the eating disorders field, there is a growing recognition of the prevalence of trauma among those with eating disorders. I noticed that on your organization’s website “disordered eating conditions” is listed as a potential long term impact of sexual assault and rape. As someone who works directly with survivors of sexual assault, can you speak to any connections you might have encountered between trauma and disordered eating or eating disorders?
By definition, trauma is an event beyond the normal human experience and therefore can be quite varied in both short and long term impacts and how individuals cope. While not all survivors will experience disordered eating, some certainly identify sexual trauma as a trigger of their eating disorder. In some cases, survivors will identify patterns in which they utilized food as a means of coping with overwhelming emotions or experiences leading to an extremely dependent relationship with food to cope in life, while others engaged in practices of extreme food restriction or exercise as a means to find control in their life that they did not have while being abused or assaulted. Regardless of how the disordered eating presents, it is important for survivors to not only have validation and treatment surrounding these patterns but also opportunities for healing around the trauma they have experienced. This also presents strong opportunities for incorporating trauma-specific therapies or groups into treatment for survivors experiencing disordered eating.
If someone is personally experiencing trafficking or other forms of violence and abuse, or if a person suspects that someone is experiencing them, what should they do?
First and foremost anyone experiencing abuse deserves to hear that it is not their fault, they have the right to be safe and cared for, and that they are not alone in their situation. One of the first goals of a trafficker or abusive person is to create a dynamic in which the victim feels trapped or complicit in the abuse they are experiencing. If they can accomplish that goal then it gives them power and control over how that person thinks, feels, or acts. For anyone who may be experiencing abuse or is being trafficked please know there are confidential resources available 24 hours a day including RAINN, your local community, and the National Human Trafficking Hotline. These resources have trained advocates and volunteers who can provide a compassionate ear to listen, information about increasing safety, and local advocates to assist survivors in fleeing as needed. If you care about a person who is experiencing abuse or trafficking, please know that these resources are available to you as well and that listening without judgement can create opportunities for safety and healing that you may not even realize.
If you or someone you know needs help or support related to trafficking, rape, or sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN via live chat at https://www.rainn.org/ or by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
For recovery resources and treatment options, please visit our help and support page. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call ANAD’s Helpline at: (888) 375-7767 or the National Alliance of Eating Disorders Helpline at: (866) 662-1235.
If you are thinking about suicide, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. In crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer from the Crisis Text Line.
Kristi Taylor is the Education Director with the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County in Ithaca, NY. She holds a BA in Psychology, is a New York State Certified Rape Crisis Counselor, Master Trainer for the Enough Abuse Campaign in NYS, and has specific training on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) through both the NYS Office of Children and Family Services & the GEMS Program in NYC. Throughout her career, Kristi has provided advocacy, crisis intervention and ongoing support for those impacted by domestic and sexual violence and is an avid supporter of victim’s rights.