Abstract: Trauma Bonding Among Survivors of Sex Trafficking: Perspectives from Service Providers (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

401P Trauma Bonding Among Survivors of Sex Trafficking: Perspectives from Service Providers

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kaitlin Casassa, MSW, PhD Student, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Alexa Ploss, Doctoral student, The Ohio State University
Sharvari Karandikar, PhD, Associate Professor, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Background and Purpose: The United States government has defined sex trafficking as “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts against his or her will.” While one might imagine scenarios in which brutal force is used to traffic another human being, in reality, fraud and coercion are commonplace. However, these insidious tactics are often not well understood. One phenomenon that frequently occurs in the presence of fraud or coercion is the development of a trauma bond. Trauma bonds are attachments that victims of exploitative and abusive relationships form with their perpetrators. While trauma bonds have been observed in a variety of exploitative relationships, there is a dearth of research focusing specifically on trauma bonding among victims of sex trafficking. This study aims to fill this knowledge gap by seeking to understand how service providers working with survivors of sex trafficking conceptualize and observe trauma bonding in their clients. Social workers and counselors working with trafficking survivors to heal from their trauma have a unique vantage point from which to observe this phenomenon. The research questions guiding this study are: 1) How do service providers observe, witness, and perceive the phenomenon of trauma bonding among survivors of sex trafficking with whom they provide services to? 2) How do these service providers define trauma bonding? 3) How do they describe the indicators of the presence of a trauma bond? 4) In their experience, how are trauma bonds developed?

Methods: This qualitative study involved in depth interviews with ten participants. Purposeful sampling was employed among licensed social workers or counselors working directly with survivors of sex trafficking. Audio recordings of interviews were transcribed and coded using a grounded theory approach, with first cycle in vivo, process, and initial coding and second cycle focused, axial, and theoretical coding. ATLAS.ti was used for all data storage and analysis.

Results: Four themes emerged from the data in regard to defining trauma bonding, and three themes emerged to illuminate the development of trauma bonds. The four themes that capture the essence of a trauma bond are: 1) embracing intensity, 2) power imbalance, 3) distortion of love, and 4) inescapability. The three themes that speak to the development of trauma bonds are: 1) universality, 2) gendered, and 3) grooming.

Conclusions and Implications: These findings provide much needed insight into the complexities of trauma bonding. The themes offer further clarity on this confusing phenomenon and can inform service providers’ approach as they seek to help survivors of sex trafficking resolve trauma bonds. Additionally, these themes provide a foundation for future research on this topic. Each theme should be explored in further depth, not only in studies with practitioners but also with sex trafficking survivors themselves. Additionally, similar studies with practitioners and survivors from populations such as domestic violence and incest would further elucidate the similarities and differences in trauma bonding among different populations.