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What's Attachment Got to do with Human Trafficking?

People who engage in human trafficking tend to choose victims who have specific types of vulnerabilities. Many times this includes coming from a lower socioeconomic status, having a disability, being in foster care, or have previously experienced other abuse and neglect from caregivers, and broken relationships with parents. These are not vulnerabilities that victims have chosen to have; rather, they are pieces of a person’s life that the victims could not control. And while childhood abuse and neglect are not, of course, the only vulnerabilities a person can have that indicate a higher risk for exploitation, they are some of the ones I’ll be focusing on here.

It is far easier to convince someone who has previously been abandoned, abused, or neglected by others in their life that the abuse and neglect occurring in trafficking is normal-- and if something is normal, then there’s no reason to fight it. No reason to leave. No reason to try to escape. In this way, developmental traumas can have far-reaching implications throughout a survivor’s life. First, early trauma significantly impacts their childhood and increases their risk for further victimization. It disrupts a person’s ability to securely and safely attach to the adults in their life during childhood. Then it leads to some of the violence and unequal power dynamics in trafficking feeling normal because this abuse mirrors the abuse in their past. Finally, it creates a very difficult hurdle to pass through in recovery: problems forming and sustaining healthy, secure attachments to safe people.

I’m going to be discussing attachment quite a bit here, so it’s probably time for a definition. Attachment is how we describe the emotional bonds we have with other people in our lives. As a baby, we seek to attach to our primary caregivers; during this time, we are all helpless to meet our own needs, and we rely on those we attach to for fulfillment of those basic needs and desires. As we grow, we each develop a style of attachment in response to the way others do or do not meet our needs. Positive and healthy ways of attaching to others are known as secure attachments, while other styles mark less healthy ways of creating emotional bonds.

Developmental trauma, such as abuse or neglect, or abandonment during childhood, sets people up to have unhealthy ways of attaching to others. Many people who are trafficked were brought into trafficking with less than secure attachment styles, and trafficking really enforces incredibly unhealthy styles of attachment. When survivors leave trafficking and seek help, these disrupted attachment patterns can show up as anger outbursts, severe anxiety about being alone, bouncing back and forth between caring deeply for someone in one minute and then being aloof and uncaring the next, or any number of confusing ways of interacting with other people.

Often, it is difficult for others in a survivor’s life, including direct care staff, to understand what is going on-- what they see is a survivor whose behavior doesn’t make sense in the moment or even seems to get worse the longer they are in treatment. What these allies aren’t realizing is that, when someone has an unhealthy way of attaching to others, the stronger that attachment becomes the stronger the unhealthy ways of bonding tend to show up. Many times, survivors learned that the longer they were in a relationship with their trafficker, the more fights were had. The more arguments occurred. The more violence was exhibited. And these things were synonymous with love and care for one another. When a person who has experienced this gets out of that Life and starts to bond with someone else, they are going to expect the same pattern to happen. As they begin to feel closer to a new person, they are going to expect that person to react to them with anger, with fighting, and with violence. And if those things do not happen (which they should not, assuming that the staff member or ally is a safe and healthy person,) survivors can respond with extreme anxiety. They may even feel rejected and unloved because violence isn’t present. This new relationship isn’t following the pattern they have come to expect, and they may act to try and MAKE the relationship follow the same pattern.

How do we fix this? How do we help survivors see that relationships can break all of the old patterns and enrich their lives? How do we help the survivors in our lives make the move towards accepting safe relationships? How do we break the pattern of “this person hurts me less than other people have, so they must be a safe person for me?”

In my next blog post, you will learn the secret I wish I had known about attachment early in my own recovery from sex trafficking...

Sarah Hall is an emerging leader in the field of human trafficking and began consulting with The Wild Hope in 2020. As a trafficking survivor herself, Sarah is passionate about equipping anti-trafficking organizations to provide quality care and develop best practices through consulting, writing, and training. Sarah’s degrees include an M.A. in Professional Counseling, a B.Sc. in Mathematics, a B.A. in Anthropology, and a B.A. in Government. She is currently a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate in the State of Texas. In her spare time, Sarah is an avid reader, a compassionate animal enthusiast, and a food science devotee.


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