Coercion & manipulation

The coercion and manipulation stage is when youth begin to experience changes in the behavior of the person seeking to exploit them. Where there was at one time promises, care, gifts, and/or feelings of love, there is now unpredictability, hurt, and control occurring through force and power in the form of:

  • psychological manipulation,
  • emotional, physical, or sexual abuse,
  • emotional or material dependency.

However, the seemingly positive feelings and relations do not completely disappear. Instead, people seeking to exploit others establish a cycle of abuse in which youth are rewarded and punished in seemingly haphazard, but often strategic ways. Cycles of abuse are overwhelmingly confusing and can impact physical, emotional, and mental well-being. As youth grow increasingly uncertain of how the person seeking to exploit will act, youth are forced to behave in ways that seek reward and avoid punishment. This cycle of abuse creates a trauma bond, trauma-bonding ensures youth:

  • become emotionally attached to the person seeking to exploit them;
  • experience confusion and insecurity, while believing the relationship is meaningful and worth investing in
  • are willing to do whatever it takes to restore and maintain this relationship

Signs of trauma-bonding may include:

  • identifying with person seeking to exploit
  • justifying or excusing harmful behavior of the person seeking to exploit them
  • feeling needed by the person seeking to exploit
  • needing or wanting to appease, or make happy, the person seeking to exploit
  • changes in personality depending on who youth are engaging with
  • hiding negative emotions, especially when around person seeking to exploit

While our focus is on youth, it is important to remember that trauma-bonding can happen to anyone. Although we can each learn to recognize the red flags of cycles of abuse, trauma-bonding is incredibly covert and even the most vigilant person may miss the signs. Trusting others and wanting to feel loved are basic human traits. It should not be assumed that trauma-bonding is strictly the result of age, naivety, or inexperience. Find detailed descriptions of these signs of trauma-bonding here.

Introduction to the sex industry

Sexual exploitation and involvement in the sex industry may also be introduced at this time. This may involve massage parlors, strip clubs, hotels and residential dwellings, in-calls and out-calls.

Note: at this point, youth may feel empowered to enter the sex industry. As discussed in Module 1, youth experience dynamics of choice, coercion, and circumstance in relation to the sex industry. Keeping this in mind:

  • Youth may truly feel empowered to enter the sex industry,
  • Youth may express empowerment, but deep inside not feel empowered, or
  • Youth may feel anywhere in between.

The role of a service provider supporting youth is to hold space for any of these dynamics to be true, maintain that whatever way youth feel is okay, and ensure that youth have access to support no matter what.

  • If youth do not truly feel empowered, they can only come to terms with this feeling themselves, and if youth are going to open up about this feeling, service providers will need to provide them with time, respect, and trust.

The coercion and manipulation stage works to maintain isolation and dependence, while creating fear. Although youth’s fear for their own and others’ safety often makes it difficult for youth to leave exploitative circumstances, the ability for people who exploit youth meet individualized needs of the youth they target makes leaving exploitative circumstances increasingly complex and potentially impossible.

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