Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation: Psychological & Cultural Impacts


One outcome of globalization is the increased movement of people by either legal or illegal means. Recently there has been increased media attention to human trafficking that has exposed the clandestine nature of this illegal migration. There are various definitions of human trafficking supplied by the United Nations, the International Organization of Migration, and the International Labour Organization, but the common elements in all the definitions are: the use of threat, fraud, force, coercion, and deception. This article will discuss cultural aspects that place Asian women in vulnerable situations of being trafficked for sexual exploitation and examine the short and long-term psychological impact of commercial sexual exploitation.

Globalization has both changed and increased human trafficking for sexual exploitation, which is ten times greater today than was the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century. Human trafficking is a lucrative business generating an estimated $9.5 billion dollars per year globally and it has become the fastest-growing source of profit for organized criminal enterprises worldwide. Human trafficking for sexual exploitation is considered a comparatively profitable crime because existing penalties are relatively lenient compared to trafficking drugs and firearms. Every region of the world is affected by some form of human trafficking. According to the United Nations 700,000 to

2,000,000 women and children are being trafficked yearly worldwide. This equates to approximately 2,000 to 6,000 women and children who are trafficked on a daily basis.

Transnational trafficking usually moves people from less developed countries into developed and industrialized countries such as the United States, the European Union, and Australia. The majority of transnational human trafficking is for commercial sexual exploitation. The 1999 CIA report estimated that 45,000 to 50,000 women and children are trafficked annually to the U.S. with approximately 30,000 women and children from Southeast Asia, 10,000 from Latin America, 4,000 from Eastern Europe, and 1,000 other regions. There are at least 20 different states in the U.S. that are involved in trafficking, although most of the trafficking activities are concentrated in large metropolitan areas in states such as New York, California, and Florida.

Human trafficking is complex, but it is generally explained by “Push and Pull Factors.” Potential trafficking victims are “pushed” into the situation by poverty and the lack of employment opportunities resulting from a lack of education. Trafficking victims accept fraudulent offers of foreign employment such as childcare or restaurant work only to find themselves forced into prostitution under deplorable conditions and in strange countries where they do not speak the language. Victims’ passports and identification papers are confiscated and they are told that they have to pay off a phony debt of thousands of dollars. Due to extreme poverty, parents are willing to sell their daughters when approached by “agents” promising gainful employment in restaurants or bars. Impoverished victims and their families are also “pulled” into trafficking, seduced into the belief and expectation that a daughter will be able to support the family.

The political, social, and economic development taking place in the sending regions also creates human trafficking opportunities. Open national borders and accessible air travel increases sex tourism. Internet technology advancements also contribute to increases in trafficking, the sex industry, and child pornography and provide more access to and choices for commercial sex with trafficked persons. Technology and globalization creates not only extensive local linkages and networks, but also international linkages as well.

Asian girls are especially vulnerable to trafficking due to traditional Asian cultural and social values. Filial piety (obeying parents and supporting the family) in conjunction with social and discriminatory attitudes and views of females and children (viewed as less than men and in some cases as property to be sold or bargained with) creates a situation where females are susceptible to trafficking. Given the degree of poverty and the traditional cultural attitudes, girls and their families may be easily deceived into accepting gainful employment with the erroneous assumption that they will be able to earn enough money to support their families. Hence, girls are deceived, bought, sold, and trafficked as sex workers. In some cases, girls removed from prostitution have mixed reactions due to cultural factors. They may not like what they are doing, but they also feel they will financially fail the family. A Thai saying captures the filial piety concept: “repaying the breast milk” (todtan bunkhun).

The cultural stigma of rape and prostitution, which brings shame and loss of face to families, is another factor. As girls may be disowned and ostracized by the family and community, returning home and reconnecting with their families and communities may not be an option for many Asian girls. A Vietnam saying describes the shame and disgrace of prostitution and rape: “Someone ate out of my bowl and left it dirty.” Traffickers understand that even if the girls escape from prostitution, there is nowhere they can go to seek help, leaving Asian girls in a hopeless situation.

In some cultures there is the tradition whereby the middle child is sent to live and work in an urban area with a relative (e.g., Uncle/Auntie) in exchange for a promise of education and learning a trade.

Aware of this tradition, traffickers may pose as employment agents and trick parents into parting with their children, and who are then trafficked into the sex industry. Another contributing factor to the trafficking of Asian girls is the Western stereotype of Asian females as being subservience, obedient, hard working, submissive, passive, docile, shy, demure, softly spoken, eager to please, exotic — the china doll, Suzy Wong, and geisha syndrome contribute to the demand for Asian girls trafficked into the sex industry. These stereotypical views of Asian women have developed not only into an entire marriage industry driven by the growing demands for Asian women mail order brides in Western countries, but more insidious is the trafficking and the sexual exploitation of Asian girls.

Victims of human trafficking encounter horrific situations as they are frequently bought and sold multiple times. They are forced into sex slavery and may be subdued with drugs and extreme forms of violence. 70% to 95% of prostitutes have been physically assaulted, 60% to 75% women have been raped, and 89% in prostitution want to escape prostitution. The physical outcomes of sexual slavery have long-term harmful effects. For example, they may be exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, pelvic inflammatory diseases, forced substance abuse, damage to reproductive organs and other parts of the body due to repeated beatings, unwanted pregnancy, forced abortion, and abortion-related complications. In addition, living in unsanitary and crowded living conditions with poor nutrition creates a range of health risks such as scabies, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and other communicable diseases. The health risks also have implications for the general public creating risks of those who frequent brothels becoming carriers and/or transmitters of serious diseases. Some experts have linked sex trafficking and the spread and mutation of the AIDS virus.

Coinciding with the physical effects is the psychological impact. Living consistently in fear, being captive in a country without language skills, consistent threats to oneself and one’s family should one escape, etc., creates feelings of isolation, a lack of control over one’s life, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, low self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect, self-blame, depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, rage, difficulty sleeping or insomnia, fear or hatred of men, paranoia, loss of appetite, lack of energy, dreams or nightmares about being abused, attacked or resold, lack of trust in and suspicion of people, suicidal thoughts, the desire to punish the traffickers, feelings of being trapped, easily startled, and always being on guard. There are also feelings of disgust and shame, worthlessness and numbness, attempts at self-injury by cutting, drug overdoses, misuse of pills, low or no condom use, and suicide attempts by poisoning or hanging. 68% meet the clinical criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Three Western psychological concepts are helpful to consider when addressing the psychological effects of sex trafficking: choice theory, intergenerational relationship, and transgenerational trauma.

Choice theory states that whatever choice we make, there are consequences that we should acknowledge and accept. However the theory does not take into account socioeconomic, sociopolitical, cultural worldviews, historical, and environmental circumstances. Being driven into trafficking because of poverty, lack of education, cultural values and attitudes towards girls, consumerism, and globalization leaves little or no real choice. For example, if girls are choosing whether they eat once a day, and when somebody comes and offers a possibility of leaving their impoverished situation, supporting their family, and providing them with an opportunity to go to a wonderful place, frequently the girls do not have all the information necessary to make a real choice. Given cultural and economic factors there may not be a real choice about going, even when they know that prostitution may be a possibility. The Western notion of choice assumes that everyone is on an equal playing field and ignores the imbalances between rich and poor nations, regions, communities and individuals and disregards the fact that not everyone has the same opportunities and access to resources and services. So the choice therapy does not apply in this situation.

Intergenerational relationship is the passing down of cultural values, beliefs, attitudes, and worldview from one generation to the next. Transgenerational trauma occurs when members of a group who have endured shameful and humiliating losses or trauma verbally and nonverbally transmit their memories and associated emotions to the next generation. This means that survivors of trafficking may transmit tainted attitudes about childrearing, socialization, and interpersonal relationship to the next generation. Thus, human trafficking for sexual exploitation affects not only the individual who has been trafficked, but also have long term impacts on families, communities, and society.

Rita Chi-Ying Chung ( is professor of counseling and development in the College of Education & Human Development (



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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 28th, 2006 at 9:45 am and is filed under Globalization, Health, Human Rights, Human Trafficking, Identity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


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