Psy theories come to trafficking: first brainwashing, now Stockholm Syndrome

Psychobabble as a means of social control. At the BBC World thing in Luxor I got publicly annoyed when other panellists wanted to talk about brainwashing of victims. Now Stockholm Syndrome is given as reason those rescued from trafficking situations may not react as rescuers want them to – as, for instance, in a case in India and another in Congo. It really does not get more sinister than this. This theory, utterly free from any cultural context and presented as a method for identifying victims of trafficking, is taken from The Model of Assistance for Women Victims of Human Trafficking in Lithuania, published by Klaipeda Social and Psychological Services Center, Women’s Issues Information Center and Ministry of Social Security and Labour of Lithuania. No ideas of individual agency or resistance are allowed here. No possibility that migrants or sex workers have any understandable or meaningful loyalty to people that assisted them to travel or get work. There is no allowance here for survivors’ having colluded in situations that ended up going bad.

They define Stockholm Syndrome as a ‘psychological mechanism of self-protection when a victim attempts to protect herself from more traumatic psychological experiences’ (Carver, 2001-2007). Excerpts:

. . . The characteristics of Stockholm syndrome confirm the common indicators of female sexual exploitation and female victims of trafficking. Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response, in which the victim shows signs of loyalty, sympathy to the exploiter, regardless of the danger (or at least risk) in which the victim has been placed (Carver, 2001-2007).

• Emotional bonding with the captor/abuser
• Seeking approval from the captor/abuser
• Depending on the captor/abuser for security and purpose of existence
• Befriending and caring for the captor/abuser
• Resenting police and authorities for their rescue attempts
• Losing one’s own identity in order to identify with the captor/abuser
• Seeing things from the perspective of the captor/abuser
• Valuing every small gesture of kindness, such as letting them live
• Refusing freedom even when given the opportunity

They give sub-categories that allow them to disbelieve a victim-survivor’s refusal of help:

Learnt hopelessness attributes (Seligman, 1995)

• Disability to organise one’s own private life.
Victim can avoid being helped, refuse offers of a supporting organization, and de-evaluate provided support.

Traumatic factors (Finkelhor, 1986)

• Traumatic sexuality (disorder of sexual identity development)
• Betrayal (distrust in all people around, playing with feeling of trust)
• Stigmatization (feelings of guilt and shame, behaviour according common scheme of stigma)
• Hopelessness (incapability and avoidance of support)

This makes my blood boil.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

17 thoughts on “Psy theories come to trafficking: first brainwashing, now Stockholm Syndrome

  1. Pingback: Stockholm Syndrome | Trafficking Victims | Rescue | Psychobabble … |

  2. Kris

    I think some kind of stockholm-syndrome can happen sometimes.

    On the Dutch website there are some cases like that, for instance here:

    You read that some prostitutes are very afraid of their pimp. They even are willing to supervise other prostitutes for him. Or are willing to recruit new girls to set themselves free. They even consent to be sold.

    These things really happen. But how often? I don’t know.

  3. Maggie McNeill

    This is nothing short of disgusting. For years neofeminist prohibitionists have claimed that well-adjusted sex workers are “in denial”, but this is another order of magnitude. 🙁

  4. Laura Agustín

    it is, isn’t it? perhaps selling sex will come to be included in that big book of pathologies the psy people keep – you know, the one where mental illnesses go in and out of style.

  5. laura agustin Post author

    thanks, christoffer, i did know about that swedish group dedicated to abolishing the ban on buying sex, but most people certainly don’t!

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  9. KB

    I think the problem with the Trafficking/Prostitution debate is the dominance of bourgeois opinions like Agustin and many other advocates on the otherside concerned most about ideology or their own budgets.

    I think it is important to note the problems and flaws with ANY study, no matter how much I might personally welcome or agree with the results. Incorrect information helps no one. So in a sense I welcome Ms. Agustin’s view, but I deplore the lack of proof offered for her own view.

    There is of course the Post argument, the lack of arrests indicates a lack of occurrence. Yet there are just as many problems with how many cases are ignored by that calculus as are needlessly included in DOJ/UN studies.

    Which leads to the next argument and the one that greatly disturbs me. It often seems that these arguments go too far in their support of ideologies of “agency” and “free-will.” Especially to deny a well documented and widely held phenomena such as “Stockholm Syndrom.”

    I usually to enjoy many of Ms. Agustin’s writings for their moderate skepticism towards sex trafficking. It was an important criticism of state crusaders who often scorch the Earth with their good intentions. Yet to summarily deny any claims of people actually fighting against Human Trafficking without proposing any such proof to the contrary. It’s not like there aren’t legitimate critiques of S. syndrome either, so how can she so easily dismiss such cases with a single jargon filled sentence. As if even willing or knowing entry into dangerous street-based sex markets wouldn’t scar someone. Sure, willing participation occurs (probably because of glamorizing misperceptions) but to say it couldn’t be traumatic, create a sense of hopelessness or feelings of guilt or shame is a level of willful ignorance and naivete I can’t accept.

    1. Laura Agustín

      I think you have misunderstood my writing here, easy to do perhaps because this is just a blog so it’s informal and the context is provided by hundreds of other posts you might not have read. Or a weakness in my writing, of course.

      My point here is not that Stockholm Syndrome can never exist but that it may be used to justify not believing what victims say themselves about what they want or whether they have problems. The context is the now frequent appearance of different sorts of excuses for not believing people who do not wish to be rescued in the manner offered.

      There is no specific case being considered here, they are general statements from a service provider. I am neither disbelieving any particular person nor claiming anyone’s ‘agency’.

      What this has to do with the bourgeoisie escapes me.

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  13. ashana

    I think it is always a good idea to try to put yourself in the victims shoes and see how you might respond.First of all many minors who are victims already come from dysfunctional homes of sexual/physical emotional abuse and they know no other reality.It is well known that pimps/traffickers “recruit” this population at foster homes,homeless shelters etc.These children who are immature with little life experience other than that of abuse who are then abused again through the “seasoning” process raped, gang raped,beaten, starved, drugged , sodomized ,threatenedetc.They are starving for affection and any crumb handed to them is proof to them that their pimp loves them.If it is difficult for adult women to leave an abusive husband imagine how difficult for minors who are still looking for parental love and developmentally should be receiving a parents love and protection.These girls and women are hostages who when they try to escape are beaten, shot at raped, etc.Of course they are traumatically bonded to their captors…I think you might want to read some child psychology books, love addiction, addiction, codepenedent literature for you to maybe try to understand these girls and womens emotional/psychological realities ..

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