Why doesn’t She Just Leave? The Confusing World of Trauma Bonds

trauma bonds

What comes to mind when you hear the words “boyfriend” or “Daddy”? Do fond memories come to mind about good time? Maybe some bad memories too from a relationship gone sour or a dad that wasn’t around? Regardless of the emotion felt, there is something about those words that brings certain feelings and memories to mind.

Now imagine that your boyfriend or your Daddy asks you to do something for him, he’s hit hard times and needs you to help him pay the bills. You want to help, and you trust him, so even if something feels off you are willing to go along with what he asks you to do. But then something feels really off, he’s asking you to do things you really aren’t comfortable with, things that hurt. But he tells you that he’s proud of you. That he loves you. That he’s so thankful for your help and he’s going to make it up to you. You won’t have to do this forever.

But in between this praise and expression of “love” he beats you. He continues to ask you to do things you aren’t comfortable with. You kind of feel like he’s forcing you, but you went along with it, so you feel like it’s your choice. Eventually you do start saying, “No,” but he’s not taking no for an answer. He beats you some more until you “change your mind” and say, “Yes”. He’s not to blame, you changed your mind, how could he be at fault? You think about leaving, but he’s told you no one else would “love” you. He’s all you’ve got. You can’t make it on your own, or so he’s gotten you to believe. And so you stay.

Then eventually law enforcement gets involved and wants you to testify about all the things he’s forced you to do. They want you to say how horrible he is. But it’s not that easy. You still question if he forced your or if it was your choice. You remember the beatings and the abuse, but you also remember how he “loved” you and told you he was proud of you. Things may have been hard, but you feel like he was always there for you. He was the one that gave you a place to stay when no one else would. He’s the only one you feel like is looking out for you.

All of this is just a glimpse into what a trauma bond looks like. Trauma bonds are emotional attachments made during traumatic experiences between the abused and their abuser. Exploiters often cultivate these bonds purposely by breaking a girl’s will, abusing her, but then offering praise and reward. They do this to maintain power and control over her, while letting her think it was all her decision. This sick cycle of abuse and reward is what makes it so hard for CSE and CSEC victims to self-identify as having been exploited, and what makes it so difficult for them to heal from their wounds. You may have noticed another layer of confusion already in the titles “boyfriend” and “Daddy”. Titles that should convey warmth, safety, and happiness are now mixed with abuse, manipulation, and uncertainty.

One of the most important things you can do when walking with a woman who is on her healing journey is to be a consistently safe person, to have understanding for the confusing nature of trauma bonds, and allow her to express her feelings about her exploiters both good and bad. Healing from trauma bonds takes time and a lot of healthy relational bonds to overcome.

Written by Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator with Serenity’s Steps

Sex Trafficking vs Sex Work: What You Need to Know


This is an interview conducted by Kate McGaughey with Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator for Serenity’s Steps and Megan Ellerman, That Grace Restored staff member and Anti-Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) advocate.

I spent time recently with both Leah and Megan, who have worked tirelessly in the anti-trafficking and anti-CSE fields, talking to them about the often confusing terms “sex trafficking” and “commercial sexual exploitation.”  What are the differences?  Where is the overlap?  Who should we help?  Read the interview below to hear their thoughts:

Leah, as a counselor working with domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) victims, what is your professional definition of sex trafficking?  What qualifies someone as a sex trafficking victim?
Leah: We often mistakenly think that trafficking must require a movement of persons or confinement. However any person under the age of 18 who has been sold for sexual services by another individual, with or without the minor’s “consent” is considered a victim of DMST. The qualifications get more complicated with adults because the simple sale of sexual services is not enough to qualify, there must be evidence of fraud, coercion, deception, fraud, abuse of power etc.

What are the different options for care given to adult versus minor sex trafficking victims who have been “rescued” or managed to escape their situation?
Leah: A lot depends on how they come into contact with options for care.  Adults and children that come through the justice system often get jail time because they are misidentified as a perpetrator rather than a victim. Children that are properly identified as DMST victims are often placed in group homes or foster care with outpatient services while adults even when properly identified may face jail time. For adults the current options available usually include rehab services and inpatient homes; which don’t always help depending on the adult’s situation.

Is prostitution considered sex trafficking if the girl providing services is under 18?
Leah: If she is under 18, by Georgia law she is not considered to be working in prostitution, she is considered to be a sex trafficking victim or sexual assault victim. Nationally there is a move towards rejecting the term “child prostitute” and properly identifying those children as DMST victims.

How is underage prostitution handled by the legal system in Georgia?
Leah: They have made a lot of strides in properly identifying children as victims rather than criminals and going after the traffickers and johns and prosecuting them. There has been a huge task force launched by Attorney General Sam Olens to go after pimps and johns. This task force’s has been clear to send the message that if you buy sex or exploit a young girl for sex you will do jail time.

What are some options for recovery that Georgia offers to DMST victims?
Leah: There are several types of programs, most commonly recovery group homes and therapeutic foster care.  With therapeutic foster care the foster parents go through a lot of training so they understand mental health issues and can supportive services on an ongoing basis.  Outpatient counseling is offered to girls who are able to go back home to their families – but this is not as common. GA Cares handles the referral of services for all DMST victims in GA and provides mentoring and case management for the youth they serve.

Do you think there is a stigma against young girls who are working in prostitution that sees them as perpetrators and not as victims?
Leah: Historically there has been a stigma against young girls, but that has shifted a lot over the past few years. People are now more educated and willing to see an underage girl as a victim rather than a perpetrator. The bigger issue now that is that women over 18 face all the stigma and are not given the same grace to be seen as exploited.

What is the biggest difference between a sex trafficking victim and a commercial sex worker?
Leah: I think one of the biggest differences is the way they’re viewed.  Society looks at DMST victims and says, “Oh she was forced…poor her.”  They look at the commercial sex worker and think, “She wants to be there.”  But really they’re not all that different.  The sex worker might be a different age, she might not have someone standing over her keeping her there, but she doesn’t wake up and just decide to do this.  The histories of abuse are very similar.  Almost all DMST victims and commercial sex workers have some history of sexual abuse prior to entering the industry.

Megan, as an anti-commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) advocate, how would you define a commercial sex industry worker?
Megan: A person who is working in the sex industry to provide a means for themselves, whether it be to support a drug addiction, to put a roof over their heads, to eat…It’s an occupation they’ve chosen at that point in time.  You can include go-go dancers, strippers, prostitutes, internet vixens, girls who post adds on the internet, web cam girls, porn actresses and women who work for escort services in the definition of a commercial sex worker.

What are the factors that cause a woman (or man) to enter the sex industry of their own free will?
Megan: A lot of different things from losing a job and having to provide for their kids to having nowhere to go and nothing to eat.  People that are enduring hardships often feel like they have no other option for survival.  If you’re laid off from a job and the next morning your rent is due, you don’t know what to do when your landlord doesn’t care about your story.  It can also be emotional.  If you didn’t have someone to care about you or be there for you.  I’ve known women who had no family there for them, they dropped out of school and had no education – they just wanted to hear someone say, “You look pretty.”  A girl may meet a guy on the street who tells her those things but he’s a pimp.  They do it for love and that’s not real love, but they don’t have an example of what true love looks like.

Are there other reasons such as force, fraud or coercion that cause people to enter the commercial sex industry?
Megan: In a way. I’ve known instances where girls will look up to other women they see in the sex industry when they see them taking care of themselves.  They see these women and put them on a pedestal, and to me that’s like fraud.  I think with force and coercion, that doesn’t happen as much initially, but it happens after you are in the industry.  People around you say things like “What else can you do?  Are you going to go find a job?”  You seldom have positive influences around you.  You can tell yourself “I think I can do better,” but if other people are putting you down, you start to believe you really can’t do anything else and so you stay in the life.

Does this understanding of CSE overlap at all with the legal definition of sex trafficking, making some people in the industry sex trafficking victims?
Megan: I don’t think by legal definition other than the age.  But it’s pretty easy to see that the lines are blurred.  Beyond the strict legal definition it’s pretty much the same thing.

Leah: Legally the lines about coercion are very clear in that visible force, fraud must be involved.But in the sex industry there may be that same element of control, but it’s not as easily identifiable.

Is there a stigma surrounding commercial sex workers?  What are some of the biggest myths about sex workers?
Megan: Absolutely.  Most people think that it was those women’s choice, their aspiration.  I don’t know any women who would say that was their dream job.  People see them and jump to conclusions because they don’t know the whole story.  They don’t care to find out the stories and for that reason I think that stigma will be hard to change.

Leah: I think a lot of people believe that if they wanted to get out they could.

Megan: Getting out is hard because there is a lack of resources and many women are ignorant about organizations that could help them.

Leah: And lack of community.  If you had community you would have people coming around you to support you through it.

Do commercial sex workers ever feel trapped in the life?
Megan: Yes.  A lot of times it will be something as simple as a woman needing a babysitter to go to a job interview to try to take that first step, but because they’re living in a hotel they have no one around them to watch the kids.  And in that moment they feel trapped in the cycle, thinking they will never get out.

What services are available to people seeking to leave employment in the commercial sex industry?
Megan: Now there are employment opportunities and organizations that are specifically created to help these women not only find work but with personal development and mental health.  Hopefully there will be a lot more to come.  I hope the more awareness that comes the more change will take place.  I think this city does have a closed mind unless they hear a story of a girl they can compare to the girl in “Taken”.  But it is happening right in our city to girls and women, and more people should care.

Leah:  We’re so quick to be an activist for a girl who is survivor of DMST, but if it’s a woman in the sex industry we’re closed off. What a lot of people don’t understand that girls who come out of DMST and grow up without services to help them heal will often end up in the commercial sex industry.

Megan:  People need to think beyond their own limit.  That’s someone’s daughter.  You never know when it could affect you.

How are women in prostitution treated by the legal system?
Megan: Like complete criminals.  And I’m not saying that they should just be able to go free when they break the law, but I think beyond having to do jail time or community service something should be implemented beyond that to help them move on.  Because if they don’t have a job or a work program, they are just going to go back to doing the same thing.

Leah:  Fulton County is now looking at some alternatives to jail time, but we have to make sure that the options presented to women are options that actually work for them and their situation.

Are there cases where commercial sex workers should be viewed as victims?
Megan: I think absolutely.  There are instances in which the circumstances are so extreme that they feel like victims with no other options.  It’s more so about the lack of knowing of programs that are available to them to help them get out of the life.  The general programs like shelters are so crowded that it discourages people from going to them.  But I think if women knew there are programs specialized to their situations, many women would make that choice to leave the sex industry.

Are there cases where commercial sex workers should not be viewed as victims?
Megan: Everyone is a victim even if they don’t realize it.  If I hear a woman say, “I am not a victim,” I say she doesn’t realize her true worth.  There are so many other things that she could do with the right support around her that wouldn’t be so demoralizing to herself.

Leah: It’s not honoring to insist on calling someone a victim if they don’t identify as one; yet at the same time, even those who see themselves as choosing sex work are being exploited. We wonder why when women are offered a way out they don’t take it. We have to remember there is some other factor keeping them from seeing it as a way out.  Fear that it won’t work, fear that she won’t really be able to provide for herself or her kids, someone will come after her – it doesn’t seem like a real option to them.  If they saw it as a real option they would have taken it.

Should the fight against sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation be connected?
Leah: The connection is definitely there whether or not we acknowledge it. Part of it is the demand for porn and strip clubs – they become successful businesses which then drives the demand for sold sex – which then drives the demand for young girls sold for sex.  It is very interconnected in that way. The popularity of porn and strip clubs normalizes it and drives the demand easily. And as I said earlier, so often DMST victims who don’t get help, grow up and end up in the sex industry. Anyone who considers themselves an advocate for sex trafficking victims should consider themselves an advocate for commercial sex workers.

10 Ways to be a Good Friend to Someone Who has Been Sexually Abused


When we were nineteen my friend started having memories, flash backs, of her childhood. These memories were not very welcome as they brought with them pain, confusion, and shame. All of which were already there, but didn’t have a name. As she began to piece together these memories with what she already knew of her childhood, she began to realize and remember that she had been repeatedly molested around the time she was six years old. She was brave enough to trust her story to me and together we started figuring out how to help her heal. How to set her free from that shame. And how to integrate this newly remembered reality into her story.

Current statistics say that 1 in 4 women in the US have experienced sexual abuse and 75-95% of women coming out of commercial sexual exploitation have experienced sexual abuse prior to their exploitation. The likelihood that sexual abuse is part of her story for you or for a woman you call friend is sadly very high. So what do you do when a friend confides in you that they have been abused? What do you do if you yourself have been abused?

While each situation is unique and some situations will warrant the need for medical care or police involvement due to their recency, here are some things you can do or say to be a good friend to someone who has experienced sexual abuse.

1. Tell her your believe her: One of the major struggles for survivors of sexual abuse is that they are afraid no one will believe them, they are afraid people will think they are crazy, they are afraid no one will legitimize what they have been through. Saying I believe you helps undo all these fears. Saying I believe you builds a bridge of trust that is vital if you are going to be a good friend.

2. Do not minimize: No matter how small what she went through may seem to you, it was devastating to her. Do not minimize her experience or reflect that at least “insert something worse that could have happened here” didn’t happen. Going along with this, is do not tell her you understand, or that you know how she feels. Even if you have an experience of sexual abuse in your story too, your experience is different than hers. The time will come when telling your story may be helpful, but for now, all she needs to know is that you care. It’s about her story, her experience right now, not yours.

3. Let her decide: Now is not the time to take over and make decisions for her. Now is not the time to tell her what to do. She needs to know she is in control and gets to make the decisions about her. If you think she should file a police report and she disagrees, her decision is what you go with. You should encourage her to do the hard but healthy things like seek medical attention or file a police report, but do not try to force or control her. Be supportive and let her know that no matter what she decides you are there to help in whatever way she asks.

4. Be respectful of her story: Don’t ask for more details. Don’t discuss this without her present and without her approval. This is a case where your husband, boyfriend, mom, best friend, and whoever else you still tell everything does not need to know. Let her tell her story on her terms and to whom she feels safe to tell it. (Which I did with mentioning my friend in this blog)

5. Don’t be afraid of tears: 
or anger, or whatever other emotion she is feeling or not feeling about it all. She needs to feel the freedom to feel. Be honored that she feels safe to show you how she is feeling.

6. Be available: This is especially true of the twenty-four hours following her disclosing her abuse to you. Without being intrusive, text or call to check in on her. If she’s not reaching out still make sure she knows she is not alone and that you are available whenever she does need you.

7. Be a voice of truth: Remind her that it is not her fault, she did not ask for it, she did not deserve it, she is not dirty, she is not tainted, she is not damaged goods. This was not God’s plan for her. His plans for us are good and sexual abuse flies in the face of the beauty and good He intends for us.

8. Encourage her towards help: While I was able to be supportive to my friend and was the first person she disclosed her experience to, I was not her counselor. Ultimately the help of a trained and licensed counselor was the help that really got her the freedom and healing she needed.

9. Be patient: This process of healing is going to take time. Do not rush her. Do not give up on her. Be patient and allow her all the time she needs.

10. Educate yourself: This is a preemptive step so that you are ready when a friend comes to you with a story of abuse. Know the resources available in your area. Read helpful books like “Rid of My Disgrace” by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb that can help you better understand sexual abuse and how to be a good friend. And get the healing you may need from your own story, if you haven’t dealt with your own story of abuse you may feel triggered by someone else’s and suddenly overwhelmed by your own experience.

By Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator for Serenity’s Steps

How Psychological Trauma Affects a Victim’s Healing Process


Imagine you get in a horrible car wreck. Your leg is broken in three places, the bones slightly out of alignment. But the doctors tell you that it is all going to be ok. They are going to make sure you get the best care possible and everything you could possibly need to support your recovery. You get medication for the pain, physical therapy to keep those muscles nice and strong, occupational therapy to make sure you can still work, and even some disability payments to make sure you keep your housing. The only problem is that none of it really helps. Even though it’s the best care out there, a key piece was missing; no one ever went in deep to set those bones back in alignment.

It is easy to see in this situation the need for going deep into where it really hurts rather than just providing support services. However, when working with victims of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) we somehow overlook how important that need truly is – to go deep to where it really hurts. We can provide job training and services, we can provide housing, we can provide community, but unless the woman gets help with the psychological trauma too the rest of those services never reach their full potential.

Psychological trauma creates a break in the foundation of the person. Anything else placed on top of that foundation is going to falter because the foundation needs repair. These breaks in the foundation often take the form of difficulty trusting, maladaptive behaviors, and distorted views of healthy living. The more breaks in the foundation, the more repairs needed.

Typically women who find themselves in CSE have experienced one or multiple traumas leading up to the trauma of CSE; and the majority of women in CSE were victims of sexual abuse and/or exploitation as a child. By the time a woman has exited CSE and is getting help she has likely experienced multiple traumas, and has many breaks in her foundation that need repair. As with a building’s foundation, the best person to help with those repairs is someone trained to do so – in this case a counselor.

Counselors trained in trauma-informed care know just how to repair that foundation. They know how to provide a supportive environment for that deep healing to take place. And they know it is going to take time. Probably more time than we would like it to.

Maybe you’re not a counselor, but you still have the opportunity to support a woman exiting a life in CSE and aren’t quite sure how to start helping her repair her foundation. Here are 5 ways you can support a woman who is healing from psychological trauma:

1.     Be patient with her. While we all want restoration to take place as quickly as possible, we also want it to stick. When we try to force our own timetables onto someone else’s recovery we are trying to control them. This only adds to the sense of powerlessness they already feel.

2.     Think outside your comfort zone. Her experiences are likely very different than yours. What seems abnormal to you may be familiar to her. Be open to new ways of thinking about things and don’t immediately pass judgment when it doesn’t fit with your worldview.

3.     Give grace. This is extremely important for these women as they have spent most of their lives disgraced and being taught that they deserve abuse, exploitation, and ridicule. Grace says the exact opposite. It says, “I don’t care what you do or don’t deserve or how people view you, I’m going to love you.”

4.     Be in touch with your own story. The more we are in touch with our own stories of trauma, the more gracious and patient we will naturally be. Being in touch with our own stories also gives us something to offer as we can share how we’ve been broken and repaired.

5.     Donate to help provide professional counseling services. Counseling can be expensive, and while many counselors are willing to work pro-bono with populations in need, they simply can’t afford to just work for free. Donating to provide professional counseling services means that the women can have consistent access to counseling services.

By Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator for Serenity’s Steps

Want Your Wedding to Benefit a Cause? Now it Can!


You can now support women stepping out of the sex industry through your wedding invitations!

We are SO excited to announce a new design partnership with Mia Maria Design! We met the co-owners of Mia Maria Design (both named Maria) in October 2014 shortly after our acceptance as a vendor for this year’s Atlanta Big Fake Wedding! As veteran vendors of the Big Fake Wedding, Mia Maria Design had lots of tips for us on preparing for the event which led to our mutual realization that we should collaborate – we fell in love with their designs and passion, they fell in love with our paper and our mission.

Out of this meeting of creative minds, we are now pleased to offer letterpress print services for wedding and event invitations on handmade paper through That Grace Restored with custom design by Mia Maria Design!  We will have samples of our first collaborative wedding invitations available soon and you can contact us here with order inquiries.

In the meantime, enjoy these samples of the holiday card they designed for us and be sure to visit Mia Maria Design’s website for all your wedding design needs!

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