Trauma Bonding or Stockholm Syndrome in Human Trafficking

A few years ago, when I was a senior police officer in Northern Ireland, we had huge problems with young teenage girls running away from children’s homes, and meeting up with older men who they believed were their ‘boyfriends’.  Time after time, night after night, officers went and retrieved the girls, kicking and screaming, from their ‘boyfriend’s house’, high on drugs and/or alcohol.  We knew that they were being trafficked by their ‘boyfriends’ but we had no evidence.  The girls believed that these men loved them, that they were looking after them, even if it meant that they showed their love to their ‘boyfriend’ by having paid sex with other men. 


In the recently published 2020 Trafficking in Persons report they looked at Trauma Bonding or Stockholm Syndrome within victims who had been trafficked for sex. It is very important for those of us who are working with sex trafficking victims, to recognise the signs of Trauma Bonding, because it may help us to understand (and not to judge or question) why night after night they stayed with their ‘boyfriend’ (trafficker).


There is no set definition of ‘Trauma bonding’ however the report states that

“the most common meaning of trauma bonding is when a trafficker uses rewards and punishments within cycles of abuse to foster a powerful emotional connection with the victim. Traffickers may take on a role of protector to maintain control of the victim, create confusion, and develop a connection or attachment, which may include the victim feeling a sense of loyalty to or love for the trafficker.”


Repeat trauma can negatively affect the development of the brain and the victim can end up feeling numb and disconnected from themselves.


The report goes on to say this:


“By leaving a trauma bond, a survivor may risk experiencing intense anger and sadness, numbness, negative expectations about the future, and internal disorder. When providers deny access to services due to a victim’s interaction with the perpetrator, it may result in re-victimization through engagement in high-risk survival activities. Stages of “relapses” wherein the victim returns to the trafficker should therefore be considered in treatment planning. Finally, organizations must be cautious not to replicate trauma bonding within their own programs, wherein the service provider assumes the simultaneously protective and coercive role the trafficker previously played in the survivor’s life.”

 Going forward, the report recommends the following steps:


  • More research is needed on trauma bonding in human trafficking alongside development of evidence-based and trauma-informed service delivery.
  • Rigorous, methodologically sound, and impartial research into the frequency of trauma bonding will support improved understanding among practitioners and more effective policies and services.
  • Standardization for assessing trauma bonding can help identify red flag indicators and establish response protocols.
  • Systemic inaccessibility to stability is noted frequently among human trafficking survivors. Examination of the relationship between socioeconomic factors and the occurrence of trauma bonding is necessary.
  • Adult-focused interventions require additional empirical research on the role of trauma bonding.
  • Significant exploration regarding trauma bonding among labor trafficking victims is needed.
  • Because there are no consistent criteria for identifying trauma bonding, the label should be used carefully until clear criteria are established.
  • Programs need to recognize when trauma bonding has occurred and enhance a victim’s agency.
  • Patience and consistency with service responses may increase a victim’s ability to break the trauma bond.


Please read more about Trauma Bonding at Page 20 in the 2020 Trafficking in Persons report.


- Yvonne Davidson - Project Manager for Training, Chenega Europe

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