Exploitation, like other forms of abuse, always involves a ‘victim’ and a ‘perpetrator’. However, these terms can be confusing because of how victims of exploitation are coerced and controlled.
People who have been exploited may have been forced to participate in criminal activities or to become involved in the exploitation of other people. They may have been forced to take a lead role in an exploitative situation or may appear to be a willing participant.
Their actions may not seem like those of a victim. This can lead to confusion and doubt when identifying those who have been harmed by an exploitative situation, and those who hold responsibility for doing so.
It is important to remember that anyone is a victim if they are involved in a situation which limits their freedom and ability to make decisions about their own actions, and that exploitation contains elements of control and coercion which may not be immediately visible.
It can be helpful to consider some of the activities that victims of exploitation are forced or coerced to take part in, and which might lead people to question whether they are a victim:
- someone indebted to a drugs gang is forced to transport illegal drugs to another town where they can be sold
- someone who has been sexually exploited is told by their abusers to identify other people who they and their friends can have sex with, and to groom them with free drugs and alcohol
- someone who has received telephone calls about a ‘lottery’ keeps transferring money to the telephone-based company, and appears happy to do so because they believe that big prizes are being offered
- someone who has had their wages confiscated by their employer steals food items from a shop to ensure that they have enough to eat.
How victims may view themselves
Sometimes people may not view themselves as victims. This can create further confusion and doubt when trying to understand if someone has been the subject of harm and exploitation.
People may not think of themselves as victims because:
- they have normalised their experiences of exploitation, especially if it has occurred over a long time
- they feel dependent on their abuser or the exploitative situation, or feel affection towards their abuser – this is often a consequence of being groomed
- they feel that they have willingly taken part in a situation or activity – this may be because they have gained something from the situation and do not recognise that they have been exploited in return.
People who have been exploited may act in challenging ways – they may be reluctant to engage with you, recognise that they are a victim of exploitation, or understand the importance of trying to leave the situation. Actions such as these are often a result of the coercive and traumatic nature of the exploitation they have encountered.
The impacts of how victims are viewed
As discussed above, the nature of someone’s involvement in an exploitative situation and their behaviour towards those seeking to help them, can raise questions over whether they are a victim. This can sometimes influence the extent to which their stories are believed and taken seriously.
Sometimes people develop particular assumptions and doubts about victims of exploitation. These can include:
- assuming that someone has deliberately put themselves at risk and is to blame for their involvement in a situation which has caused them harm
- assuming that someone has become involved in an exploitative situation because of ‘lifestyle choices’ and due to their own free will
- being unwilling to believe that someone has been exploited, even if they disclose information that suggests this
- assuming that someone’s continued communication with a ‘perpetrator’ is evidence that they are not being harmed or coerced, and are acting of their own free will
- assuming that someone is ‘streetwise’ and is capable of looking after themselves
- assuming that someone is being ‘difficult’ and ‘troublesome’ and does not want to receive support.
These views can lead people to overlook someone’s welfare, care and support needs and to downplay the risk that they will experience further harm. Sometimes these views are used as a reason to avoid acting on information that indicates that someone is being harmed.
It is important to explore the rationale behind views such as these and question whether they are based on evidence, whether they provide proof that someone is not a victim and will not experience further harm, and whether they are being used as a means to avoid raising concerns.