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The Power Of Perception – How Traffickers Manipulate And Control Victims

Heidi Chance, a 25-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, dedicated her career to combatting sex trafficking, notably serving 13 years in the H.E.A.T (Human Exploitation and Trafficking) Unit.

Executive Contributor Heidi Chance

Human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, is a heinous crime that preys on the vulnerable and exploits them for profit. At the heart of this exploitation lies the manipulative and coercive strategies traffickers use to recruit, groom, and control their victims. Among these strategies, manipulating perception is perhaps the most insidious and powerful tool in a trafficker's arsenal. 

Man holding a teddy bear while walking at park

“By shaping the way victims perceive themselves, their circumstances, and their options, traffickers create a reality in which escape seems impossible and compliance appears to be the only viable option.” – Detective Heidi Chance

This article delves into the multifaceted role of perception in the world of sex trafficking, examining how traffickers leverage it during the recruitment and grooming phases, and how they use it to maintain control and exert threats over their victims.


The role of perception in recruitment

Traffickers are adept at identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities in their potential victims. These vulnerabilities can stem from various factors, including economic hardship, lack of familial support, previous abuse, and emotional or psychological distress. By understanding these vulnerabilities, traffickers can tailor their approach to influence the victim's perception of their own situation and the "opportunities" being offered to them.

1. False promises and illusions of a better life

One of the most common tactics traffickers use is the promise of a better life. This can include promises of employment, education, romance, or simply an escape from a dire situation. By presenting themselves as “saviors or benefactors”, traffickers create a perception of hope and opportunity. For victims struggling with poverty, abuse, or neglect, these promises can be incredibly alluring. The perception that someone cares and is willing to help can cloud their judgment, making them more susceptible to exploitation.

2. Creating dependency and trust

Traffickers often invest significant time and effort in building a relationship with their victims. This phase, known as grooming, involves gaining the victim's trust and creating a sense of dependency. By providing for the victim's basic needs, offering emotional support, and showing affection, traffickers manipulate the victim's perception of their intentions. The victim begins to see the trafficker as a protector and provider, making it difficult to recognize the underlying exploitative motives.

3. Exploiting emotional and psychological vulnerabilities

Traffickers are skilled at identifying emotional and psychological vulnerabilities in their victims. They use these vulnerabilities to manipulate the victim's perception of their self-worth and capabilities. For instance, a trafficker might target someone with low self-esteem, showering them with compliments and attention to make them feel valued and special. This manipulation creates a perception of self-worth that is entirely dependent on the trafficker's approval, making the victim more willing to comply with their demands.


The role of perception in grooming

Once a victim has been recruited, the process of grooming begins. Grooming is the methodical and calculated process through which traffickers break down the victim's resistance and prepare them for exploitation. Perception plays a crucial role in this phase as well, as traffickers seek to reshape the victim's understanding of their situation and their options.

1. Normalizing exploitation

A key aspect of grooming is the gradual normalization of exploitation. Traffickers achieve this by slowly introducing the victim to exploitative behaviors, often under the guise of love, loyalty, or necessity. For example, a trafficker might initially ask the victim to perform minor illegal activities or engage in seemingly harmless acts. Over time, these demands escalate, and the victim's perception of what is acceptable behavior becomes distorted. By the time the victim is fully exploited, they may perceive their actions as normal or even justified.

2. Creating a sense of obligation and guilt

Traffickers often use manipulation to create a sense of obligation and guilt in their victims. This can involve reminding the victim of everything the trafficker has done for them, making them feel indebted and obligated to comply with their demands. Additionally, traffickers may use guilt to manipulate the victim's perception of their own actions, suggesting that any resistance or attempt to escape would be a betrayal of the trafficker's trust and support. This psychological manipulation makes it difficult for the victim to recognize their own exploitation and seek help.

3. Isolating the victim

Isolation is a critical tactic used by traffickers to control their victims' perception of reality. By cutting off the victim's contact with friends, family, and other support networks, traffickers create an environment where the victim becomes entirely dependent on them. This isolation reinforces the trafficker's control and ensures that the victim's perception of their situation is shaped solely by the trafficker's influence. The victim may begin to believe that there is no one else they can turn to, making escape seem impossible.

I often talk about this when I teach about Human Trafficking Awareness to the community. Traffickers are very transient moving from place to place, this is explained simply for two reasons:

  1. They move from hotel to hotel because they do not want to get caught by the police.

  2. They are constantly on the move because they want their victims to be completely dependent on them!

“They do not want their victims to have contact with “normal” people because those people may offer to help their victim leave the situation and they do not want that!” – Detective Heidi Chance


Perception as a tool of control and threats

Beyond recruitment and grooming, perception continues to play a vital role in how traffickers maintain control over their victims. By manipulating the victim's perception of threats and consequences, traffickers create an environment of fear and helplessness that ensures compliance.

1. Creating a perception of constant surveillance

Traffickers often instill a perception of constant surveillance in their victims. They may suggest that they have connections with law enforcement or other powerful entities that can monitor the victim's every move. This perception of being watched at all times creates a sense of paranoia and fear, discouraging the victim from attempting to escape or seek help. The victim may believe that any attempt to break free will be quickly discovered and punished.

2. Threatening harm to the victim and their loved ones

One of the most effective ways traffickers maintain control is through threats of harm to the victim and their loved ones. By making credible threats against the victim's family or friends, traffickers manipulate the victim's perception of the potential consequences of disobedience. The fear of retaliation creates a powerful deterrent, ensuring that the victim remains compliant and submissive. The victim may feel trapped, believing that any attempt to escape will result in harm to those they care about.

3. Manipulating the victim's perception of law enforcement

Traffickers often manipulate their victims' perception of law enforcement to discourage them from seeking help. They may suggest that the police are corrupt, indifferent, or even complicit in the trafficking operation. This perception of law enforcement as untrustworthy or hostile creates a barrier between the victim and potential sources of help. The victim may believe that reporting their situation to the authorities will result in further harm or legal consequences for themselves.

4. Instilling a sense of hopelessness

Finally, traffickers manipulate their victims' perception of their own circumstances to instill a sense of hopelessness. They may convince the victim that there is no way out, that no one will believe their story, or that they are complicit in their own exploitation. This perception of hopelessness erodes the victim's will to resist and reinforces their dependence on the trafficker. The victim may come to believe that escape is not only impossible but also pointless.


The path to empowerment

Understanding the role of perception in human trafficking is crucial for law enforcement, social workers, and advocates working to combat this crime. By recognizing the ways traffickers manipulate and control their victims' perceptions, professionals can develop more effective strategies for intervention and support.

Empowering victims begins with restoring their sense of reality and self-worth. This involves providing them with accurate information, emotional support, and practical resources to help them recognize their exploitation and seek help. By creating an environment of trust and safety, professionals can help victims break free from the manipulative influence of their traffickers.

Moreover, public awareness campaigns and educational initiatives can play a significant role in preventing human trafficking. By educating communities about the tactics traffickers use and the importance of critical thinking and self-awareness, we can reduce the pool of vulnerable individuals susceptible to exploitation. 

Visit here to learn more about “The Power of Awareness” online course that covers all of how victims fall into the lifestyle of Sex Trafficking and so much more!

The power of perception is a double-edged sword in the world of human trafficking. While traffickers use it to manipulate and control their victims, professionals can harness the same power to empower and liberate those affected. By understanding and addressing the psychological and emotional dimensions of trafficking, we can create a world where every individual is free from exploitation and abuse.

Follow me on Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Heidi Chance, a 25-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, dedicated her career to combatting sex trafficking, notably serving 13 years in the H.E.A.T (Human Exploitation and Trafficking) Unit. As an expert in forensic child interviews, abuse identification, online child protection, and undercover operations, she's a sought-after speaker, addressing law enforcement and many conferences. Heidi is featured in the PBS documentary "Sex Trafficking in America" and now uses her platform at to raise public awareness and provide training and consulting services to law enforcement, contributing to the fight against sex trafficking.



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