In the Know: A Survivor's Perspective

Repetition Compulsion: What Is It and How It Relates To Sex Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation

By: David Zimmerman

We’ve all heard the phrases before …
“She’s such a ho.”
“He’s a dirty boy.”
“Trash. She was born for it.”
“Oh, yeah. Total manwhore.”

While people who are very sexually active -- to the point of risking safety, integrity and
often becoming sexually exploited -- can have various reasons for behaving as they do (and it may appear to be a lifestyle choice on the surface), there is often a much darker
and more heartbreaking reason underlying it all. These people may be living seemingly
normal lives with little to no indication given to most of those around them. They may
not even be fully aware of what they’ve experienced and how it has impacted them. I
should know, because I’ve been there. Welcome to the hidden world of sexual trauma.

In recent years, the topic of sexual abuse of children has gained national attention and
sparked major changes in policy regarding prevention, reporting, treatment for survivors
and consequences for perpetrators. Survivors who have taken up advocacy have
become household names, like Elizabeth Smart and Erin Merryn. In my state of
Pennsylvania, faith in sports programs and organizations benefiting children was
shaken due to the long-term and covered-up abuses of Jerry Sandusky. As a result,
we’ve gotten better at discussing the issue more openly and working toward more victim-centered responses. And yet, our society still holds fast to myths and misconceptions, while ignoring and minimizing the severity of trauma caused by sexual abuse. Survivors can react and recover in a multitude of different ways, but, unfortunately, the most common method of coping is hiding inside a personal hell that is brought down upon them by an environment filled with ignorance, apathy and shame.

There are many survivors who struggle to achieve a level of comfort with any sexual
interaction, and just as many who subconsciously seek out comfort by repeating
behaviors linked to their abuses. This repeating of behavior patterns is a
powerful compulsion driven by the injury inflicted upon neural pathways within the brain.

In the brains of developing children, the traumatic results are often magnified, and, as
the child grows toward adulthood, his/her sense of self worth may hinge on the ability to
cope through maintaining unhealthy boundaries, sexual appeal and sexual
relationships. Underlying feelings include betrayal and abandonment, desperately
wanting to feel loved -- yet believing love is sexual attention -- and painful shame,
especially if an abuser was someone close, cared for and trusted. 

It's been said that the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. The injury of trauma and resulting post-traumatic stress is not in any way insanity, because survivors are ordinary people struggling against out-of-the-ordinary
experiences, yet these patterns are the essence of repetition compulsion. It often
involves teens or adults who are pulled by their inner child selves to try and regain the
missing feelings of basic, necessary love and comfort that one would associate with
healthy parent or caregiver/child relationships. It also typically involves a lack of self love,
and survivors are known to treat themselves harshly due to self blame, often to the point
of self harm.

As we continue to gain understanding of the nature of trafficking in persons for sexual
purposes, it becomes blatantly clear that those who are involved as suppliers -- the pimps
and traffickers -- and the clients, both male and female sex buyers, are heavily invested
in the vulnerability created and groomed by sexual abusers. 

Study of trauma and the impact on survivors, with regard to compulsions, began with Freud and his contemporaries in the psychiatric field. Since then, research has revealed the
tendency for victims of childhood sexual abuse to be revictimized later on, sometimes
regularly. For those of us who are survivors, we frequently say it's as if we had flashing
neon signs with arrows pointing to us as the perfect prey. Of course the analogy isn't
true, but there are signs of vulnerability given off by survivors, whether intentionally or
unintentionally. That vulnerability is embedded in our entire being and our behaviors
until we're given opportunities to process the traumas that cause it. For too many
survivors, both young and older, processing and recovery can seem impossible due to
repression of memories, lack of support, lack of sufficient payment for treatment,
previous treatment experiences that were negative and traumatic, or any number of
other reasons. The exploiters and buyers know this, and they don't want survivors to
heal. They want to keep their toys and use them until they break. 

The entertainment industry and the media are also responsible for keeping survivors from moving forward, with sexual abuse being the topic of crude humor, and even portrayed as an asset, since everyone loves the "dirty," "kinky," "broken" ones. One key ingredient in all this, and
something responders as well as the general public must know, is that victims often
don't identify as victims. Sexual abuse and repetition compulsion play into this, fueling
the lies that sexual appeal and services are all victims are good for. Moving beyond this
psychological captivity requires the utmost understanding and care, with dedication to
empowering victims and survivors so they may rediscover their true worth and rebuild
themselves upon that foundation.

Individuals and organizations who aren't as educated on victimology and traumatology
can't be expected to grasp these concepts as if they were behavioral analysis experts,
yet anyone wanting to become involved in assisting trafficking victims and survivors
absolutely must accept the victim-centered, trauma-informed approach. In most cases,
we are essentially dealing with children who have endured immense suffering,
regardless of their current physical age. When it comes to pimps, traffickers and buyers,
they represent the capitalization of our society on the travesty that is childhood sexual
abuse.


Recommended reading:
The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma: Reenactment, Revictimization, and Masochism
by Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD

David Wayne Zimmerman is a survivor and lifetime resident of Pennsylvania, growing up in the suburbs to the north of Philadelphia. Now 46, he is married and living in an undisclosed rural location. David's focus in anti trafficking efforts is mainly policy advocacy, but assistance for victims and survivors of sexual crimes, intimate partner abuse and violence and stalking crimes is provided on a free, non profit, volunteer basis with an emphasis on psychological support and empowerment. Memberships include the National Survivor Network/Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking - LA, GEMS Survivor Leadership Institute and Survivor Group, and Polaris Legislative Circle. He is expected to serve on two advisory panels for research projects on human trafficking, one for the state of Pennsylvania and another on a national level, pending research grant awards. 

David Wayne Zimmerman is a survivor and lifetime resident of Pennsylvania, growing up in the suburbs to the north of Philadelphia. Now 46, he is married and living in an undisclosed rural location. David's focus in anti trafficking efforts is mainly policy advocacy, but assistance for victims and survivors of sexual crimes, intimate partner abuse and violence and stalking crimes is provided on a free, non profit, volunteer basis with an emphasis on psychological support and empowerment. Memberships include the National Survivor Network/Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking - LA, GEMS Survivor Leadership Institute and Survivor Group, and Polaris Legislative Circle. He is expected to serve on two advisory panels for research projects on human trafficking, one for the state of Pennsylvania and another on a national level, pending research grant awards.