“I’m told I have Stockholm syndrome, whatever that means.”
I have heard this sentence uttered a lot over the last few years. Women who have been trafficked (bought and sold for sex and/or drugs) still care for, or at the very least worry about, their abusers, pimps, and traffickers and people just can’t understand why. How could someone have feelings for such an evil person? Is she crazy? What is wrong with her?
Stockholm Syndrome, Trauma Bond, Codependency, whatever you want to call it, is very real. While I have never been trafficked, I have been abused. I was in a relationship for just over two years with a man who did horrible things – from trying to burn me with cigarettes to attempted strangulation – yet I couldn’t leave him. And when I did leave him, I was devastated. I thought I loved him. Yes, he had done bad things, but there had also been good moments. He wasn’t ALWAYS bad, right?
I have to remember this every time I talk to a trafficking survivor. They aren’t crazy. In most cases, they were groomed and conditioned over time to have affection, or “love”, for the very person who treated them lower than an unwanted dog.
So who are these pimps? They must have horns growing out of their ears and carry pitchforks and look like the devil himself, right? Or they wear velour swag suits, large hats, dollar signs around their necks, and carry a walking stick, right? We dress up as pimps for Halloween for crying out loud!
Not so much. While I have encountered a few traffickers, or pimps, over the past couple of years, the first one I shook hands with and met in person was entirely unassuming. Here is how that interacting went down: One morning, I accompanied a friend to the courthouse downtown to settle some affairs. As we were leaving the courtroom, we walked down a hallway where a few dozen men and women were in line waiting to speak to a clerk. We stopped in front of one man, and as I watched my friend say hello and give him an awkward hug, I knew exactly who he was. This was her trafficker – her former pimp. The man who bought her, sold her, abused her, and treated her like scum. He was tall, well groomed, dressed in regular street clothes, and looking down at his phone. My friend turned me and said, “Lindsey, this is [name]”. The man barely looked at me. As he stared at his phone, I realized I had less than a second to make a decision. I could kick him where I wanted to kick him, which would probably result in me wearing handcuffs. I could walk away, ignoring his very existence. I could grab my friend and shove her down the hallway, scolding her for even thinking about talking to him. Or I could do what I did. After what FELT like hours (but was only a millisecond in reality), I looked the man in the eye, shook his hand, and told him that it was nice to meet him. Then we walked away.
I wrestled with this for days. Had I really extended dignity to that monster? I know who he is, what he is capable of doing, and most of what he did to my friend.
Then I remembered something a former pastor used to say – a pastor who founded the church I attend and work for, and who later had an affair and shot himself in the aftermath – a man who knew great pain and needed dignity himself: “You’ve never locked eyes with someone who doesn’t matter to God.”
So that means, every time I see a horrible criminal on the news, he or she matters to God. When I can’t stand to hear another word of a politician, he or she matters to God. When that a$%hat cuts me off in traffic, he or she matters to God.
And this pimp matters to God. I may not understand why or how, but it is true. And if I am living how I say I live, then I am called to treat him with dignity.
Dignity DOESN’T mean ignoring the pain this man has caused. Dignity DOESN’T mean becoming his buddy and encouraging his lifestyle. Dignity DOESN’T look like contacting my former abuser (I can never speak to that man again for my own safety and sanity). Dignity DOES look like treating someone else, regardless of who they are or what they have done, as if they are a human. Because they are.
This is what I struggle with most while working in the jail. Yes, there are men and women in jail who have done some very harmful things. Most of the people I have met in jail committed an illegal act out of complete desperation. But it is not my job to be their judge, jury, or executioner. I watch my friends in jail be treated like rats in cages when I go in each week, and it makes my heart sick. They may have made bad choices, but they are still human. Just like you and me. Do you want someone to treat you based on the worst 10 minutes or most desperate decision of your life?
I don’t know what it is like to be a pimp, or to be pimped. I do know pimps – male and female – look just like you and me. And they matter to God. And they need help – recovery, extensive therapy, and to know the consequences of the harm they have inflicted on others – but I am not convinced they need to be treated as less than human.