Projected heroes and self-perceived manipulators: understanding the duplicitous identities of human traffickers


This qualitative inquiry examines human trafficker identities through stories from convicted offenders. Thematic findings suggest that the projected-identity of sex traffickers may be different from their true self-identity. Identity regulation to produce the appropriate individual by situation facilitates both improvisational and patterned methods of victim recruitment. Sex traffickers exercise their coercive power predominately through the use of deception and fraud, projecting themselves as “honest heroes” and “lovers” of their victims. Rather than using force to perpetually repress victims, sex traffickers more frequently gain compliance by building a trauma bond with their victims, who are also typically found at the margins of society. Recruitment into a commercial sexually exploitive victimization involves the perceived fulfillment of physiological and emotional needs, as well as strategic infusion of counterculture virtues. For tenured sex traffickers, force is normally only intermittently exercised to punish recalcitrant victims in a way that maintains the longevity of control through trauma bonding.

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  1. 1.

    In 2014, law enforcement agencies in only 32 states responded to the FBI Uniform Crime Report data collection on human trafficking. Of the 32 states with responding law enforcement agencies, 38% (12) reported zero cases of sex trafficking (U.S. Department of Justice 2015).

  2. 2.

    After limiting the sampling frame to offenders who were incarcerated in federal prison (through 2014) for a human trafficking offense.

  3. 3.

    Client travels to sex worker.

  4. 4.

    Sex worker travels to client.


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Correspondence to Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco.

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Mehlman-Orozco, K. Projected heroes and self-perceived manipulators: understanding the duplicitous identities of human traffickers. Trends Organ Crim 23, 95–114 (2020).

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  • Sex trafficking
  • Human trafficking
  • Commercial sexual exploitation of children
  • CSEC
  • Pimp
  • Prostitute
  • Trafficking in persons
  • TVPA
  • Trafficking victims protection act
  • Child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome
  • RTS
  • Rape trauma syndrome
  • Trauma bonding