Drama triangle

First things first: what is the Drama Triangle? 

The Drama Triangle was first coined by Stephen Karpman, a teacher on Transactional Analysis, in the 1960s. It is a model of dysfunctional social interactions and illustrates a power game that involves three roles:  

  1. Victim,  
  2. Rescuer,  
  3. Persecutor/Perpetrator 

The drama triangle has become a foundational concept for psychological theories in domestic violence, sexual assault, addictions, bullying, relationship and family dynamics.  

The journey around the triangle can be done with self or another. We not only act out these triangular distortions in our everyday relations with others, but also internally. We move around the triangle as rapidly inside our minds as we do out in the world. 

Most of us are neurologically programmed to play these three roles, and we consciously or subconsciously choose one role given the context we are in at that time. Sometimes the role assumed by an individual is easier to identify than the others.  

In popular culture today these roles are static: the perpetrator is wrong and deserves punishment, the victim is innocent and needs help, and the rescuer is altruistic and deserves praise.  

However, in the original theory, the roles are fluid. People are continually switching positions and, often enacting the roles simultaneously in different areas of their lives. It can be common that a person has a familiar position that they assume, but ultimately all of us rotate through assuming all three.  

How does the Drama Triangle relate to the work of Azalea and sex trafficking in general? 

Sex trafficking is a dysfunctional social dynamic (to put it politely) and so inevitably, those who are exposed to sex trafficking on some level are likely to step into the Drama Triangle. At Azalea, in our frontline training we teach all new potential volunteers about the Drama Triangle and the challenges it presents. Often it can go undetected until the imagery and theory is understood, and then it clicks because it is transferable to so much of life.  

It is also assumed that it is easy within a sex trafficking charity such as Azalea to identify who is what: 

Victims = women who are sex trafficked and need help 

Persecutors/perpetrators = men purchasing sex and abusing women who deserve punishment 

Rescuers= staff team and volunteers and community members working to ‘save’ the victims and punish the perpetrators  

However this is not as straight forward as it sounds.  

For example, yes a sex buyer might more commonly assume the position of persecutor/perpetrator. To carry out their sexual abuse and exploitation of trafficked people, they would need to assume this controlling and violent position. However, at Azalea we often see and hear about sex buyers assuming the role of rescuer. Sex buyers sometimes meet a sex trafficked woman and decide that they are going to be her saviour. They decide that they will help her to turn her life around for the better.  

Continuing with this example, again it might be that sex trafficked women more commonly assume the position of victim. They have lived a life of abuse and horror, which often started from an incredibly young age. So for the sex trafficked woman, this victim role is what has motivated the sex buyer to come to her rescue. However, at Azalea we often see that the woman will then swap into the position of persecutor/perpetrator. She takes everything that she can get from this man to survive. She bullies him: steals from him, emotionally manipulates him, even be physically violent with him.  

(Often sex trafficked women perpetrate, groom, exploit, abuse other women too, to reduce their own abuse and exploitation, which further increases their role as a perpetrator/persecutor.) 

It is also expected that the support worker from a charity like Azalea is the rescuer, offering non-judgemental help from the kindness of their heart. However, it is easy for support workers to become set on their own agendas of freeing the woman from what holds her captive. This can begin to compromise the relationship and the sex trafficked woman can become a personal project for the support worker. They might not be asking the sex trafficked woman what she wants and needs, rather assuming and deciding for them, exerting control over and pressure on her. This would then subconsciously send the support worker from the position of rescuer to persecutor. 

This is a psychological game and one of many that are very common in the dysfunctional world of sex trafficking. As you can see, it is very easy to swap between victim, rescuer, persecutor/perpetrator. Co dependent relationships are also very commonplace in the world of sex trafficking and the Drama Triangle helps to bring understanding to this.  

Case study: one of our Encompass guests, Ophelia, was street homeless and being sexually exploited. One night a punter called Rick spotted her whilst kerb crawling and selected her from the line of ladies before him. He told her to get in the car and drove her away to abuse her. (Rick = persecutor)  

Rick returned to the on-street sex trafficking scene a few weeks in a row and spotted Ophelia each time and chose her. He noticed that she was friendly. He enjoyed their brief bits of conversations before and after he abused her. She shared that she was street homeless, that she was regularly being attacked and that her family have disowned her (Ophelia = victim). And one night he said to her “come and live at mine. I will put a roof over your head whilst you get clean from drugs, on the condition that you don’t have sex with other men” (Rick = rescuer). Ophelia immediately agreed.  

Fast forward 2 years, and Ophelia was still living at Ricks. She was stealing his money in order to feed her drug habit. She had brought men back to Rick’s house whilst he was at work (Rick= victim and Ophelia = persecutor.) When he got angry with her (Rick = persecutor), she reminded him that she is homeless and rejected, he’s her only hope. He cannot throw her out because she will die (Ophelia = victim).  

See how easy it is to jump between the three positions? 

Stopping the Drama Triangle  

So how do we avoid the mess that the Drama Triangle can bring and ultimately protect our relationships? 

Until we make these dynamics conscious, we cannot transform them. Unless we transform them, we cannot move forward on our journey.  

The first step towards stopping or interrupting the Drama Triangle is to acknowledge it and the role it plays.  

Self-reflection is needed to think about other situations you might have been in previously and which position you tend to take in the Drama Triangle. You can then identify the thought processes and behaviour patterns that come with this, so that you can be proactive in not repeating them. Identifying the language and moves of each role further helps us to apprehend when we are being invited by others to join them in the Drama Triangle.  

It is good to allow the people around us who we trust to offer their opinion when they worry that the positions might be being assumed. The team around us must be a safe space for accountability and challenge. It is good to ask and receive questions that help us to assess what is going on often subconsciously.  

And finally, we can redefine the roles into something more useful. At Azalea we teach about switching: persecutor for ‘challenger’, victim for ‘thriver’ and rescuer for ‘coach’.  

In all that we do we want to empower others and move people away from shame. And so, by acknowledging the negative impact of the Drama Triangle psychological game and being proactive in seeing it in the work that we do, we dimmish it’s power and invite in self-reflection and conversation as well as honest and trusting relationships.  

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