There’s been a quiet change going on in the sex slavery business. According to the United Nations, there are now more female traffickers than male. The number of women involved as pimps in sex trafficking is disproportionate to the number of female perpetrators in other criminal activity. The United Nations’ report, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, agrees with previous estimates from the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Office (TIP) that sex trafficking accounts for the majority – nearly 80 percent – of human trafficking, with the victims overwhelmingly women and girls.
What is not surprising is that most of the female traffickers are former victims of trafficking or former prostituted girls or women. Those of us who have been “in the trenches” fighting against the scourge of human trafficking know the overwhelming challenges that face those who escape or are rescued from sex slavery; the road back to normalcy is long, and the emotional and psychological ties to the “slave master” are difficult to break. The feeling that there is no escape or nowhere else to go can be overwhelming, and it draws girls back into the trap of slavery.
We are all familiar with the term “Stockholm Syndrome” – the condition wherein a hostage emotionally bonds with the captor, even when there are opportunities to escape. One of the prime tools used by the pimp is the creation of emotional ties which convince the victim that there is no turning back. Thus, their mode of operation is to separate the victim from everything that is familiar, cruelly bring the victim into submission through assaults and beatings, after which they take control of the victim’s life in ways that make her both terrified and, in time, pathetically grateful for even small kindnesses that stand in stark contrast to the violence and assaults. The pimp doles out just enough affection to keep the victim in line and raise hope that a relationship exists or is about to flower into reality. In some environments, the girls under a pimp’s control are tattooed with his name, but, even then, the fear of punishment is always an underlying threat. After awhile, the victim comes to believe that there is no going back, that she is stuck in a dead-end partnership with the pimp.
For some victims, rescue and restoration means having an opportunity to help others caught in the same crime. Some open shelters; others speak out publicly about the crime. Some of the most effective anti-trafficking advocates are former victims who understand trafficking and prostitution at a level others cannot possible comprehend.
Another route – a very tragic and sad one – is for girls and women to turn from victim to victimizer. A pimp will sometimes use an older prostitute to gain a girl’s trust and convince her to come along with them – often with promises of modeling or movie opportunities. Sometimes – when the sense of right and wrong is deadened, when it is the only life a woman or girl knows, when the lure of “easy money” prevails, when life boils down to nothing more than concern for self, and when the conscience is so hardened it is impossible to feel for others, former victims begin to victimize others.
In February, a widely-publicized case in Phoenix brought to light two teenage girls who were indicted for child prostitution and other felony crimes. One of the things that came out in interviews was that the girls had “a pimp in the past.” The two teens had rented an apartment and used it for pimping at least five other teenage girls between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. The recruits told police that the two girls assured them that they would be “better off working for [girl pimps] as opposed to male pimps because they would not get beat up.”
However, those who actually know what female pimps are like would disagree. According to a story in the Saudi-based Arab News, over 107 female pimps were arrested in Dubai this spring as part of an ongoing campaign against vice. The head of the vice unit said, “The women pimps run the brothels with an iron fist.”
The narrative about good-hearted women pimps is being deliberately cultivated in some circles. A documentary about spa-brothels, “Happy Endings,” was released this summer. Professor Donna M. Hughes of the University of Rhode Island criticized the film’s distortions. Three Korean women who are the owners or operators of brothels – in other words, they were the female pimps, and as Professor Hughes points out, “possibly traffickers” – carried the narration and conveyed the message that the prostituted women were there voluntarily and were happy. As Dr. Hughes said, “Letting the women-pimps speak for the women doing the sex acts is like letting the owners of a sweat shop speak for the people running the sewing machines.”
Whether the pimp is a man or a woman is really irrelevant: Anyone who enslaves another human being and uses them as a commercial commodity is committing a heinous crime and needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.