Sex trafficking is becoming an overwhelmingly popular form of criminal activity, Raymond Bechard writes, and no girl is safe.
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“The girl is the new drug,” declared Sergeant Detective Kelley O’Connell of the Boston Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit. As I mentioned in a previous article on the topic, Sergeant Kelley refers to girls as a “prized commodity” among street gangs, organized crime, coercive boyfriends, and even manipulative husbands. Whoever they are, “pimps can advertise girls and women online – a way both to increase demand and avoid street arrest,” she says.
Beyond the internet, however, there are six ubiquitous forces working together to make girls – girls like your daughter – the most popular new drug on the street.
#1 – Lower Risk. Look at it from the perspective of a bad guy. There is far less investigative and prosecutorial knowledge, experience, and prioritization among law enforcement focusing on the issue of prostitution and human trafficking than other money making crimes. Comparing their risk against those they see selling drugs, the choice is clear for enterprising criminals. Selling girls is simply a safer business model. Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey, who was instrumental in the writing and passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, makes it clear. “In the end, the perpetrators must be sufficiently punished for their heinous acts or they will calculate that the money gained from exploiting women, children, and laborers, is greater than the threat of prison.” Smith’s colleague in Congress, Jackie Speier, puts it another way. “Today, we live in a country where a person is more likely to serve time for selling marijuana than a 14-year-old girl.”
#2 – Lower Suspicion. The lower risk factor is decreased even further because the suspicion related to the “product” a pimp is selling compared to that of a drug dealer is much lower, if not entirely removed. If police find someone with more than a small amount of illegal drugs in their car, their home, their locker – any location where they can prove possession – that person is immediately arrested on charges of “intent to sell.” They are taken to jail and their product is confiscated for evidence. If convicted they may be forced to forfeit all their assets to the police. On the other hand, if the police find someone with one, two, three, or more females – the pimp’s product – it amounts to nothing more than a man hanging out with a few girls. Yes, the police can ask questions, take IDs, and generally give them a few awkward moments, but the worst consequence for the trafficker is that he may be late delivering the girls to their next date.
# 3 – Enormous Profit. Certainly, there is no more profitable crime than human trafficking. The financial gain from selling people for sex is unparalleled. Comparing his business model to someone selling drugs, the pimp knows the drug dealer has to continually spend more cash, part of his earnings from selling drugs, to purchase a new supply. As he makes sales, he must reinvest in inventory to keep his supply available to customers.
The pimp does not have this problem. Unlike drugs, which can be sold only once, the human body can be sold over and over again. Once a young woman is within his stable, he “sells” her to each john at 100 percent profit for every trick. There is no product inventory to restock because the pimp doesn’t really sell women, he rents them.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains the results of renting human beings for profit in a fact sheet explaining that, “Human trafficking is increasingly committed by organized, sophisticated criminal groups, and is the fastest growing source of profits for organized criminal enterprise worldwide. Profits from the trafficking industry contribute to the expansion of organized crime in the U.S. and worldwide.”
#4 – Lower Motivation Among Law Enforcement. This is the most subtle – and controversial – factor creating an increase in selling girls. The police just don’t have as much reason to investigate these crimes over those which typically bring them and their departments greater reward. In drug-related crimes, convictions often lead to “asset forfeiture,” in which the guilty party’s ill-gotten gains are handed over to law enforcement. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “A wide variety of merchandise is available, including automobiles, aircraft, boats, real estate, jewelry, electronics, wearing apparel, industrial equipment, and miscellaneous goods.”
The money generated by the sale of these items, usually at local police auctions or websites like SeizedPropertyAuctions.com or PropertyRoom.com, are usually given back to the police department or arresting agency. This is another reason why so many criminal justice resources are used in the war on drugs. It can be a very profitable war for the police. Much of the loot forfeited by drug dealers goes to their departments. The more drug arrests they make, the more opportunity they have to increase their budgets.
This scenario does not apply to human trafficking cases. U.S. code 18 U.S.C. § 1593 mandates that all assets forfeited by those convicted of human trafficking crimes be paid as “restitution” in “the full amount of the victim’s losses.” In short, the girls get the money, not the cops.
One consequence of this lower motivation among law enforcement to investigate and prosecute human trafficking crimes over drug-related offenses is reduced legal pressure on pimps. Nearly unencumbered, they can operate under the radar; a well-oiled, experienced, increasingly effective radar that is not looking for them.
Outside these four criminally-related factors pertaining to the increase in commercial sexual exploitation, two remain, which are derived more from American culture than from the inner workings of police and offenders.
#5 – The Mainstreaming of Prostitution and Pimp Culture. Prostitution is simply not the taboo it once was. With the increased commodification of women – especially younger women – it has become much more acceptable to look at females in American culture as objects holding only monetary value; a commodity to be bought and sold. This dynamic is certainly nothing new. In 1911, controversial women’s rights advocate and anarchist, Emma Goldman, observed, “It is a conceded fact that woman is being reared as a sex commodity. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.”
However, this commodification of “woman” has increased dramatically in the past century.
Along with the glorification of “pimpdom,” the aura surrounding prostitution as a lifestyle has been elevated to a lifestyle choice with riches and fame as its reward. Few realize how easily and often the abuses of commercial sexual exploitation hide under the cloak of prostitution.
The list exemplifying contemporary American culture’s reduced sensitivity to the old view of prostitution while embracing a new “glamorous” perception of it and pimpdom has been elevated to new heights through television shows like Pimp My Ride on MTV. Here, “Pimp” is resurrected as the new definition for “over-the-top luxury” and “in-your-face bling.” “Pimping” is now equated with exhibiting excessive levels of wealth and success obtained through street smarts, cunning, and victory over all obstacles. Being a pimp is something young men aspire to. “We almost idolize pimps,” said Jason King, head of San Diego’s Anti-Human-Trafficking Task Force. “He’s controlling girls and making all this money. But the women are victims. These people are being exploited and are doing horrific things for that lifestyle.”
Along with validating the very concept of the word “pimp,” the culture began to look at prostitution – and its relationship to pimps – in a more positive way. Seen as a lifestyle or professional choice, prostitution gained greater acceptance through all forms of media including HBO’s cult hit documentary, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down; the Academy Award-winning song, It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp, from the movie, Hustle & Flow; the British television series, broadcast on CBS-owned Showtime in America, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, based on a blog in which a “high-class London call girl” shares her secrets to success with the world; the HBO reality series, Cathouse, which shows the true-life stories of women working at a legal brothel in Nevada; Gigolos, a Showtime reality series featuring stories of men from “Cowboys 4 Angels,” a true-life, nationwide company offering “the ultimate boyfriend experience” for women; and among many others, Hung, the HBO comedy in which the man is the prostitute and his “pimp” is a woman.
Finally, along with a “pimps and ho’s” board game, “pimps and ho’s” themed parties, costumes, and the “Beverly Hills Pimps Ho’s” online catalog of clothing, there is Grand Theft Auto IV, one of the bestselling video games of all time in which players are immersed into a virtual life as the character, “Niko,” who, despite the giddy, positive reviews of the game from virtually all news media, is a human trafficker. Once the game’s player takes on the persona of “Niko,” he scores points by virtually killing prostitutes and exotic dancers for real entertainment. “Our culture of flagrant self-exaltation, hardwired in the American character, permits the humiliation of all those who oppose us,” writes journalist Chris Hedges. “Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food.”
#6 – Easy Product Acquisition. Selling girls became irresistible to pimps when they discovered how readily available their new product had become. The girls they look for – the product they will be renting – are everywhere in America.
“It’s all about manipulation of the person,” said Police Officer Tim Thomason of the Columbia, Missouri Police Department. He explains that pimps have become very effective at “getting that person in and coaxing them in. Many of the victims of human trafficking in Missouri are children or runaways who are looking for handouts and are easy to persuade. If a trafficker can offer shelter, offer food, and some larger promise of some better day, people will buy into that.”
This manipulation by pimps frequently begins by recognizing and taking advantage of the girls’ common lack of self esteem. “He always was so sincere the way he complimented me,” one victim recalls. Explaining how her pimp, constantly influenced her thinking in this way she says, “Still to this day I believe his words . . . How smart I was and beautiful.”
“Victims of sex trafficking come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, geographic areas, and ethnicities,” concluded a report from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Certainly many younger victims have been through the child welfare system, or are runaways, or both. Many are throwaways, left behind by whatever parents they were unfortunate enough to have. However, many are recruited from middle-class homes with no prior incidences of abandonment. They are often from the smallest of towns far removed from the city.
The common factor seems to be that each victim recruited or otherwise forced, defrauded, or coerced into selling themselves for sex – all for the profit of the man making them do it – has some history of early physical and sexual abuse in their lives. This apparently opens up a door of vulnerability, perhaps because of damaged or negative self-worth, that traffickers look for. Pimps, and the women who often recruit for them, will look for young women who have a certain look of wanting about them. They are often reticent about themselves and more willing to talk about or please others. Recruiters become skilled at finding girls who are in need: physically, nutritionally, relationally, emotionally, financially, addictively . . . it doesn’t matter. If they can identify a desperate need in a girl, even if that need is overlooked by her family and friends, they will exploit it.
In essence, they continually seek to exploit women who exhibit the slightest signs of a broken soul, a damaged spirit, or any wound that has not been healed.
The final factor contributing to the enormous increase in the commercial sexual exploitation of women in America is the one fist observed in this article and it is by far the most significant. Taken by itself this one element of marketing females would be extremely powerful. However, combined with the previous six factors – lower risk for traffickers, no inherent product suspicion, enormous profit margins, lower law enforcement motive, mainstreaming of prostitution and pimp culture, and easily obtained product – the widespread use of the Internet by human traffickers has changed everything. “Technology has played a fundamental role in this change,” wrote Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor at Columbia University, “No self-respecting cosmopolitan man looking for an evening of companionship is going to lean out his car window and call out to a woman at a traffic light.” Quite simply, the web has become the new Red Light District with all its temptations and ugliness. Like the street corners across America, all manner of humanity roams there.
The Internet is now the biggest and most populated place in the world for prostitution and sex trafficking. My next series of articles provide an in-depth look at the history and evolution of sex-for-sale online and how your home has become the new Red Light District.