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How Traffickers Exploit People for Sex

Written by Bridget Battistoni
on February 03, 2014

Exploitation has many faces. Human exploitation, at its most simple definition, is an abuse of power for personal gain and/or profitable advantage at the expense of another.

Sex traffickers – those who recruit, transport, or harbor people by [physical or psychological] threat, force, fraud, or coercion, in hopes to profit from their victims’ sex acts – also have many faces, making them difficult to spot and thwart. When it comes to commercial sexual exploitation domestically, here are the three most common:

The Boyfriend Pimp. The Boyfriend Pimp, also known as a Romeo or Finesse Pimp, is a trafficker who masquerades himself as romantically interested in a vulnerable girl or young woman. He will typically commit to a period known as “grooming,” where he buys her gifts, gains her confidence, and isolates her, then exploits her financial, social or emotional dependance upon him. He often begins to “sell the dream” to her with elaborate promises of a better life and fast money and continued future luxuries. Common places he might find girls to prey on are Greyhound bus stations, malls, court houses and outside jails.

One such pimp was quoted as saying,

“I was once asked, “Which one is more powerful, love or hate?” I answered the question this way: I would run into a burning building, risking my life to save someone I loved. But I would not run into a burning building and risk my life to kill someone I hated. My leadership abilities, style, and technique stem from a point of love. I referred to my ladies in private, as well as in public, as my “wives.” A man or woman will do ten times [more] to please and protect someone they love as opposed to someone they feared. So fear was a weapon used only against outside agitators. My homes ran as finely tuned sorority houses.”

The Gorilla Pimp. Gorilla Pimp is the universally accepted term for a pimp who uses constant violence and threat to break down the will of a victim and rope her into total submission. This type of pimp often rapes, beats, and emotionally batters his victims, in effort to destroy her hope.

A Gorilla Pimp’s victim shared one such story in court earlier this year recounting being stripped, choked and waterboarded in a shower stall by her pimp. She said the only thing that saved her life was “a promise to have his name tattooed on her neck that night.”

The Bottom-Girl. Not all pimps and traffickers are men. Many of us have heard the term “madam,” meaning a woman who owns and operates a brothel, but perhaps many of us would be shocked to know that peer girls also recruit other girls and young women into the life of prostitution. In the hierarchy of a pimp’s structure, a “bottom girl” is one who has “proven” to be the most loyal to the pimp or trafficker. She earns this position most often by being badly beaten as an example to other girls within the pimp’s structure so that they remain loyal. She watches the other girls when the pimp is not present to ensure his rules and guidelines are being followed and their loyalty does not waiver. She is indoctrinated to believe law enforcement and many social services are not trustworthy. If her pimp is charged, she will not cooperate in the investigation, thinking her loyalty to him will earn her more respect.

This role often leads to intense trauma-bonding and contributes to her dual role as victim and exploiter. In some cases, these Bottom Girls appear as a new “friend,” luring an unsuspecting but vulnerable girl into the grips of a pimp. Recruitment can happen online, in high school or even while on the bus. One such girl, when asked why she participated in the recruitment of other girls, said she was attracted to it because, “I created my own family, not the bastards I came from,” while another girl responded, “I come from this. It’s a family business. My mom, uncles, sisters and cousins all do this. It’s normal where I come from.”

While there are lots of general characteristics that make some people more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking, this is certain – recruitment is well-organized, and those we fight against are extremely motivated. One pimp said, “It’s impossible to protect all girls from guys like I was because that’s what we do. We eat, drink and sleep thinking of ways to trick young girls into doing what we want them to do.”

Parents, talk to your teens. Teachers and educators, learn to recognize the signs, and intervene wherever possible. Community members, rally around organizations providing much needed resources to youth. Businesses, provide meaningful opportunities for vulnerable people. Legislators, continue to steepen the penalties for those guilty of exploitation. Exploitation has many faces, but so does hope.