Sex trafficking. Everyone has heard of it, but what is it? What comes to mind when you think about a sex trafficking victim? The image of a young Caucasian girl in ropes in a non-descript room comes to mind. For example, a search for the phrase “sex trafficking victim” on iStock generated 11 pages and 636 images of Caucasian females. In actuality, according to the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, between January 2008 and June 2010, confirmed sex trafficking victims were more likely to be “white (26%) or black (40%), compared to labor trafficking victims, who were more likely to be Hispanic (63%) or Asian (17%).” Yet simple searches for images of sex-trafficking disproportionality show young white females. While the statistics lean towards African American females being more susceptible to being trafficked, victims can be of any age, race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, nationality, immigration status, cultural background, socio-economic class, and education attainment level.
In this article, analysts focus on what sex trafficking is and the actual statistics surrounding the crime, as well as information on how individuals are exploited into the life and the psychology behind this exploitation, understanding who is perpetuating this crime, and what you can look for as possible signs of being trafficked and lastly what are some verifiable things being done to assist in the combating of this heinous crime.
What is Sex Trafficking?
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was created in 2000 and has been reauthorized five times since then. According to the National Institute of Justice, “The TVPA was enacted to strengthen the ability of the federal government to combat human trafficking.” The TVPA recognizes two forms of human trafficking; sex trafficking and forced labor. The TVPA defines human trafficking as “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act (sex trafficking), in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” Florida statute 787.06 further defines sex trafficking as the “Transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, providing, enticing, maintaining, or obtaining another person for the purpose of exploitation of that person.”
According to Polaris, examples of frequently used means of control include:
Force: Physical or sexual abuse, often in the form of repeated rapes by one or more people to create submission; confinement to the residence; restrictions on movement and communication to family and friends; forced abortions; lack of medical treatment or reproductive health.
Fraud: False promises of a better life through the trafficker presenting as a boyfriend or caretaker figure.
Coercion: Threats of harm to the victim or victim’s family; threats to shame the victim by revealing the commercial sex to their family and others in the community; confiscation of birth certificates and other identification documents; forced dependency on the trafficker; rumors of or witnessed violence at the hands of traffickers used as threats; the cycle of rewards and punishments; threats of police involvement and arrest.
The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide. But unfortunately, due to the lack of a centralized repository and the subversive nature of the crime of sex trafficking, the exact number of underage children being trafficked in the United States is unknown. Statistics further state that children, women, and men are being sold for sex in cities in all 50 states; in 2014, the Urban Institute studied the underground commercial sex economy in eight U.S. cities and estimated that this illicit activity generated between $39.9 million and $290 million in revenue depending on the city with nearly 300,000 youth at risk of being sexually exploited, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. The DHS Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking states, “In 2018, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline was contacted 41,088 times and reported 10,949 cases of human trafficking, a number that has increased annually. In the past five fiscal years, DHS received 6,171 reports to our Tip Line regarding suspected human trafficking and child sexual exploitation.”
In 2018 the Thorn Institute surveyed 260 survivors of sex trafficking survivors that stated the average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation was roughly 12-14 years old. At the same time, the most frequently reported age of entry was 15 years old. One in six persons surveyed reported being trafficked before the age of 12. But according to numerous sources, including Polaris, they do not believe these stats are accurate. The trafficking field relies on inaccurate and partial data obtained from small data sets until a more thorough and methodical examination is conducted. According to Polaris, in 2019, of the 123 of the 292 survivors who disclosed their age when they first engaged in commercial sex to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTRC) or BeFree Textline, 44% of these survivors estimated that they were 17 or younger, and the average age of first participation was 19 years old.
The Exploitation Cycle
Through intensive manipulation, pretended affection, brutal violence, isolation, and emotional abuse, traffickers aggressively seek to destabilize their victims’ psyches and gain control over them. Non-profit All Things Possible (ATP) explains that sex trafficking is a process that begins long before a victim is sold for the first time; to reiterate this point, ATP created the following graphic to explain how traffickers exploit their victims.
While each iteration of the cycle is distinct, they also blend. According to Jeff Tiegs, the COO of ATP, the “Assessment and Recruitment” and “Grooming” phases are “happening behind closed doors, they’re happening online, and oftentimes a law isn’t even broken yet. To tell a lie is not against the law. For me to pretend I’m a nice guy is not against the law, even for me to use fake names and things like, unless it’s fraudulent, is not against the law.” In fact, he says, “it’s not until the Breaking phase that you have definitely crossed a line.” To “Break” someone indicates that the trafficker has physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically broken down the victim into this crime. Moving forward in the cycle to “Automatic” and “Assessment & Recruitment,” this is where, Tiegs explains, the trafficker wants the victim to be. “He wants to put the least amount of energy into one of these girls that he has to for the most amount of return.”
Psychology of Exploitation
Each phase of the Exploitation Cycle includes tactics and techniques often unbeknownst to the predator they use that rewires the victim’s brain, sometimes called brainwashing. According to Tiegs, “…that intermittent reinforcement is creating this imbalance with this individual.” The Founder of RubiesLV, Samantha Summers-Rivas, explains that traffickers mentally use psychological tactics to enslave their victims. “We’re not seeing physical chains, but there are emotional, mental, and spiritual chains.” These psychological tactics are why many of the trafficked girls don’t even identify themselves as victims. The brainwashing has them oblivious to the concept that they have been/are being exploited, let alone have been/are being trafficked. Traffickers have an innate ability to study the victim, to find out what she needs, and for some time, to provide for those needs. Making the victim believe that the trafficker is the only one who cares, is the only one who will or can provide for them. Another way to learn how a trafficker manipulates the victim, according to Mrs. Summers-Rivas, is to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They understand how to ensure that the victim relies on them for each need. For more information on the Exploitation Cycle and the Psychology of Exploitation, check out ATPs “Protect Your Family: A Counter-Trafficking Course.”
Understanding the Traffickers, Who Are They?
Some basic information, traffickers often share the same national or cultural background as the victim, and they can be of any gender and age, according to Florida State University’s Human Trafficking Project, sponsored by the Attorney General of the State of Florida. A recent analysis revealed that among those who trafficked minors for sex: The trafficker’s average age was 28.5, and 45.1% of traffickers knew their victims.
Echo Analytics Group consulted with Detective Joseph Scaramucci of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Waco, Texas. Detective Scaramucci is one of the nation’s top consultants for human trafficking with law enforcement in America and abroad and federal and DoD agencies. Scarmucci said that the numbers reported by agencies combating Human Trafficking are often misleading. “They also call people attempting to pay for sex from a minor a trafficker (while it meets many statutes that person is a buyer, not a trafficker). Often numbers can also be misinterpreted because of state laws. Many times sex buyers can be legally classified as a human trafficker, although they have engaged in the purchasing of sex.”
Individual traffickers, more popularly referred to as “pimps,” are frequently the traffickers in street-based commercial sex scenarios. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a pimp as “a criminal who is associated with, usually exerts control over, and lives off the earnings of one or more prostitutes.” Most of the time, pimping does not entail consenting prostitutes to work for their own financial advantage, despite the widespread impression that it does. Because victims may be sold and resold again, unlike with drugs or fake goods, sex trafficking can generate significant profits. Even though pimps receive significant profits from their victims, they frequently spend a sizable portion of their earnings on material possessions. According to Louise Shelley, Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, “pimps dissipate their large incomes of several hundred thousand of dollars annually on expensive clothes, jewelry, and automobiles rather than saving their money or laundering it into the legitimate economy.” This displayed sense of affluence helps to convince their victims that they can provide them with a flashy celebrity lifestyle, going above and beyond on the Hierarchy of Needs referenced above.
Although the relationships between these pimps and their victims may differ, they all use the same strategies to find, manage, and take advantage of their victims. Some pimps might just be taking advantage of one or a few victims, while others might be in charge of a more significant number of girls and women. Referred to in the streets as a “stable.” It has been seen that pimps have forced victims to recruit, manage, and discipline other victims, which could make them appear to be traffickers. These particular victims are referred to, in the trafficking community, as “bottom bitches.” These victims are often brutally beaten, they are generally branded or tattooed, they are responsible for ensuring the other girls in the stable are bringing the money home, and they are the ones who receive the punishment if the others “misbehave” in any way. She is in charge when the pimp is away. This victim has been mentally manipulated so intensely that she goes along with everything for the reward of being the “bottom,” for being in his favor, hoping not to get hurt or beaten again.
A statement from Tiegs regarding the background of some of those in the pimp game, “While I have zero sympathy for pimps. Some people have arrived at the place where they have a certain level of compassion because many of these pimps were abused also. Many of these pimps, they’re acting out and lashing out because they were physically and sexually abused as young men. I intellectually can go there, but still, as a person, I just can’t excuse it because of the levels that they’re bringing it.”
Numerous well-known and convicted pimps have authored and directed books and films. They frequently receive celebrity status and are highly regarded in certain parts of American society, even though their song lyrics and writings boast about their manipulation and abuse of women. These propaganda products are fantastic instruments for understanding how these people think and behave. When properly examined, the depravity and mental manipulation they prefer to operate in are abundantly clear.
Indicators of Trafficking
** Not all indicators listed below are present in every sex trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any indicators is not necessarily proof of sex trafficking. **
The first step in identifying potential victims is recognizing some critical indicators of sex trafficking, including physical indicators and verbiage used. Regarding verbiage, if certain words are said/heard, it could indicate being involved or becoming involved in trafficking. Examples of some of this verbiage (not all-inclusive) include: being in the life, or the game, bottom bitch, wifey, wifey-in-law, stable, choose-up fee, exit fee, daddy/king (especially said by multiple girls to one man), two girl special, and girlfriend experience or GFE.
Samantha Summers-Rivas said people should keep in mind the following when it comes to verbiage indicators, “These terms have become popular within our culture. A lot of young people use these terms, and they have heard them in the hip hop music that they listen to now and different forms of music, and so they may not understand or know what they’re perpetuating or what they’re putting out there, but they just might, and they might be in the life.”
Along with verbiage indicators of being trafficked, there are numerous physical indicators that anyone can look out for. Some more often seen physical indicators include tattoos and branding on the neck or chest that shows a crown, a name, or a king’s crown. A girl dressed inappropriately for her age or the weather. A minor with someone at a hotel during school hours or late at night. A sudden or dramatic change in behavior. Often disoriented or confused or showing signs of mental or physical abuse. Bruises in various stages of healing. Not able to travel or not able to freely leave where they live or work. Was doing well in school, but their grades started slipping, dressing in skimpy clothing, and becoming more depressed and isolated from friends and family.
What Can I Do?
Echo Analytics Group (EAG) and ATP have partnered to host a quarterly event called, Skull Games. Skull Games is an event where vetted volunteers come together, in person and online, for 48 hours with the goal of identifying as many victims and perpetrators of sex trafficking as possible. These volunteers crowdsource the collection of open-source Information (OSINT) to assist law enforcement in generating lead packets on trafficked victims, missing children, and persons of interest.
Why is the operation called Skull Games? An infamous pimp called “Iceberg Slim” was once quoted as saying, “Pimping isn’t a sex game; it’s a skull game.” This is an example of the manipulation and the inherent demoralizing of the victims that those in the trafficking industry display. Calling the operations “Skull Games” is a way to take back some of the power he and others like him have taken away from the numerous amounts of victims stuck in the life.
If you are interested in learning more about Skull Games and perhaps volunteering for the effort, please go to https://echoanalyticsgroup.com/skull-games/.
If you would like to know more information about ATP’s counter-trafficking efforts, please go to https://victormarx.com/trafficking-solutions/.