5 Ugly Things You Learn As A Sex Slave In The Modern World
Last year we wrote an article with a woman who spent her childhood and early adulthood as a sex slave in the United States. It was horrifying and depressing and, for some reason, a bunch of readers declared our source a fraud. Their arguments boiled down to, "There's no way this kind of shit happens today!"
Well, it not only goes on, it's common. Globally, the U.N. estimates the yearly value of the human trafficking industry at $32 billion, making it the third-largest criminal industry on the planet, lagging only behind guns and drugs. The vast majority of it is sex slavery, and law enforcement almost never succeeds in punishing the culprits.
We're talking about millions of victims, probably 80 percent of them female (though all numbers are just educated guesses). How is that shit even possible? Well, to get an even clearer picture of the horror, we spoke to an expert who works with sex-trafficking victims in Europe and a former victim from right here in the U.S. of A. They said ...
Pimps Are Subtle
This one is probably very surprising to those of us whose entire concept of pimps comes from pop culture and/or flamboyant Halloween costumes.
"Christina" got ensnared by a man she thought was her boyfriend. It started when she got pregnant at 18 and, angry at her family's reaction, moved to Las Vegas to start stripping. "Then I met a guy on the strip I thought was the answer to all my dreams: bought me a nice car, put me in a nice house, took me shopping. He was amazing." Holy shit, Christina got Pretty Woman'd without even having to work a street corner. That's basically the best-case scenario for a runaway in Las Vegas, right? But you already know where this shit is going:
"So here I am, thinking I'd made it. I'd met Prince Charming and my life was going to be amazing. A couple months later, Halloween night, he sat me down in the kitchen and said, 'I'm actually a pimp. And the time you've spent with me isn't free.'" Yeah, then the "subtle" technique was replaced by the more direct approach. "He told me, 'If you leave or tell anyone, I'll kill you, and I'll kill your family.' That started a year and a half of complete hell. I didn't know anything about pimps aside from rap songs or 'pimp your ride.' He explained, 'I'm going to take you, drop you off at the casino. Sit at the bar. The first person who walks up to you, tell them you want to negotiate a price.'"
And if you think casino security would help stop this? It doesn't.
See, this is what complicates the "Why not legalize prostitution? It's a transaction between two consenting adults!" argument. Where you find prostitution, you always find some who are there against their will. Not that the customers knew, or cared. "I wouldn't be surprised if not one of them knew [I was trafficked]. Nobody ever asked. It was all fun and games -- party time."
We also talked with "Kay," who works for a charity helping former trafficking victims in Europe's sex-trafficking capital, Bulgaria. Christina's story sounded very familiar to her. She told us the story of one woman she worked with:
"She's from a small village in Bulgaria. And she started dating an older man. ... She was 13 or 14 and he was 19 or 20. It's normal here for a 16-year-old to date a 20- to 21-year-old." (The age of consent there is 14 -- 18 if you're gay.) "So ... she was dating him for about a year. She didn't know this, but he was grooming her. 'Grooming' means you're making and creating a woman who will at some point prostitute herself for your affection."
Which is a process as common as it is alarmingly sophisticated.
This is pimping on a level much more unsettling than anything a man with gold teeth, a cane, and a fabulous hat could accomplish. And it also rings true with the experience of the former sex slave we spoke with last year, who was forced into prostitution by her parents. "You have this man who says he loves you," says Kay, "and he's providing for you. He may even seduce your family with his charm. Then behind closed doors he gets you to start doing things sexually, starts with, 'I owe my buddy a big debt. If you can do this one time it'll clear my debt ...'"
And from there it escalates to open prostitution. But why don't the girls just bail out once it crosses that line? "That's what I would do," you confidently shout at your screen. Well ...
They Make Escape Impossible
In the United States, keeping a person trafficked is a matter of constant vigilance ("There was always someone watching me," says Christina). The process is often strangely cult-like, including total isolation from the outside world. "The other girls my pimp trafficked were 'sisters.' My pimp's brother's girls were my 'sister-in-laws.' If I see a sister or a sister-in-law, I can talk to them." Otherwise, she was cut off. "I had zero contact with anybody. I went to prison and didn't even know we were at war with Iraq. I'd been so isolated from the world."
Christina's pimp had also used the time he was grooming her to track down information about her family: That made his threats against them much more credible, and thus made leaving even harder. For the worst kind of pimps, Google is a much more dangerous tool than a backhand. "He had my birth certificate, pictures of my family -- he'd spent all this time gathering information. ... He had pictures of my mom."
The "victimless crime" defense just got a bit harder to justify.
Still, she attempted to escape between 100 and 150 times, she says, most of which were shut down immediately. On a few occasions, she ran away and took shelter at home, at which point the pimp would have one of his employees/buddies shadow the house. Christina was too scared to tell her family what had happened. So when her pimp inevitably picked her back up -- ensuring her compliance with threats of violence -- she left home again without a struggle.
In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, many victims don't even consider themselves as being "trafficked." As Kay says, "Most of my girls come from a culture of prostitution. Which means they were bred to be prostitutes. So you have whole cities dedicated to the business. ... They are sent all over Bulgaria, all over Europe to do this business, and they provide millions of euros to the organized crime rooted in Bulgaria."
Basically, farmers of free-range and organic human misery.
These women often get into the sex trade when they're still too young to consent. By the time they're adults they may say they "consent" to do the work ... but it's also all they've ever known, and all they've been groomed for. "They manipulate so well these girls won't believe they're trafficked, ever. Even if you get a girl away from a situation, drag the girls out, and rescue them, it takes years for girls to realize they're trafficked. What is trafficking when your whole family has been doing it?"
So when does it end? "Most trafficked women in Bulgaria simply age out of being trafficked. Eventually they're too old to make money -- at which point, they're out on the streets."
If your response to that is, "Damn, Eastern Europe sounds like a shithole!" please keep in mind ...
Trafficking Victims Are Exported Everywhere -- And Always Find Willing Customers
If the traffickers in places like Bulgaria can keep hold of their victims and groom them to adulthood, they can send them off to the bits of Europe where prostitution is legal and make shitloads of legal money off of them. One of the top five countries in Europe with the most victims of sex trafficking is the goddamn Netherlands, a nation that's about as First World as they come.
The girls who are groomed and moved to other countries lose control of their own travel documents in the process -- that's part of what keeps them from escaping. In other cases, girls answer ads for what look like legit jobs in other countries (like, say, the USA) with promises of room and board -- maybe a service job that advertises for an attractive young female candidate. Then, once they arrive, the victims get eased into the real job by the same process Christina did -- they're told they owe money and now have to "work" it off.
We're no economists, but we're pretty fucking sure that's not a legally recognized exchange rate.
Kay says the girls she deals with are "typically sent to Greece first. Legal, but indoor brothels. Italy is sorta the same way. ... It's not legal, but it is everywhere. If you can get a girl to survive through that, they'll send them to Western Europe. So if the girl is still under your control, you can put them out into the red light districts."
Oh, and in case we're making the international sex slave trade sound like a foreign problem involving exotic Taken villains, keep in mind up to 17,000 humans are trafficked into the USA every year, though that number is a blind guess. As for how many girls are trafficked within the USA, like Christina? The government doesn't even have an estimate. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police alone have recovered 2,229 victims of sex trafficking since 1994.
So, here's the reality: If you've paid for sex, there's a significant chance the person you fucked was there against their will.
See: "he had pictures of my mom" from earlier.
Why do we know so little about this problem? Because ...
Trafficking Victims Often Aren't Treated Like Victims
Remember how Christina's first day of hooking involved wandering around Las Vegas casinos in search of Johns? Well, it didn't exactly go well. Her very first customer turned out to be casino security.
"We went up to the elevator and he pulled out his security badge. In the moment I wanted to give him a hug. He was like, come down to the security office and we'll talk. When we got down there he sat down, and on the wall was a list of girls they'd 86'd for prostitution. He said, 'If you come back in for any reason, you can go to jail for trespassing.' They kicked me out the back door. That's when I knew I was in for something I couldn't get help for. I didn't think any sort of law enforcement would help me."
He saw a criminal, not a victim. In fact, many parts of the country don't have specific laws against human trafficking -- prostitution is just blanket illegal in most of the U.S. And, lawmakers reason, if all prostitution is illegal prostitution, why should human trafficking get its own special laws?
Eventually, Christina and her pimp both got busted, not for prostitution but for a credit-card-fraud scheme the pimp had involved the girls in. "The feds picked us up, indicted me on nine felony counts and him on like 11. I ended up taking a plea agreement six months later. I got 24 months in a federal prison. This is like ... 10 years ago. I never told anyone what was going on. 'Trafficking' wasn't a word back then. ... Nobody asked me what was going on. They just shuffled me through the system."
"If you don't like the legal system, maybe you should've thought of that before
you became an exploited slave."
That's a tragically common story. If you want to get even more bummed out today, you can read this story of a woman who was kidnapped from her home at age 14, forced into prostitution, and has since then been convicted of prostitution 12 times. Police in the U.S. are starting to catch on, but it's been a slow burn. Long Island, a human trafficking hub, just got an anti-trafficking task force in 2014, and they still aren't together enough to have actually done anything. As Christina points out, "They depend on testimony from victims who are terrified of the police."
The FBI actually works with Christina now. She helps counsel girls the agents bust in prostitution stings who are being trafficked ... but only for victims under 18. The adults, well, they still figure that's their own fault. Over in Bulgaria, meanwhile, prostitution isn't illegal, which is different from being legal -- if it were the latter, there would at least be some laws enforcing health and safety standards on the industry. But the cops simply don't care either way -- especially about trafficking.
The Bad Guys Aren't Always Who They Seem
So we know who the bad guys are -- the career pimps who've honed the art of manipulation into a science. Why not focus everything on taking their asses out? Well, Kay mentioned something that puts a little different spin on things: The villainous pimps aren't always villains. Sometimes they are trafficking victims too, perpetuating the cycle. Remember, 20 percent of trafficking victims are male.
"The women we work with ... the pimps they work for also were trafficked. Girls and boys are taken from the same orphanage. Like gang initiations ... if you take a 12-year-old girl or boy, orphaned, it's really easy to traffic them. Get them addicted to drugs, community, or sex."
To the point where even without any threatening from pimps, many continue voluntarily.
The "addiction to community" part is an important thing to understand here, if you're going to grasp how this whole ugly industry works. Sex trafficking isn't primarily a bunch of helpless young women chained to a basement being used as fuck-toys for Slavic businessmen, as the Taken movies portray. It's a community of abuse, either within the context of generations of abused women in countries like Bulgaria or starry-eyed young people like Christina lured in by love and taken advantage of by men they trusted.
We've been trained to see issues like this as clear-cut and simple as a Liam Neeson movie, because then maybe the solution would be as easy as just having Liam throat-punch the problem away. But when the tragedy persists because the vast majority of the world is either indifferent or complicit ... where would he even start?
Robert Evans would like to thank Cameron Henrion for this article, and urge you to check out SoDE, a 501c targeted at helping victims of trafficking.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Myths About Prostitutes I Believed (Until I Was One) and 6 Things We Learned As Legal Male Prostitutes.
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