Hiding in Plain Sight: Victims of Domestic Sex-Trafficking
By Terri Galvan, adjunct faculty at American Public University System
Human trafficking is an issue that has captured the attention of the media and communities across the nation. From Atlanta to Los Angeles, it seems that no city is completely immune from this crime, with the FBI calling it “the fastest growing business of organized crime.” Despite growing awareness, our understanding of domestic trafficking victims remains incomplete, limiting the effectiveness of social service providers and law enforcement.
We often think that sex-trafficking occurs when a young person is taken against his or her will, transported somewhere, and physically forced into sex work. While this does happen internationally and domestically, most recruitment of domestic sex-trafficking victims by pimps occurs in familiar settings, such as neighborhoods and social circles.
Pimping, pandering, and prostitution have long histories in many communities in the United States with our traditional response focusing on women who sell sex. However, we know that pimping is a violent crime, with many of the inherent practices meeting the definition of human trafficking. Victims of human trafficking include children involved in the sex trade and women over 18 who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts. Deceit and coercion are very common strategies used to groom a young woman for “the life.” This is likely more common than the familiar image of young women being kidnapped and transported against their will. It also adds a level of complexity to this crime.
The Social Structure of Sex-Trafficking
In high prostitution areas, pimps, traffickers, and women involved in prostitution face many of the same hardships, enabling manipulation and coercion to happen in plain sight, especially for particularly vulnerable women. Both pimps and victims of sex-trafficking list economic necessity, peer encouragement, and neighborhood influence as reasons for becoming involved in sex work.
Once recruited, women become part of a hierarchal system, usually with several women including a “bottom” or higher-ranked member, which can seem like a family for women who have not had a positive model. Pimps are often referred to as “Daddy,” deepening the loyalty that victims have for their pimp. The “bottom” may have children with a pimp. Regardless of the manipulation and violence that many victims endure, loyalty ties and familial bonds develop along with a heavy distrust of law enforcement. This helps explain the lack of cooperation shown by victims who have been “rescued” and why women return to “the life”.
Law enforcement should expect victims to fear retaliation and feel emotionally connected to a pimp, due to the dynamics of this crime. Officers can also be assured that the underlying vulnerabilities remain intact, providing a very real challenge for communities that have struggled with this issue. Recruitment efforts work because victims of domestic sex-trafficking often lack traditional forms of social support, are vulnerable, and regularly witness both violence and prostitution in their lives.
Seek a New Perspective
In order to combat this complicated and persistent crime, a change in perspective is needed. There are reasons young women become involved with pimps and entangled in sex-trafficking. A shift can help law enforcement prosecute pimps and traffickers and assist with efforts that recognize a victim’s role in trying to address their severe unmet needs. The Anaheim Police Department has shifted their approach, focusing on pimps as suspects. They work with service providers to meet the needs of the women involved, while continuing their investigation of the pimp. This had led to the prosecution of pimps and successful redirection for the victims.
A change in perspective may ultimately help young women become more resistant to recruitment strategies because pimping, pandering, and trafficking are not tolerated in their communities. The devastation of domestic sex-trafficking and the pervasiveness of prostitution in our communities can be reduced if we consider alternative models and prioritize prosecuting pimps and traffickers—whether the victims are juveniles, adults, males or females. A small investment in understanding how force, fraud, and coercion are applied to recruit and maintain control of victims can make a big difference to victims and communities across the United States.
About the Author: Terri Galvan is an adjunct instructor at American Public University System, teaching courses in government and public policy. She has worked extensively in the non-profit sector improving housing outcomes for chronically homeless women. In addition to teaching, she currently serves as the Executive Director of Community Against Sexual Harm (CASH), a non-profit organization in Sacramento, Calif. that works with victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Terri received her Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Southern California, specializing in urban and social policy. Her graduate research focused on developing community capacity in impoverished neighborhoods.