Language shapes our perception of reality. The term “human trafficking,” for example, shifted governments’ and NGOs’ approaches to addressing the issue of involuntary migration and labor (including sexual labor) from those that focus on economic empowerment and labor rights protections to ones that center policing and criminal prosecution. Similarly, the legal definition of “sex trafficking” that is interpreted to treat all minors who trade sex regardless of their circumstances as “trafficking victims” have distorted public perception of who these youth are and their lived experiences.
In my previous article about street youth sex trade, I pointed out that the popular imagery of “domestic minor sex trafficking” in which very young (white, suburban, middle-class) girls are “taken” by evil men (of color from urban areas) and forced into sex slavery is a very small part of the picture, and does not depict realities of the vast majority of youth who trade sex. This understanding (which I came to based on my own experiences and observations) is echoed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study of street youth in New York City, which was recently featured in Village Voice (11/02/2011).
Another concept that have distorted public perception of sex trade is “pimps” and “pimping.” Even the John Jay study, which correctly points out that only about 10% of youth who trade sex have any relationship to a pimp, equate “pimp” with “exploiter,” leading readers to assume that these 10% of youth are forced or coerced to engage in sex trade. There are two distinct problems with this equation.
First, media often depict people as “pimps” when they are arrested or charged with crimes of facilitating or promoting prostitution, but most of these people are not actually what most of us think of as pimps. They are often friends, partners, mentors, family members, photographers, drivers, bodyguards, and others who do not control the person trading sex in any way. When a youth “trafficking victim” is “rescued” from a “pimp,” the person they arrest as the “trafficker/pimp” is often another youth, such as a boyfriend of the “victim.”
In the October 2008 nationwide “search” for trafficked minors (Operation Cross Country II), which is the only one in which relevant data is made public, FBI claims to have arrested one pimp for every 7.76 “trafficked minors” and adult prostitutes in the 29 cities where the sweeps were conducted. Even though FBI does not provide the breakdown of the ages, genders, or roles these people played in the lives of youth and adults in the sex trade, there is no question that the vast majority of these people are not what most people think of as “pimps.” Real pimps are notoriously difficult to prosecute. They are very rarely caught or convicted because the prosecutors cannot build a case against them without “victims” coming forward and testifying against them.
Another problem with the equation of “pimps” as “exploiters” who use force, fraud or coercion to exploit youth and adults is that this is simply not true in many people’s lives, even if we were to limit the discussion to the “real” pimps (as opposed to partners, friends, etc. who are labeled as such by the police). I do not question the assertion (backed by my own experiences as well as others I’ve seen) that many pimps are violent or abusive, but that should not be confused with sexual enslavement of people who have abusive pimps. Let me explain.
We know that many marriages and romantic relationships are violent or abusive. We also know that many victims of abuse (often girlfriends and wives) do not leave their abusers/batterers/perpetrators. There are many reasons abuse victims do not leave. Some victims might be afraid for their lives if she attempted to escape, and remain under siege–but that is not the most common explanation. Most of the times, victims receive something from the relationship, whether it is financial security for themselves and their children, affection (when the abuse is in remission), or something else. Many do not leave the abusive relationship because they love their abusers.
That many victims of relationship abuse choose to stay with their abusers should not be treated as consenting to the abuse: they consent to the relationship, not the abuse. But it would also be wrong to suggest that these victims are held captive by the violence; they are not staying because of the violence, but in spite of it.
Pimping relationship that are abusive can be understood in the same way: while some people are forced to trade sex because of the violence, many remain in the pimping relationship for the same reason many abuse victims stay with their abusers: they get something out of the relationship that they are not getting elsewhere. Or rather, they remain in the relationship because they get something that our communities are failing to provide otherwise. This includes basic necessities such as food and housing as well as emotional needs such as affection, validation, and support. In fact, some pimps consider themselves to be workers performing emotional and care labor for their “girls” similar to the sex trade.
I do not think that these relationships are unproblematic, or that violence and abuse should be tolerated just because the victims do when they can’t control it. But there is a huge policy implication to recognizing agency and resilience among people who stay with their pimps instead of treating them as passive, powerless victims or “sex slaves.” Efforts to unilaterally “rescue” these individuals take away their security and support, leaving them worse off than before (and still having to engage in sex trade to survive under less desirable circumstances).
A better approach is to ensure that our communities provide resources and support that everyone needs and deserves. They include housing, jobs, education, and healthcare, but that is not enough. We also need human connections that give us a sense of belonging, validation, support, love. The former is essential for our physical and economic survival, but the latter is just as important if we truly cared about ending relationship abuses, whether it is in romantic relationship or pimping relationship (which can also be romantic).
There is no contradiction between acknowledging resilience of abuse victims who remain with their abusers, and wanting to create caring communities that instils greater resilience to abuse in the first place. Increased policing and prosecution only helps a very small group of victims who are actually held hostage by threats and violence, and by all means we should liberate these victims from their captors, but the application of this approach is harmful for the vast majority of youth and adults who trade sex. And the racist mainstream media representations of “pimps” make it harder to promote real solutions to abuse in our lives and relationships.