Every night between 4:00am and 6:00am commercial sex workers from across America walk “the track” on 10th and Kst in Washington, D.C. Smiling and waving to male passers-by, they solicit customers wearing nothing more than platform heels, G-strings, and bikini tops. While they may be perceived as willing prostitutes to most, close observation reveals that pimps are following many of these women, watching their every move from a close distance. Some of these girls are forced, defrauded, or coerced into the commercial sex trade, or are recruited as juveniles, making them victims of human trafficking. However, law enforcement professionals and direct service providers often overlook their victim status, leading to erroneous criminalization for the women and impunity for their traffickers.
“Jessica” is one of these women. Although she was perceived as a prostitute during her time working the track in D.C., her stint in the commercial sex trade began as a teenager, trafficked by her mother’s drug dealer. Throughout her fifteen years of victimization, she was beaten, drugged, raped, and even shot at point blank range in the leg by one of her traffickers. The gruesome injury required a vascular transfusion and skin graft to save her right leg.
Despite her clear victimization, “Jessica’s” traffickers were never punished, repeatedly evading arrest or having their charges null prosecuted. Instead of being rescued from her human trafficking victimization, Jessica was arrested for prostitution crimes. She believed that she wasn’t treated as a victim because, “A lot of people really don’t care, we’re trash to them, and that’s just the God’s honest truth.”
Unfortunately, this narrative is typical of many victims of sex trafficking.
Intervention from law enforcement is inhibited by the recruitment and control methods used by pimps and traffickers. Human trafficking typically doesn’t occur like the events in a Hollywood movie, with a clearly innocent victim kidnapped and forcefully held against her will. Instead, traffickers target emotionally or financially wounded children and women, manipulating them through the temporary provision of companionship, esteem, and support. Prior to and during the course of victimization, traffickers develop a trauma bond with their victims, which serves as an invisible tether, keeping the women under their exploitive control.
Research suggests that cyclical abuse, with intermittent positive reinforcement and punishment, creates a powerful trauma bond between sex traffickers and their victims. Although sex traffickers defraud, deceive, and coerce women into exploitive situations, the mental manipulation used in recruitment makes them behave as co-conspirators or consenting participants, despite their victimization. It is a tactic for psychological survival. Even after being rescued by victim service providers or law enforcement, the trauma bond is so strong that victims will often return to their trafficker. The “trauma bonding” recruitment strategy makes human trafficking identification difficult and creates a credibility gap for victims, further compromising successful prosecution.
Perhaps as a result of the trauma bonding recruitment and control tactic, fewer than .01% of human trafficking cases are successfully prosecuted in the United States.
This disheartening statistic is illustrated daily in our nation’s capital. During the dark hours of early dawn on 10th and Kst, observers can see an assortment of luxury and mid-grade vehicles picking up commercial sex workers in plain sight. Regular people commuting to work drive by without concern. At most, metropolitan police will shine a floodlight on the girls and order them off the street, back to their pimp, or arrest them for prostitution. This misidentification is a critical barrier to successful anti-trafficking intervention.
Women walking the streets as prostitutes have often been in and out of the social services system as children, some being trafficked into the commercial sex trade. Yet, victims of sex trafficking continue to be erroneously lumped into the consenting prostitute category, and forced into cyclical exploitation and criminalization. Just because a sex worker has a smile on her face and isn’t physically bound in public, doesn’t mean she isn’t being trafficked for someone else’s benefit.
In order to better combat sex trafficking it is important for law enforcement, service providers, and the American public to challenge their initial assumptions regarding prostitution. The commercial sex worker they see may very well be a victim of human trafficking in reality.
About the author: Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium, is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio.