While the mention of human trafficking may invoke the thought of kidnapping or coercing a girl into the sex trade, law enforcement officers, former trafficking victims and advocacy groups have stated that the most-used tactic isn’t fear, but flattery.
“We don’t even hear the gorilla tactic anymore — those people who are being abducted physically off the street corners,” said Fresno Police Sgt. Curt Chastain, a member of that department’s vice unit.
The most common tactic used by traffickers now, according to Chastain, is to date their target rather than abduct them.
“The profile I’ll give you of the cases that we have ongoing today and the most recent ones, all of them have been those who trained themselves to be pruned to groom these,” Chastain said, “just like you would meet a date or a future person.”
These pimps, known as “Romeos” or “lover boys,” will typically seek out young girls to exploit, as they will be seen as easier, more naive targets.
These are the people most commonly encountered by human trafficking survivor Debra Woods, who runs the victim advocacy group Breaking the Chains. Woods, who was trafficked at age 17 and coerced into prostitution, eventually escaped and got out by turning herself in to law enforcement.
“I would say that most of the trafficking cases we see start out with a young girl looking for some sort of a relationship,” Woods said. “If that’s just a friendship, a boyfriend, even a relationship with the same sex, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a sexually based relationship, so we’re seeing a lot of trafficking that is occurring peer-to-peer.”
Runaways are another favorite target for pimps. According to Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, 80 percent of girls who are running away from home will be contacted within their first 48 hours on the streets.
In order to make an income in the sex trade, a pimp will control a group of girls, known as a “stable.” Adding a steady number of girls to his stable is part of a pimp’s livelihood.
“A pimp, that’s what he does for a living. That’s how he makes his money,” said Madera Police Sgt. Daniel Foss, “and if he’s not good at it, he’s not making money. So he has to be good.”
Typically, the pimp will begin to trap a girl with a simple contact in the form of a greeting. This contact, known as a “bump,” is usually casual in nature.
“They’ll see that individual, and who’s alone, who’s by themselves, and they will make contact with them, and it’ll be a subtle contact,” Chastain said. “And they’ll do a ‘hey, what’s up? How are you doing?’ And if they get a response back, a ‘hi,’ a smile, that was a successful bump.”
According to Chastain, the pimp will then get his target’s phone number with it soon followed by a text message. At this point, it is typical for the pimp to gather information on the girl he is trying to trap so that he will know her vulnerabilities. All the while, he will go out with her, usually spending upwards of hundreds of dollars per date.
“So what’s going to happen is I pay her a ton of attention and I treat her like a princess. And I tell her every day how beautiful she is, and she’s the best thing I’ve ever seen,” Foss said when simulating a pimp’s tactics. “She’s a normal, good kid, but she’s falling into this trap because I’m good at what I do.”
According to Foss, after he has spent some time with the girl, he will then take her with him to another town under the guise of a romantic trip. It is routine for the pimp to then get his target a new phone, new (and more revealing) clothes, and continue to spend money on her. After several days, he will then tell her that they are out of money. It is here, Foss stated, that the pimp will first use her to have sex for money as a “favor.”
“And you’re going to be so infatuated at that point that you’re going to be uncomfortable,” Foss said, “but you’re going to do it.”
It is at this point that the girl is under the control of the pimp.
“And once that first date is done, that first deed is done, they’ve sunk the hook,” said Chastain. “And that’s when the force and the coercion will start coming out of the closet, and when they want to try to get out, they won’t be able to.”
They will initially be returned to their town, where the girl becomes a part of the pimp’s stable, but after the girl becomes “hot,” or known to the police, she will then be taken to another town. Here, according to Foss, they will either be sold to another pimp or traded for another girl. Here, she becomes little more than property, though she may be in the same town for only a few months before being sold again. If she becomes pregnant, she will be forced to have an abortion, either by drugs or beating her stomach until she has a miscarriage.
Coercion will remain a major part of keeping sex workers in the life, but according to Woods, the biggest factor preventing them from escaping is psychological. The negative stigma of the sex trade can often be a hindrance to those who would otherwise wish to leave.
“It’s like digging yourself into a deeper pit,” Woods said. “Shame is the biggest captor for these women.”
In the search for a solution, law enforcement and advocacy groups have turned to prevention as the best means to confront human trafficking, with education becoming a preferred tactic.
“I question if we shouldn’t also be putting it in there at the same time,” Chastain said, “about safe relationships.”
The problem of prostitution, nonetheless, will remain a problem so long as there is a demand for it, and with it, the problem of trafficking and grooming of young women and girls.
“The way to solve prostitution is stop the johns. If you can stop the johns, you have no more problems with prostitution, whatsoever,” Foss said. “It’s like anything else; if there’s a market for it, somebody’s going to supply the product.”