First it was tattoos; a pimp put his name on the shoulder of his “girls” as indication that they “belonged” to him. Now, unbelievably, those guys are branding their “babes.” It’s happening not in a foreign underdeveloped country but right here in America. Earlier this month, a 40-year-old man, Shawn Bailey, and a 22-year-old woman were arrested in Phoenix for actively pimping girls aged 14-17.
The charges against the man included aggravated assault because one of the girls had been branded! Appalling! Those of us who work to combat sex trafficking are aware that the horrendous act of branding is going on, but actually knowing of a perpetrator and victim makes the crime even more abhorrent.
I talked about this problem with Kristy Childs, founder and executive director of Veronica’s Voice, a safe haven and a voice for the sexually exploited in Kansas City. Kristy was coerced into prostitution at age 12 and didn’t come out completely until she was 36, after overcoming the emotional and psychological bondage that is so addictive. She knows the life –– the fear and the cruel exploitation –– from personal experience as well as from the rescued victims who are clients at Veronica’s Voice.
Kristy says that looking at the Phoenix particular case is instructive –– a 40-year-old man is working with a 22-year-old woman. The age difference between the two indicates that, earlier on, the woman was probably one of his below-age prostitutes. She could have been working with the pimp since she was 12 or she could have been traded to him by some other exploiter or several exploiters during her teens.
Obviously, the three teenage girls are being sexually exploited. Chances are the girls are run-aways or troubled youths who were easy prey for a smooth-talking pimp. Kristy explained to me that the girls have probably been shuffled from city to city to isolate them from family and friends. In such cases, a pimp uses violence and brainwashing to control his victims. Kristy said that pimps even charge their “girls” for lodging, food and condoms to keep them in debt and under the pimp’s control. The traffickers threaten the women with physical harm to them or their families if they try to leave.
Kristy said, “I've seen a lot of women, including myself (through commercial sexual exploitation) be charged booth rental fees, late charges, fines for various reasons, tips for door men, DJs, and bartenders. In fact, the pimp would get money from us any way they could –– money we women made –– so that we had no personal resources and were totally dependent. Keep in mind, we didn’t have a salary or hourly wage, let alone have any employee benefits!”
Like other safe havens, there are tragic examples of young victims at Veronica’s Voice. Kristy said, “A young woman like the 22-year-old and the teenagers in this case could be there because of fear. Fear of Shawn and fear of leaving. If they left, they would have to survive the only way they know how to, knowing the possibility of Shawn finding them would be in his favor. Fear of possibly ending up in a worse situation than they had with Shawn.” Kristy added that for many girls caught in prostitution, “The unknown can be more frightening than a current situation, even if it is bad.”
The girls don’t try to get out because they don’t see themselves as victims. Kristy knows how the girls feel. She said, “Part of my survival in prostitution was convincing myself that I wasn’t a victim. Being in the place of being a victim was too painful. The women I work with at VERONICA'S Voice do not self-identify as a victim. For most of them, it takes some time to get to that point.”
The Phoenix case represents one of the newest advances in the prosecution of pimps and, more importantly, in protecting those forced into prostitution. The police were able to charge Shawn Bailey because he “received earnings from prostitution.” Eliminating the requirement to prove force, fraud or coercion is a major improvement in the ability of prosecutors to protect vulnerable girls from predators and pimps. Obviously, girls in such situations are being exploited. Worse, they are being used as commodities; they are being sold and re-sold repeatedly for the financial benefit of unscrupulous men.
Increasingly, we are able to convince local police that the girls and women in prostitution are victims and not criminals. Increasingly, the police are taking the prostituted women to safe havens where they can receive shelter, food, clothing and counseling. Once they are safe, they can decide whether to cooperate with the police investigations.
The crime of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation is going on every day in every city of the United States. It is important for us to be aware and to recognize what we are seeing. As the crime gets more profitable –– it is a $10 billion a year industry –– the competition among the pimps is getting more fierce and the mistreatment of the victims is getting more vicious and inhumane.
The branding of human beings is beyond the pale; we must prosecute the pimps and end the scourge of commercial sexual exploitation before more girls are victims of this heinous crime.