When pimps brand the women and girls they control, it's a reminder that these women are victims rather than criminals, writes Nicholas D. Kristof. That consciousness is spreading, and we are finally seeing considerable progress in tackling domestic sex trafficking.
NEW YORK — We think of branding as something ranchers do to their cattle. But it’s also what pimps do to women and girls they control across America.
Taz, a 16-year-old girl here in New York City, told me that her pimp had branded three other girls with tattoos bearing his name. When she refused the tattoo, she said, he held her down and carved his name on her back with a safety pin.
More about Taz in a moment. That kind of branding isn’t universal, but it’s very common. An alleged pimp indicted last month in Manhattan is accused of tattooing his street name on a prostitute’s neck, along with a bar code. He allegedly tattooed another prostitute with a symbol of his name on her pubic area, along with a dollar sign. In each case, the message was clear: They were his property, and they were for sale.
Such branding is a reminder that women being sold on the streets in America are — not always, but often — victims rather than criminals. That consciousness is spreading, and we are finally seeing considerable progress in tackling domestic sex trafficking.
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So far, in 2012, states have passed more than 40 laws relating to human trafficking, according to Megan Fowler of Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization.
Prosecutors and police are increasingly targeting pimps and johns, and not just the women and girls who are their victims. In Manhattan, the district attorney’s office recently started a sex-trafficking program and just secured its most comprehensive indictments for sex trafficking. Likewise, a federal prosecutor in Virginia brought sex-trafficking charges last month against a man accused of selling a 14-year-old girl in several states.
Now President Barack Obama is said to be planning an initiative on human trafficking. I’m hoping that he will direct the attorney general to make sex trafficking a higher federal priority and call on states to pass “safe harbor” laws that treat prostituted teenage girls as victims rather than criminals.
The other important shift is growing pressure on Backpage.com, a classified advertising website that dominates the sex trafficking industry. Calls for Village Voice Media, which owns Backpage, to end its links to sex trafficking have come from attorneys general from 48 states, dozens of mayors from around the country, and some 240,000 Americans who have signed a petition on Change.org.
Resolutions are pending in the Senate and House calling on Village Voice Media to get out of this trade. At least 34 advertisers have dropped Village Voice Media publications, including the flagship, Village Voice in New York City.
In its defense, Village Voice Media notes that it screens ads and cooperates with the police. That’s true, but Taz — the 16-year-old with her former pimp’s name carved into her back — told me that three-quarters of her “dates” had come from Backpage.
I met Taz at Gateways, a treatment center outside New York City. She told me that she ran away from home in New York City at the age of 14 and eventually ended up in the hands of a violent 20-year-old pimp who peddled her on Backpage.
Skeptics mostly believe that prostitutes sell sex voluntarily, while anti-trafficking advocates sometimes suggest that they are almost all forced into the trade. The truth is more complicated.
Taz wasn’t locked up, and, at times, she felt a romantic bond with her pimp. She distrusted the police — with reason, for when officers found her in December, they arrested her and locked her up for four months in juvenile detention.
Yet Taz wasn’t exactly selling sex by choice, either. She said her pimp issued his four girls a daily quota of money to earn; if they didn’t, he would beat them. They could never leave, either, Taz said, and she explained what happened when her pimp caught her trying to run away:
“I got drowned,” she recalled. “He choked me, put me in the tub, and when I woke up, I was drowning. He said he’d kill me if I left.”
Another time, Taz says, she tried to call 911. “He hit me over the head with a glass bottle,” she recalls. Then he ordered another of his girls to sweep up the broken glass.
I bet the police looked at Taz and saw an angry, defiant prostitute who hated them and didn’t want to be rescued. There was an element of truth to that. But there’s another side as well, now visible, and it underscores the importance of helping these girls rather than giving up on them. Taz is emerging as a smart, ambitious girl with dazzling potential. She loves reading and writing, and when I asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up, she smiled a bit self-consciously.
“I’d like to be a pediatrician,” she said.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.