Interview: Prosecuting Romeo Pimps, a Perspective on Women & Girls' Safety from Two Former Prosecutors
I recently met with two former US federal prosecutors to hear their thoughts on women and girls’ safety and empowerment. Working alongside FBI agents and with the help of former sex workers, these prosecutors built cases against domestic pimps and international sex traffickers.
Hearing about this topic from a criminal justice lens was fascinating for me. Working with exploited girls to bring pimps to justice was clearly a very emotional experience. The reluctance to talk about their experience quickly gave way to an emotional flood of memories and insights. “This was really intense stuff… I guess it feels good to be able to talk about it.”
I hope others find this unique lens helpful in some way.
In the US, Most Girls in the Sex Trade are Initiated by “Romeo Pimps”
Romeo pimps recruit girls into sex work by developing relationships with them. They all seem to have a speech. We asked one pimp to hear his speech. It went something like this: “Baby I can show you the moon and the stars. We can make it big together.” That’s how it starts. Eventually, the sweet talk will likely turn into manipulation, and physical and emotional abuse. The girls are often forced to sleep with clients, and will likely face serious violence if they refuse or threaten to leave their pimps.
Kidnapping girls off the street for sex work doesn’t happen nearly as often in the US, though its prevalent internationally.
Romeo Pimps Target Vulnerable Girls
Pimps target girls without good family structure or support. They target girls that are addicts and offer them drugs. They target girls with mental illness.
The Psychological Impact of Sex Work is Distorting and Enduring
One girl we worked with started when she was 12. By the time we reached her she was very jaded. Prostitution is very much like drug trafficking. It’s addicting, emotionally damaging, and victims become acclimated and often don't actually want change. We’ve seen many girls go back to their pimp. One girl, even after getting out of sex work and testifying against her pimp, said that she wouldn’t promise that she’d never go back to prostitution if she needed money.
Often the girls end up feeling like they’ve become family with their pimp, who they often refer to as "daddy." Sleeping with clients for money is their way to help them as a couple or family get ahead. Sometimes the girls even feel like sleeping with clients was their idea. Perhaps the pimp asked them to strip for someone so they could get money, and eventually the idea of getting more money by offering sex creeps in. The relationships between the girls and romeo pimps are very complex, and they’re very much relationships.
The manipulation is so intense and distorting. We worked with a girl that was sold by one pimp to another, but because of the way they staged it, she felt like she was being rescued from a pimp who had become abusive.
Exploited Girls Often Extend the Cycle of Exploitation
Many girls end up becoming perpetrators themselves, recruiting other girls as a way to win favor with the pimp. Or, they bring in other girls because they’re told they’ll work less. They never end up working less though, except in one case we saw -- she worked less because she became addicted to heroin.
Support Organizations Exist, but Only Help Those Motivated to Change
There are shelters that help girls get back on their feet, but they seem to only be effective for girls that are really motivated. We’ve seen a lot of people that take advantage of some of the services while still doing sex work and while still connected to their pimp. We’ve also heard of pimps recruiting outside of these facilities.
The Exploitation of Girls is Closely Linked to Other Social Problems
Exploitation starts with girls born without resources and[ AND/OR] without a support network. There will always be people preying on that. To reduce the exploitation, you need all those things that’d make a population less vulnerable, less poor. These are a macro issues.
We’ve seen FBI agents develop amazing rapport with girls, who end up seeing them almost as big brother or sister figures. The agents were amazing, but it also shows how much the girls have lacked positive influences.
Keeping Prostitution Illegal is Important
You don't want pimps to be able to tell girls they won't get in trouble. It's not about blaming the girls but you need tools and levers.
If you legalize prostitution, it becomes very hard to distinguish prostitutes who have been coerced or forced from those who haven't. That's the biggest risk, in my view. Locations that have legalized prostitution have become safe havens for sex trafficking because how can you tell when someone's being forced?
Prosecution can Help
Prosecution can help because it separates girls from pimps. It also can give girls more resources and opportunities. I truly believe we took pimps out of the game who would have recruited more girls, but it’s analogous to prosecuting drug cases. Much like drug dealing, where there is always another drug dealer, there is always another pimp. It’s a band-aid solution.