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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.

Photo of Jason Rissman
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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.


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Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Jason for another rich and insightful interview.
What stroke me was how this problem requires a holistic approach as it related to broader socio-economic issues and how it is hard to address it as often these girls don't see themselves as victims and don't see people trying to help them as helping.
This goes back to a conversation we had on another of your interviews:
and a point I made in one of my research posts:

Thanks for sharing!

Photo of Jason Rissman

Thanks Anne-Laure! I totally agree -- Thailand or the US, these are macro issues and require holistic thinking. Vulnerability and economic opportunity seem linked so often. Almost two sides of a coin...

Photo of Luisa Fernanda

Anne-Laure and Jason:
Great insights. Two themes that call my attention when thinking of this interview in the light of the challenge are:
The causes for going into prostitution: lack of economic resources and access to networks. Especially in urban areas and especially for migrants or new comers into the city economic exploitation of the female body is a popular practice. What are your thoughts on ways to prevent this from happening? Did your interviewees talk about successful cases of breaking the vicious circle?

Another insight that called my attention ,was that "keeping it illegal" becomes a tool to prevent this from happening further. Beyond personal stands on this particular issue, this stand brings up an interesting questions regarding the relationship between laws and enforcing safety for women and girls. During the Amplify Team's research trip to India and Nepal we found that in fact there are many laws in place to protect women and girls, however these aren't enforced. How can individuals take action to call attention and nudge for laws to be enforced ?

This is definitively a complex question, but I am curious to know if you know of any examples that have done this successfully or if during the interview the former prosecutors had any insights into how to secure the execution of laws, measure their efficacy and propose ways to involve civilians to participate in this process?

Photo of Meena Kadri

Fascinating questions, Luisa. I'm interested to hear more about your insights from India and Nepal. Were people informed about the laws in a way they could understand and they weren't being enforced – or did ignorance of the laws also play a part? (just thinking that if ignorance plays a part that this would present a design opportunity)

Photo of Jason Rissman

Wow -- Great questions!

We did chat about potential solutions, but neither of the former prosecutors, nor my friend who helped the Blind Project create jobs for former sex workers (different post: ) had other success stories to point to.

The key theme that I heard though was _early intervention_. Girls start sex work so young, and the people I interviewed all made the case that its much harder to help girls that have already begun working in the sex trade.

So to me, early education + new opportunities for safe and rewarding work are critical. The work of Samasource and Technovation are examples that come to mind, but its not clear to me that they can reach the most vulnerable, poor or disconnected communities. How might we reach more people with positive messages and real opportunities?

Regarding enforcement of law, I'd love to know more what the teams learned. Is it that no laws are enforced? Or, that laws protecting women are especially disregarded? Either way, I wonder if its a question of social norms? If attitudes change, I'd think that police or community members would do more to prevent and punish exploitation or violence against women.

This might seem like an impossible, uphill battle, but I don't think so. There are plenty of examples of mindsets changing quickly when presented with a moral alternative and reason to hope that their opinion matters. Actually, in Nicolas Kristof's NYT column yesterday ( ) I read something promising about changing attitudes:

"In 1987, only half of Americans said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later, 86 percent said that it was always wrong.

A generation ago, police didn’t typically get involved. “We would say, ‘don’t make us come back, or you’re both going to jail,’ ” recalled Capt. Leonard Dreyer of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. In contrast, sheriff’s officers now routinely arrest the aggressor."

Thanks for a thought provoking discussion!

Photo of Luisa Fernanda

Great insightful reply. During the research trip we observed that laws to protect women are not enforced. You bring up an interesting point of comparing whether laws to protect women take longer to be adopted or if this is the case for new laws protecting a specific group.
The example of domestic violence is a great one. We could definitively dive more into it and identify the triggers for its success and see how they could be adapted to the issue at hand. Calls for a great contribution for the "Try a New Lens " Mission.

Photo of Luisa Fernanda

During the research trip we learned that certain laws like reserved seating for women were known by everyone but still were not enforced. Even by women, didn't ask for their seat. As an experiment I asked if I could get the seat and I got it. Granted, I looked foreign to the environment.

Regarding other laws like harassment, we also noticed that women – not sure about men– know this is not legal but they would rather use defense objects such as safety pins as opposed to talking about their right or the wrong nature of the behavior.

This offers a ripe opportunity area about designing around the lack of voicing these wrong doing and as a consequence the failure to enact existing laws. During this last week of the research phase, I am curious to learn more about observations and interviews with men who harass women in public spaces or other individuals who don't enforce existing laws.
Check out Manjul's interviews:
This way we can be better equipped to address this opportunity area during the ideas phase.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Wow, a lot of great questions and an intense conversation.
Thanks Luisa for pushing the conversation and sharing your insights.

Here are 2 posts that provide interesting insights on lack of law enforcement in India:

In the interview I did with my friend in the UN, she also mentioned the issue of law enforcement and in the case she saw, it was not so much that police officers did not know but just did not "bother", or even thought that the crime was not really a crime.

I remember going to a presentation several years ago on young girls prostitution in islands nearby Singapore, and it seemed that many of these girls did not know in what they were going, but then when they were caught in the system, either they felt it was "good money", or in other cases, they felt ashamed and could not go back home. Also, they often had to send money back to their families.

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