Sex Traffickers: The Hidden Role of Women
Female traffickers may be as common as male traffickers.
Posted March 13, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Although sex trafficking is traditionally seen as a male-perpetrated offense, female traffickers may be as common as male traffickers.
- Female traffickers are often victims themselves exposed to the lifestyle early on.
- Trauma and abuse play major roles in the likelihood of a female sex trafficker.
This post is co-written by Lauryn Tham, an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California.
When you imagine a sex trafficker, do you picture some scary man lurking in the shadows of a dark street, ready to attack an unsuspecting young girl? Or maybe you visualize the stereotypical pimp—a smooth-talking, gun-wielding man with lots of gold chains?
Limited awareness about sex trafficking and the people who perpetrate this crime has helped to fuel the stereotype of a female victim/male perpetrator. Many people are shocked to learn that females can be traffickers, too. Almost 15 years ago, the United Nations highlighted that “in some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm” (Sarrica et al., 2009). In my work with sex trafficking in the US, female traffickers are common.
The danger of creating gender-based stereotypes for anti-trafficking initiatives is that it allows female traffickers to continue to operate under the radar, almost completely invisible. Cases like actress Allison Mack and Ghislaine Maxwell, who was found guilty of sex trafficking in connection with Jeffrey Epstein and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, are recent examples that have attracted worldwide media attention.
Roles of female traffickers
Females can hold a wide array of specific roles in human trafficking with less fear of being discovered in comparison to their male counterparts. The most common role for women is as a recruiter, who is responsible for identifying and recruiting female, male, and child victims for their traffickers. Females are often assigned to this role because of their ability to appear more trustworthy, innocent, and caring towards their victims.
In my own work with domestic violence shelters, women are often sent to shelters as decoys, posing as victims of domestic violence in order to establish relationships with other women living in the shelter. They may capitalize on a really difficult time in a woman’s life, exploiting this vulnerability by manipulating them to leave the shelter, where they then are at risk of being trafficked.
According to researchers, other roles can include:
- Second-in-command to the head female or male trafficker
- Often in charge of managing victims, securing or forging counterfeit legal documents, transporting victims, bribing law enforcement and business institutions, and overseeing sex-work operations
- The highest rank attainable for female sex trafficking victims
- Responsible for cash handling, grooming new victims, sex-work internet advertising, and regular oversight of victims
- Voluntary participation in sex trafficking due to relational ties (romantic, familial, or business) with male sex traffickers
“Madams” or pimps
- Typically women are responsible for the business side of sex trafficking, such as managing brothels, bath-houses, escort services, clubs, and other related establishments (Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová & Jeglic, 2021).
Why do women become sex traffickers?
The reasons women get involved are complex and often misunderstood. From an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to pass judgment on women who enter the world of sex trafficking to exploit other innocent women and children. Society often portrays them as “evil," “heartless,” and “money-hungry.”
Some women indeed become involved because sex trafficking offers fast, tax-free money with a low risk of getting caught. However, recent research and personal interviews reveal that many women become perpetrators because they have been victims of sex trafficking themselves, usually for the greater part of their lives.
In addition, many women engaged in the commercial sex trade as traffickers are being forced to do this by their traffickers. Their traffickers may promise that they no longer have to perform sex work if they can take on a different role within the organization. Despite being victims themselves, these women continue to be criminalized under solicitation or prostitution statutes.
Other common motives for women to engage in sex trafficking voluntarily include:
Early exposure to the sex industry
- Many women who become perpetrators in the sex trafficking industry were exposed from a young age.
- Parent/relative involvement with the commercial sex industry or trafficking
- Parent/relative selling their children into the sex trafficking industry
- Low socio-economic status families, forcing women to search for fast money at a young age
- Close physical proximity to high trafficking involvement areas
- Previous sex trafficking victims may be trying to earn their freedom or choosing to be a perpetrator to avoid the trauma of being a victim
- Female traffickers often have histories of sexual, mental, and physical trauma in childhood.
- Children who have experienced trauma in their lives often can have self-esteem issues that may lead to their involvement in activities that provide them with verbal, sexual, or monetary validation.
- Parents and guardians who are substance abusers have been known to sell their children or force their children to perform sex acts in exchange for drugs or drug money.
- Victims may have been introduced to drugs during their time as sex trafficking victims, leading to addictions that are funded through trafficking others.
- Victims addicted to drugs may only be able to attain the drugs from their pimps, creating dependency and desperation that can lead to them doing things they usually would not do.
Lack of money and education
- Pimps often provide food, housing, and other necessities to female traffickers that work for them.
- Many women without proper education, stable income, special skills, or professional skills are cornered into trafficking to survive or provide for their families.
Sense of belonging or family
- Female traffickers can also be products of the foster care system or have no family contact. Thus, they seek ways to feel a sense of family or belonging.
- Victims who have been taken away from their families at a young age, or have little contact with their families can have nowhere to turn for a safety net in tough times.
A slippery slope
Gateway occupations and activities can lead women down a path that leads to involvement in criminal activities. Both criminal and non-criminal occupations and activities can act as a catalyst for women to eventually become involved in sex trafficking. Examples of non-criminal professions that may lead to sex trafficking include stripping, OnlyFans, pornography, “sugar babies/daddies/mamas,” child acting, and modeling (Love et al., 2021). Examples of criminal activities that may lead to sex trafficking include selling illegal drugs, money laundering, and smuggling.
Who is at fault?
Trafficking remains a persistent problem in today’s society and most studies on trafficking have ignored the female trafficker role. One explanation for this lack of research is victim blaming. Victim blaming is holding a victim at least partially responsible for what happened to them (Schwartz & Leggett, 1999). Public opinion may reject the notion that they are innocent victims and instead blame them for not preventing their victimization (Digidiki & Baka, 2020).
Patriarchal views can normalize the notion that men can have uncontrollable sexual urges and that women should take extra precautions not to arouse them through their appearance or behavior. Victim blaming suggests that women are gatekeepers of male desire and are expected to endure male aggression (Casarella-Espinoza, 2015).
In the war against sex trafficking, legal experts, law enforcement, and non-profit agencies have struggled to combat the often undetectable crimes perpetrated by modern sex traffickers. The United Nations has highlighted that there is deficient research and awareness worldwide on sex trafficking, especially perpetrated by women. We need to reshape societal views about who sex traffickers are. We must reject the prevailing stereotype about who sex traffickers are, as well as advocate for further research on women who engage in sex trafficking.
Casarella-Espinoza, M. (2015). Whose fault is it anyway? comparison of victim blaming attitudes towards sex trafficking and sexual assault across gender and two ethnic groups (Order No. 3639712). Available from ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global; ProQuest One Academic; Social Science Premium Collection. (1620539430).
Digidiki, V. & Baka, A. (2022). Who’s to Blame in the Sex Trafficking of Women: Situational and Individual Factors that Define a “Deserving Victim”, Journal of Human Trafficking, 8:4, 353-366.
Jones, S.V. (2014). The invisible women: have conceptions about femininity led to the global dominance of the female human trafficker? Albany Government Law Review, 7(1), 143.
Love, D. A., Fukushima, A. I., Rogers, T. N., Petersen, E., Brooks, E., & Rogers, C. R. (2021). Challenges to Reintegration: A Qualitative Intrinsic Case-Study of Convicted Female Sex Traffickers. Feminist Criminology, 155708512110450.
Sarrica, F., Jandl, M., Borneto, C., Korenblik, A., Brown, S., Kunnen, S., & Kuttnig, K. (2009). Global Report on TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS. Policy Analysis and Research Branch of UNODC.
Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová, E., & Jeglic, E. L. (2021). Of madams, mentors and mistresses: Conceptualising the female sex trafficker in the United States. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 64, 100455. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlcj.2020.100455