Kembry’s Blog: What VCAHT Has Taught Me So Far…About Traffickers, “Johns”, and Pimps

Kembry McNeil-Thompson: Marymount University Senior Pursuing a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Criminal Justice.

For me, an internship’s main purpose is to gain real-world experience in a specific field of interest; as such, internships are also excellent learning opportunities. The first thing I needed to learn as a successful intern for the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking was more about the dynamics between trafficking victims/survivors and those who exploit them, the traffickers and “Johns”/customers,  in order to understand how VCAHT is working to counter the effects that this has on trafficking survivors.

Sex trafficking begins with a victim being lured in by a pimp, another name for a trafficker, and they frequently target individuals with increased vulnerabilities in order to manipulate them; victims of labor trafficking may also be exploited via similar means. Pimps are only one type of trafficker; trafficking may also happen via organized crime or gangs, which also exploit vulnerabilities. Pimps often prey on groups such as runaways, those who were victims of abuse, and the homeless. Some traffickers might even victimize those that they know; this is another method of manipulation and coercion traffickers use as an attempt to make their victims trust them. Additionally, pimps may even feign romantic relationships with victims, coercing them to perform acts in an effort to “prove” their love and/or loyalty. 

The trafficker sees to it that the victim’s needs– i.e. finances, food, shelter, etc.– are met, and they later force the victim into trafficking in order to “pay off their debt” to the pimp. Pimps are often psychologically and/or physically abusive to their victims, and they may also emotionally and sexually abuse them in order to maintain control and dominance over them, tactics similar to domestic abusers. Traffickers’ manipulation, abuse, and provision of food, shelter, and finances for the victim often remove any potential independence that the victim may have, making the victim completely reliant on the trafficker for their survival. Traffickers also use fear tactics in order to keep their victims, often threatening to harm loved ones if the victim tries to leave. Additionally, traffickers may instill in victims a mistrust of the police and prosecutors in an effort to prevent victims from seeking help and/or so they do not implicate the pimp, leading to their arrest.  These are but few of the numerous tactics pimps use as a means of force and coercion over their victims.

Contrary to popular belief, those that are trafficked rarely see the money that they make for their traffickers. Those that pay for services, “Johns”, provide traffickers with the financial avenue needed to remain in control over their victims. Customers often tell themselves that since they pay for services from a trafficker, the trafficking victim is a willing participant, even though this is far from the truth. Johns make it out that everything involved within the commercial sex industry and pornography industry is consensual, continuing and increasing the demand for these services. This, in turn, increases traffickers’ need to provide the supply of victims, furthering the system that is sex trafficking. Oftentimes, customers are caught in sting operations and found via undercover law enforcement. Customers are often those that are well respected within society and/or those that might not fit the mold of the “typical criminal”; they may be doctors, teachers, or even law enforcement themselves, to name a few different types of Johns. There is no stereotype or set criteria within the crime of human trafficking, and the legalization of the sex industry would only increase the difficulty in separating a trafficking situation from a non-trafficking situation.  Accordingly, customers/Johns play an equal part as traffickers/pimps within human trafficking.

Next week, learn about victims and the legal work that VCAHT strives to do for them.

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