The overwhelming stereotype of traffickers is that of the male perpetrator, either working alone as a pimp or as part of a larger crime network. However, the evidence is starting to show that this stereotype does not reflect a reality where, increasingly, women are not just victims, but also perpetrators in the trafficking of others. The latest UNODC report showed that, “surprisingly, in 30% of the countries which provided information on the gender of traffickers, women make up the largest proportion of traffickers. In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm,” to the extent that, “in Europe, for example, women make up a larger share of those convicted for human trafficking offences than for most other forms of crime.”
Our own students in northern Thailand have been targeted by a known female trafficker, who tried to lure them with the offer of friendship and gifts like cell phones.
How Women Become Involved in Trafficking
It is frustrating and disheartening that decades into research on trafficking, we still know so little. While there have been endless studies into the effects of trafficking on victims—surprise, surprise it’s traumatizing—there have been remarkably few studies on traffickers: on who they are, or why and how they become traffickers. This is exacerbated by sloppy reporting in the media where trafficking is often conflated with prostitution, victims are lumped in with consenting sex workers, and there is almost never any discussion of motive.
This becomes especially problematic for women traffickers who were once themselves victims—or even still are.
In collaboration with the McCain Institute for International Leadership, Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research published a stellar study last year, analyzing over 1,400 offenders who had been arrested for the sex trafficking of minors from 2010-2015. In this study, researchers learned that:
– 24.4% of the sex traffickers were female
– There has been a steady increase in female sex trafficker involvement
– Fewer than 1 out of 5 arrests for sex trafficking of a minor involved a person who was gang involved
– 55.5% of the females arrested were identified in the report as the role of a “bottom” which is the most trusted sex trafficked person by the sex trafficker who may also be prostituted, may recruit victims, give rules and trainings, and may give out punishment
– The female sex traffickers were significantly more likely to have a prior prostitution charge when compared to the male sex traffickers
The latter two findings, combined, start to paint a picture of women traffickers who possibly, or likely, become traffickers after having been victimized themselves. We know from countless studies on family abuse, domestic violence, or conditions like Stockholm syndrome, where victims begin to identify with their abusers, that abuse begets abuse, and that the cycle of violence perpetuates itself.
To better understand how trafficking works, we need to spend more energy into understanding how and why people get involved as traffickers as well as victims, to see how the system perpetuates itself, to see potential alternatives for methods of prevention, and to ensure that people who play this dual role of abuser and victim both receive treatment as well as face consequences.
If we fail to treat both aspects, we do a huge disservice to the anti-trafficking effort, as well as to the people trafficking harms.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Research Writer and Executive Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She currently writes from Berlin.