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What Makes a Trafficker
June 18, 2020

There have been countless surveys and interviews with survivors of trafficking. We know a lot about what makes them vulnerable: poverty, incomplete education, social exclusion and isolation, ethnic discrimination, family history of being a victim of trafficking, etc. – and a lot of these issues have systemic precedents making it so much harder to escape the trap. There is even relevant research about johns that breaks down a lot of the stereotypes about their motivations, which may suggest why johns classes have been chasing the wrong focus and thus have had mixed success.

Comparatively, we know almost nothing about traffickers. There have been very few surveys or interviews with traffickers, and those that exist focus on their methods of trafficking and the case against them, with very little information about their motivations or what led them into trafficking.

The big presumption is that they’re in it for the money. Trafficking is a lucrative business. “Traffickers’ actions are self-proclaimed as ‘just a job’ that is akin to a taxi service where it is all about ‘making money.’ Traffickers pick and choose the job based on profit compared to risk allowing them to further justify their actions as not being “as bad as …” those committed by clients and pimps.” (Troshynski & Blank, 2019

What else do we know? The one systematic survey of convicted traffickers in the U.S. shows about 1 in 5 were involved in a gang, though that may be on the decline. There seems to be some connection to rap artists. Minorities are highly overrepresented. Having a history of prior violence, or for female traffickers, being a trafficking victim themselves or having a prior history of prostitution may play a role.

Do we take these factors at face value or do they point to a possibility that there may be something systemic involved here too? If it’s truly about the money, what leads a trafficker down this path rather than legitimate employment? What if some of the same factors that push victims into getting trafficked also play a role in traffickers becoming traffickers?

For what it’s worth, traffickers sometimes justify it by convincing themselves they’re actually helping someone more marginalized, so they may even view themselves as responding to other systemic injustices. It’s also highly likely that misogynistic and racial stereotypes play into how they view victims and the role of consent. Following interviews with three traffickers, researchers state, “Not only are characteristics associated with attractiveness ranked in order based on demand but so too are trafficker’s notions of who should be respected. Crude stereotypes serve in prioritizing “good” women and girls and also reflect socially constructed hierarchies of acceptability. Therefore, comparing women and girls who are “forced” to “ones that choose” to work in the sex industry, seems to be intimately linked with citizenship, ethnicity, and race.” (Troshynski & Blank, 2019)

The question is: why aren’t we studying traffickers more thoroughly? Not just their methods; that’s too late, they’re already in the game. If studies of traffickers suggest there are patterns to who is most likely to become a trafficker, maybe we can develop early intervention or prevention programs for them too.

When trafficking is such a pervasive problem, perhaps it doesn’t make sense to treat it on an individual basis. We need to look more holistically.

“A lot of survivors of trafficking experience times when their abuser does go behind bars, their trafficker gets incarcerated. And still, the problem of trafficking doesn’t end. Another pimp picks you up, or that pimp gets out of prison and keeps doing the same thing. There’s no transformative work that’s being done.” – Indigo Mateo

Are traffickers inevitable, or can they be prevented too?


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