Female perpetrators consist of women pimps, madams, managers, handlers, head-girls, and mamasans (a Japanese term) who were most likely former prostitutes and/or human trafficking victims who stepped up into managerial roles alongside their male pimp to earn money. Male perpetrators are the norm in society, while “female pimps” are unacknowledged and continue to perpetuate the cycle of human trafficking and the violence involved with that. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes states, “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 is the norm.”
My intellectual fascination with female perpetrators began in the spring semester of my sophomore year when I took a course titled, “Advanced International Relations.” The writing assignments for that class had us pick one topic to write about for the whole semester; naturally, I examined topics related to human trafficking. At that point I noticed there was a plethora of information on victims and male perpetrators of human trafficking, while female perpetrators were mentioned in a sentence or two. This lack of information on female perpetrators piqued my curiosity and solidified my decision to make it the topic I would research and write about for that class and eventually turn into my research project.
Anti-trafficking advocates focus mostly on male perpetrators, but that is a problematic assumption that does not convey an accurate view of the problem. Analyzing human trafficking from a female perpetrator perspective may provide information that might help countries understand how and why human trafficking prospers, especially since the steps for females to become perpetrators are cyclical in that most were former victims of abuse and domestic violence. Threats, force, fraud, and coercion – the same tactics used to recruit these women – were applied by pimps to have them become perpetrators.
A woman is most often used as a male’s front to recruit other women since they are not perceived to be predatory. Female traffickers have said to the girls they recruited, “‘that it was better working for them as opposed to male pimps because they would not get beat up’” (Jones 163). This has victims look up to their female perpetrators as mother figures, which ironically fulfills the expectation of the women being viewed as “caretakers” by mainstream American culture. Jones’ female victim-male culprit reasoning is the popular public perception the American public has towards female traffickers that is also supported by Patricia Pearson’s influential work: When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder, “American culture is obsessed with constantly ‘seek[ing] a preemptive cause [or exonerative excuse] for female transgressions that preserves an emphasis on [female] victimization’” (Jones 153).
Limited literature on American female perpetrators of human trafficking stems from the fact that notions of femininity and masculinity influence public perception on female perpetrators based on gendered expectations of stereotypical female roles. The femininity of female perpetrators is manipulated to earn the trust of victims, especially since a woman’s socially constructed role presents her as a “primary caregiver.”
It’s difficult to process the information above without concrete cases to prove that female perpetrators of trafficking exist. There are a few documented American female perpetrator cases in which human trafficking was initiated or conducted by a person or a set of people someone may know. In February 2014, a mother from South Florida brought her 15 year old daughter to New York City to “pimp her out as a prostitute” during the Super Bowl. Though this news article does not specifically call the mother a female perpetrator, the conditions that led her to do it are the same conditions that had her act as her daughter’s “pimp”: the mother was aware of what she was doing when she took her daughter out of state to sell her body and forced her daughter to do her bidding to earn money.
Another account from February 2009 shares how a 30 year old Florida pimp first used the Internet to recruit a 14 year old Ohio girl, and then one of his senior prostitutes convinced the young girl to trust them so she could become a model. Luckily, the girl escaped and the pimp and his prostitute “pled guilty to federal sex trafficking charges.” While this account does not have a female perpetrator managing the girls to be sold or exchanged for services, it shows how a male pimp uses one of his female pimps to recruit other girls into his business. Recruitment is especially important for the pimp since customers want “fresh faces” from different races, ages, and gender; the trafficker would earn more money based on how “exotic” a girl looked.
While there are no definitive statistics on how many American females lead American human trafficking operations, it signals how focused research on female run trafficking operations is needed to break through the gendered and racial barriers which prevent that research from being conducted. It would be interesting to see how adding race and ethnicity as factors to analyze female perpetrators of human trafficking would diversify the individual experiences given and add to the complexity of the issue.