Modern Slavery

08.07.134:45 AM ET

When Women Traffic Other Women

Some 30 percent of human traffickers are women—and their numbers may be growing. Sharon Buchbinder on the psychology of the female pimp.

With a rolled-up newspaper-smack to the nose, the recent FBI sweep and arrests of more than 150 perpetrators and rescues of 100 children from human trafficking has awakened our country. As a nation, we can no longer deny modern slavery is in our country, states, counties, cities and, indeed, backyards.

With an estimated 27 million people held as slaves worldwide, and a thriving $34 billion industry, you can be sure the United States, with its wealth, lust for young flesh, and desire for cheap labor holds a hefty piece of this slavery pie. With the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 now in effect in all 50 states, you would think we'd have ample data to back up our Tier 1 Status of countries who comply with the minimum standards of the TVPA Act.

You'd be wrong.

Human reports a range of “14,500 to 17,500 people, primarily women and children trafficked to the U.S.” This number does not include U.S.-born women and children who are trafficked. In 2011, an FBI Bulletin estimated more than 290,000 youths were at risk of being trafficked for sexual purposes. Project Polaris estimates more than 100,000 people are trafficked in the U.S. for the sex trade. The organization does not distinguish between U.S.- or foreign-born slaves. The 2013 State Department report on Human Trafficking was silent on the prevalence of trafficked individuals in the U.S.

The arrest and conviction rates for human trafficking aren't much better. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) states, “Due to the underground nature of trafficking, the number of victims is unknown.” In a 2012 report to the NIJ on Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Trafficking Cases, Northeastern University and Urban Institute researchers reviewed data in 12 counties from human trafficking cases closed by 2010 for both sex and labor trafficking. Seventy percent of the traffickers were male. The other 30 percent were females.

Who are these women?

According to the researchers, they were approximately 10 years older than their victims and were former victims of sex trafficking who, instead of escaping, decided to go into the same business. They had firsthand knowledge of what that life meant. These women had been threatened, abused, demeaned, isolated, confined, demoralized, medically neglected, drugged, dominated, controlled and subsequently survived to become the next generation of traffickers.

Why would a woman do this to another woman or child? You won't like the answer.

It's a living.

Is this a new trend? Have the number of women traffickers increased recently? We don't know. Remember the data issue? The report to the NIJ was a cross-sectional one, a snapshot in time, looking at closed cases in 2010. In the absence of comparable data across time, it is challenging to find estimates available in published sources to see if this is a growing trend.

Sometimes you have to be creative.

Using the news releases on (US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) going back from July 2013 to 2008, I conducted a keyword search on charges for trafficking. Among the limitations of this data is that these cases were placed on the website as news releases, not as data for researching; higher-profile cases may have been selected for inclusion. As a researcher, I would use this data with caution and suggest this analysis serves as an intriguing starting point for rigorous research and data collection, not an endpoint.

With that in mind, here is what I found:

Of the 470 news releases, 160 were specifically related to human trafficking for either sex or labor. Suspects were identified as men, women, families or couples. Looking at the table below, it appears human trafficking was a family business in 2008, with equal numbers of women and families. In 2009, when not being run by men, human trafficking was a growing mom-and-pop business with couples being arrested, including a minister and his wife. In 2010, more women stepped up to the plate, along with fewer couples, but mom-and-pop enterprise rebounded in 2011. In 2012, women lagged behind men in arrests, but made up for it in 2013, with one woman charged with a violent sex trafficking scheme. It is interesting to note the data is remarkably consistent with the report to NIJ in 2010, with a similar ratio of male to female suspects, however, that report did not include families or couples. The data points to gender and relationships in and among human trafficking suspects.

Where there is opportunity for high financial reward, coupled with low risk of consequence, there will always be unscrupulous people looking to earn a living. Because of their familiarity with the lifestyle, network, and recruiting methods, women can lure others to work for them and their associates with promises of a good life. The women in the NIJ report were in their mid-forties, the age of most teenagers' mothers. Our society doesn't expect women to be predatory. It's easier for these women to slide under the radar, perhaps even pass themselves off as victims, too, if an arrest is made. Children have been socialized to trust women more than men. People who are perceived as being in a position of trust have an even greater advantage. A runaway girl will trust a friend's older sister or mother to take good care of her; she will not expect to be sold to a pimp. A foreign-born woman seeking a better job will trust a minister and his wife.

Human trafficking is an under-reported crime primarily against women and children. Knowing at least one third of these victims will make a career of victimizing other women and children, I predict women will play a larger role in human trafficking activities in our country’s future. I think it's time we made a concerted effort across professions, disciplines, and agencies to do a better job at considering this insidious equal-opportunity employer. We owe it to future generations to abolish modern slavery—in any form, under any slave master.


Sharon Buchbinder, RN, PhD, is an award-winning, multi-published professor of health care management and novelist who recently published Obsession, which deals with human trafficking and international kidnapping. Follow her on Twitter at @sbuchbinder.