Derek Williams, who became a pimp at 16, understands why three women garnered national media attention recently for testifying on behalf of their former pimps in New York City. After professing to enjoy “good” treatment at the hands of their exploiters, attorneys for the defendants, and soon members of the press, came to refer to these women as “happy hookers.” These media headlines made buzz-worthy copy, but obscured a startling truth.
Experts agree that perceiving them as willing to be used is highly inaccurate, and may even contribute to pimps getting away with their crimes. “I have been on more than one rescue mission into brothels in which women and minors who were being brutally exploited for commercial sex actually cried when their pimps were being arrested and initially refused to be taken to a shelter for care, ” explains Siddharth Kara, an expert in human trafficking and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. “It is not uncommon in the cases I have documented to find victims of sex trafficking who identify with, defend, and even develop strong feelings for their exploiters.”
Williams was a pimp off and on for almost 30 years. Today, at 54, he is the founder of Back to the Streets, an organization that counsels and offers resources to victims of sex trafficking to help them heal from their exploitation. After decades as a pimp and years helping to rehabilitate victims, he says anyone seeking to understand sex trafficking must know that prostitutes are truly suffering — not “happy.”
“People in our society look at them as perpetrators, but they’re no more guilty than battered women,” Williams says. “They’ve been mentally and emotionally handcuffed. They’re manipulated greatly by professionals. A lot of the abuse is mental and emotional, rather than physical. The main way they can convict you of trafficking is if one of your girls signs a statement on you. And it’s very rare that a girl will do that. Someone that’s pimping effectively has the victim thinking they’re a partner, that they’re in it together.”
Varying laws might not address the psychological harm done to sex trafficking victims, who often come to categorize their victimization as a choice. It can take months, or even years of recovery, for sex trafficking victims to slowly realize the nature and extent of their exploitation and ultimately rebuke their former pimps.
“For these and other reasons, every sex trafficking case needs to be considered with great attention to the details of the victim-exploiter relationship, especially where the victim entered the relationship as a minor,” Kara says. “Control comes in many forms and is rarely overt. The law on sex trafficking must therefore be designed to take into consideration the wide variance of conditions that are at play when one makes an assessment on issues like ‘coercion’ and ‘voluntariness.’”
Learn more at Donovan X. Ramsey’s The Grio article: There are no ‘happy hookers’: In US sex trafficking is complex, brainwashes victims.