A summary of Routes of Recruitment: Pimps’ Techniques and Other Circumstances That Lead to Street Prostitution
The study interviewed 32 women who were involved in the sex trade at the time, 10 formerly prostituted women, 5 VICE officers, 4 social service providers, and 3 parents of prostituted women.
41% of the women reported starting on the streets under the age of 18 (with one being as young as 10 years old.)
53% of the women reported their ethnicity to be of First Nations descent.
16% of the prostituted women interviewed described being turned out by a boyfriend or a pimp to which they had an emotional attachment. It appears that pimps were able to convince underage girls to prostitute themselves by pretending to love them. Playing on their vulnerabilities, stereotypes, and insecurities, pimps could distort a young woman’s sense of right and wrong with alarming speed. Several ways that this seduction process could occur were reported, but in most cases, a pimp would scout out a vulnerable, insecure teenager and woo her with attention and gifts. Not only would he wine and dine her, but he would make sure she was aware of how much money he had been spending on her. Then, after the girl had fallen madly in love with her new ‘boyfriend,’ the pimp told her that they were out of money. Knowing how much money her ‘boyfriend’ had spent on her, the girl felt responsible for the situation and was willing to do anything to help. And so, with the help of her ‘boyfriend,’ the girl found herself prostituting to bring home some money.
Another common scenario reported was of young women who, feeling very grown-up with their new older ‘boyfriend,’ agreed to sneak away for the weekend. Upon arrival in an unfamiliar city, however, the situation suddenly changed and the only way to survive the boyfriend’s financial emergency was to “work” a few hours on the street. The pimp or ‘boyfriend’ discouraged the young women from calling home for help by telling them that their parents would be very upset if they knew that their daughter was really away with a man when they thought that she was just staying at a girlfriend’s place in town. Once the young women realized that they were not just “working the streets” for a few hours, the pimps moved to more aggressive tactics, including threatening to tell parents that their daughter had slept with strangers for money. If the girls could withstand that shame and still insisted on calling home for help, the pimps then turned to threatening the girls or their families with serious harm. The combination of having their hearts broken, the shame of having been prostituted, and fear of the pimp kept young women on the streets and afraid to ask for help. The women were left emotionally shattered, ashamed, disoriented, and afraid.
According to the women and informants interviewed, pimps were often charming, intelligent, and good judges of human nature. As an example of the latter, one pimp openly shared his technique with VICE officers, describing how he always looked for a group of three girls to find his next target. Out of the three girls, he would always go for the one that was the second most attractive. His reasoning was that the most attractive girl was used to getting most of the attention and would not be wooed so easily. The least attractive girl would be suspicious and wonder why he was paying attention to her. The middle girl, on the other hand, would be flattered to be the center of his attention. The ‘love’ form of recruitment was the technique commonly seen with women who did not have a history of abuse or who came from stable, middle or upper-middle class.
VICE police officers reported that pimps would refer to young women from a good home as “in-for-a-million” girls. The reasoning was that healthy, good-looking young women can be “worked” for long hours on the higher scale strolls (e.g., Richards Street in Vancouver) where they would bring in more cash per client. Pimps bragged to police that they could make a million dollars off of a drug-free, high-end girl before she became useless, a physical and emotional ghost of her previous self. The other factor in the “in-for-a-million” play officers reported was the potential for blackmail. If young women from a good home had parents who attempted to rescue them from the street, the pimp could use personal information to blackmail and humiliate the family if the girl tried to leave and return home. This form of pimping, in which the girl forms an emotional attachment to her pimp, is the most desirable method pimps use to recruit new girls. Not only are the girls unlikely to turn on their pimps, whom they “love,” but they are also easier to manipulate and control than women who fear their pimps, as with pimps who use violence and would run away if they felt that they could.
One prostituted woman bluntly described her boyfriend turning her out at age 16 as follows: I was dating someone who was 31. “I had a legal job and was in school and one day he came home and he said he needed money for his daughter from his first marriage. And I told him I couldn’t do anything because I wasn’t getting paid till next Friday so he came home that night with a pair of heels and mini skirt and took me outside and told me to take what they gave me.”
A second technique used by pimps to recruit new women was to give them gifts, clothing, money, or drugs, under the guise that they were free. However, after a period of time, the women were told that they had accumulated a large debt. If the women were unable to pay, one or a combination of several scenarios were reported to play out. The women may have felt that they had no alternative to “working” on the streets as suggested by their “new friends.” The pimp may have claimed that both their lives were in danger unless he repaid the money to his debtors. Pimps may have used other women that they were prostituting, or “main girls,” to befriend the women and shower them with wealth: The “main girls” then told the young women that her pimp would harm both of them unless they both “worked” on the streets. This debt technique differs from the ‘love’ technique in that there is no intimate relationship between the pimp and the woman. With no easy alternative for repaying the debt and under the threat of physical harm, the women were introduced to the street as a way of earning money. Thinking that this would only be a short-term situation until the debt was paid off, the women prostituted themselves. Unfortunately, however, the debt never got paid off, no matter how much money the women brought in. Instead, the women, believing the threats of harm, stayed out on the stroll.
Addiction to drugs as a reason for entering the trade was a common theme among women who entered at a young age: 16% of prostituted women stated that they began “working” on the streets to support a drug habit. Young women who left home or who were kicked out for drug use described being turned out by drug dealers. Drug addicted young women, who were unable to get other jobs partly due to being underage or having no fixed address or phone number to leave potential employers, reported sleeping with drug dealers in exchange for drugs. Dealers might put young women up in their apartment for a few weeks and supply them with drugs. The dealers then informed these young women that the only way they would continue to get drugs would be if they slept with their friends. Once the young women agreed to this ‘favor,’ they were asked to “work” on the streets. The shame of having slept with these men to procure drugs was reported to have broken down their resistance to the idea of “working” on the streets. This technique is different than the ‘debt’ technique in that women were not “working” to repay a debt, but rather were “working” for their next fix. The women who were recruited by this method would acknowledge that they were addicts before they turned to prostitution.
The “gorilla” technique
Termed the “gorilla pimp” in VICE circles. This technique relied on brute force to put new women on the street. Ranging from threats to beatings to straight-out kidnapping, a pimp using this technique never tried to deceive the young woman with promises of love or glamour. He made it clear that her job was to turn tricks on the corner and that if she did not follow through, there would be grave consequences to her and her family. While none of the women interviewed at the safe house reported beginning on the streets in this manner, this technique was described by informants. They acknowledged that it is infrequently used as it evoked little loyalty from the prostituted woman. What may be more common is for a pimp who recruited a young woman using another technique to eventually turn to ‘gorilla’ tactics.
The final technique described for recruiting women into prostitution was for people to use their position as an authority figure. Most often, this technique was seen with parents or family members. Over 12% of the prostituted women interviewed reported being forced to “work” on the streets by their mothers, fathers, foster parent, or older sibling. One informant told of being sold by her father at the age of 10 to an American man at a truck stop. She was returned to her father by Social Services after being sexually abused by a number of men. At age 12, her father injected her with cocaine and she was forced to prostitute herself on the streets to support their joint drug habits.
Some women were expected to prostitute to support their mothers’ addictions. Other women “worked” with their mothers in prostitution. One woman reported being turned out by her mother at the age of 10.
Other women reported being discouraged from entering prostitution by their mothers but were exploited or turned out by the men they met through their mothers. Another woman described being turned out at the age of 12 by her brother: “Well, it was through the sexual abuse. My brother, I learnt that way. Because he was paying me.” These families often had numerous people involved in sexual exploitation, from uncles to brothers.
Non-pimped pathways into prostitution
While pimps were responsible for introducing many women into the sex trade, many other factors can also lead women to the streets. These include severe drug addiction, being in desperate financial straits, socialization and normalization of the sex trade, coming from an abusive home, and leaving another form of prostitution. These pressures are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, often occurred simultaneously.
Substance abuse. Addiction to drugs and/or alcohol resulted in some women “working” in street prostitution in order to finance their habits. As discussed above, 16% of the prostituted women interviewed identified drugs as the reason that they became involved in street prostitution.
In some addiction cases, prostituting was a last resort and followed, or accompanied, other forms of criminal activity such as theft, robbery, and fraud. The ability to make ‘instant cash’ and the flexibility of hours not only led many addicted women into prostitution but also kept them there.
Some women also turned to prostitution to support their partners’ drug habits. In cases where the couple had become addicted to drugs, the women reported starting to “work” on the streets in order to support their habits. Their partners may then have been considered to be living off of the avails of prostitution, qualifying them as pimps, but generally these women denied that their partners had any involvement with the decision to begin “working” on the streets. In the situation where a woman was prostituting herself to support her partner’s drug habit, the partner himself was also often involved in criminal activity.
While financial difficulties due to addictions are a common theme, financial difficulties unrelated to drug or alcohol addictions have also driven some women into the commercial sex industry. Over 12% of the prostituted women interviewed identified economic necessity (unrelated to addiction) as the primary reason that they began “working” on the streets.
Two women interviewed at the safe house reported beginning in street prostitution to support their children. For example, one woman stated, “welfare wouldn’t help me . . . and the ex . . . didn’t want anything to do with me because he found out that I was pregnant.” Another woman stated that her husband did not know that she began “working” on the streets to help pay for food after the birth of her second child.
In some cases, entry into street prostitution began with women accepting financial assistance from men in exchange for sexual services. For example, one woman interviewed at the safe house who started “working” at age 19, reported being stranded in a strange city after a fight with her boyfriend and stated: “I just was at a restaurant having coffee and, um, a rich man made me a very generous offer. Asked me if I was all right, if there was anything I needed help with. I explained that I had no means of getting home, and he bought me a ticket home and gave me money as well in return for sex which took about four minutes.” Being turned out by a stranger was different than the pimping techniques described because the man did not stay involved or benefit from her earnings.
The more entrenched young women became in the life surrounding prostitution, the more likely they were to become prostitutes themselves. The glamour of ‘easy’ money and a care-free lifestyle initially obscured the harsh realities of lifein prostitution. Some young women reported being impressed by the fact that prostituted women seemed to have cash in hand and could easily afford to take cabs everywhere that they went. The fact that they were only taking cabs to and from “work” went unnoticed.
Many times, the road to prostitution began with a friendship. A young girl, experiencing the angst of being a teenager, met another young girl who seemed to be living a life of freedom. The new friend had money, nice clothes, took cabs everywhere, and was free from the tyranny of her parents. The young girl eventually became aware of where her new friend got the money from, and it seemed so easy. From there it was just a short time before the girl turned to the street herself, chasing visions of freedom and wealth. This route to the streets had young women deciding on their own to begin “working” on the streets alongside their friends, in contrast to those women who acknowledged that they were recruited by women, or ‘main girls’ who worked for pimps.
A number of young women reported entering the trade after working as babysitters for prostitutes. These young women were hanging out downtown and accepted work as live-in sitters. After a short while, these young women were well versed in the world of prostitution. They had normalized this lifestyle, and it became relatively easy for them to be lured to the street. Normalization also occurred for daughters of prostitutes. Unfortunately, this normalization was also often accompanied by stigmatization of the family and by the belief that prostitution was the only “work” available.
Over 96% of the women interviewed at the safe house in Vancouver reported having been sexually assaulted prior to entering the sex trade. Seventy-three percent of the women reported experiencing childhood sexual abuse as measured by the Childhood Trauma and Abuse scale. Despite these high levels of abuse, only one woman interviewed linked her history of abuse with her decision to enter street prostitution: “A friend of my mine . . . she got out and got money and I had been approached while I was waiting. And I figured I’m getting molested at home so why not get paid for it and get my rent covered.”
Sex trade hierarchy
Another route into street prostitution described by informants was through leaving another arena of the commercial sex industry. Some women initially sought employment with escort agencies, attracted by the perceived time flexibility and money. While escort agencies may have begun as a more empowered form of sexual exploitation, these women eventually become disenchanted with this form of prostitution. Women were expected to be on call for 24-hour shifts, which proved to be exhausting. Women often had to pay a high fee per shift to be on call without any assurance that “work” would be sent to them. Fees were reported to be as high as $400 per night, which had to be paid before they were put on the client call list. Often, women could not choose how many shifts they did per week and were forced to prostitute on the streets in between shifts to meet their financial needs. Women reported having to spend large amounts of money to meet the dress and personal hygiene requirements of the agencies. Rules disclosed by former employees included being required to wax all areas of their bodies and employers checking to make sure they had not shaved instead. Somewhat ironically, some women left escort agencies to “work” on the streets because they no longer could tolerate the forced sexual relations with the business owners.
Similar problems were associated with being prostituted through massage parlors. One woman disclosed the lasting insecurity she felt from having to line up with the other women whenever a client entered. The women who were not chosen were often left feeling rejected and inadequate. While prostituting in a closed area like a massage parlor seems like a more secure environment, women were physically assaulted by clients and told to endure it by the parlor owners. Women were also assaulted, including being pushed down a flight of stairs, by the business owners themselves. Those who were addicted to drugs had trouble keeping their jobs at massage parlors, being fired after missing too many shifts. Finally, while some women “worked” concurrently in different arenas of prostitution, others experienced a downward spiral of being fired by escort agencies, blacklisted in local massage parlors, and having street exploitation left as their only option.
Over 18% of the women simply responded that they had freely chosen to begin “working” on the streets and offered no further explanation. For example, one woman responded to the question “Who turned you out, or how did you begin “working” on the streets?” with “I turned myself out. It was just me. It was me. I’m responsible.” She reported being 10 years old when she made the decision to begin “working” in street prostitution.