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Understanding the Role of Women in Sex Trafficking

Women are involved in up to 35 percent of domestic sex trafficking operations.

Key points

  • Research suggests that women comprise up to one-third of the perpetrators of human trafficking globally.
  • Female traffickers are 16 percent less likely to be arrested and prosecuted for crimes than male counterparts.
  • Researchers found that of 123 U.S.-based sex trafficking cases, 36 percent, or 44 cases, included female sex traffickers.
Pixabay License. No attribution required
Source: Pixabay License. No attribution required

Ghislaine Maxwell has been found guilty of five federal sex trafficking charges for her role in the recruitment and sexual grooming of minors for sexual abuse. This case has been eye-opening for many as it defied gender-based stereotypes about the role of women in sex trafficking and the sexual grooming of victims.

Human sex trafficking is a global problem impacting over 4.8 million victims each year—those who perpetrate these crimes are known as sex traffickers. While the prosecution of sex traffickers is a global priority, many traffickers fail to be identified and prosecuted because legislation is often premised on gender stereotypes.

The prototype of a sex trafficker is a male, but research suggests that women comprise up to one-third of the perpetrators of human trafficking globally and 60 percent of the traffickers in Eastern Europe and Asia. Female traffickers are 16 percent less likely to be arrested and prosecuted for crimes than their male counterparts.

One reason it is harder to identify and prosecute females who engage in sex trafficking, especially in the United States, is a lack of research. The existing research has categorized women’s roles within trafficking to fall broadly in two domains–subordinates and leaders.

Most of what is known about the roles of women in sex trafficking operations focus on those in subordinate roles, which include:

Recruiters: Recruiters are women who are often themselves victims of trafficking and are selected by the leaders because they can establish trust with potential new victims. As women are perceived as less threatening than males, it is easier for them to approach and gain the confidence of potential new victims.

Because victims of trafficking are often chosen for their vulnerability, these recruiters “sell” the trafficking as a way to escape their abusive/impoverished circumstances, highlighting the new and lucrative life they will experience if they engage in the sex trade.

Supporters: Supporters are women who provide “support” to the trafficking operation. This may include roles such as managing victims of trafficking (guarding, handling), the management of the operation (renting hotels, etc.), or providing counterfeit documents. While in some cases, these are former victims of trafficking, in others, they are girlfriends or family members of the male traffickers.

Bottom: The most researched role for female traffickers is the role of what is deemed the “bottom.” This is the highest rank for a trafficking victim and used to entice victims as once they achieve the role of the “bottom,” they may be able to stop engaging in sex work, although in reality, most continue to be victimized.

The women may oversee money collection, training new victims, transportation, or advertisement in this role. While the bottom role is similar to that of a supporter, the difference lies in that a “bottom” is still viewed as a trafficking victim while a supporter does not engage in sex work.

Women may also have leadership roles in trafficking operations which fall broadly into two categories:

Partners-in-Crime: Women who are partners-in-crime appear to take part in the trafficking voluntarily as part of a partnership with a male trafficker. These are often the family members or girlfriends of the male trafficker. Women in these roles can serve several roles, including the recruiting and supervision of victims or overseeing or managing the operation.

Based upon what was reported, it appears that Ghislaine Maxwell may have fallen into this category.

Madams: The “madams” are often the sole operators of trafficking operations. Most of what is known about madams is from international sex trafficking operations like those in Eastern Europe, Africa, or Southeast Asia.

For example, in Nigeria, sex trafficking is considered the business of women. In Ukraine, one study found that 60 percent of all traffickers were women, and in Thailand and Laos, women may own the establishments from where women are trafficked.

One recent study has examined the role of female sex traffickers in the United States. Using a United Nations database of internationally prosecuted sex trafficking cases, they found that of the 123 U.S.-based sex trafficking cases, 36 percent (44 cases) included female sex traffickers. Half (48 percent) of the women were in leadership roles, while the other half (52 percent) were in subordinate roles. Of those in subordinate roles, the majority were considered “bottoms.”

Interestingly, of all the female traffickers, regardless of role, 60 percent were found to have some role in victims' physical or emotional control, such as the sexual grooming of victims.

Thus, while Ghislaine Maxwell's case may be eye-opening because it seemed to defy gender-based stereotypes of sex traffickers, in reality, women play a large role in sex trafficking operations. Thus prevention and prosecution efforts must encompass the role of women in sex trafficking.

References

Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová, E., & Jeglic, E. L. (2021). Of madams, mentors and mistresses: Conceptualising the female sex trafficker in the United States. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 64, 100455.

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