Written by: Katie Linn | Previous Executive Director at Exploit No More
As more information is known about sex trafficking in the United States, the connection between trafficking and street gangs is impossible to ignore. Operating in similar ways to pimps working individually in trafficking, gangs work together as a group to recruit, groom, abuse, and set up ‘dates’ for their victims.
Throughout the past few years, sex trafficking has become a regular and popular activity for gangs. While street gang’s main activities in the past were focused on drugs, many gangs have shifted their focus to trafficking, as it is viewed as a lower-risk and more profitable activity. Rather than being seen or caught with narcotics, it does not seem as suspicious to be seen with a woman or a girl, of whom they can sell repeated times.
Many of the girls that are recruited by gangs are looking for a family, for acceptance, or for status among what is truly a male-dominated community. The members may appear at first to accept the girls or women into their gang, however they begin to exploit the females right away. As part of their initiation, many girls are required to perform sex acts to some or all of the gang members, getting them accustomed to the abuse that will only continue and increase.
Each male gang member has his own particular role in regards to trafficking. Some of the members are responsible for the recruitment of new girls, while some are responsible for the grooming, which may include abuse and rape. Yet, others will be responsible for setting up online profiles and securing ‘dates’ for the girls while others are in charge of the finances.
Recruitment among gangs is quite traditional, as they use many of the same tactics that a pimp working individually may use. One gang member may form a special attachment to a girl, luring her in with the false hope of a romantic relationship, while in other cases the gang as a whole may promise security in the form of shelter, food, and clothing. Gangs also use gatherings known as ‘skip parties’, in which a girl already involved in the gang will encourage her other friends to skip school or work to attend a ‘party’ where drugs and alcohol are freely given. However, in exchange for the drugs, it is expected that the girl will offer sex to the men. If she refuses, she is often beaten and raped while being filmed, which is used as blackmail.
Once the gang has recruited and has begun to groom their victims, many choose to tattoo or brand their victims in order tons how their power and ownership over her. While a tattoo is often given in a regular tattoo parlor or by one of the traffickers, branding is completed by using a coat hanger that has been exposed to extreme heat or cold and pressed against the skin to create a permanent scar. The tattoos or brands may be the trafficker or gang’s name, a specific symbol that indicates the trafficker or gang, or an image or word that is associated with the sex trade. In some cases, that tattoo or brand may also be in the form of a dollar sign or a barcode.
While there are a number of overlaps between gang and pimp controlled sex trafficking, there are a few key differences between the two. With street gangs, women are rarely a part of a gang without some form of exploitation – whether it be sex trafficking specifically or another form of exploitation.