Sex workers
Sex workers wait for customers in a gang infested neighborhood on July 18, 2012 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

When Derek Williams was a pimp, one of his favorite phrases was, “I’d rather quit you than hit you.”

Williams became a pimp at 16. Struggling to feed a heroin addiction, he convinced his girlfriend at the time to enter prostitution.

“There’s a lot of mind manipulation,” Williams says of his former ways.

Thus, he 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.

The women cried when their former pimps were found guilty, but experts agree that perceiving them as willing to be used is highly inaccurate, and may even contribute to pimps getting away with their crimes.

The results of the trial reveal a deep misunderstanding of American sex trafficking, and the psychological component of this crime — an aspect that must be reflected in statutes for the successful prosecution for such acts, some say.

A father and son pimp duo

Vincent George, Sr. and Vincent George, Jr., a father-son pimp duo, were found guilty last month of money laundering and promoting prostitution, charges stemming from an enterprise that reportedly generated as much as $500,000 a year for the men.

The Georges were sentenced to three to nine years in prison, but avoided much lengthier sentences after being acquitted of more serious sex trafficking charges, likely in part because three of their former victims testified in their defense.

“I would say that I make my own choices,” said Heather Keith, one of the women involved. “I am not a dumb person. I know what I’m doing.” It was a message echoed by the other victims.

“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.”

This type of destructive bonding can occur in subtle ways.

A former pimp repents

Williams told TheGrio he 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.”

Sex trafficking is a class B felony in the state of New York, punishable by up to 25 years in prison. However, Williams suggests that the law too narrowly defines trafficking, requiring observable proof that traffickers force or coerce their victims into the sex trade — proof that is hard to come by if the manipulation is mental.

When it comes to criminalizing the psychological measures U.S. traffickers often use to control victims, the law falls short.

“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,” Williams says. “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.”