The recent trial of Ghislaine Maxwell temporarily brought the public’s attention to an aspect of the sex trade industry that receives less consideration than it should: Female human traffickers.
The details of Maxwell’s charges indicated a high level of managerial involvement in crimes that had previously been strictly attributed to Jeffery Epstein. While Maxwell’s defense tried to present her as a manipulated, exploited victim targeted with allegations that were at least partially fabricated, she was convicted of 5 out of 6 of her charges, which involved acts of conspiracy, enticement, transportation, and trafficking involving minors.
Maxwell’s role in these crimes was discussed as shocking criminal behavior in contradiction to people’s expectation that sex traffickers would be male. In fact, female perpetrators of human trafficking are more common than one would think.
A 2016 Unicef global report on human trafficking stated, “The data gathered on the gender of offenders in 46 countries suggest that women play a key role as perpetrators of human trafficking. In Europe, for example, women make up a larger share of those convicted for human trafficking offences than for most other forms of crime.”
Further, according to the report, “in 30% of the countries which provided information on the gender of human traffickers, more women were convicted (or investigated and prosecuted…)” and “The role of female offenders appears to be predominant in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region and very significant in other regions of the world.” In examining statistics from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, researchers also found significantly higher rates of women convicted for the crime of trafficking in persons in comparison to the conviction rate for both sexes for all crimes. This is significant, because, as reported in a Forbes article on this study in 2018, demand for human trafficking is most common in these nations, making women the majority of traffickers overall.
Other research reveals more about the nature of female perpetrators. In 2019, Miriam Wijkman & Edward Kleemans published a paper on “Female offenders of human trafficking and sexual exploitation,” in which they analyzed the court-files of 150 women who have been convicted of crimes in this category, according to the Dutch Prosecution Office. They reported on the prevalence and characteristics of female traffickers, with some interesting results.
Often, when we hear about female traffickers, we’re told that these are unwilling or inculpable victims who have been manipulated, as Ghislaine Maxwell claimed, or even coerced into committing their crimes by powerful, domineering men. One example often given is the co-victim a male trafficker uses to manage or control his other trafficking victims. If we are to believe the stereotype, this example represents most female traffickers.
Instead, Wijkman and Kleemans reported that of the women from their sample who were convicted of sexual exploitation, only about half (50.8%) had ever worked as a prostitute, and less than a third (28.3%) still did at the time of offence.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, these women committed the offense together with others, with their co-offender being their male romantic partner in 72.7% of cases with co-offenders. They noted that female perpetrators often denied a certain degree of management as Maxwell attempted in her defense, and turned in male co-offenders, claiming they feared or cooperated out of love for their male partner. However, evidence shows that the types of roles these women fulfilled could be “quite similar to those of men as offenders,” rather than simply involving low-ranking activities at their male partner’s command.
In analyzing the behavioral acts for which the women were convicted, the researchers named the 5 most common as follows:
44 acts of collecting money
28 acts of housing victims
25 acts of controlling victims during their work
24 acts of exploiting
and 21 acts of taking away and keeping passports or travel documents.
This indicates that within this field of organized crime, female perpetrators are not just more prevalent than previously thought, but also more prominently and willingly involved. They are directly involved in the financial, recruiting, enforcement, and exploitative aspects of sex trafficking. Their actions cannot be excused under cover of presumed victimhood. Their victims deserve better than to be denied justice on the basis of their perpetrators’ gender, and the incidence and prevalence of human trafficking cannot be reduced without actions taken to address female perpetration.
This week, HBR Talk will discuss the hidden issue of female perpetrators of human trafficking and its many implications. The discussion streams on multiple platforms. You can tune in to the youtube livestream, or find other listening options on honeybadgerbrigade.com.
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