Opinion: Stop glamorizing pimp culture

The fight to end U.S. sex trafficking
The fight to end U.S. sex trafficking

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Story highlights

  • Pimps prey on society's most marginalized and vulnerable, Hersh says
  • Glamorized "pimp culture" whitewashes brutal reality so many girls experience, she says
  • The culture change starts with our kids, she says

Lauren Hersh is director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at Sanctuary for Families and a women's rights activist. She previously served as a prosecutor handling cases of gender violence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Thirteen-year-old "Ben" stood on the street with his buddies.

"That movie was so pimp. My new Nikes are so pimp. The donut I just bought at the food truck--- PIMP!"
    Ben is a boy we work with in our teen anti-trafficking program. He is smart. He is sensitive. But like so many teens, Ben is not immune to the glamorization of pimp culture.
    Lauren Hersh
    And why would he be? The lyrics he sings along to and the movies he watches glorify a culture where pimps kick back, do little work, are surrounded by a bevy of sexually charged women and make a ton of cash.
    Ben's concept is not completely inaccurate. Pimping is a lucrative business. Some estimate that selling a single child on a weekend night can easily generate $1,000. Most pimps have more than one victim at any given time. Others explain that, unlike drugs or guns, girls are the commodity of choice as they can be sold again and again. For many pimps, people in prostitution represent an endless supply of easy income.
    A pimp, whom I'll call Prince, met "Jennifer" when she was 17. He lured her in, promising to love and protect her. But within weeks, he viciously beat her, branded her as his property and threatened that if she did not sell sex for money, he would burn down her parents' home.
    I met Jennifer when I was a NYC Assistant District Attorney, prosecuting sex trafficking cases. Although her face was bruised and her body was branded, Jennifer told me that she was in prostitution voluntarily and didn't have a pimp. Many months later, Jennifer explained that Prince prostituted her and was violent when she did not make her nightly quota. She feared that revealing the truth would trigger Prince's revenge.
    Sex trafficking is a multibillion-dollar business that operates on the principles of supply and demand. Prince sold Jennifer for one reason--- countless buyers were eager to purchase her young, battered body. Prince made thousands of dollars each month selling Jennifer online to sex buyers who repeatedly raped her. Prince was not charged in Jennifer's case, but he later faced charges in connection with other victims.
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    Pimps prey on society's most marginalized and vulnerable. Some 85% of trafficked youth have had prior child welfare involvement. More than 65% of people in prostitution have been abused as children, usually sexually. Many are women and girls of color living in poverty.
    Traffickers deliberately prey on vulnerable people, using tactics of brainwashing and torture to maintain control over their prey. Like Jennifer, victims are often instructed by pimps to say that they are in prostitution voluntarily when questioned by law enforcement, insulating pimps from criminal exposure.
    Pimping is violent, destructive and dehumanizing. The fictionalized version of pimp culture that Ben buys in to whitewashes the brutal reality experienced by so many women and girls.
    That's why we created Generation Free, an anti-trafficking movement designed for teens to equip them with insight into the reality of trafficking, pimping and prostitution. On a chilly Sunday in March, more than 150 teens piled into Packer Collegiate Institute for a teen anti-trafficking conference. The participants spanned the spectrum. They came from private and public schools, high and low income families. They were girls and boys -- actually a lot of boys.
    The day began with a performance of a "Day in the Life," a play about the commercial sex trade and a discussion with a panel of experts. All of these young people knew about pimp culture, but this was the first time they understood its global reach and devastating toll.
    We then asked the teens, some at high risk, to connect the dots between their lives and the commercial sex trade. That's when the breakthroughs began.
    A young girl stood up, "My dad is an addict. He would sell anything to get his fix. I can't help but think, he could have sold me."
    A boy spoke up, "This is happening in my school. It's on my streets. That girl being sold could be my sister."
    Another boy explained, "Now that we know that buying sex fuels sex trafficking, we need to make sure our peers know that prostitution is not victimless."
    The change we saw that day was profound and pointed to the direction forward. We must implement strong laws that hold exploiters accountable and provide protection to victims. But if we are going to eliminate exploitation -- if we are really going to end trafficking -- we need to change the culture. And that culture change starts with our kids.
    A few days after the conference, Ben ran into a friend. "I don't use pimp anymore. Do you have any idea how messed up that word is?"