I had lunch next to a pimp.
I had been in anti-trafficking meetings all day with local organizations I partner with and hadn’t eaten a full meal all day (sorry mom). I was planning to shop until I met some friends in the area later that night, but I decided to stop at a restaurant nearby for a (very) late lunch. Since it was oddly cool for mid-June in Arkansas, I decided to sit outside on the restaurant’s patio.
I was immediately interested in the conversation happening between the only other patrons in the area; the couple was quite distinctly arguing over an odd topic. So, I decided I would listen to where the conversation led. Let’s just look past my complete disregard for privacy–they were speaking loud enough to be heard, alright?
Anyway, the conversation quickly took a rather disturbing turn as the man started speaking to the woman about her quotas. They had a lengthy, quite vulgar discussion about the different things they had done together, her “profession,” and his intentions.
“I think you know I don’t put too much pressure on you. I mean, I would hate it, but you can go somewhere else. He won’t treat you like I do, though. I only apply pressure when I need to, baby. That’s why you’ve gotta start meetin’ your quotas.”
It became clear to me within a few moments that the man was this woman’s pimp, and I knew I had to do something.
As an activist, I was racking my brain to figure out the best way to capture the conversation ensuing before me without drawing attention to myself or endangering those around me. A picture couldn’t be taken. A recording wouldn’t have picked up enough. I began texting everyone I could think of and asked them to stop what they were doing and pray for this woman, then I started typing notes on my phone as detailed as possible.
At this point in the story, I tend to get the question, “How do you know that she didn’t choose to be there?” My answer (after suppressing the urge to unleash all the statistics and insights I’ve learned over the years) typically sounds something like, “How do you know she did?”
We often see trafficking and exploitation put into what I like to call the “she-wasn’t-physically-forced-to-be-there-so-she-chose-this-life” box. There’s this image that the media likes to push of a young woman or child in chains with her hands in front of her face (I know, you’re picturing it right now). When someone mentions trafficking, that’s often the first thing that comes to mind. But that can make it difficult to recognize other more prominent forms of trafficking or exploitation.
Pimps and traffickers often use unseen methods of coercion (gradual deception and grooming into prostitution, withholding identification documents, threats to family, etc.) to control their victims. The conversation I had overheard was sexually vulgar and full of underlying threats, all with the end goal of her bringing in more money for him, not herself.
Statistics show that around 90% of women in prostitution want to get out. If that’s even a slight possibility, isn’t it better to do something and be part of the solution than assume she chose to be there and possibly become part of the problem?
Ultimately, the situation turned out as best it could. I was able to (carefully) get a somewhat detailed description of the individuals, a picture of the pimp as he walked away, and a license plate number off of his car (thank you, Jesus!). All the information I captured was sent promptly to the vice department at our local police department to be handled accordingly.
Now, I want to point out that this happened in the middle of the day, in public, in broad daylight, and in a “safe” part of town. I once heard someone say that human trafficking is happening everywhere, and if you don’t see it you aren’t looking hard enough. In the few short years I’ve worked to fight it, I’ve absolutely seen that to be the case.
Right underneath our noses, traffickers are exploiting vulnerable men, women, and children. Do you notice? Do you know what to do when modern-day slavery exposes itself right in front of you?
It’s up to us to decide what we allow in our communities. The trafficking industry thrives when it remains in the shadows, and it’s up to us (normal, everyday people) to bring it into the light.