There are an estimated 403,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). Sex trafficking exists throughout the country. Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary, many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces them into prostitution. Others are lured with false promises of a job, and some are forced to sell sex by members of their own families. Victims of sex trafficking include both foreign nationals and US citizens, with women making up the majority of those trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015, the most reported venues/industries for sex trafficking included commercial-front brothels, hotel/motel-based trafficking, online advertisements with unknown locations, residential brothels, and street-based sex trafficking.
Wendy Barnes was trafficked from the age of 15 across the US West Coast for nearly 15 years, from the mid 1980s until 2000. Her trafficker, Gregory Leon Hightower, was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison in Oregon. Wendy now lives in Southern California and works full time as a customer service representative. Her narrative is from an interview with Francine Sporenda for the Révolution Féministe website, originally published in French and then in English by Nordic Model Now!, a UK secular, feminist, grassroots women’s group campaigning for the abolition of prostitution and related practices. Wendy has published a book about her experiences titled And Life Continues: Sex Trafficking and My Journey to Freedom (2015).
First let me clarify my relationship with Greg. We were never actually married, although everybody assumed we were married because we lived together and had children together. Greg became a pimp in 1985, when it was the cool thing to do. Rap culture and Hollywood glamorized pimping and hoeing. In addition to that, his father would encourage him to have multiple girlfriends. Greg came from a very dysfunctional family. Although his father was not himself a pimp, he was an abuser, and Greg’s mother and grand-mother were actually proud of him for being a pimp because he was making so much money. So, for him to be a pimp, at that time, in this family and environment—he got a lot of admiration and positive reinforcement for it.
[…] The circumstances and the family enthusiasm for the money he brought home certainly encouraged him to pimp. His father, mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle were always very happy when Greg would bring all of us girls to the family barbecues because we brought all the food. Before he took us to these family gatherings, Greg would first take us to the stores, and we would steal food, like a bunch of steaks and all the things to go with them. Or someone in the family would tell him that they needed financial help, and Greg would give them $100. So they all loved that Greg was a pimp because they loved the money.
In those days, the 80s and 90s, pimps were looked up to, they were glamourized, the rap culture and Hollywood were making them seem almost like gods.
The one thing he was looking for first and foremost in a girl was low self esteem. Low self esteem first, coming from a broken home second, and naive. The key was that the girl had no sense of self-worth—that’s what he was looking for.
I’d say it was more about love–it was not about having nice clothes. That’s one thing about Greg that was different from other pimps: he never gave us nice clothes. If we wanted something–nice clothes, make up etc.–we would have to steal it. It was about love, attention, his looking you in the eyes and making you feel so special. It’s something that each of us lacked, from society and from our homelife. He paid attention to us and acted like he cared about us; we couldn’t get enough of that.
Even once the beatings started, each of us would still live for those loving moments when he would act like he cared about us, when he would look at us lovingly again. We wanted that so badly that we would stay for years in misery just for those few moments, just for that hope to be loved again by him because we did not believe anyone else would care about us. For whatever reason, we had not experienced love from our families, from our parents, from society. So love was not an option available to us outside of our pimp.
None of us thought we were Greg’s “hoes” and he was our pimp. I never even understood he was a pimp until I was free of him: to me, he was my boyfriend, he was the father of my children. “I am not a hoe, I am doing this because he told me that I need to in order to prove my love for him, in order to support our children. I want to be a good mother so I am going to go out and prostitute myself. I am not a prostitute, I’d never do a thing like that, it’s just something that I need to do in order to get by.”
He’d manipulate us mentally: to an outside observer, it was obvious that we were all prostitutes, and he was our pimp, but none of us thought like that. We all thought he loved us: I thought he loved me, the mother of his children, each girl thought he loved her. In our minds, we were only living that life for a short while, until we could get on our feet.
If one of the girls was making more money than the others, he’d praise her in front of all the other girls, put her on a pedestal, and berate everybody else: “Look at this girl, she can do this, what kind of pathetic pieces of s…t are you that you guys made only $100 tonight. Look at that, she made $500, that’s a real woman! She is the type of woman who shows she loves me, she really loves me, and I love her. You guys can’t do s…t right.”
And of course we would hate her and we would think: “I am a piece of s..t because she made so much more money than me.”
Another way he pitted us against each other was through violence: “Who is going to get beaten tonight?” Every night, somebody would get beaten, and sometimes, one of us would get tortured, all through the night.
Even if you felt sorry for the girl being tortured, there was always a sense of relief when you were not the one chosen for a beating. We’d even try to get each other in trouble to save ourselves. We would literally run over each other, push each other down, to get to him first and tattle on another girl.
For example, another girl had gone to a Jack in the Box and bought a chicken sandwich, a $1 chicken sandwich. But we were not allowed to eat without his permission, we were not allowed to spend even a dollar without his permission. She knew she had done something wrong, so she tried to tell on me, because she knew I had bought a pack of cigarettes without asking Greg first. But I got to Greg first, told him about the chicken sandwich. So she was the one he beat that night, not me.
[…] He played on our vulnerabilities, he knew where we were most sensitive, raw, and he used that knowledge to manipulate us. To give you an example: he had brought in a new girl, she was young, her mother had abandoned her. He would tell her: “your mom, she doesn’t really love you, nobody wants you. We are the only people who really care about you, why would you want to leave us?”
In my case, he used my children to keep me toeing the line. He would tell me: “you can leave if you want, but the children are staying with me.” All I ever wanted was to be a good mother to my children, he knew it, and he used it.
He did threaten to hurt my mother, and he used similar threats to control the other girls, too. For example, one of the girls was terrified that her family would find out she was in prostitution. She considered that to be the worst thing in the world that could happen to her, for her family to know what she was doing. So Greg would threaten her: “I will call your mom and dad and tell them what you are doing. If you leave me, I’ll call them!”
And he did it at one point, when she finally became so desperate she decided to leave, saying: “I don’t care, I don’t care anymore!” He called her mom and dad, and he told them “I want you to know that your daughter is nothing but a hoe, and a drug addict.” Of course, he didn’t tell them that she was a drug addict because he had forced her to use crack.
Greg was very skilled at brainwashing, using violence and drugs to influence our thinking and self-image. During the nights of torture, he would repeat negative statements over and over again, until the words became my reality: “you are nothing without me,” “you’ll never make it in the real world,” “nobody loves you but me.”
When your starting point is a very low self-image, and you don’t think anyone cares about you, it is easy for someone like Greg to implant negative thoughts in your mind to solidify his control. These thoughts got under my skin because they were repeated constantly, and also because we had little access to the outside world to counter his hold on us. Except for the rare moments of loving attention, there was never anything positive in what he said, and it became a part of who we were. I was so much under his influence that if Greg told me “the sky is purple,” I would look up and would make sure I saw a purple sky, I would convince myself it was purple. God forbid I saw a blue sky, because I would get my ass kicked. Our thoughts were his, and in order to survive, we had to accept everything he said.
You have to understand that, in that life, several times a day, every single day, you face your own death. It can be running from the police, or from your pimp, or dealing with a dangerous john. Your heart beats faster, you feel fear, you feel hot, you feel cold. Every day there is this intensity, you are faced with one life threatening situation after another. That is “the normal” in prostitution. So when I got out of that life and tried to fit into the “real” world—as I call it—there was this feeling of emptiness: “where is my life threatening intensity?” I needed that.
I was one of the lucky ones; I was actually able to comprehend that I needed a safeguard, I was able to understand that I needed something intense to replace that feeling. So I told myself: “I am going to try this, and see if it works.” I went to amusement parks, where they have the most intense rollercoasters. I went on these rollercoasters, and they were terrifying. I remember closing my eyes and telling myself: “This is stupid, I am stupid, this is crazy, this is nuts.” There was a thrill when I was on that roller-coaster.
And I realized, at the end of the day, that I had had a good time, I was safe, and I had been able to fill the void. I got that thrill that I needed. I would go to amusement parks a few times a year, to get that thrill. Each survivor must find some kind of thrill when she gets out of that life. It could even be going to the library and reading a frightening horror novel or gripping murder mystery. Whatever form it takes, each of us needs to find that thrill to succeed in the real world.
What else is so hard about being in the real world? You have to realize that when you are in that life, there is a certain language, a way that we speak, a way that we act, and that is what we are comfortable with. Most of the time, there is a lot of profanity. I remember, in that world, every sentence had a swear word in it. And then you come into the real world, you are speaking to a “normal” person, and you hear yourself talking: every other word is a swear word. And you suddenly see a look on the other person’s face: who is this person who speaks so foul? When it happened to me, I would feel bad about myself, and think: “I don’t fit in here.”
Another thing: The simplest thing to a “normal” person can be a huge obstacle to a survivor. I have been out of prostitution for 16 years. You know what one of my biggest fears is table settings. The proper place for things, how to use forks and knives.
Not just using the wrong fork, but also the fear that if I make a mistake, people are going to judge me. I don’t feel comfortable in settings where I have to wear dressy clothes. I don’t feel like myself around the kind of people who go to restaurants that have these fancy tables. They don’t live in the same world I do. They don’t experience the troubles I live through each day, like struggling to pay the bills. If none of them can understand my life now in the real world, how could they ever understand my life before? So the table settings scare me, intimidate me. This is something that is totally foreign to me, a whole new world.
When you have been in prostitution for a while, you don’t know what things mean, what to do, how to behave: job interviews, dealing with checking accounts, paying your bills. Picture yourself moving to China, with no language skills, where you know absolutely nothing about the culture or the right way to behave, and you’ll have an idea of what it is like for a survivor coming out of that life and trying to fit into the real world.
He was in control of everything, nothing could be done without his permission, every day he would tell me: “This is what you should do today.” We seldom dealt with checks, everything was cash, only cash.
In my case and in the case of many others, here is how it could happen: When Greg would bring a new girl around, she would usually be around 15 years old. She is a runaway and she’s been told she can make money in prostitution – and it’s her very first time. So either she can go to the street and “work” there or I can set her up with some of my regular tricks and let her work in my house where it’s safer because I’ll be around.
I remember what it was like to be this girl, I care about her, I don’t want her to be out in the streets by herself for her very first night, I don’t see other options — when you are in that world, you are so brainwashed you can’t even figure out there are other options.
So there are really only two options: I allow her to go out on the street for her very first night, running the chance of being killed, or raped, or robbed; or I can set her up with johns that I know in the privacy of my own home and allow her to earn the money she needs to satisfy the pimp. It’s mean out there, I know what it is to be out on the streets, so of course I’d rather set her up at home. So there you go: In the eyes of the law, I become the pimp.
I don’t realize I am a pimp, I don’t see myself as a pimp, I am just afraid for her, I am trying to help her, doing what’s best for her. There is a line of right and wrong that gets blurred when you are in that life, so it takes you a long time, even when you are out of that life, to understand that you were pimping. This is wrong, and some girls say: “Oh but I was just trying to help, I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Years after I left that life, I am now able to say to that girl: Yes you did do something wrong. I understand you had to do it at that time. A lot of survivors get in this mode: “I was a victim, I had no other choice” and I understand that. But to succeed in the real world, we have to be clear: “I did it , and it’s wrong!”
At the time, I didn’t know what a sociopath was; but a few years later, when I was in college, somebody used the word “sociopathic” and I looked it up. When I read the description, I saw that it was Greg to a tee, it was 100% Greg. And I thought: “Oh my God, that’s him!”
A sociopath is completely unable to care or love, everything is a manipulative game to get what he wants out of you, everybody in his life is a pawn, to be moved, to be sacrificed, to be manoeuvred, to be ordered around so he wins. At all costs, he has to be the winner in life. That is Greg, and that is all pimps. All traffickers and pimps are sociopaths. Now some people think they are born that way, but I wonder: if a “normal” man gets in the game, from peer pressure or whatever, can that person become a sociopath? Maybe they were not sociopaths when they were young, but when they get in that life, they have to become sociopaths in order to live with themselves.
Courtesy of Nordic Model Now!