A shocking 20.9 million people are victims of human trafficking around the world today—more than the populations of New York, Chicago, Miami, Houston and Los Angeles combined. In their new feature-length documentary TRICKED, filmmakers John-Keith Wasson and Jane Wells follow pimps, johns, sex-trafficking victims, parents and law enforcement agents in several U.S. cities, paying special attention to the arrogance and cruelty of the pimps and the broken system that criminalizes victims instead of perpetrators.
The Ms. Blog recently spoke with these filmmakers, who are hoping to effect change with their most recent project.
Ms. Blog: When did the sex industry first come to your attention as a potential film topic?
Jane Wells: For me, via 3 Generations, a nonprofit I’m involved with. We were filming stories about survivors of sex trafficking, which I saw as an extension of the work we’ve been doing around human rights abuses generally.
John-Keith Wasson: I was working on a TV show where the whole plan was going into the nether regions of the U.S. [following] sort of everything illegal. I followed a coworker into this world of pimps and prostitution, but the angle the TV show had was very much an intrigue story, edging on how glamorous it all was, which is of course not the case. As I was there doing the work, I was thinking, ‘This show is completely missing the point.’
Was it difficult to get people to talk to you?
Wasson: It’s easy to get people to talk about it or extremely difficult to get people to talk about it. At some level, victims are going to willingly share a part of their story, but I think its very hard to get a full story. Its brutal what happens to them. Likewise, I think certain police [officers] or law enforcement officials are willing to talk to you if they think they’re doing some good, but in order to get to the true story, I think those are the parts where it’s hard.
Wells: We kept going back again and again and again and trying to dig deeper.
How are these pimps not afraid of the legal repercussions of being filmed and admitting to what they do on camera?
Wasson: They do actually feel a little bit wary, some of them, and some others have clearly rationalized it in a way that makes going out in the public no big deal. Frankly, our pop culture feeds right into that, because it’s cool to be a pimp. There is this brazen attitude that goes along with it, a general arrogance, and they sort of feel above it all. Frankie [a pimp] in Denver is being handcuffed and yet he feels compelled to charm the camera, because he thinks at that moment—and in fact he was right—that he won’t end up going to jail.
Wells: They’re not experiencing shame about what they do and I think that they are very clever criminals as well. They are masters of manipulation and seduction. In most cases, even if the pimps are ultimately convicted of a crime, they are looking at relatively small sentences, probably with probation—much lesser sentences than if they were dealing drugs, for example.
What were your perceptions of the sex industry before you started filming and how did that change throughout the project?
Wasson: When we started doing the filmmaking we came in touch with victims, we came in touch with johns, and we came in touch with cops who were actually trying to make a change. Then we met these pimps, and it’s really hard to not let your blood boil. Imagine sitting there with a pimp, after you’ve just spent the last four or five days with victims telling their stories, and you hear all that faulty logic. Overall, I was [shocked] by how rampant sex trafficking is, how it affects all socio-economic groups. The internet is helping it get into every home in the country. Financially, we’re in some hard times, and younger people tend to be a little bit more interested in getting recruited because they believe in the idea of quick money. So it’s a horrifying perfect storm that we’re in the middle of. I had no idea how full-blown an epidemic it was when I began the film.
Wells: It was like going down into a rabbit hole. At first I wanted to blame [trafficking] on the Internet, but I feel now that it’s a whole culture. I’ve also come to learn a lot more about how difficult it is for young men. The perception was that young men don’t get prostituted or didn’t have pimps, but I’ve come to learn that young men are just as vulnerable and manipulated by their pimps as the young girls are.
Did you come across people who thought that prostitutes were doing it out of their own will?
Wells: Absolutely. That is an ongoing battle.
Wasson: That’s the majority of people, you still have the myths of the happy hooker and Pretty Woman, but that’s certainly not the truth that we found.
What would you say to people who think that legalizing prostitution would be empowering to women? I know there are people who think that would eliminate the prostitute-pimp structure.
Wells: I’d say to them that that is an illogical and specious argument. First of all, where there are legal brothels, we know [women] in those legal brothels do, in most cases, have pimps anyway. Where there is potential for profit there will be people who want to profit off other peoples’ bodies. I don’t think there is anything empowering about being abused and manipulated or mistreated by people.
Wasson: When we began this film we wanted to give sex trafficking a clean slate. We tried to let go of preconceived notions and we tried to say, OK, there is an argument that [women] would be treated better if it were legal, so we did our due diligence and we went to Sweden and elsewhere and we looked into that as a possibility. And frankly, if we had a solution and it was that simple we would love to present it, but the truth is that isn’t the reality. Having said that, the laws need to change. In many ways the law is getting to where it needs to be, but it’s now the implementation of the law that’s the problem. The fact is that whatever the system, a pimp can certainly adapt, and so they’re going to be around just as much if it’s legal as if its illegal. The only difference is they’re probably going to have a bigger microphone with which to recruit.
How does our current system criminalize the victims more than the pimps or johns? Did you witness this negatively affect women who would have otherwise tried to escape these situations?
Wells: Yes, it’s a real shame. The laws are completely balanced against the seller of sex as opposed to the purchaser of sex. The penalties for johns at this point are so tiny in most cases: They are arrested and they get a ticket. There is no felony or even a misdemeanor.
Wasson: Part of the pimp’s game is actually using [the arrests of the women] to keep the women locked up [as prostitutes]. Suddenly all her other job opportunities are gone. Even getting a minimum wage job can be a challenge.
So having a prostitution arrest on a woman’s record works in the pimp’s favor—it’s just another obstacle in the way of her reentering the population at large?
Wasson: Exactly. It’s the pimps’ game: One of the moves is to really alienate his victims from his or her support group, and one way is to get the victims arrested because then that means that the victim needs the pimp that much more.
Wells: These techniques are very similar to inducting people into cults. It kind of is a cult in a sense, with the isolation and alienation and manipulation—and then where do you turn?
What do you hope to accomplish with this film?
Wells: I hope that some young girls see this film and realize that that girl could be them, and think twice before they allow themselves to be seduced and manipulated into doing something they don’t want to do because of low self-esteem. And I hope that young men see the film and realize that they could be abusing girls in that way, and they can make a decision not to be a john or a pimp. I think that as a society we’ve been tricked into thinking that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession and there is nothing that we can do about it—that boys will be boys, and that somehow it’s always been this way so it should always stay that way. I think that’s the biggest trick of the lot, really.
TRICKED premiered last week at the Quad Cinema in New York City and will be released by film and video distributor Kino Lorber, Inc. For more information, visit www.trickedfilm.com
Photos courtesy of TRICKED/10,000 Men Productions, LLC, Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson.
Melissa McGlensey recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.A. in English and Spanish with a minor in creative writing; she is currently interning at Ms. Read more from her at OhHeyMeliss.com.