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Ronnie Reese/MEDILL

"He had my mind so done," said prostitution survivor Brenda Myers-Powell about the mental influence of a pimp who once controlled her. "Just fried."


Games pimps play: Mental manipulation in prostitution

by Ronnie Reese
March 09, 2011


Before co-founding The Dreamcatcher Foundation and becoming a Cook County Court advocate for victims of sexual exploitation, Brenda Myers-Powell spent 25 years as a prostitute.

She knows a mind game when she sees one. And she knows exactly how pimps play them.

Once, she said, she was explaining a situation to her pimp. “Well, I thought…,” she began. He cut her off right there.

“Don’t you ever think again,” he said. “If you want to know something, you call me and let me do the thinking.”

At the time, his demand made sense, Myers-Powell said. She really felt she had made a mistake in thinking for herself.

“He had my mind so done,” she said. “Just fried.”

Myers-Powell describes the typical pimp's method of mental abuse and compulsion as “running game.”

“If I’m an impressionable young girl with low self-esteem,” she said, “it’s very easy to coerce me and talk me into your plan.”

The plan is systematic brainwashing that takes place over a number of months and years. It is the subject of “From Victim to Victimizers: Interviews with 25 Ex-Pimps in Chicago,” a 2010 report published by Myers-Powell and DePaul researcher Jody Raphael.

“It’s impossible to protect all girls from guys like I was because that’s what we do,” said one pimp. “We eat, drink and sleep thinking of ways to trick young girls into doing what we want them to do.”

“But,” Myers-Powell explained, “it’s me thinking that it’s what I want to do.”

The process usually begins when pimps are children themselves, victims of abuse at home. When those abused children become adults, they attempt to regain lost control through the exploitation and trafficking of others.
 
“It’s a particular way of staying in the arena where you have been abused,” Raphael said, “but just kind of seizing the power.”

A senior research fellow at the DePaul University College of Law Schiller DeCanto and Fleck Family Law Center, Raphael said people recruited as prostitutes are often susceptible to this misuse of power because of abuse in their households. They long for affection.

“And a pimp is offering a sense of love and a sense of concern,” Raphael said. “I don’t think we can understand how this can be so lacking from any young person’s life, but it has been.”

Rachel Durchslag, executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, refers to recruiting prostitutes as a “grooming process.” Pimps target individuals who are emotionally vulnerable. They become boyfriends, girlfriends and confidants. They convince victims that no one else loves them, a reasonable argument given the earlier cycle of abuse their prey have endured.

“In some instances – a lot of instances – there really isn’t anyone else who cares about these individuals,” Durchslag said. “For the first time in their lives, they feel appreciated and beautiful.”

Pimps provide material goods along with the perception of emotional comfort and support. They also block other individuals out. They tell their recruits, “No one will love you like I love you,” and “Those people are the reason why you were on the street.”

This isolation becomes easier when victims are brought into new cities or different states where they know no one. Far from familiar surroundings, “I was their only friend and focus,” as one pimp said.

Next comes the total transformation of identity, which gives victims a false sense of confidence.

“Pimps tell them, ‘Through me, you’ll be able to accomplish all of your dreams,’” Myers-Powell said. “’But you’ve got to make sure that you follow all of my instructions in order to do this because no one else will treat you like me.’”

Every day, she said, for the next two or three months, this is all a victim hears.

“And when it starts to get real strong,” she added, “by then, he’s got you...You’ve bought into his vision. So, now, here you are, ready to do anything he asks you.”

Victims stay with pimps, Durchslag said, for the same reason they stay with domestic batterers. She cites a complex emotional tie known as a “trauma bond.”

Physical violence is just one tool, along with acts of kindness, to increase dependence on the provider. Pimps monopolize their victims’ perceptions, telling them, “I’m the only one who knows you. I’m the only one who can tell you how to survive in the world.”

When victims feel that their pimp is the only person they have in the world, escaping prostitution seems nearly impossible. It doesn’t have to be, but breaking the emotional tie is not easy.

“It’s a very painful rebirth process of just trying to find yourself again,” Durchslag said, “especially because so many victims of the sex trade disassociate from themselves psychologically to survive the trauma.” Because they have detached mentally, she said, victims have to come back to their bodies and minds and face their abuse and trauma.

“You can imagine how emotionally and psychologically challenging that is for people,” Durchslag added. “It’s a long, long process for people to be able to reclaim their lives again.”

Abusive families, who don’t give their children the love and support every child needs, leave a void that a pimp is more than happy to fill.

“Just like a pimp told me, ‘Wherever you ain’t, I am,’” Myers-Powell said.

Where families are not, that’s where pimps will be, preying.