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Louis Theroux: Dark States Trafficking Sex: An exploration into the manipulated relationship between prostitute and pimp.

by Amy Farnworth. Published Tue 17 Oct 2017 13:37, last updated: 18/10/17

Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States of America and the most populous city in the state of Texas. It’s also home to one of America’s most notorious areas for illegal sex work; is one of the US’s epicentres for sex trafficking; and is a magnetic hotbed for prostitutes and pimps.

In the second of three episodes in his Dark States series, Louis Theroux takes a look at the relationship between Prostitute and Pimp in Houston’s illegal sex industry.

From the outset it’s clear that this episode is not going to make for comfortable viewing, as we see Louis chatting to a police officer in what looks like a seedy motel room that has been used for illicit sexual encounters – with shots of a condom on the floor and underwear strewn across a bed.

The officer is informing Louis of a website called ‘backpage.com’, a site that blatantly offers the sale of sex to anyone who can afford it; pimps place graphic images of ‘their’ semi-naked women on the site, with users taking their pick from the ones they fancy, putting a call in to the number provided, and setting up a rendezvous where the exchange of cash for sexual activity will occur.

With the internet making the sale of sex easier than ever before, Louis explores the workings of sites like these, delves into the emotional side of prostitution, and also looks at what life is like for women working on what they call ‘the track’, in an attempt to understand a lifestyle in which the line between choice and force isn’t always clear.

Using the site, Louis sets up a meeting with sex worker, Nikki, who advertises her age online to be 26. Nikki is actually 37. Before falling prey to the sex industry around 18 months ago, Nikki was married and lived a legitimate, ‘square’ life.

Nikki tells Louis how she got involved with her pimp, who she calls her ‘daddy’ and the viewer hears her explaining that she was never forced into working as a prostitute. She tells him that she sees her pimp as a kind of safety net; someone who looks out for her and who gives her everything she needs.

With easy probing, a tact that Louis is well known for, we discover that despite making over $150k for her ‘daddy’, Nikki has never seen a physical penny of this, as all the money she earns, every last cent, goes back to him. If she doesn’t give her pimp the money, if she doesn’t fulfil her ‘quota’, i.e., sleeping with enough men to earn a certain amount per night, and if she fails to ask his permission to do ANYTHING; if she violates these rules, Nikki will face terrible repercussions – violence, anger, threat and abuse.

In a comment that could be construed as justifying the handing over of the money earned from the selling of her body, Nikki then tells how her pimp provides her with an apartment and pays for anything she may require, telling Louis, “I’ve got the best job in the world.”

Yet despite these shallow attempts to justify her actions and give liability to the blatant fact she’s being manipulated and controlled, Louis, in his distinct ability to provide the viewer with in-depth insight into the minds and lives of his subjects, is able to convey the sense of fear that Nikki feels should she put a foot wrong with her pimp; the power hungry ‘special’ man in her life.

It’s not just Nikki’s life that the viewer is invited into; there’s also 18 year-old Savannah, who was ‘recruited’ as a prostitute at the tender age of 16. Just by chatting to the girl, Louis is able to gauge a pretty well-rounded view of how a lot of women, who are ‘pimped-out’, feel.

It’s as if being with a pimp, allowing him to control her, allowing him to treat her how he deems necessary, allowing him to use her, and engaging in prostitution, is a way of her feeling that she’s loved. Savannah tries to validate the relationship and her actions by saying that she feels wanted; having countless men that want her somehow gives her a sense and a feeling of control and belonging. She sees her life as exciting, and sees her pimp as someone who is ‘obsessed’ with her; her pimp has shown her more attention than anyone else.

In Trafficking Sex, Theroux shows sheer compassion and empathy towards the sorry state of affairs that is the illegal sex industry. And just as we saw in Heroin Town, he uses a relaxed, calming approach to extract emotion that takes the viewer on a deeper journey and lays bare the true feelings these women have about their situations.

It becomes apparent early on that the ‘game’ for most women, is about praise – a game for vulnerable women in need of self-confidence, reassurance, and the love of a man. They seek security and attention and often see pimping and prostitution as an alternative fantasy lifestyle, one that on the surface appears more enticing than the shit lives they were previously living. In reality, all these pimps are, are parasites; feeding off, exploiting and taking advantage of the dependency of emotionally damaged females.

Digging a little deeper, Louis discovers that Savannah actually testified against a former pimp which was a brave step for her to take. He’s now serving a 35 year jail sentence and she now has a new pimp. Yet, in spite of previously telling Louis how she feels her life is exciting, she also says she feels she’s degrading herself; and it makes her sick to think of how much her pimp can control her. With all this in mind, Louis Theroux casts a dark shadow over female vulnerability and emotion.

Some of these women can’t comprehend the fact these men, these pimps, these users who are supposed to be ‘taking care of them’ are actually taking advantage. Louis conveys a clear message in this episode – the pimp is the centre of a prostitute’s universe; he is their focus; it’s all about the man and the need for a man to need them. They fear leaving the folds of their sordid existence in case they fail at ‘ordinary life’ – by selling their bodies, by allowing the pimp to control them and by using sexual activity to gain praise, they are achieving the highest level of success they can get. In essence, they are fully dependant on him. And it’s sad, really, really sad.

What might amaze the viewer even more though (or maybe it comes as no surprise at all) is the attitude of the pimp. When Louis visits incarcerated former pimp, Shederick Smith, he has this to say: “It’s a good deal for the women. I’m a good provider. “Some women are just hoes, just prostitutes; that’s all they’re gonna be.”

Trafficking Sex isn’t just an exploration into the workings of the illegal sex industry, it’s deeper than that. Theroux touches on the emotive side of the relationship between prostitute and pimp and leaves many a question unanswered; what happened to these women to make them so in need of attention and praise from a man, that they think turning to prostitution is a valid way to achieve it?

Ending the episode, Louis explains how he thinks these women are at the mercy of their own feelings, and says: “As long as there are extremes of vulnerability, coerced prostitution will be with us.”

Purple Revolver rating: 4/5


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