Over the 25 years since photographer and filmmaker Mimi Chakarova moved with her family from Bulgaria to Baltimore in 1989, she never lost touch with her East European roots. She’s spent the past decade chronicling stories of women from her native region sold into the sex trade in the Middle East and Western Europe.
“Talking about trafficking is almost sugar-coating the word,” Chakarova told KGOU’s World Views contributor Rebecca Cruise. “The word should be ‘rape.’ These are girls that are systematically raped on a daily basis by 10, 20, 30, sometimes 50 men.”
Her documentary The Price of Sex focuses on the significant-yet-overlooked role women play in a shadowy world perceived to be dominated by men.
Every girl Chakarova interviewed for the film was trafficked by a woman. She says criminal networks know how to use female traffickers to their advantage because victims are more likely to trust fellow women.
“Those younger females would believe the woman that yes, there is a legitimate job someplace, and if they just allow this woman to situate their paperwork and their documents, they can trust her,” Chakarova says. “So they no longer have any identity. If we focus on foreign women, these are women who don’t speak the language. They don’t know what number to call, even if they managed to run away.”
Chakarova had to establish the same kind of trust in order to tell the stories of these trafficking victims. In some instances, it took her years to build a connection with victims dealing with deep emotional, physical, and psychological trauma.
“I always wanted to know, ‘What are the conditions from which these girls came from? Because there is a pattern. It affects people who are desperate,” Chakarova says. “You don’t have the freedom to say no. It is not a choice.”
She’s optimistic, but realistic, about saying the number of sex trafficking victims can be reduced. Chakarova says the practice will never be eliminated, but she works to raise awareness and help create effective techniques for local and international law enforcement.
“After we released the film, the Unites States’ State Department got in touch, and they wanted to use The Price of Sex as a training tool in embassies throughout the world,” Chakarova says. “The United Nations Office for Drugs and Organized Crime reached out and wanted to discuss anti-corruption practices.”
She says the hardest part of a solution is holding traffickers accountable, and changing the perceptions of people who purchase the sexual services of these women.
“If the judicial system delivers the proper punishment for the crime of putting these women through what they put them through, then you will see a reduction,” Chakarova says. “They have to understand that these women are not doing this willingly. They have to understand that each time they pay for this, it’s rape.”
On trying to understand the “demand” side of sex trafficking market forces
I've interviewed people here in the United States as well trying to understand the psychology behind why they do what they do. And how to they recruit girls? I remember this conversation with a man who said, 'I'll go to a mall, and I'll see a girl not with her friends, but by herself, so I would think, 'Hmmm, interesting. She's sitting there by herself. She looks kind of sad.' And I'll go to her because he'll assume maybe she has family issues. Maybe she's trying to take some time away from home, from school. I'll go to her and I'll say, 'You have such pretty blue eyes, or such pretty brown eyes.' And I'll watch what she says. If she says 'Thank you!' I wouldn't go for her. But if she says, 'No I don't.' If she shows me lack of self-esteem, lack of confidence, then I know I can work with that. I can manipulate her. I can recruit her. I can make her feel special. And that's how it all starts in a lot of situation.
On why geography makes Oklahoma hub of U.S. sex trafficking
It's a good strategic location for traffickers to bring women and also to take women out, because of your proximity to Texas as well as - you're right in the middle - it's very easy to go from here to the west coast, to the east coast, and so on. The five top states in the United States for trafficking victims are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, surprisingly, and am I missing one? I think that's about four or five. And think about the locations of these places. Close to the border. There is a lot of women from Central America and California, a lot of Asian women, a lot of East Europeans in New York as well. But these are foreign women. Then you have teenagers, you have young girls, you have runaway kids, you have girls that are shifted from city to city by pimps. You very much have an organized crime unit that controls the selling of the flesh just as much as with foreign women.
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REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Mimi Chakarova, welcome to World Views.
MIMI CHAKAROVA: Thank you for having me.
CRUISE: Well you have been investigating for many years a very interesting topic. This topic of human trafficking. I think there are some ideas - it's one of those terms that we kind of have an idea of what it is, but perhaps don't know specifically what we're talking about. How it differs from smuggling, for example, and what types of trafficking exist. If you could maybe speak a little to that.
CHAKAROVA: I would love to, actually, because there's such a misconception. And a lot of misunderstandings as to what is human trafficking. It's a big word, and people often don't know what it entails. We have to think about two categories - labor trafficking, so human beings who are trafficked for the purposes of labor and are exploited for that - and then sexual trafficking, sex trafficking. I have focused on the latter, however, labor trafficking throughout the world, not just in the United States of America, but throughout the world, is by far a bigger issue than sex trafficking. And it's very difficult to identify, it's very difficult to find those who are trafficked for labor. Even sometimes more so than women trafficked for sex, because with women trafficked for sex, you go to the red light districts, you go to the places where you know there is sexual activity taking place. But with labor it's this invisible beast. So what is trafficking? What is human trafficking? What is sex trafficking? With sex trafficking, and I'll focus on that because that's what my knowledge is on, with sex trafficking it's important to understand the distinction between sex trafficking and prostitution. People often mix those two up, and there is a lot of confusion. Well, you know, are they willingly coming, are they selling their bodies because they want to? The answer is no. No they're not. These are women who, my work, my documentary film focused on a region that I grew up in, where I came from, so it focuses on East European women who are sold for sex, into the sex trade, in the Middle East as well as Western Europe. And these women were offered legitimate jobs as factory workers, as waitresses, as nannies, caretakers of the elderly in places like Italy, Greece, Spain, Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and I can continue listing a whole array of countries. What I'm about to tell you applies to the United States as well. The formula is very similar in the way young females; young women are being shifted from place to place. Here in the U.S., it would be from state to state. Sometimes within the same state.
CRUISE: And we're talking very young girls in some cases, and young boys, I'm assuming as well.
CRUISE: And so the key there in the trafficking part is that in many cases these women are lied to and somehow get themselves into a situation - be it a job or something along those lines - and once they cross that border or cross that state, they are then in a situation where they cannot get out of it for fear of their lives, passport situations, in some cases they're being drugged, I'm assuming. How are they kept?
CHAKAROVA: All of what you just mentioned is correct. An important factor is that their documents are taken from them. So they have no longer any identity. If we focus on foreign women, these are women who don't speak the language. They don't know what number to call, even if they managed to run away from an apartment. You asked me how they are kept. A lot of them are kept in private residences. They're kept in houses, they're kept in apartments, and they’re kept in buildings. They're not necessarily brothels. A lot of them are private properties of someone who then turns their house, their apartment or their home into a brothel where men know whether it's online, or whether it's from another fellow guy who frequents these kinds of establishments, that there are women that you can have sex with that are a lot cheaper. And they are cheaper because they're trafficked women. These women are not making a single penny. The pimps and the traffickers collect all of it. So a trafficker will bring a woman, deliver her to the destination city or country, and sell her for a price depending on her age, depending on her nationality, depending on all kinds of other things that really sound like pricing a horse or cattle. And they would price her and sell her. And now this woman becomes the property of a pimp, and this pimp makes decision on her behalf as to how many clients she will have per day, and he will transport her from place to place. This cycle of debt, he will say to her, 'I paid money for you, so if you ever want to buy your freedom, it's going to cost you.' In some places it would be some exorbitant amount that you have to work off for him in order to gain her freedom. So it's a lot of brainwashing. It's a lot of violence. It's important for people to realize the amount of violence that these women endure. I'm often asked, 'Why couldn't they just escape?' And I understand why people are compelled to ask that question, but you have to understand the conditions under which these women are kept. And the conditions under which they're broken down, their spirit is broken down to do this type of work. If you even want to call it work, which I think it's the wrong word to use. It's not work. This exploitation.
CRUISE: It's always struck me, too, we often think of traffickers and those involved in these organizations, and think of them as male, but there are a lot of women involved in this as well. It kind of seems like going against one's gender to be putting other young girls in this sort of situation, but women are playing an increasingly large role in these circles, from my understanding.
CHAKAROVA: Women are playing a very significant role. Every girl I interviewed in my film The Price of Sex was trafficked by a woman. Women are more likely to trust women, so the criminal networks know how to use women to their advantage. They'll send the woman into a community and that woman will recruit younger females. And those younger females would believe the woman that yes, there is a legitimate job someplace, and if they just allow this woman to situate their paperwork and their documents, they can trust her and go with her. This woman is in fact the trafficker. This woman is in fact the person who goes through that transaction between the pimp and the delivery of the goods, if you want to call it that. She delivers the women, she receives payment. And then she recruits more, and that's the cycle. And yes, a lot of them are women, and it's tragic, but also I think people again have this misconception that this is all run by men. No, we play a huge part in this as well.
CRUISE: Well, you mentioned your award-winning documentary The Price of Sex, which seems to have a double-meaning. I think when we talk about trafficking, we're very much talking about, in its crassest sense, supply and demand and a commodity. But the price of sex, you're also talking about the price that these young women face if they do get away, or somehow escape, the emotional tolls that they must face must be incredible. I think it's so remarkable that you've spent a decade researching for this film. You seem to get incredible access to these young girls, and I wonder how you got that access, and what were some of the stories or some of the things that they shared with you, and how did they respond to you asking them about something that would seem so personal?
CHAKAROVA: It took a long time, and I was very naive at the beginning. I thought it might take a year, a year and a half, maybe two years, to really get young women to talk about what had happened to them. It ended up, in some cases, taking four or five years to really get the full story of their trafficking experience. Establishing trust, especially with people who have been deeply traumatized, emotionally and psychologically, physically as well, takes a long period of time. To gain access into their life, to be allowed to actually film and spend time with them, not only interview them, but to be on camera, it took a very long time. More than I ever anticipated. Some of the stories, some of the questions I asked were very difficult to ask. And often I had to gauge if the time was appropriate for those questions to be asked. I always wanted to know, 'What are the conditions from which these girls came from?' Because there is a pattern. Sex trafficking in particular, but also labor trafficking, it affects people who are desperate. It affects those young people, and I say young people because the age group, the age range keeps dropping. It used to be 18-24. Now we're seeing kids that are 11 and 12 that are being trafficked for sex.
CRUISE: And they're coming from very poor parts of the world, and they're...
CHAKROVA: They're coming from very poor parts of the world. And not just parts of the world. I use this example all the time. I live in California. Just 15 minutes from my house there is a place called International Boulevard in Oakland, California. I could be driving at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I would see 12 and 13-year-old girls that are on the street. Pimped out. And to me, this is just in my backyard. And these are kids. And these are kids who don't want to press charges because they have been brainwashed and manipulated and beaten and abused by their pimps, who initially were their boyfriends. And I want to share this story because you asked me about questions. I've also interviewed a lot of pimps. I've interviewed the demand side of this. I've interviewed the people who control these women. And I've interviewed people here in the United States as well trying to understand the psychology behind why they do what they do. And how to they recruit girls? I remember this conversation with a man who said, 'I'll go to a mall, and I'll see a girl not with her friends, but by herself, so I would think, 'Hmmm, interesting. She's sitting there by herself. She looks kind of sad.' And I'll go to her because he'll assume maybe she has family issues. Maybe she's trying to take some time away from home, from school. I'll go to her and I'll say, 'You have such pretty blue eyes, or such pretty brown eyes.' And I'll watch what she says. If she says 'Thank you!' I wouldn't go for her. But if she says, 'No I don't.' If she shows me lack of self-esteem, lack of confidence, then I know I can work with that. I can manipulate her. I can recruit her. I can make her feel special. And that's how it all starts in a lot of situation.
CRUISE: That strategic, it's incredible. And it seems like these pimps were willing to talk with you. I think that was the other thing that was somewhat striking. Now this is obviously a very difficult topic and very, very sad on many levels. But is there any hope? Are we becoming more aware of this situation? Are there things that can be done, or are being done to perhaps end on a slightly more positive note?
CHAKAROVA: There is a lot of hope. There is not hope, and I want to end on a realistic note, there is not hope in eliminating the problem, because I think that's unrealistic, but there is hope in reducing the numbers. And we reduce the numbers by making people aware, first and foremost. Because you'll be surprised how many people still do not know what is this thing called human trafficking. What does it entail? And who does it affect? So first and foremost, presenting information to people. Secondly, training law enforcement in the way that they handle the raids, and they handle these women, and these young men as well, with compassion and with empathy. And don't treat them as criminals. That's very...
CRUISE: They're victims.
CHAKAROVA: They're victims. It's very important to understand that, and to offer the proper training. So after we released the film, the United States' State Department got in touch, and they wanted to use The Price of Sex as a training tool in embassies throughout the world. That's a very positive step. The United Nations Office for Drugs and Organized Crime reached out and wanted to discuss anti-corruption practices. We're talking about global steps in the right direction. But yes, training law enforcement, and also accountability. That's the last missing piece of a very important equation. If traffickers are held accountable, if the judicial system delivers the proper punishment for the crime of putting these women through what they put them through, then you will see a reduction. But there is also one last thing - the demand. And that's the most difficult part of that equation. We have to change perceptions. We have to change the perceptions of those who purchase the services of these women. They have to understand that these women are not doing this willingly. They have to understand that each time they pay for this, it's rape. And I think once there is enough noise, once there is enough of a ripple effect, we can actually start looking at demand changing.
CRUISE: Thank you so much for sharing your time with us today.
CHAKAROVA: Thank you for having me.
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