Houston, the fourth largest city in the US, is widely considered to be the number one hub for human trafficking in North America.
The US Department of Justice estimates that at least one in five of all the country’s victims are trafficked through the city, and most of these people will be forced to work in the sex industry.
For the second episode of Dark States, Louis Theroux spends time with American women working in the city’s illegal sex industry and explores the complex dynamic between prostitute and pimp.
The pimps often become the heads of trafficked “families”, where their status is related to the “top” female, who becomes known as his “wife.”
In this bleak and morally-challenging subculture, Theroux struggles to understand what stops these women breaking free.
Shederick Smith, who is serving 42 years in Amarillo for pimping out a 15-year-old girl, offers: “Some women [are just] hoes.”
Visiting him in prison, Theroux endures a tense exchange with Smith, who pimped under the name ‘Fancy’ and insists he didn’t know the girl was underage. When asked if he had mistreated her, Smith protests he was only in charge of her for a week and jokes: “I couldn’t be too horrible in just seven days.”
Much of the women in Houston’s sex trafficking underbelly find themselves advertised on online classified advertising site Backpage.com – a service government officials contended promoted prostitution, human trafficking and child sex trafficking.
In January, the website abruptly shut its “adult” section after an investigation by the US senate which linked the company to sex trafficking via a series of coded emojis and phrases advertised in its dating and escort sections.
The section remains live in Britain, prompting Kevin Hyland, the UK independent anti-slavery commissioner to call for tighter regulation of such sites. “This is wholesale serious crime where people are trading in human suffering and trading in young children. We need to really think about how we police the internet and how we protect the most vulnerable,” he told The Times last month.
The lines between choice and fear are not always clear in a world that is blighted by abuse and addiction.
Nikki, who professes to “love” her job, resists Theroux’s suggestion she is a victim of trafficking, insisting it’s “not like you think.” She estimates she’s probably made around $150,000 in the year and a half she’s been working – all of which has gone to her pimp. Though he often beats her, she describes herself as “devoted and dedicated.”
Theroux also meets with baby-faced Savannah in drug rehab, who was recruited into prostitution when she was just 16. Already reported to the police as a runaway, the promise of a nice house, clothes and a car proved enticing and within hours, Savannah was being advertised on Backpage.com had her first client.
He also embeds with law enforcement on undercover operations and meets Vice Division officers tasked with persuading the working women to speak out against their pimps. Though Savannah falls out of recovery, she testified against her pimp, telling Theroux: “By testifying I got my power back.”
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris, received 22,191 reports of sex trafficking cases in the US. And in 2016, the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children estimated that 1 in 6 endangered runaways reported to them were sex trafficking victims.
If you suspect human trafficking in the UK, call the police.
If you would like confidential advice before doing so, you can call
The Salvation Army for reporting modern slavery on 0300 3038 151
The Modern Day Slavery Foundation’s helpline on 0800 0121 700
The NSPCC’s helpline on 0808 8005 000 if you think a child is in danger of trafficking.
Human trafficking is so endemic in Houston, the authorities launched anti-trafficking teams to patrol shelters in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
A statement said: “The mayor’s trafficking team and volunteers go cot to cot to place notes in English and Spanish, warning residents about any traffickers recruiting in the shelters or through social media with offers to stay with people who may later make them ‘pay’ by forcing them into prostitution, stripping or pornography.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner has also spearheaded a specially-dedicated website for Houston residents to learn about human trafficking and how to report it.
Louis Theroux: Dark States - Trafficking Sex airs on BBC2 on 15 October at 9pm.