The prostitutes worked for a pimp now. He was splendid and cruel. He was a god to them. He took their free will away from them, which was perfectly all right. They didn't want it anyway. It was as though they had surrendered themselves to Jesus, for instance, so they could live unselfishly and trustingly - except that they had surrendered to a pimp instead.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
...in 2005 Dallas Police officials realized that arrests of teen prostitutes is ineffective [sic].... Because girls will not testify against pimps, arrests stopped teen prostitution temporarily and did not lead to the prosecution of pimps. After their first, second, third and even the fourth arrests and releases from jail, teen prostitutes headed straight back to their pimps.
--Letot Girls Center, "The Problem"
There's so much desensitization that has happened, so much normalization of exploitation that has happened, so much internalization of trauma that has happened. Some of them would any day go back to their pimps or procurer than rather be with us.
--Sunita Krishnan, founder of NGO that rescues girls from the sex trade
The problem of pimps is a problem of people. The problem is not merely that a few sociopaths exploit others for their own gain; the problem is that human beings come with built-in exploits, honed by evolution and primed by life experiences, that allow them to be exploited by sociopaths (who constitute at least 3% of the general population).
Pimping and domestic violence are strange sorts of crime - strange, in that the victims of the crimes frequently identify with, support, and eventually return to relationships with the perpetrators of the crimes. Part of each crime - the essential features that enables the crime to occur - is that the perpetrator manages to satisfy a huge part of the social belonging need of the victim.
Advocates for girls exploited by pimps often focus on drugs as a need both created by and filled by pimps, neglecting the extremely important social belonging aspect. Trafficked girls are disproportionately girls with shitty family lives - neglected and abused by their parents. They are, in a real sense, starving - for affection, structure, attention, belonging, even status. Pimps are able to exploit these needs, making themselves into superstimuli of a sort - appearing to fill these needs even better than more appropriate figures that might better fulfill trafficked girls' needs.
I have been meaning to write on this issue for a while, and fully intended to start the essay with this sentence: "The problem of pimps is a problem of women." However, while sex trafficking vastly disproportionately affects girls and women, the phenomenon of sociopaths making themselves into superstimuli and exploiting inbuilt belonging and status needs of others affects men as victims as well. A beautiful example of this process is presented in Episode 447 of the radio show This American Life, entitled "The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms." (Spoilers below, but the show is fascinating either way. See also "The Setup," the journalist's account of the story that led to the drama and inspired the show.)
The alleged sociopath in question is Chris Butler, who ran a private investigation firm that was supposed to be the subject of a reality television show on Lifetime. It appears that Butler faked several of the cases that his P.I. moms investigated, but as those frauds unraveled, he was also busted for selling drugs. But not just any drugs - drugs seized by the Contra Costa Police Department. He had an inside man in the department, Norm Wielsch, who, along with many other people involved with Butler, points to the charisma of Butler as a major contributing factor to the illegal schemes:
Norm Wielsch: Whoever has talked to Chris knows that he has the gift of gab. He could talk you into buying anything. I mean, I'm not blaming him, but he had his way of you know, kind of coercing a little bit more, you know, where if I would say, 'Hey, that's a stupid idea,' all of a sudden the golden tongue would come out, and then all of a sudden I'd be driving home thinking, that's not a bad idea, you know? ...
He always insisted on buying lunch, and pull out his credit card; he would bring some of the girls there [presumably girls from the illegal brothels he ran], and he would make sure they were dressed all pretty and stuff...there was a little theater to it. And then he would come in his black Mercedes, which, you know, and you're impressed, you're sitting there going 'wow,' you know?
Joshuah Bearman: Even now, in his lawyer's conference room, you can hear in Norm's voice that he still feels it a little bit, that Chris had some kind of hold on him, as he did on so many other people. It's obvious when you see Chris in action.
Whether we believe Wielsch and the other adult participants in this particular case or not, the charismatic, "superstimulus"-type person is an inherently believable archetype. In the excerpt above, Butler even uses the same flashy methods on his male accomplice that pimps use to attract and retain women to exploit.
The most important aspect that makes people slaves is not bad, mean slave owners. It is our inherent, inborn needs that makes us slaves - that make us willing to go back to an abusive boyfriend or a pimp even when we have other options. The problem of stuperstimulus is not the superstimulus. It is the need that the superstimulus exploits.
See also the Overcoming Bias thread "Moneyball Slavery" and comments, relating to the phenomenon of slavery in different contexts (such as baseball players).