Sex-trafficking survivor Shandra Woworuntu has a very good memory. She remembers everything that happened to her, “exactly as it happened,” during the part of her life when, just one hour after she arrived to the U.S. from Indonesia, she was forced to have sex for money. “I had three ‘bottoms,’” she says, referring to the three women who were appointed by her trafficker to supervise her inside and outside the brothel in Queens, New York. “One was very quiet,” she says. “I met her first — she managed the money and she told me, ‘You will meet your papa that will handle you.’ I didn’t know what she meant.”
The second woman, Woworuntu says, was a “beautiful older woman” with her hair and makeup always immaculately styled. “When you saw her, you just feel like, ‘Wow!’” she remarks. This woman would tell her which clients were good and which were bad. “She seemed like a mother,” says Woworuntu. “She told me, ‘I will help you, you will be okay. If I was slapped or hurt, she’d be the one to tell me that, after awhile, you will make your money and you will be okay.” According to Woworuntu, this woman was the most powerful of the three, as she had a bouncer with her most of the time who would threateningly swing a baseball bat in front of Woworuntu.
The third “bottom” appointed to “look after” her was the only one of the three that also “performed sex in the brothel,” and as such, was “competing with the other girls.” “If the sex buyer comes, he will pick and choose from her [the third bottom] first,” she says. “If she likes it, she’ll do it.”
Woworuntu remembers thinking that the third bottom was just like her — she, too, came from another country, and she too was dependent on a visa that was ending soon. “She was nice,” says Woworuntu. “Telling me what to do with the sex buyer and how to hide the money. What to do if the police were to come and arrest me. She gave me hope, actually. She was the one who gave me life.”
This third bottom was also the one to give Woworuntu the number of a man who, she told Woworuntu, would give her a job if she ever managed to escape. “She told me he would help me with money,” Woworuntu says. “So I kept the phone number until I escaped, and I called that number. He was another trafficker. She [the third bottom] was having relations with the other trafficker who owned the brothel.”
So there wasn’t a job. There wasn’t an escape. She was just being sex-trafficked once more.
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In the context of sex trafficking, the position of “bottom” has many names, according to the Innocent Lives Foundation, “including bottom girl, bottom bitch, top girl, ho, homegirl and girlfriend.” “Most commonly referred to as the ‘bottom bitch,’ she is an unremembered and invaluable part of the commercial sex industry,” per their definition. “Within the subculture of sex trafficking, pimps use this girl to sit at the top within the hierarchy of prostitutes. Typically, the bottom has been manipulated for the longest time and has earned the pimp’s trust.”
Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, an anti-trafficking and exploitation coordinator and a sex-trafficking survivor, tells me that a bottom girl may be asked to do a variety of different tasks. “A bottom girl may be asked to drop somebody off, get a hotel room or supply something, whether that’s materials, condoms, drugs or any of those things,” she says. “They may be able to collect funds or receive funds or what we’d call a babysit — which is when they’d be watching the other person work to make sure that they’re staying in line and not out of pocket, which means following rules, things of that sort.” Pettigrew goes as far to say that in many cases, being a bottom is more dangerous. “Because you mess up, you’re not just messing up for yourself,” she says. “You’re messing up operations, you’re messing up the model, you’re messing up all of that.”
Per the Urban Institute, nearly one in three pimps delegate management responsibilities to a bottom: “They [bottoms] can also perform recruiting, administrative and supervisory duties, such as waking the employees, keeping them on a schedule, paying bills, making doctor’s appointments, keeping the peace and sometimes administering disciplinary actions.”
The process of becoming a bottom, according to Matthew Myatt, a Nootbaar Fellow at Pepperdine Law’s global justice program, is often carried out through a contrived romantic relationship, one that’s typical of the trafficker’s “grooming” process — this includes giving affection and earning the trust of the victim through attention, shelter, food and/or commodities. “In terms of coercion, it’s important to note that traffickers will generally use the least amount of force, fraud or coercion necessary to compel their victims,” he says. “This is why traffickers turn to psychological manipulation rather than using chains, guards, or high-tech surveillance systems.”
Specifically, Myatt says, sex traffickers often have several children with their bottom — the children can be used as a further means of securing the victim to the trafficker’s will. “Victims learn to compete with one another to gain the trafficker’s approval, to demonstrate their loyalty or to escape punishment,” says Myatt. “When traffickers target more than one victim, a common tactic is to create a hierarchy among victims and a culture of distrust. Victims are taught to distrust law enforcement and believe they’re just as culpable as their traffickers. This can lead to trauma bonding, where the victim fails to identify as a victim and may defend her trafficker.”
In that way, Ortiz says, a bottom is very much trusted by the trafficker. “They’re groomed into the ideology of that environment,” she says. “They’re very much connected in regards to their own survival being dependent on the survival of the operation.”
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This dependency — the heart of the victim-perpetrator dilemma — is the epicenter of the legal grey area in the realm of human trafficking. It’s where right and wrong become inextricably enmeshed, forming a moral fabric that doesn’t align with a federal justice system that’s so often absolute in its determination of purity.
This, in short, is why it’s often the case that just like the trafficker, the bottom — also a victim in nearly every case — is also charged with trafficking crimes. In May 2016, the New Haven Register reported on one such case, in which Sheena Dume — then a 23-year-old who served as a bottom for her co-defendant Wellington Brown — was charged with trafficking. “Dume was the fifth woman to be sentenced in a Connecticut federal court in connection with a sex-trafficking crime since 2006, based on information provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” the paper reported. “Six women total have been sentenced since 2006, and all but one received less time than their male co-defendants. The one exception was a husband and wife team charged in October 2012, where both defendants received the same sentence of 6½ years.” (Per federal law, Dume will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life.)
Just last month, the Washington Post reported on a similar case in which Hope Zeferjohn — a former bottom who was allegedly beaten so hard by her trafficker that “she had two miscarriages and [whose trafficker] threatened to hurt her son if she disobeyed him” — requested a pardon for 2016 charges of aggravated human trafficking and nine related felonies made against her. “The charges stemmed from accusations that Zeferjohn had introduced to [Anthony] Long [Zeferjohn’s trafficker] a 14-year-old girl she had met in a foster home, KCUR reported, citing court documents,” according to the Post. “Long is accused of telling the girl she could live with them in exchange for sex and said he would kill her if she reported him to police, according to KCUR. Zeferjohn allegedly told the girl she had to go along with Long’s demands.”
Additionally, Zeferjohn was also accused of offering drugs to a 15-year-old girl. “When Long supplied the drugs, he allegedly made both girls repay him with sex, KCUR reported,” writes Marisa Iati for the Post. “The 15-year-old told police what had happened, and Long and Zeferjohn allegedly retaliated against her by selling her to a man for a weekend, according to KCUR.”
Needless to say, “when investigators and prosecutors encounter trafficking victims who have engaged in criminal conduct during the course of their trafficking, a unique challenge arises,” Myatt writes in his dissertation on the victim-perpetrator dilemma. “On one hand, the interest of justice calls for law enforcement to consider the degree of psychological coercion, the victim’s level of intent and autonomy and the need to protect victims from being ‘inappropriately incarcerated, fined or otherwise penalized solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked…’ On the other, law enforcement must balance the circumstances underlying the criminal offense and the harm inflicted to others that could have reasonably been avoided.”
Alexandra Levy Yelderman, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, who studies the ways in which criminal laws contribute to human trafficking, sees this form of coercion as varying levels of the “proverbial gun” of circumstance that forces a person to commit a crime. “Starting with prostitution, they’re not consenting to that, we know that by virtue, but literally by definition of being trafficked, they definitely should not be in jail for that,” she says. “So then you move one step out: Let’s say, using drugs. Well, they’re using drugs because they’re trying to get themselves out of the hellscape that their lives are, so are they really culpable? Or, let’s say their traffickers — this happens all the time — get them addicted to increase their leverage over them. So, did they really do that on purpose? No.”
In those cases, Yelderman says that although currently there is no federal vacatur law — which would permit survivors of sex trafficking to vacate the records of their convictions for prostitution and other criminal activities that they committed as a result of their involvement in sex trafficking — several states have worked to include them in their penal code. “I know that Florida’s really at the cutting edge of expanding those laws,” she says. “New York was the first, in fact, to have a statute that went beyond prostitution offenses.” According to the National Council of Jewish Women, 16 other states have also enacted full vacatur laws. Most recently, in 2017, California added a statute to its penal code whereby anybody who is identified as a human-trafficking victim who has been forced to commit non-violent offenses shouldn’t be criminalized.
But again, the majority of female defendants in federal cases are bottoms, and are therefore, a lot of the time, “working in tandem with their trafficker,” says Felderman. This duality, she says, represents the next level of the “proverbial gun of circumstance,” one that’s usually judged by the level of duress a trafficking victim is under to traffic others. “Certainly, in many cases, they face reprisal if they don’t,” she says. “It’s not an acute situation of like, ‘Okay, you do X, or I’m going to shoot you,’ or ‘You do X, or I’m going to hurt you.’ It’s like, ‘In this ongoing way, I’m going to make your life even worse if you don’t cooperate with me.’”
One specific case Yelderman refers to is that of Kimberly Alberti, a minor who was appointed to be a bottom by her trafficker. “There were a bunch of male defendants and bottoms who were prosecuted, including this woman,” she says. “She was actually incarcerated on her 18th birthday, but then made a series of phone calls, from prison, directing the trafficking operation, basically on behalf of her pimp/boyfriend. So, they got her for trafficking days after her 18th birthday.”
Yelderman admits that up to a certain point, Alberti’s story — a minor coerced into aiding her trafficker — is a sympathetic one. “Except that one of the things she would do, as a minor, is recruit girls from a school for teenage mothers — a high school,” says Yelderman. “She would go and find these girls and be like, ‘I can help you get your kid back if you come work for me.’ To my knowledge, she wasn’t physically violent, but the level of control and power that she had… She’s clearly brilliant, the way she pulled the puppet strings of this operation.”
According to Yelderman, Alberti’s case is one of many examples of a “mixed case.” “She was so effective and so manipulative, it’s like, ‘Yes, this is the kind of person who you probably do not want out,’” she says. “There’s a million examples of bottoms who were also physically abusive. They made the other girls get their [the bottom’s] name tattooed on their faces, etc.”
Further complicating things, Ortiz says, is the fact that in most cases, the bottom doesn’t understand their own victimization, “So they can’t even begin to put it in a mind frame that they’re harming someone else, because they don’t realize how they’ve been harmed,” she explains. “So for them to come out of it and understand how they were victimized, and on top of that, for them to understand how they were put in a position to be cohesive in victimizing others, that’s going to put a bigger weight on them.”
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For all of the reasons above, Yelderman doesn’t believe we’re going to get anywhere by “tallying up the brutality.” Instead, she says, the correct response, “if there even is one, regardless of what people deserve or don’t, is asking if this person is going to reoffend.”
Myatt also admits that the debate over whether someone is a victim or a perpetrator is a futile one. “When a trafficking victim [usually a bottom] commits a more serious offense or becomes involved in the recruitment and management of other victims, the line between ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ can become almost indistinguishable,” he says. “For now, the solution to this dilemma hasn’t been realized by granting a statutory, blanket protection to victims engaged in the trafficking scheme, but instead by granting the prosecutor with discretion on how to proceed when analyzing the complex considerations of each crime.”
But Myatt adds that this solution only works when prosecutors are trained to spot indicators of victimization and are trained in trauma-informed approaches. “Even highly experienced, well-informed prosecutors with good intentions may disagree on whether a person is a ‘victim’ or a ‘perpetrator,’” he says.
All of which brings us to the crux of the issue: Determining the level of duress or coercion necessary to absolve a person of criminal liability, and whether that level of coercion is best determined by statute or on a case-by-case basis. “The idea of not holding someone accountable for their criminal conduct is more controversial than one would think,” says Myatt. “The unfortunate truth is that victims aren’t immune from criminal liability, and in instances in which a victim’s conduct isn’t deemed a product of coercion and is sufficiently harmful to third parties, it may be appropriate for prosecutors to consider charging a victim, despite their victimization.”
Still, Myatt argues that since trafficking victims are uniquely situated and suffer varying degrees of coercion that often directly contribute to their involvement in criminal conduct, “state statutes should provide a victim with a presumption of coercion for any non-violent crime committed during the course of her trafficking,” he says.
Understanding this, for her part, Woworuntu doesn’t blame the bottoms. “I still don’t understand why she [the bottom who gave Woworuntu the number to a different trafficker] did that,” she says. “Maybe she will make a little money or maybe she got pressured from the trafficker. Or if she didn’t do it, she will get punished. I still don’t know, but my anger is not toward the bottom.” Instead, she says, her anger is targeted at the supply and demand of people who are exploited by the sex industry — the customers themselves, in other words.
For said customers, the sex-trafficking industry is often indistinguishable from regular sex work, according to StoptheTraffik.org. Per its website, while there are a few ways to tell between sex workers and people who are coerced into performing a commerical sex act — signs of physical abuse; the conditions of the room or home; whether the person has to give the money to someone else — “the differences can almost be invisible.”
To that end, Woworuntu instructs that the language we use to describe the various facets of sex trafficking shouldn’t be the same as it is for sex work. “These are women who are prostituted,” she says, “not prostitutes. They are exploited in the sex industry or sex trade.” She adds that in the context of trafficking, the customer should be referred to as a “sex abuser” or “prepetrator,” rather than a “john.” It’s these perpetrators, Woworuntu points out, that really drive the sex-trafficking economy. “The bottom is a part of the system, but she isn’t the power,” says Woworuntu. “She’s in charge of the women, but she isn’t the power behind the business.”
Yelderman sees it differently, however. The problem, she believes, isn’t necessarily demand: “The problem is the supply, and the supply comes from vulnerability and homelessness, and 12-year-olds who are homeless and at a bus stop because they’ve been kicked out of their houses,” she says. “I don’t really know what it means to end demand for sex, but you get rid of the customers in some parallel universe and you still have the 12-year-old at the bus stop. If she’s not going to be raped by customers, she’ll be raped by someone else. This is all to say that I think our penological system isn’t equipped to really make inroads here.”
Which is why she believes that once you get beyond the proverbial gun to the “next proverbial gun,” you arrive at the reality that none of these issues have ever been solved by incarcerating somebody. “The more years I work in trafficking, the more I become a prison abolitionist,” says Yelderman, who is also a senior staff attorney at the Human Trafficking Legal Center. “I’m just sick of it. It’s not doing anybody any good. By the time you’re being prosecuted for these things, the best we can do is provide resources, vocational training and intensive therapy, all of those kinds of things. But the real answer is that you get in there before they’re trafficked, or before they become traffickers. That’s how you get to the underlying factors: Poverty, abuse, homelessness. These are the root causes of trafficking.”