Danielle Douglas had a wonderful Mother’s Day — breakfast out, a trip to the zoo with her husband and two children, snuggly naptime, and the gift of a colorful necklace and brooch.
This New Jersey woman looks like a modern-day young mother. She works at a pharmaceutical company, and in her spare time she experiments with fashion statements — different haircuts and color, and fanciful makeup to accentuate her beautiful hazel eyes.
But Danielle, 30, is far from typical. She is a survivor of human trafficking, victimized during her teen years by a vicious pimp who turned her out as a prostitute in the Boston area. Those violent years and how she survived is the subject of an upcoming documentary called “10,000 Men,” to be released later this year.
Today, Danielle is a woman with a mission.
On the heels of news about the House of Horrors in Cleveland, where three young women were held as sex slaves, Danielle is pushing for heightened awareness about how pervasive human sex trafficking is — nationwide. For Danielle, words matter.
“We have to start by changing the vocabulary that defines the crime,” she told me. And for her, “It all begins with the pimp.” For Danielle, that was the man who conned her, imprisoned her in a home with other women, brought in streams of strange men and allowed her only a few supervised phone calls home to her worried family. He lived off her labor.
Recently, Danielle turned to a dictionary to look up the word “pimp” and was floored at the milquetoast, turn-of-the-century definition she found in her Merriam-Webster: “A man who solicits clients for a prostitute.”
“This is like a 1920s definition!” she said. “Anyone who works with the problem of human trafficking knows that isn’t even close to what a pimp is! … Nothing about the violence they perpetrate and what they actually do to people,” she said with anger in her voice. “I decided, I’ve got to start a petition about this. … We have to get real!”
Danielle’s online petition calls for Merriam-Webster to understand that “pimps use fear, force and coercion to abduct human beings. They are usually violent and abusive, and can use various tactics to keep the human beings under their control.” She asks the dictionary keepers, “How can we expect people to understand sex trafficking when the definition of one of the main aspects is incorrect?”
My repeated messages to Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass., were ignored. But Danielle is a determined sort. She told me she finally got past the tape-recorded phone system and got a man in marketing on the phone. She calmly explained that she would like to discuss changing the definition of a word.
“He told me they only change definitions when they aren’t current anymore. And, ‘We decide what needs changing.’” Danielle was told that the brainiacs at Merriam-Webster scour the Internet to study current word usage, and that is what determines whether changes are made.
Gee, a quick Google search, and I was able to find pages of information about physically violent and mentally abusive pimps identified in scholarly human trafficking studies. It took me no time to learn about the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which equates pimps to slave owners. Let’s not overlook the fact that many pimps sell defenseless children. On the Justice Department’s website, I found more than 115 recent entries by simply searching the words, “Sex trafficking (plus) pimps (plus) children.”
The folks at Merriam-Webster may not know the term “pimp” means a lot more than just, “A man who solicits clients for a prostitute,” but we know. So, let’s take up the education campaign where the dictionary has faltered.
Armed with the knowledge of what a pimp really is —a modern-day slave owner of women and children — let’s all do our part to make sure another Cleveland-like situation isn’t happening right under our noses. Exact victim numbers are impossible to know, but a recent message from Congress estimates, “Every year as many as 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. from over 50 countries.” That doesn’t even count missing or exploited American citizens.
Obviously, the alleged Cleveland monster, Ariel Castro, 52, was not your run-of-the-mill pimp, but his brutality toward women had been well documented in a string of domestic violence complaints dating back to 1989.
In 2004, police went to his home after he was accused of mistreating a child on his school bus, but no one answered, and police never tried to speak to him at the house again. More recently, when neighbors say they called in a report of seeing a naked woman chained in his backyard, Castro should have already been on law enforcement’s radar even though none of the numerous complaints against him ever wound up in court.
Things won’t get better until we all get involved. Neighbors? Make it your business to know what’s going on at that spooky house down the block. Call police with your suspicions because there is no telling what — or who — they might find behind those blacked-out windows. Call more than once if you have to.
To law enforcement, I say: More awareness training, please, so officers don’t just stop-and-knock, but actually ask to come inside for a routine welfare check — in all rooms of the house. And to politicians: How about some tougher anti-pimp laws to ensure it isn’t just the prostitute who gets arrested?
And while I’ve got your attention, why not sign Danielle’s petition at www.change.org/petitions/? Words matter, and true definitions enlighten.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net.