A pimp is usually portrayed in the entertainment industry with lots of jewelry, lots of women, lots of money, cars and power. He has a long, sleek coat and a big extravagant hat.

In reality, anyone with the ability to coerce and deceive, who has a good internet connection, and a means to drive his girls to calls can qualify for the job.

Take Marcus Tarter, for instance.

He operated a local landscaping company until his arrest. Would you pick him out of a line-up for a pimp?

Before the Safe Harbor laws were enacted in 2013, which increased the penalties for prostitution while protecting minors brought into the sex industry, pimping was a misdemeanor. It carried the same weight as prostitution, selling one's body for money.

For some people, that seems fair - but not for lawmakers like attorney Lindsey Roberson, who was an assistant district attorney in New Hanover County in 2013.

From her perspective, someone profiting from multiple women out of a hotel should not be on the hook for the same misdemeanor as the girl inside that room. For as long as anyone can remember, the legal world has always focused on the woman and skipped over the investigation of the man (in rare cases, woman) driving her "work."

"If we focus on the girls on the street and prosecuting them like - yes, that is a crime and it's taking place, but it's so complex, you know?" said Roberson. "They're there for so many reasons. Desperation, abuse, exploitation, coercion, deception. The people who are profiting off them are the pimps and the traffickers. They're there for one reason - money."

Thanks to Roberson's efforts on Safe Harbor, pimping in North Carolina is now considered a felony.

"How many times can I sell you a drug? Once and it's consumed?" asked Roberson. "How many times can I sell you a gun? Once. How many times can I sell you a person?  10, 15, 20 times a day."

According to Roberson, human exploitation is the second-most profitable enterprise in the world. The industry rakes in between $32 and $115 billion globally each year.

"Who's putting that money in their pocket? It is not the woman walking on Market Street," Roberson said. "It's the people who are selling her. It's the online provision of people being able to market flesh around America, that's who's putting the money in their pocket."

"It's the most profitable crime. It's the least prosecuted, and I don't know the latest statistic, but everyone believes it will overtake drug trafficking," said Louise Coggins, a licensed clinical social worker. "So if you wanted to get into big crime you would be so much smarter to sell girls or children than drugs and guns. This is open to everybody. Everybody can run a girl."

According to Cary Ramsay at A Safe Place, a woman goes back to her pimp an average of seven times. The average life span of a woman once she starts prostituting is seven years. These statistics have Ramsay raising an eyebrow.

It's hard to understand how any woman would agree to step into a pimp's world. In most cases, the woman takes a too-good-to-be-true offer from the pimp that promises her financial security and protection because she is desperate.

That comes at a steep cost, of course. Working nearly 24 hours a day, physical abuse, emotional abuse, rape, neglect and intimidation are also part of his package offer.

"There's a woman who was talking to one of us one day and she said, 'I know my pimp beats me. I know my pimp rapes me, but at the end of the day he gets me my favorite soda and my favorite candy bar, so really, he loves me,'" said Ramsay, repeating the justification a woman had told her for staying with her pimp.

A candy bar is not love, but for many of these women out on the streets that small bit of what they perceive as "love" keeps them hanging on. It's what fuels a pimp's ability to build a little financial kingdom.

There's also the "boyfriend" who is now, because of the law changes, fair game for pimping charges. In this case she sees clients, and that money is used to help them both eat, sleep and live. He is in fact, profiting off the sale.

Alexa's story outlines how these situations evolve.

She and her boyfriend started doing drugs together and quickly spent their funds to buy drugs and put a roof over their head.

Years before, Alexa had tried being a "dancer" for hire but quickly quit. With this information in his back pocket, her boyfriend encouraged her to start escorting to help them both out.

Alexa was baffled. He assured her that it wasn't cheating and that he was 100 percent on board with her "efforts" to help them out.

She posted on Backpage and started making hundreds of dollars a day. They had all the drugs they wanted, but he immediately changed how he treated Alexa.

He wouldn't touch her anymore. Not even a hug. He asked about when her next call was instead of how she was doing.

Immediately Alexa knew she had become nothing more than a means to an end for him.

Are pimps a thing of the past now that online platforms enable the women to pimp themselves? Many women work independently and cited Backpage for enabling their ability to work for themselves.

"I will say it's quite common, in my experience, for a woman to tell you that she doesn't have a pimp and that she is an independent worker because she doesn't want to expose her pimp for fear of retribution, violence or otherwise from that pimp," explained Roberson.

"Reality is you work for yourself," Kasi explained. "Who wants to give up their drug money? Nobody. Who wants to sit there and give a percentage to somebody who does absolutely nothing but sit on their ass. Nobody."

Karly worked for a pimp for a short time before taking things into her own hands.

"They take 40 percent or whatever, and I'm the one doing all the work and you're not doing nothing but sitting on your ass, you should not be getting none of my [expletive] money," Karly said.

Online ad sites may be helping the independent worker, but pimps and traffickers are certainly still alive and well. So are escort companies, several of which operate in southeastern North Carolina. They advertise companionship, but you just have to ask the woman to get the real story.

"In the contract you're not supposed to tell them really that you [have sex] 'cause what happens behind closed doors, happens," explained Alexa, who worked for a local escort company who requires all of their woman to sign a contract stating that they will not have sex with clients.

Former workers say it's only to protect the company owner from the law. The policy says what it says, but the girls say sex is absolutely a part of the deal.

"If you weren't to do that, it could turn nasty," Alexa explained. "The client's going to flip out and you could get hurt if you didn't give them the sex that they paid for."

"It's not a thin line. It's all exploitation," Roberson said. "I think if we want to be frank about it, in general, I've yet to meet a man who is willing to spend over a $100 just to listen to someone talk for over an hour."

She calls this the "escort myth" - that it's just dancing, just partying, just quality time.

"If you have an escort service that's sending women out and they're collecting cash for sexual contact that's promotion of prostitution, that's advancing prostitution, and that's a felony," Roberson retorted. "So the idea that a woman is complicit in that arrangement doesn't negate or absolve the escort service from liability for what he's engaged in. It's a criminal activity."

We reached out to an escort company owner after one of his staff was arrested for prostitution in a sting operation. She protected the owner vehemently and we were curious to hear directly from the company.

After blocking communication on our initial contact, the owner responded that his company had a zero-tolerance policy for breaking the rules.

We asked for a formal interview and to see the paperwork they receive at their hiring. We were again blocked from communication.

As you can see, pimps take on several forms. Traffickers are another, click here to read more.

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