Written by: Katie Linn | Previous Executive Director of Exploit No More
Ashley was just 14 years old when she met him. At the time she thought that he cared about and loved her. She had opened up and told him things that she rarely spoke to other people – about how her mother didn’t understand her and how her father had abandoned them years earlier. He bought her gifts and told her she was beautiful. She fell in love, but when he promised that he could fulfill her dreams and she left her life behind to be with him, everything changed.
Unfortunately, a story like Ashley’s is all too common for girls who fall victim to sex trafficking.
Loverboy syndrome is one of the most common tactics that pimps use in recruiting and grooming their victims. A pimp knows that once a girl is emotionally involved, she will do whatever she can to keep his affection. As a trafficker works to secure his victim, there are three main phases of recruitment that he will take before he is certain that she will not leave – the scouting, manipulating, and trapping phases.
The Scouting Phase
The process of recruitment into sex trafficking begins with the initial contact and bonding between the trafficker and the victim. Traffickers are experts at recognizing vulnerabilities in young girls, then using those vulnerabilities to connect with, manipulate, and exploit the girl. While traffickers are able to use many vulnerabilities to connect with a child, they often look for girls who have low self esteem, are isolated from friends and family, have a history of sexual abuse, are homeless or in the foster care system, come from a fatherless or broken home, or those who have conflicts with their parents or guardians. Once the girl’s vulnerabilities are identified, the trafficker works to fill the role that is missing, such as a father-figure, a boyfriend, or a caregiver.
The Manipulating Phase
As the victim begins to trust and become closer to the trafficker, he continues to bond with her through false love and affection. Also known as the ‘honeymoon’ phase, he will shower her with expensive gifts and compliments, they will engage in physical intimacy, and he will promise her the opportunity for a better life. The more that the trafficker provides for the girl and as she grows to trust him, she moves further away from her family or care-givers. Soon, she finds that she is dependent on her trafficker for her physical and emotional needs and desires.
The Trapping Phase
Once the trafficker knows that his victim is completely dependent on him, he will manipulate her into prostitution. Typically, he tells her that he has financial difficulties and asks her to help earn money for them to live on, encouraging her to sleep with his ‘friend’ in order to make some extra cash. While the girl does not want to have sex in exchange for money, she will often do so in order to make her ‘boyfriend’ happy, convinced that he loves her and wants what is best for her.
Through this process of recruitment and in the grooming through abuse that begins after, the trafficker and the victim begin to go through the process of trauma bonding, which is a strong emotional bond between two people, one of which harasses, beats, threats, abuses, or intimidates the other. A similar form a Stockholm Syndrome, it is the trauma bond that makes it so difficult for victims to leave their traffickers and causes the victims to return to them even after they have escaped the life of being trafficked.
While pimp-controlled trafficking is the most commonly identified and most well-known type of trafficking, it is just one of many types of sex trafficking that youth can be victims of. In the next few days, we will continue to look at other forms of sex trafficking, some of which have similar aspects as pimp-controlled, while others have very different factors that contribute to the exploitation.