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Love and Trafficking: How Traffickers Groom & Control Their Victims

“I can’t believe she fell for that.”
“If I were him I would have told someone!”
“I would have seen right through it.”

If you’ve never been targeted by a trafficker – or in an abusive or manipulative relationship of any kind – you may well think that nothing, ever, would convince you to have sex for money.

The reality is, many of us would be surprised by what we could be manipulated into doing, with the right combination of external factors in play. Traffickers are experts at finding those moments when people are vulnerable, of working the angles, of manipulating reality and leveraging fears. The process is called grooming. It is methodical, intentional and it works. Indeed, it is the most common way that people – adults and children wind up in sex trafficking situations. Sex trafficking very rarely begins with a violent abduction, or with a stranger involved at all. It begins with someone the victims knows, and usually loves or trusts.

While every situation is different the overall grooming process usually involves the following steps:

Targeting the Victim
Traffickers are adept at identifying people with noticeable vulnerabilities or needs. They may scour specific locations such as bus stations, shelters, or local malls looking for someone without a safe place to stay or who they may be able to charm with their flattery and attention. Or they may look more closely at the people in their lives who are vulnerable – both children and adults – someone who has been through a bad break up, has low self-esteem, is simply lonely, or is too young to understand. Social media has also provided traffickers with a convenient way to find and groom their victims. They may identify vulnerable individuals across the country or geographically target them using location-based apps.

Gaining Trust
Once a trafficker has identified their victim, they need to also gain that person’s trust. They may have several conversations where they form a bond over common interests or pretend to care about what they have experienced. They’ll pose as good listeners, who care deeply, as they learn more about what they can do to insinuate themselves more deeply in the victim’s life. Or, in situations where the trafficker may already be a part of their victim’s life – like a family member – it may come more easily. Either way, traffickers will gain trust and collect information that can be later used to manipulate their victims.

Meeting Needs
Once they have gained the trust of their victims and better understand their needs, traffickers offer a solution to meet those needs. Depending on the individual victim, these needs could be physical – like a safe place to stay or a job to help them take care of themselves or their family – or something less tangible like love, affection and a sense of belonging or confidence. By fulfilling these needs, traffickers gain power – the power to provide and the threat – often unspoken – to take away what the person thinks they’ve gained.

Traffickers need to put themselves at the center of victims’ lives to create a near total dependency. To do so, they distance their victims from anyone who might weaken their influence or contradict the messaging they’re providing. They might make off-handed comments about how they don’t like their friends or make it so they become increasingly reliant on them – by driving them to school or work and being there to pick them up. By isolating their victims, traffickers make it more difficult for them to reach out to others for help later on down the line.

The way traffickers begin the process of exploiting their victims isn’t always transparent. They may start slowly, by pushing their victim to do things they might be uncomfortable with, like asking them to have sex with a friend once or arranging a date for them as a way to make some quick money. Over time, the victim may be conditioned to believe that what they’re being asked to do is “normal.” They may even feel like they owe their trafficker for all they have done for them or believe their trafficker when they say that the situation is just temporary or a way for them to reach their common goals, such as getting out of the sex trade and starting a family – or keeping the current, abusive family together.

Maintaining Control
After traffickers establish control over their victims, they have to carefully craft strategies to maintain it. These strategies differ depending on the person or the situation. In many cases, physical force is not necessary. The trafficker may keep their victim in the trafficking situation by continuing to isolate them, threatening them or their loved ones if they attempt to leave, controlling them through their addiction, or even manipulating their sense of self. Sometimes losing the idea, the illusion of love, is enough to keep a person in a trafficking situation.

The purpose of the grooming process is for a trafficker to be able to gain full control over their victim and manipulate them into cooperating in their own exploitation.

It’s hard to spot the grooming process from outside the relationship – but it’s not impossible.

Talk to the people you love – your teenager, your younger child, your friends and co-workers. Pay attention to things that seem off, or wrong, that new significant other who doesn’t want to meet their friends, the child who is angry all the time but can’t explain why, the “dream date” who showers her with gifts that seem inappropriate, that older man who seems a little too invested in a young man’s life.

Take our pledge and make a promise to educate yourself and talk to your loved ones if you are concerned they are being groomed. These are hard conversations to have but they could be saving someone from being victimized. Understanding what grooming looks like is the first step.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.