Grooming, Exploitation, and Control
Ah love …. It is the universal human need, the stuff of songs and sonnets, the subject of libraries of literature and countless works of art. It is also, in the wrong hands, a powerful weapon of exploitation. Indeed, it is the most common weapon used in sex trafficking operations. Contrary to popular misconceptions, sex trafficking rarely begins with kidnapping by a stranger. Instead, sex traffickers groom their victims by using love – romantic love, friendship and familial love – to manipulate them into cooperating in their own exploitation.
In 2020, 42% of trafficking victims were brought into trafficking by a member of their own families and 39% were recruited via an intimate partner or a marriage proposition.*
(Not) Love Stories
The survivors whose stories we share below come from different backgrounds and experiences. What they have in common is that they were vulnerable, at one point in their lives, to manipulation by someone who claimed to love them, and that they found the strength to break free and begin to heal. Hear about their experiences in their own words.
Real Written Stories
The sexual abuse started first when I was about three years old – at least that was my first memory of it. My father told me this is what boys did with their dads. This is how dads teach boys about their bodies. I didn’t question any of it, because this was my father and this was my concept of what fathers did. I assumed he loved me. I assumed this what fathers who loved their sons did. It never occurred to me otherwise. In fact, I only started questioning what he was doing because he told me not to tell my mother, and I thought that was strange. This was the grooming part of things.
The trafficking started when I was about six years old because my dad wanted access to other boys, so he trafficked me to other men. He told me to do things and I did them because that’s how fathers and sons interacted. Just in case, though, he threatened me. The threats got scarier too. He was a doctor and he told me if I told anyone about these “parties” and these men that he would force me to take a pill that would kill me and tell everyone else I had committed suicide.
That was certainly a big part of why I didn’t tell anyone. I was scared. But I also think that in some way I loved him. I loved him and I wanted him to be proud of me. I wanted him to love me as unconditionally as I loved him. To get that, it was my job to do what dad wanted me to do – and not to tell anyone. That was how I would have a father-son relationship.
The abuse stopped when I hit puberty and somehow I had no memories of it for years after. When I talked about my childhood it was always in these glowing terms, like I had all these other amazing experiences – I didn’t remember the abuse. I gave the eulogy at his funeral. The memories didn’t come until after he died. Early on in my recovery, I wished the memories hadn’t come back.
Sam is a father of two and a district court judge. He is committed to sharing his experiences in part to help people understand that boys and men are affected by human trafficking, not only women and girls.
He had been watching me, targeting me, since I was 16. I would see him around at parties but I didn’t really think anything of it. When I was 17, I fell asleep on the bus and missed my stop. and there he was, offering me a ride. When I got in the car, he was playing my favorite band. I had just gotten out of a relationship with someone who was in college and I was so sure I knew about what relationships should be, and what was a bad relationship.
Ours got really intense, really fast. At first, it was a lot of fun. He had money and everyone loved him. We went to parties and there were a lot of drugs, and there were always porn movies being shown, which I thought was weird. But I was young and I just decided, hey I’m not going to say anything because I’m cool now. I had it in my mind that this was what adult relationships were. I was being groomed, but I didn’t know it.
Slowly, he started to control everything. He said he didn’t like my friends, so I stopped seeing them. He’d drive me everywhere so I didn’t have to take the bus. Every time I went anywhere I’d call him just so he knew I got there safely. If he called and I missed it I would freak out. By the time I graduated high school I had left home and moved in with him. I had been applying to colleges away from home, so he asked me to marry him at my prom.
He had always encouraged me to have sex with other people. He said we were cool, we were swingers, this is what adults did. He never mentioned it was for money. He was my whole world, I would do anything for him. Eventually, we needed a new place and he was like “hey, I have this great idea ….” I never really understood that what I was doing would be considered prostitution.
Eventually, though, it started not to feel right. He started leaving instead of waiting for me. He would just take me to a hotel room and drop me off. I started to feel really lonely. I’d say I didn’t want to do this, and he’d get violent.
I got away eventually, but for years after I was in these exploitative relationships. That’s what I thought love was.
Chelsea graduated from college magna cum laude with a degree in criminal justice, the field she hopes to work in full time. She’s married, raising children and working to find ways to use her experience and understanding of trafficking and abuse to help others.
I met him briefly through my cousin and he started following me on social media. We didn’t really connect beyond emojis and that kind of thing until I posted about my boyfriend cheating on me. I was clearly upset, vulnerable. I was a single mom, living with my family in a bad situation. Then he started making me think we had so much in common, like he cared. I was vegan at the time and he lied and said he was too. He’d tell me about vegan recipes and restaurants that had good vegan food.
Eventually I moved to the state where he lived and we started spending time together – but not in public. Then he started talking about needing money. I had done some webcamming before so stripping didn’t seem too crazy. Then the rest of it sort of went from there. Words of affirmation are my main love language and he is really good with words. He knew what to say and when to say it. I rationalized the prostituting, like, if your boyfriend pays for your nails to get done, he’s paying you to have sex with him, so it’s not that different.
He didn’t keep all the money, but a lot of it. He made it seem like he was in a really bad place, and I wanted to help him. I needed approval. He’d say things like, “once I’m in a good place we can make our relationship official, we can get engaged when we hit $10,000, I can put a ring on it.”
Jessie has participated in the job training program at The Avery Center and worked to process her trafficking experience. She is still healing but is in a much better emotional space and a healthy relationship, and is hopeful about what the future holds for her and her children.
My trafficker was my first love. He was “that” guy, the cute one, the football player in high school, the whole thing. I was bullied as a kid. I was a light-skinned black girl in the era of bussing kids to integrate public schools in Massachusetts. The black kids thought I wasn’t black enough, and the white kids threw bricks at the bus that brought the black kids to school.
He and three of his friends got kicked out of their high school and came to mine and everyone thought he was so handsome. My self-esteem had been so stripped to nothing at that point, I figured he wasn’t going to pay any attention to me – and then he did.
I was so in love with him. I lost my virginity to him. At 15 I got pregnant. When the baby was born he started coming by to pick up some of my welfare check – my family was taking care of me but in those days you just got a check more easily. I’d hear these rumors about him and other girls and just get in fights and things about it. I was crazy in love.
We’d go out driving around with his cousin and these other girls, around this area that was all strip clubs and things, called the “combat zone.” These girls would get out of the car for a while then come back in. I realize now I was being groomed, and my boyfriend was being groomed to – to be a pimp.
It kept going like that. I was being exposed, made to think this was normal or okay. My boyfriend was telling me he loved me, he was seducing me with the fantasy, the dream. He’d say it was only for a short time. We’d get a car, an apartment together, with the baby. I mean this was my baby’s father.
Then one night they took me and they put me out on the street corner. The first car I got into was an undercover police officer – and he told me if I didn’t perform a sex act on him he would arrest me.
After that, my boyfriend would come watch out for me when I was on the corner. He’d be across the street or something and I’d think, he loves me, he is looking out for me. It’s just crazy now, looking back. Love. Seduction. It’s the most powerful thing someone can use against you.
I was always looking for love in the wrong places and would do anything for it. Once I got it, the thought of losing it was more terrifying than what I was doing to keep it.
Andrea is a leader in the survivor empowerment and anti trafficking movement and the founder of an organization dedicated to helping young women and girls who have survived sexual exploitation find their strength and their voice.
My trafficker was my grandfather. I was raised in a fundamentalist religious community, very strict, with very high standards of morals and very patriarchal. Women could not have any roles of power whatsoever over men. I was taught to be a good child, to be obedient and submissive and very, very loyal to my family. The responsibility was always to protect them, to keep them safe. There was love, the way I understood it to be, but always laced with tendrils of fear and emotional and psychological abuse.
There had been other incidents with my grandfather harming other family members, but there was always a cover-up, they were told to take it back. This was told to me when I was an adolescent by my parents, adding to my confusion about why this man was allowed to continue this evil behavior. But love in my family meant loyalty to the system, which meant protecting the perpetrators; my grandfather and his sons.
When he started grooming me as a very young child, he used my love of my parents, playing on my shame, saying “you don’t want them to know you are a dirty disgusting person. You’re a whore.” I didn’t understand what he meant but I learned quickly to just obey because to me, obedience was how I showed I loved and respected my elders. I loved my grandmother, and I knew I was supposed to love them because they were my grandparents. I loved my parents and didn’t want them to be hurt or upset. I wanted to have a relationship with these people and have connection with them, they were my caretakers and primary attachment figures who I relied on completely. I was terrified because this person was doing things that were hurting me and yet I knew I wasn’t allowed to say “no.”
Then he started giving me to other people for cash in my early childhood, I felt this intense sense of betrayal. They were using me in pornography and other abusive situations. My mind and heart couldn’t take it anymore so I began to dissociate more and more away from the world around me because of the continuous double standards of morality and sadistic harm that existed in my family. I just couldn’t understand why people who were supposed to love and protect me kept handing me over to other people who were not safe.
It stopped when I got older and my body started changing. I kept quiet, I was terrified someone would do something to me or my family like they threatened to. I tried once to say something but painfully found out that my family was committed to silence me as well.
I learned the hard way, that the love I had known my whole life was instead control and manipulation. I felt utterly deceived as I began to deal with my past when I was nearly finished with my Master’s Degree in professional counseling and began therapy myself. I fell apart, I started thinking about my relationship to my family and about how I felt like I had to protect them – instead of the other way around. I knew I needed help to leave this abusive system and have discovered just how hard it is to relearn what love really is and what it is not- loyalty to others no matter what they do to you.
Dylan is living in a safe place, with a friend and her dogs, and working toward healing and learning to trust people and form healthy relationships. She is part of the job training program at the Avery Center.
My biological father was a pimp and my mother was a prostitute. They sold their children for drugs and alcohol. This is where I came from but I didn’t know it until I was an adult because I was adopted – illegally – and not told that either.
My adoptive family had their own wounds. I grew up wanting something. I wanted attention. I wanted love but I really didn’t know what that was, I never had that modeled for me. I wanted to be valued, I wanted to be more than I felt like I was inside.
They wound up divorcing and there was a lot of anger with the divorce. My adoptive father was a cheater, which sent a lot of mixed messages about what a man wants, what matters, and those mixed messages kind of formed my view of intimacy.
I met my trafficker at a party with a bunch of older men when I was in 8th grade. He was 29.
I was always rebellious. And of course, there was the culture, of young people, of music, of advertising, that made you think certain things were valuable, certain things were important.
I think my trafficker was well aware of that. He was well aware of my vulnerability, my family background, my sense of wanting to belong. He would use alcohol and drugs almost like a truth serum at first, getting me to open up, so he could learn how to talk to me to get me to be what he wanted, do what he wanted. He used sweet words and held me and I felt grown up and loved.
At the same time he was teaching me, grooming me, telling me what to wear, how to dress sexy, making me believe that being a woman, reaching my potential, meant being wild, being seductive, providing pleasure to a man. I learned that you could get men to like you, you could be popular, using your body and acting like you didn’t care about anything.
He also taught me that not doing the things he wanted was going to hold me back – there were certain kinds of women and they did things a certain way and they got nice things, and if they didn’t, then they wouldn’t. They would wind up like my mother.
He began to really control me with those kinds of values, what he was saying what he was teaching was working, He encouraged me to run away, that he could take care of me, and I did. I left home with my trafficker. I was 16.
For two years we traveled up and down the California coast. I was used as a commodity at parties. My trafficker dealt drugs, he would sell drugs to gangs and I was part of the package. We would go to a party and I was passed around like a commodity, like bringing your own bottle, my trafficker brought me.
I was totally bought in to what he wanted. I thought I was a star. I thought I was wanted – men wanted me – and that was all I needed.
When I got the idea that I wanted to leave him, first my trafficker used violence. Then, when he realized that romancing me himself would not control me, he began using drugs and alcohol. I became an addict and an alcoholic.
It was only in recovery, hard-fought, that I realized my value, what mattered, who I was. Now I work to teach other young women to find their value – their real value.
Cammy works as a massage therapist and a healer, drawing on her Native American roots. Her passion is helping young women and girls find their own sense of value.
What is Grooming?
Sex traffickers carefully and methodically work to gain their victims’ trust, create a degree of dependence, and subtly promote the idea that selling sexual services is normal, acceptable and necessary. Ultimately, successful grooming results in vulnerable people cooperating in their own exploitation and abuse and believing they have made the choice to do so independently.
Targeting the Victim
Targeting the Victim
Traffickers look for people who have emotional or material needs that are not being met, like teens who lack confidence; or young adults who post online about a bad break up.
Traffickers get to know their victims and use what they learn to make it appear they are the perfect match, the answer to their dreams, the person they can count on. They listen, provide support and bide their time.
Once traffickers know what victims want or need, they give it to them – or at least dangle it in front of them – letting them taste what it feels like to be loved, or safe, or taken care of.
As the relationship grows, the trafficker slowly cuts the victim off from friends and loved ones, strengthening the sense of dependence.
This could start slowly, with the victim asked to have sex for money” just this once” or “to help me out.” Over time it becomes normalized, so that the victim thinks they are making the decision on their own.
Along with threats and economic control, traffickers use rewards and punishments – fear and violence along with kindness and caring – to create trauma bonds that make it hard for victims to sort through their feelings and make a choice to leave, even if they are physically able to do so.
Pledge to Be THAT Friend
We all may have encountered relationships, whether our loved ones’ or our own, where we grow concerned about behaviors or realize later on that they were manipulative. Pledge to be THAT friend who learns what love isn’t and trafficking is and chooses to tell the truth.
Human Trafficking Training
Ready to learn more about human trafficking to help yourself and your loved ones? Take our free introductory course, Human Trafficking 101, to learn what human trafficking really is, how it happens, and how you can be part of the solution.
Social Media Toolkit
Use our social media toolkit to share images and videos and educate your friends, family, and followers about how love is used as a weapon, and help them better understand how sex trafficking really happens.
Donate Today to Prevent Human Trafficking
We know from the stories above that if there’s a missing piece in a person’s life, a trafficker will promise to fill it. Your support will help ensure people have the things they need like money, opportunity, safety, and hope, so they don’t fall prey to a trafficker’s manipulation.
*Victims of sex trafficking or sex and labor trafficking combined where recruitment was known.