When you think of human trafficking you think of what you see in movies and lifetime specials, a child getting snatched from their parents or a young girl being lured away by a predator in a foreign country. The truth is, there are many different ways in which traffickers pursue their victims. Often traffickers are viewed as a bright spot in an otherwise bleak situation, especially when facing homelessness, loneliness or isolation, or even a rough home life. Traffickers often swoop into the victim’s life with promises of a problem free life showered with extravagant gifts. Trafficking is not always as obvious as you would think and oftentimes can look like a romantic relationship or what starts as a friendship. Traffickers often pose as a friendly relationship, building trust and emotional connection, so they can manipulate and exploit them, which is textbook grooming.
Grooming can appear in many forms. According to a 2013 article titled “Exploring Sex Offender Grooming” the victim as well as the environment must be groomed in order to perpetuate abuse (Tanner and Brake, 2013). Tanner and Brake go on to say that the purpose of grooming a victim always revolves around three things: overcoming resistance, maintaining access, and minimizing disclosure. These three things are made obtainable to the offender when they can find a victim who is emotionally, physically, or culturally vulnerable. Grooming can be as simple as the perpetrator working their way into the victim’s friend group and as obvious as the perpetrator initiating sexual touch with the victim and passing it off as an “accident.” When the perpetrator engages in inappropriate behaviors, they will try to normalize those behaviors, explaining them away as something a friend or lover would do. Either way, grooming is usually the first step to abuse.
‘Loverboys’ (or “Romeo pimps”) are human traffickers who usually operate by trying to make young girls or boys fall in love with them. In the relationship that forms between the victim and their “Romeo pimp”, the trafficker often relies on emotional vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities can be as straight-forward as the victim feeling isolated and desiring companionship to the victim being in an unsafe environment and feeling that their “Romeo pimp” is truly their knight in shining armor. The real catch to this style of trafficking is that the “Romeo pimp” will “first lavish victims with attention and gifts, even alcohol and drugs, and create an elaborate dream of their future life” (Barnett, 2021). For a victim who is craving companionship or feels their worth is not valued, this is the perfect segway for the “Romeo pimp” to traffic the victim. The “Romeo pimp” will often keep up this “boyfriend” facade in order to build trust and reliance, and then, sometimes like a switch being flipped, suddenly they have become the victim’s trafficker. Romeo pimp’s will tell the victim that they are needed in order to help make money for their “family” or to save for their future together. One victim recounted their experience with their “Romeo pimp” by saying “Once he had me on the hook with love and affection, he gradually began to get aggressive, he began controlling my bank account, my identification, and all of my money went to him.”
(Admin, 2020) This is the bread and butter for a “Romeo pimp”, the love bombing complemented by extreme control and coercion. According to a 2014 Las Vegas sex trafficking case study, 52.8% of sex traffickers in 89 cases were “Romeo-type pimps”. This tactic is often more silent but just as much trafficking as any other form.
A textbook example of how a “Romeo pimp” controls their victim was experienced by a resident of our safe house before they entered the program. A young man was staying in a hotel before being brought in to the safe house. He admitted several times the name of his trafficker and what he had done to him but would quickly follow up the conversation by referring to his trafficker as his boyfriend and state how much he missed him. Throughout his time in the program, he would talk about how “toxic” the relationship with his “boyfriend” was and then he would remind himself of all the pleasant qualities his trafficker did possess. The client would often comment on how much comfort he felt with his trafficker and how they had such good memories together. The client would try, tirelessly, to convince staff and peers that his trafficker was not a bad guy and would often justify his abusive actions by saying that they had a connection. Ultimately, the client made the choice to leave the safe house, under the guise of going to another program. When we called the other program to check in, the client had never shown up. In fact, we were later able to determine that he returned to his trafficker. Sadly, this is a common occurrence, and it truly reinforces just how strong a hold this type of manipulation has on the victim. We continue to work with this young man and provide him with safe alternatives for exiting the relationship.
Another example from our safe house is a young man who was looking for safety and finding himself being groomed. He was addicted to drugs and experiencing homelessness, when he ran into a man at a bar, who offered him some safety. The man told him that he could stay with him indefinitely and the resident jumped at the thought of stability. Once staying with the man, the man became increasingly sexually inappropriate and even aggressive. Looking back on it now, the resident recognizes that the man was grooming him for sexual exploitation. The man would often supply drugs and alcohol to the resident and once they were intoxicated, the man would request sexual favors in exchange for staying at his house. This went on for months until one day the client got a call from a friend who referred him to Bob’s House of Hope.
With grooming and “Romeo pimps” comes a vast amount of information which can be heavy to take in. The biggest thing to remember regarding this type of trafficking is that it’s not always an obvious crime and oftentimes the victims don’t even recognize it during the early stages. It can look like a romantic relationship, or a seemingly platonic friendship, but the devious intentions reveal themselves over time. Since this type of trafficking is subtle and can often be disguised as a “normal” relationship, it is crucial to be extra vigilant in noticing any problematic patterns of behaviors. Signs to look for in someone you care about include: suddenly receiving fancy or lavish gifts from a new “friend”, isolation and separation from their support system, abnormally intense attachment to the new “friend”, spending excessive amounts of time on social media or messaging apps with the new “friend,” and/or the new “friend” trying to insert themselves into realms of the person’s life that they have no business being a part of.
Remember if you see something, say something. Call the National Trafficking Hotline to report suspect trafficking or to get help: 1-888-373-7888
Admin, & Name. (n.d.). Types of pimps/grooming. SafeHope Home.
Barnett, J. (2021, March 1). “Loverboy” and “Romeo Pimp.” Greenlight Operation.
Tanner, J., & Brake, S. (2013). Exploring Sex offender grooming. Exploring Sex Offender Grooming.