The Boyfriend Model of Sex Trafficking: The Lure of False Romance

“When he said those words, ‘I love you,’ I just believed him…I thought that’s what love was.”

She was 14 and had nothing; he was in his 20s and bought her presents and told her his dreams of their future together. But then the relationship turned from loving to abusive. The girl recounts how she ran away from her group home to be with him, yet he gave her alcohol and forced her to have sex with strangers in hotel rooms for several days, taking her phone and ID and hitting her when she tried to refuse.

Though this young woman escaped, her story is the all-too-common tragedy of romantic manipulation leading to sex trafficking.

Identifying relationship exploitation

Though victims come from diverse backgrounds, trafficking victimization shares similar risks to intimate partner violence and sexual violence. That is, traffickers target people who are already poor, isolated, traumatized from past abuse, homeless, and/or searching for a better life.

Traffickers are particularly adept at targeting these vulnerable individuals and luring them into trafficking situations, often with promises of love and provision.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, they leverage their more advanced age and financial status in a fast-moving relationship that both overwhelms and isolates their targets. Over time, the trafficker will frequently use “boyfriending” tactics–extreme flattery, financial assistance, drugs, promises of salvation from existing abuse, and ultimately assurances that they alone care for the victim–to foster dependency and isolation. Because such behavior appears kind and loving, victims and friends and family may struggle to identify an exploitative relationship until it is too late and the pimp controls the victim’s daily life.

Once traffickers have their targets’ complete trust, they begin prostituting the victims through emotional manipulation–asking for help making money and claiming it’s for the victims’ own future benefit–and threats and violence to quell resistance.

The victims, completely isolated, dependent, and psychologically and emotionally manipulated, have few avenues of escape–and may have difficulty even identifying their coercive situation (read about the psychology of abuse here and here).

The role of technology and social media

Social media is one of the most common ways traffickers target and access victims.

Case data from Polaris finds that 26% of surveyed human trafficking survivors were exploited via their social media accounts on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, chat groups, and dating websites. That percentage has been increasing, particularly for younger victims.

Targets may reveal themselves to be lonely, struggling, and accessible through their social media. Online recruitment could then begin with commenting on potential victims’ photos and sending direct messages, building rapport and intimacy until the trafficker initiates in-person contact. Or, a pimp may target victims in their area already, using apps such as Meetme.com, Grindr, or Tinder for their intended purpose: finding romantic partners.

What can be done?

Control is a hallmark sign of relationship exploitation and potential sex trafficking. While a controlling partner is not inherently a trafficker, controlling behavior is emblematic of an abusive or problematic relationship. Therefore, a strong defense against relationship manipulation is to understand, model, and teach healthy relationship dynamics. Aligning with the CDC recommendations to prevent sexual violence, both individuals and organizations can follow and promote these principals for self-protection and to help others develop healthy relationships:

  • Learn to identify and address vulnerabilities to exploitation, such as past trauma and economic insecurity.

  • Promote safe dating tactics, intimate relationship skills, communication and conflict resolution skills, and expectations for caring, respectful, and non-violent behavior.

  • Learn about and teach children and adults to assess violence risk in relationships and increase self-efficacy–ultimately reducing exposure to risky situations and people.

A strong support system can also mitigate loneliness and prevent the isolation where exploitation thrives, in addition to helping victims spot red flags.

Lastly, online safety can prevent grooming and minimize the trafficking point of access. Check out our blog post for tips for staying safe online.

By raising awareness of relationship exploitation, addressing underlying risks, and promoting healthy relationship models that respect autonomy and individual worth, we can all help combat this sex trafficking tactic.