GROOMING STAGE

Note: We try to use gender-neutral terms for victims and traffickers. However, when we do use pronouns, we will use “she” when referring to victims since 94% of victims are female and “he” when referring to traffickers since 79-94% are male. Please keep in mind that while these pronouns are statistically accurate, they do not represent all victims’ experiences. Each case is unique and we have encountered many that fall outside these supposed “norms."

THE FAMILY TRAFFICKER

In Family trafficking, which happens in about 17% of cases, the  Grooming Stage is intertwined with ongoing abuse the victim has been enduring at home. To find out more, please go to the Family Trafficking Page.

THE FRIEND TRAFFICKER

In a third of cases, the trafficker is a part of the victim’s social network and can be a little-known acquaintance, good friend, boyfriend or husband. In Friend Trafficking — meaning the trafficker knows the victim before trafficking them — the Grooming Stage will follow one of two general trajectories:

  1. The trafficker WILL NOT BE honest about their intention to have the victim sell sex, in which case they will follow the same steps as the Stranger Trafficker and use the same manipulations, such as love, adventure, money, sense of belonging, etc.

  2. The trafficker WILL BE honest about their intention to have the victim sell sex

 

If the trafficker is upfront with the victim, they will explain the idea of having the victim sell sex as a business arrangement, saying the victim will make the money while they act as a manager — booking customers and handling investments.

To the victim, this will sound like an equal partnership. Later, however, should the victim want to stop, the trafficker will force them to continue. 2

 

If, however, the trafficker is honest about having the victim sell sex and the victim is hesitant, the trafficker will use manipulation, beginning with verbal pressure, to get them to concede. At first, the pressure might be mild, with the trafficker telling the victim they could use the money they make to achieve their dreams or help their loved ones. Then, over time the trafficker might get more insistent. They may say the victim “owes” them for room, food, and board.

If the trafficker is a long-time romantic partner, they may suggest that the victim not selling sex is akin to a betrayal, asking, “Don’t you love me?” Later, the trafficker might attempt to instill fear, such as a husband threatening to take the kids away from the victim.

 

At the same time, traffickers may start — or continue with — more overt physical control, including isolation from family as well as physical abuse. 

This pressure on the victim continues unabated until the first sale of sex.

That signals the end of the Grooming Stage and the start of the Maintaining Control Stage. The victim is now selling sex, often multiple times a day, with the trafficker maintaining control over them using increasingly aggressive coercion. This is done via shaming, threats — “I will kick you out and no one else will ever love you because you sell sex” — blackmail, verbal abuse, financial control and physical violence.

  1. Bouché, V. "Survivor Insights: The Role of Technology in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking." 2018. A report for Thorn [Survey of 260 DMST survivors in helped at agencies across U.S., victims were asked “how they met their trafficker.” 50% said trafficker was a stranger to them; 33% said trafficker was part of their social network; 17% said trafficker was a family member]

  2. 1 Nhan, J., & Bowen, K. “Policing Internet sex trafficking.” 2020. Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology 9; 1

"GOOD" TRAFFICKERS?

People sometimes ask us if there is such a thing as a "good" selling-sex partnership, where one person sells the sex and the other is truly supportive and helpful.

The answer to this is, of course, yes.

However, this would not be trafficking since no force is being used.

THE STRANGER TRAFFICKER

In more than half of cases, the trafficker is a stranger, meaning the trafficker does NOT know the victim and meets them with the intention of trafficking them.

These traffickers start with the Victim Selection Stage, hunting for their preferred type of victim by frequenting places where their victim of choice hangs out.

When the trafficker first makes contact with the victim, the Victim Selection Stage ends and the Grooming Stage — and the manipulation — begins. From the moment a stranger trafficker first approaches a victim, they already know exactly what type of manipulation to use on the victim to eventually make them sell sex.

There are two goals of the Grooming Stage – which can last days or months — which is for the trafficker to gain the victim’s trust and establish physical control over them before attempting to make them sell sex. Gaining their trust can also be thought of as gaining “emotional control."

These two things — trust of the trafficker and being under the trafficker’s physical control — are what makes a victim agree when the trafficker suggests selling sex for the first time.

Based on exhaustive research and our own experience we listed the "steps" to the Grooming Stage, some of which may happen in a different order or not at all:

GROOMING STAGE STEPS IN STRANGER TRAFFICKING

  1. First meeting

  2. Start manipulation

  3. Start physical control

  4. Physical control established

  5. Trust established

  6. First sale of sex

 

The sale of sex then signals the end of the Grooming Stage and the beginning of ongoing trafficking, aka the Maintaining Control Stage.

The statistics on the remainder of this page refer to Stranger Traffickers unless otherwise noted

FIRST MEETING AND START OF MANIPULATION

Traffickers are the best psychologists.

They can determine the overriding emotional or monetary need of a victim within moments of meeting them simply by making a few statements and asking a series of seemingly innocuous questions then gauging the response.

For instance, a male trafficker might purposely bump into a girl at the bus stop, say “excuse me,” then add, “Has anyone ever told you that you have the most beautiful eyes?” If the girl smiles shyly and looks down, embarrassed, the trafficker now knows the girl is not used to being noticed or complemented by men.

Once he determines the victim’s overriding emotional need or needs, he will begin his manipulation in an effort to fill that need, be it, love, belonging, attention, money, adventure, stability, or safety.

MANIPULATION USED: Romance

MOST COMMON METHOD

Also known as the boyfriend scheme or Romeo pimping

 

If the trafficker determines the unfulfilled need of the victim is love or attention, he will begin an initial flirtation then quickly insert himself into the victim’s day-to-day life. They will start a seemingly intense, loving relationship, and he soon will become her “boyfriend.”

 

The traffickers often use the same general methods when they “sweet talk” victims: 5

  • 88% of traffickers told the victims he would take care of them

  • 83% of traffickers bought victims things

  • 74% of traffickers made promises

  • 73% of traffickers told the victims that he loved them

 

As you can see from the above data, the Romance Manipulation is the one most commonly used by traffickers. It allows them to introduce the key taboo topic — the sale of sex — under the guise of being a loving boyfriend who only has the best interests of his girlfriend at heart. Once the trafficker brings up the sale of sex — although they often speak about it in euphemisms — it is easy for him to continue to mention it over the coming days or weeks, thus normalizing the conversation around it, and, more importantly, getting the victim to actually think about it.

During the Romance Manipulation, a trafficker will pick one of several methods to convince the victim to sell sex:

  • As a way for the victim to make money for themselves

  • As a favor for her “boyfriend”

  • For their future together

 

The trafficker often will include compliments and promises of a fantasy life with the idea of selling sex.

 

As one researcher wrote: “The women described a process in which their boyfriends told them repeatedly that they were beautiful and that this asset could work for them to transform their meager existence into an exciting life with a man who appreciated them.” 5

 

The Romance Manipulation — and in fact all manipulations used by traffickers — end with the victim selling sex for the first time.

Romance quotes

“He told me he loved me and that he cared about me.” 4

“He was very sweet and loving and said that he would never force me to do anything that I didn’t want.” 4

 

“He acted like he cared for me and had my best interest at heart.”  4

 

“He was really nice. He gave me things. He was attractive. He was supportive.” 4

 

“He wanted to take me out of town so that we could see the world together, he would never leave me for another female. When he told me those things he made me feel loved. Like someone actually cared about me.” 7

ROMANCE MANIPULATION: Financial security and wealth

As part of the Romance Manipulation, the trafficker will often spin a dream of the future where he and the victim live a lavish life together. This type of talk feeds the victim’s need for stability and the comfort of expensive material goods.

Traffickers have been known to use this idea of a “dream future together” to convince a victim to sell sex “just one time” in order to raise money for the couple to buy a home or a car, with the victim believing that marriage and kids will follow. 1

 

He “sells” the reality of this dream by giving her cash and pricy gifts. In fact, 60% of victims are given cash during the Grooming Stage and another 83% have things bought for them, with 48% receiving special gifts. 2,4

 

One researcher noted that gifts and money may serve a dual purpose. They directly show the victim the trafficker “values” them, but also, if the gifts or cash are given after the two have sex, it can create the association between having sex then getting material items or money. 1

 

As the Grooming Process proceeds, the trafficker can also use the gifts and cash to manipulate the victim into selling sex for the first time. In one common tactic, the trafficker will make a show of spending money on the victim, then days later tells her he is in dire straits because he spent too much money on her because he loves her so much. She feels responsible and offers to “help.” 3

ROMANCE MANIPULATION: Adventure

During the Romance Manipulation, the trafficker may also promise the victim adventure if he’s determined that is an unmet need. He fulfills his promise in part during the Grooming Stage by giving the victim drugs, which occurs in 32% of cases. 2

 

He also can use this need for adventure to force the victim to sell sex for the first time.

 

In one method, the trafficker will encourage the victim to sneak away for the weekend without telling her family, and then, when they get to the new city, he will claim they’ve suddenly run out of money. He tells the victim the quickest solution is for her to sell sex. 3

  1. Baird, K., and Connolly, J. “Recruitment and Entrapment Pathways of Minors into Sex Trafficking in Canada and the United States: A Systematic Review.” 2021. Trauma, Violence and Abuse. [Reviewed 23 studies on the recruitment or pathways into sex trafficking for minors trafficked within the US and Canada]

  2. Baird, K., McDonald, K. P., & Connolly, J. “Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in a Southern Ontario Region: Police File Review Exploring Victim Characteristics, Trafficking Experiences, and the Intersection With Child Welfare.” 2019. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 52(1), 8–17. [The study looked at 154 police cases in Toronto, Canada, from 2008-2016  involving female trafficking victims. When being groomed, 48% received attention or gifts, 32% drugs, 60% money, 6% housing. 24% experienced aversive tactics, including violence (11%) and threats (18%). ]

  3. 3 Kennedy, M., et al. “Routes of Recruitment: Pimps’ techniques and other circumstances that lead to street prostitution.” 2007. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. 15:2, 1-19 [Conducted interviews of 32 women controlled currently or in the past by a pimp sex trafficker in British Columbia, Canada.]

  4. Bouché, V. "Survivor Insights: The Role of Technology in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking." 2018. A report for Thorn [Survey of 260 DMST survivors helped at agencies across U.S.]

  5. Raphael, J., Reichert, A., and Powers, M. “Pimp Control and Violence: Domestic Sex Trafficking of Chicago Women and Girls.” Women and Criminal Justice. 2010. 20:1-2, 89-104 [Between July and November 2007, interviewers surveyed 100 women between 16 and 25 old who were selling sex in Chicago and reported they were controlled by a trafficker.]

  6. Reid, J. “Entrapment and Enmeshment Schemes Used by Sex Traffickers.” 2016. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Vol. 28(6) 491–511 [79 female youth who were minors at the time of their initial exploitation in sex trafficking and who received social services between 2007 and 2012 from three agencies located in two metropolitan areas in Florida]

  7. Bouché, V. “A Report on the Use of Technology to Recruit, Groom and Sell Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Victims.” 2015. Thorn

MANIPULATION USED: Friendship

Given that the vast majority of trafficking victims come from abusive homes, it’s unsurprising that 73% of victims said a lack of love or a bad home life made them desire a close family. 1

 

And that desire is something traffickers use.

 

If the trafficker determines the unfulfilled need of a new victim is a sense of family or belonging, one of two things may happen during the first meeting. Either he will make the initial approach or — and more likely — he will send one of his current victims to do it.

This “sending-a-current-victim-to-recruit-a-new-victim” scheme is common with traffickers. In fact, 55-61% of female trafficking victims said they were made to do it. 2,5

 

And the ploy makes sense. The current victim is likely to be of the same gender and general age of the new victim and therefore will be more easily seen as a “friend” by the new victim. Whereas the trafficker, is often older and of a different gender may seem suspicious.

Once the two have become friends, the current victim will bring the new one to meet the trafficker and the rest of the “family,” which can include secondary traffickers, enforcers, and more victims.

 

But to new victims, these new people seem like a supportive and kind group. As one victim said, she felt like she was “joining a part of a family, that I didn’t have at home.” 1

 

Another victim said the trafficker gave her something she’s never known: “I never had, like, fatherly love.” 1

 

The Friendship Manipulation continues even after the new victim is introduced to the larger group. The “friend” sells the life to the new victim, talking about how much money they could make and normalizing the idea of selling sex. Should the new victim balk at the idea, the previous victim can use peer pressure to convince her. Once the new victim agrees, the previous victim can do a “double date” with the new victim to show her the ropes. 3,4

Friendship quotes

“He made me feel loved and secure. That I could trust him and tell him everything that I was going through at that time. Never made a ‘pass’ at me then — just showed what I thought was ‘genuine friendship.’ ” 5

FRIENDSHIP MANIPULATION: Protection

As part of the Friendship Manipulation, the trafficker might help the victim run away from home or leave a group home. They also might help a victim avoid police if they are in trouble. Once the victim has left their home or run away, the trafficker will provide a place for them to stay. 4

  1. Bouché, V. “A Report on the Use of Technology to Recruit, Groom and Sell Domestic Minor Sex trafficking Victims.” 2015. Thorn [Did surveys with 77 survivors of sex trafficking.]

  2. Roe-Sepowitz, D., Gallagher, J., Risinger, M, and Hickle, K. “The sexual exploitation of girls in the United States: The role of female pimps.” 2014. Journal of interpersonal Violence. 30916); 2814-2830 [55% of victims were told to recruit other teens for the trafficker]

  3. Baird, K., and Connolly, J. “Recruitment and Entrapment Pathways of Minors into Sex Trafficking in Canada and the United States: A Systematic Review.” 2021. Trauma, Violence and Abuse. [Reviewed 23 studies on the recruitment or pathways into sex trafficking for minors trafficked within the US and Canada]

  4. Reid, J. “Entrapment and Enmeshment Schemes Used by Sex Traffickers.” 2016. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Vol. 28(6) 491–511 [79 female youth who were minors at the time of their initial exploitation in sex trafficking and who received social services between 2007 and 2012 from three agencies located in two metropolitan areas in Florida]

  5. Bouché, V. "Survivor Insights: The Role of Technology in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking." 2018. A report for Thorn [61% of victims were told to recruit other teens for the trafficker]

START AND ESTABLISH PHYSICAL CONTROL

While the Romance or Friendship Manipulation is ongoing, the trafficker will begin to establish more active control over the victim’s life.

PHYSICAL CONTROL: Isolation

Isolating the victim from friends and family is a key step in trafficking. Once a victim has lost her support system, even if it wasn’t much of one, to begin with, she begins to rely completely on the trafficker, making her more malleable when he suggests selling sex.

 

Isolation is accomplished in a number of ways, often under the guise of jealousy. The trafficker will demand to check the victim’s phone because he wants to see what other men she’s been texting. He will use much the same technique to check social media usage. 2

 

The trafficker will also use jealousy to keep the victim away from her family, saying the victim loves them more than she loves him. He will say he acts this way because he loves the victim so much that it drives him insane.

 

The trafficker will also disorient the victim by offering drugs and alcohol and then constantly bringing her to different locations, even taking them to another city or out of state. 2,3

PHYSICAL CONTROL: Desensitization to selling sex

In child sexual abuse, “a distinguishing feature of grooming is to introduce sexualized content … (so as to) normalize such behavior.” 4

 

This is also true in trafficking.

 

The trafficker and his crew — often other victims — will talk to the newest victim about the glamor of selling sex and joke about sexual experiences. The trafficker also will watch pornography with the victim and the trafficker will take sexually explicit pictures and videos of the victim. 1,3

 

These photos may serve a purpose later in the Grooming or in the Maintaining Control stages. If the victim ever refuses to cooperate, the trafficker will threaten to send the pictures to the victim’s family and friends. 2

PHYSICAL CONTROL: Physical, emotional, sexual abuse

Much of what has already been described in the “Isolation” and “desensitization to selling sex” sections above could also be considered emotional, physical and sexual abuse. As in everything the trafficker does, abuse is used to control the victim. Specifically, abuse instills fear, as well as the knowledge that bad behavior, meaning behavior the trafficker does not approve of, will result in punishment.

 

And fear is a means of control. The trafficker uses many methods to control the victim including threats, beatings, branding, and even gang rape. 2

 

One common emotional control method in the Romance Manipulation is for the trafficker to threaten to leave. This was experienced by 32% of victims during the Grooming Stage. Interestingly, that number rises to 69% of victims as the trafficking progresses and selling sex becomes an everyday occurrence. 6

 

In 18% of cases, the trafficker will use sexual assault to condition the victim to nonconsensual sex. 5

  1. Reid, J. “Entrapment and Enmeshment Schemes Used by Sex Traffickers.” 2016. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Vol. 28(6) 491–511

  2. Baird, K., and Connolly, J. “Recruitment and Entrapment Pathways of Minors into Sex Trafficking in Canada and the United States: A Systematic Review.” 2021. Trauma, Violence and Abuse.

  3. Hickle, K. “Victims of sex trafficking and online sexual exploitation.” Chapter 3 in “Cybercrime and its victims.” 2017. Routledge Studies in Crime and Society.

  4. Ioannou, M., et al.” A Comparison of Online and Offline Grooming Characteristics: An application of The Victim Roles Model.” 2018. Computers in Human Behavior

  5. Roe-Sepowitz, D. “A six-year analysis of sex traffickers of minors: Exploring characteristics and sex trafficking patterns.” 2019. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. 29(5), 608–629.

  6. Raphael, J., Reichert, A., and Powers, M. “Pimp Control and Violence: Domestic Sex Trafficking of Chicago Women and Girls.” Women and Criminal Justice. 2010. 20:1-2, 89-104 
[Between July and November 2007, interviewers interviewed a 71 women in Chicago who reported they had been recruited into prostitution]

TRUST ESTABLISHED

The entire Grooming Stage, no matter if it lasts days or months, is about one thing: Getting to the trust.

 

To successfully arrive at this point, the trafficker will have had to invest a considerable amount of time in the manipulation of the victim as well as exert a substantial deal of energy while beginning his physical control over them.

 

We use the word “trust” because that is how victims often describe how they feel toward the trafficker during the Grooming Stage. However, it can also be described as loyalty, obligation, love, or devotion.

 

Whatever word is used, it refers to that point at which the victim will sell sex because of their attachment to the trafficker. In essence, it means the trafficker has gained emotional control over the victim.

 

Getting to the trust doesn’t always require a long time investment on the part of the trafficker.

 

In fact, 48% of victims said the trafficker had earned their trust within one month of meeting them and another 34% said the trafficker had earned their trust within four months of meeting them. 1

 

In other words, in 82% of cases, the Grooming Stage — which beings with the victim meeting the trafficker and ends with the first sale of sex — takes less than four months.

 

Once the Grooming Stage is over, all that’s left is for the trafficker to do is maintain control.

Bouché, V. “A Report on the Use of Technology to Recruit, Groom and Sell Domestic Minor Sex trafficking Victims.” 2015. Thorn