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Student Blog Series: Stranger Danger? Trafficking Through Romantic Relationships

Posted: April 4, 2024

One of the most misleading and dangerous myths of human trafficking is that traffickers are strangers. In 2021, 28% of the total number of victims with known recruiter types, were trafficked by an intimate partner, which equates to about 1 out of 4 victims. Traffickers seek out vulnerabilities to prey on victims using a variety of manipulation techniques. “Romeo pimps” or “loverboys” describe traffickers who approach victims under the guise of a romantic relationship and use techniques such as grooming, love bombing, and trauma bonding in order to entice victims and eventually exploit them through the commercial sex trade.

The reality of trafficking through romantic relationships shatters Hollywood’s sensationalized narratives of traffickers picking up young girls in white vans and holding them hostage. While this can be a reality for some victims, it is not the only experience. In fact, for many victims, their trafficking stories involve cycles of abuse that last years.

Initially, traffickers will aim to gain their victim’s trust and draw them in. This is accomplished through love bombing, “an attempt to influence another person with over-the-top displays of attention and affection.” Victims may become emotionally dependent on their trafficker, believing they are in a romantic relationship rather than a trafficking situation. This form of emotional abuse is often exhibited by traffickers showering victims with gifts, money and offering solutions to the victim’s needs, such as housing, love and care.

Grooming is fundamental in situations of exploitation and abuse. Traffickers use grooming to manipulate reality and leverage their victim’s fears. In relationships that involve power-dynamics, whether of age or socioeconomic class, this method is intensified by the perpetrator’s influence over the victim. Sex traffickers will groom their victims to perform sex acts and ultimately enter the sex industry under the guise that it was the victim’s idea. As the grooming process further progresses, traffickers gain more and more control over their victims physically, mentally and economically.

When victims are not held hostage or locked up with chains, there is a mistaken assumption they can run away and escape from their traffickers. Trauma bonding cements a victim’s emotional attachment to their trafficker through a cycle of rewards and punishments. Punishments can be physical such as subjecting victims to starvation or drug use, or psychological such as isolating a victim from their family and being under constant surveillance by their trafficker. The impact of repeated trauma and psychological coercion on the brain can lead to the development of feelings of loyalty to or love for the trafficker. Despite not being physically constrained from leaving, victims are held under the control of their trafficker through psychological manipulation and a distorted idea of love.

An example of the severe impact of “Romeo pimps” is exemplified in the case of Cyd Berger, a client of The CSE Institute. Cyd was a trafficking victim in the late 1970s. Her trafficker, Dwyane Hicks, used common tactics of “Romeo pimps” and “loverboys”, such as false promises and love, to gain Cyd’s trust. Shortly after, Hicks started physically abusing Cyd, threatened her family, kidnapped her son, and subsequently forced her into prostitution. This resulted in Cyd being held responsible for the crimes of her trafficker. Cyd is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted as a co-conspirator in the murder of a sex buyer, Robert Karcz. Her co-defendant Hicks murdered Karcz to steal his car, while Cyd sat, paralyzed with fear, in another room. The criminal legal system continues to refuse to recognize Cyd as a victim of trafficking, even 40 years later. The CSE Institute recognizes Cyd as a trafficking victim and remains steadfast in helping her petition for clemency. The Institute believes further incarceration is unwarranted and that Cyd, like all victims of trafficking, deserves better.

Understanding that trafficking can occur within romantic relationships and be carried out by romantic partners is crucial to the prevention of human trafficking. When myths are debunked, society becomes better informed on how individuals are lured into the sex trade, the complexity of leaving their trafficker, and awareness is raised around what unhealthy relationships look like. Hollywood’s portrayals of trafficking as strangers kidnapping people in sketchy white vans sensationalizes trafficking and misrepresents the red flags that society should be aware of in personal relationships. Instead, stories of survivors must be uplifted and lived experiences, such as Cyd’s, should be at the center of society’s understanding of the sex trade.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Maria Elisa Escobar on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University. 

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