Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Romeo Game: How Traffickers Build Trust

Do you know someone who has fallen prey to “the game?”
They’re difficult to spot, since victims of sex trafficking come from all backgrounds. Archetypal victims of commercial sexual exploitation can’t be identified by their race, gender, or socioeconomic status. There are no demographics that remain untouched by the sex trade. No one is too wealthy, too well-adjusted, or too savvy to be seduced by a seasoned predator. Playing the game is not relegated to places “nice” people from “good” families would never dare to explore.
As we’ve learned from painful experience here at DECSA, not every person who has been sexually exploited realizes the situation is out of their control. At first, some people go along with the game, allowing pimps (who sometimes favour sanitized titles like “escort manager”) to enchant, exploit, and even enslave them without attempting to escape. The most skilled of predators can inspire such loyalty and helplessness in survivors that nothing, not even torture or violence, can sever the bond between them.
So, you may well ask, how do pimps persuade new recruits, some of them pre-teens, to fall in love with the very people who treat them like chattel?

Stage 1: Enchantment

“That’s when I learned women. Like, you know, learned how they work, learned what they want, everything…” – Matthew Deiaco
Career pimps frequently employ the “Romeo tactic” to recruit new sex workers. Targeting victims who seem vulnerable increases their success rate; people seeking guidance, security, and love are easier to charm. This is why pimps will focus their recruiting efforts on bus stations, secluded house parties, high schools, and even group homes, staking out potential victims in seemingly safe places. Social media, in particular, is a powerful recruitment tool—a tool young people understand better than the adults caring for them. Many victims of sexual exploitation engage in what they believe to be bona fide romantic relationships, so that they are already emotionally attached to a pimp by the time an exploitive situation is first introduced. This makes the work itself, and the lack of control over their own earnings, much more palatable.
Pimps make a systematic effort to discover a potential victim’s deepest desires. One pimp compares this process to finding the magic words: sometimes it’s as simple as saying “I love you” at the right time. Are victims craving a fairy-tale romance? A warm, stable, secure relationship? A luxurious lifestyle? Do they simply want their basic needs, like food and shelter, to be met by a consistent source?
Once vulnerabilities are identified, it’s disturbingly easy for a pimp to make lavish promises tailored to each individual they pursue. Playing the role of Romeo, who appears at just the right moment, paves the way for future manipulation. To bolster the clever deception, patient pimps will wait up to a year before showing signs that the romance is anything other than innocent. By then, the victim is primed to accept violence and exploitation, potentially unable to tell the difference between love and performative infatuation.
An outsider may notice red flags early on. Pimps may seem like dashing, loving boyfriends from the victim’s perspective, but observant third parties may pick up on a demanding nature; a preoccupation with money; a tendency to isolate; an unnatural interest in underground markets. Unfortunately, many victims, especially young teenagers, are not equipped to see danger in these traits, and neither are their peers.

Stage 2: Exploitation

“[sex] is something they were going to do anyway. This way, they get paid for it.” – anonymous pimp
By the time the relationship has progressed to the exploitation stage, pimps have already built trust and integrated themselves into victims’ lives. They have lain the groundwork for exploitation by learning all about a victim’s family, friends, interests, hopes, fears, and weaknesses. Even if a victim were to balk when the idea of prostitution is raised, pimps have plenty of personalized ammunition to blackmail, bully, or beguile them into an exploitive lifestyle. Perhaps victims are swayed by threats to their personal safety or that of their families. Maybe a pimp relies on the victim’s wish to contribute equally to the relationship to convince them to engage in activities that make them uncomfortable. In some cases, victims may even feel obliged to enter the sex trade, feeling that they are helping to support the glowing, romantic future they were promised. Participation in sex work can sometimes begin with twisted consent rather than fear and intimidation.
Some sex workers are open to being exploited, at least initially, in the sense that their earnings may afford them an improved lifestyle. Pimps can be deliberately flashy about money, tempting victims with the life they’ve always wanted. By this time, the victim is emotionally and often materially dependent upon their pimp, and is only just beginning to realize that the whole relationship was a business transaction, not a genuine romantic partnership. This is also the point when many victims discover that their pimps have others they’ve reeled in with the same sinister bait, and while this betrayal may be devastating, it is not necessarily enough to break the bond.

Stage 3: Enslavement

“They get inside your head: I felt like they had a hold of me from the inside — from my mind.” – anonymous survivor
The third and final stage is the enslavement stage, where victims acknowledge the desperation of their situations, but cannot or will not escape. Fear of physical violence motivates many victims to remain compliant, but others are swayed by complete dependence upon their pimps for everything from food, to shelter, to validation. Still others stay in exploitive situations because their pimps have threatened to expose them to friends and family. Convinced their lives will be ruined forever, they continue to suffer in silence and seclusion.
With the advent of online advertising, victims of sex trafficking are even more cloistered than before. Some are confined to one hotel room, servicing parades of clients without being able to rest, eat, or use the bathroom. Treated like something a step down from human, pimps will sometimes force victims to sleep naked at the foot of their beds, chained and starved like neglected animals. They are commonly branded to identify them as the property of a specific pimp, solidifying their subhuman status. Cut off from anyone who might be concerned about them, victims have little opportunity to signal to law enforcement or anyone else who may be in a position to help. The situation is made more dangerous because law enforcement has structural blind spots and may not be as responsive to certain types of victims. Even if law enforcement gives victims an opportunity to run away, they do not always accept it due to careful conditioning.
Even victims who have managed to break free can still feel bonded to their pimps. In one memorable case, a survivor actually attended her pimp’s trial, sitting with his family either in solidarity or in an attempt to show continued loyalty.

What can we do?

Our best defence is vigilance. Do not assume anyone is part of a low-risk demographic, or you may miss important signs. Watch for a person, especially a young and vulnerable one, who has:
• become suddenly secretive, even defensive about where they’re going and whom they’re seeing.
• acquired a second cell phone for no discernible reason.
• begun using new and unfamiliar terms, like “the game,” “tricks,” or “wifey.”
• gotten new tattoos they’re not willing to explain.
• started to pull away and isolate from friends and family.
• run away from home without explanation.
New victims may not be prepared to talk to you about what they’re experiencing, especially if they have been captivated by a skilled Romeo pimp. Reach out to others who might have influence over the victim, and understand that a situation that seems horrifying to you may seem perfectly natural for them. Tread softly.
Finally, understand that it’s never too early to discuss human trafficking with children. No one is too young to be at risk, so have that conversation early, so that we can keep kids as safe and informed as possible.

Are you being sexually exploited? Are you concerned about someone you know? Contact us. We’d be happy to help.


An Employer’s Guide to Inclusive Hiring

For many job-seekers with disabilities, the proliferation of online applications is a major leap forward. Job-seekers with vision, mental health, and mobility issues frequently find remote job-searching more comfortable and accessible than pounding the pavement. There’s also the added bonus of not needing to disclose disability immediately, increasing the chances of a selection process uninhibited by an employer’s perception of disability.
All is not well in the hiring world, however. Perplexed employers proclaim themselves to be disability-friendly on their applications, but still find that relatively few candidates with disabilities apply. Meanwhile, everything from the application, to the interview, to the pre-employment testing can quietly exclude qualified candidates. Since we know that people with disabilities comprise a mostly-untapped pool of worthy candidates, we’d like to present a few solutions that are simple to implement and easy to maintain. The Alberta Human Rights Commission specifies that employers have a duty to accommodate short of undue hardship, but we’d prefer to draw your attention to the thousands of clients who have walked through our doors—clients who are ready, willing, and able to work. If employers want to make the most informed hiring choices possible, we recommend considering the basic principles of inclusive hiring, which benefit employers as often as job-seekers.

The Application: Keep it Simple (and Accessible)

Job applications can seem straightforward and simple, especially to those designing them, but three out of five job-seekers claim to feel confused by a typical application, whether because the instructions are unclear or because the forms are excessively long.
The first and best design principle of job applications is to keep them as simple as possible. Any nonessential procedures should be reserved for a later point in the screening process, to reduce applicant fatigue and frustration. Don’t hide important information in the middle of long paragraphs, or interrupt the process with tangents about your company philosophy. Present the form in a concise manner that ensures candidates understand what is being asked of them, and label all required fields for clarity.
Next, consider specific accessibility requirements. Is the third-party application platform you’re using accessible for low-vision users? Is it compatible with screen readers? Can those using dictation software access the input fields? Is keyboard navigation always available for those who can’t use a mouse? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, and you don’t have an accessibility consultant on hand, have people with disabilities test it for you, or contact the platform’s staff to learn about their accessibility measures.
If you are hosting the job posting on your own website or social media accounts, ask yourself the same questions about compatibility and accessibility. There are many resources online devoted to designing accessible websites. An ounce of prevention is always preferable to a pound of cure.
Finally, assess the content in your application. Are the images and screenshots described? Do videos have transcripts or captioning for D/deaf candidates? In short, can anyone with basic computer skills understand and apply for your job posting?
Tip: if you’re concerned that any part of your application may exclude a qualified candidate, provide an alternate application method—perhaps an email address—so that anyone who cannot use the default application has another way of sending you their information. Make sure your Human Resources department is aware of this alternative, lest staff discourage an applicant from reaching out.

The Interview: Accommodate, and Focus on Ability

Employers should assume that not every interviewee will disclose the presence of a disability beforehand, and take a proactive approach to interview preparation.
First things first: consider your interview venue. Is it physically accessible? If so, it’s helpful to notify all candidates in the interview invitation. Have a backup location in mind in case the original space presents impassable barriers. You want your candidates focusing on their interview preparation, not on whether they’ll be able to enter the building. The interview invitation is also a perfect time to mention that you are happy to accommodate access requests. Some interviewees may feel emboldened to disclose at this point, which will make the process smoother for everyone.
Next, prepare your staff to plan inclusive interviews. Ensure that all paperwork and handouts are available in alternate formats for visually impaired interviewees, and know that they may require assistance with signing hard copies (we recommend investing in a handy signature guide, which is also useful for anyone with unsteady hands). Honour specific requests as best you can, and ask clarifying questions.
During the interview itself, resist the urge to interrogate the interviewee about the exact nature of their disability, and keep the interview squarely on topic. Never ask questions like “Are you capable of the basic duties of this job?” Assume that if a candidate has taken the trouble to apply and attend an interview, chances are they are able to accomplish the necessary duties. Instead, ask about workarounds and methods: “I see you have some video editing experience. What types of software do you use? Are there any accommodations we can make for you?”
Don’t worry if you’re nervous or unsure. It’s likely the interviewee expects this, and will be glad to answer pertinent questions about how they will approach the job.
Tip: Broaden your candidate pool by considering alternatives to the traditional interview for applicants with high anxiety, autism, and other conditions that make the typical interview setting excessively difficult. Work trials and skills tests are excellent ways to assess a candidate’s suitability, depending on the job duties.

Pre-Employment Testing: Make it Relevant and Inclusive

Pre-employment testing can let candidates with weaker interview skills shine more brightly, but it can also exclude people who would excel in the job but struggle with the limitations of pre-employment tests. Since testing varies widely from employer to employer, we’ll provide a few general guidelines. For more in-depth insight, we suggest an accessibility audit.
The most vital tenet of inclusive pre-employment testing is that it remains relevant. Assessing a candidate’s soft skills is important, but some tests are gratuitously complicated. Trim the fat when designing testing, so that no unnecessary hurdles remain. Is that colour-matching personality test essential, especially if it shuts out visually impaired candidates? Does your testing interface depend on inaccessible software? Is extra time allocated to candidates who may work more slowly in exam-like situations but who would be perfectly efficient in your day-to-day environment? No matter what you’re testing for, you’ll want the process to reflect the actual job as closely as possible. Do not assume that being unable to complete pre-employment testing in its default form is a sign of incompetence; you’ll risk dismissing people who would otherwise be valuable assets.
Tip: Collaborate with candidates to work around testing issues. A more flexible test is not necessarily a less rigorous one.

Beyond the specifics, inclusive hiring is all about facilitating equal access. An inclusive screening process is not an easy, simplistic, or ineffective one. It is more flexible, less convoluted, and more inviting. Committing actively and continuously to inclusive hiring processes sends a positive message to employees, customers, and fellow employers, and that can only be a positive thing for your business.
Ultimately, implementing inclusive hiring contributes to a more diverse and talented workforce. Hiring inclusively is not just the right thing to do–it’s the sensible thing to do.