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.