Guest Post: Grooming – Not All Captives Wear Chains

By Karen Davis

In 2016, as a graduate student at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University, I was first introduced to human trafficking.  I learned there were kids and adults, males and females, of all races, that were being forced, tricked or manipulated into manual and sexual servitude.  I was sickened such an experience was happening in other cultures and far off places. Then I learned human trafficking happens in the United States. In fact, it occurs right here in Waco, Texas.  Because traffickers play on basic human vulnerabilities, everyone is potentially susceptible to their lies, but particularly the innocent. The more I learned, the more I became passionate about educating people about how traffickers operate, how they groom their victims.  

Grooming is the process of gradually, methodically and deceptively building the trust of a targeted individual with the purpose of exploiting the individual through forced commercial sex or labor practices. Grooming can happen to any targeted potential victim. In the case of grooming minors, often the predator grooms the family surrounding the child and/or the community the child belongs to. This process can take weeks, months or years.  Traffickers can be extraordinarily patient.

Stages of Grooming:

1. Targeting a victim

They prey on the physically and emotionally vulnerable.  They are astute observers of human behavior. They can tell if a person is insecure, experiencing financial difficulties, or lacking a strong support system.  They look for those with poor social connections, low self-esteem or financial needs.

2. Gaining Trust and/or Information

Predators and traffickers can be good listeners and gain trust by feigning interest, sympathy, support and having casual conversation with the potential victim and/or their family.  They can seem like a great friend.

3. Filling a Need

The information they learn allows the trafficker to fill a need in the victim’s life and make them dependent on them. Frequently this is providing attention, friendship, love relationship, drugs, alcohol, or being a close confidante. They often make the victim feel very special and highly valued. They might also pretend to be helpful by buying gifts, paying bills, or otherwise financially providing for the target or their family. The purpose is for victim to become dependent on the predator/trafficker in at least one area of their lives.

4. Isolation

The trafficker creates time and space to be alone with the victim, creating distance between them and their family and friends. They isolate their targets physically or emotionally (online, by text, sending messages, etc.). This separation generally is maintained by creating secrecy around the relationship, sometimes by insisting they are the only ones that understand, and simultaneously shaming the victim for the vulnerabilities they’ve shared with the perpetrator. They may even pretend to divulge secrets from their own lives that the target must keep silent about.  This reinforced the trafficker’s “special bond” with the victim.

5. Abuse and Control:  

Once the trafficker is sure of the victim’s dependence and devotion, they begin insisting their “kindness” be repaid, usually with sex, labor, or both. Sometimes the target has been so deceived and feels so obligated, they do not resist the trafficker’s requirements, and if the victim is resistant, the trafficker usually maintains control through threats, violence or blackmail.

Not all of these steps may be present in an individual’s grooming process, or some may happen simultaneously. However, based on research of testimonials of survivors from multiple countries, basic grooming practices are internationally the same. The reason for this is, all humans have the same needs to belong, to be loved, to be provided for, and to feel cared about.  These are the vulnerabilities that make us susceptible to grooming. Thus, it is vital we are aware and on guard on behalf of ourselves and our families. It is my earnest hope is that this information brings awareness that will help protect you or someone you love from falling victim to a trafficker.