On the grooming and trafficking of minors

In the last two months, three powerful men—billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, R&B singer/songwriter R. Kelly, and megachurch founder Naasón Joaquín García—have been arrested and charged with various crimes surrounding the sexual abuse, creation or possession of child pornography, and trafficking of minors. Each of these alleged abusers purportedly leveraged their extraordinary financial and social power to manipulate and sexually exploit minors. At the time of the abuse, these victims were not “young women” as some reports may espouse—they were minors—young girls—children. 

To put the news stories in context, we first have to be clear that there is no such thing as a “child prostitute” or “minor prostitute”. By law, underage victims cannot consent to sexual acts. While there may appear to be a thin facade of choice in some cases, that facade quickly turns to rubble when you examine the power dynamics between an adult and minor, and consider the manipulation and control tactics that are employed. 

At REST, we hear similar stories often—adults, who naturally hold the position of power in an adult/child relationship, twist and abuse their power to exploit, silence, and shame their victims—allowing for repeated and prolonged sexual abuse. 

Study after study shows that the majority of adults being exploited in the sex trade entered as minors—meaning they, by law, could not consent to the sexual acts they were being subjected to. The shame that began during those first instances of exploitation often impacts the victim long-term. It’s reinforced by their abusers—“you’ll never be good for anything else”—and perpetuates the exploitation long into adulthood. 

Young Girls and Boys

In King County, WA it is estimated that there are over 500 children and youth being exploited in the sex trade annually. As we mentioned, many of them experience commercial sexual exploitation for the first time in their early teenage years. The vast majority of these children have been sexually abused, come from an unstable background, and are approached by an older man or woman, offering them love and the promise of a better life. 

Consider the common themes we hear from some of the sex trafficking victims and survivors we serve about the recruitment and grooming process they experienced:

The Promise

The grooming process often begins with affection, attention, and learning and then exploiting someone’s dreams. For many young girls and boys, it can be as simple as a promise of love—or as big as a promise of a life of luxury. The abuser or pimp, often known as a “Boyfriend Pimp”, “Romeo Pimp” or a “Finesse Pimp” in this case, might shower their victim with gifts and extravagant experiences to gain their trust and convince their young victims that they love them—and that no one else does. 

The Isolation

Once trust is built, the abuser begins the process of isolation. This often entails taking steps to cut the victim off from their family and friends, such as monitoring their phone calls. The victims are taught to mistrust their family and authority, and that their abuser is the only one who really cares about them. In many of the stories we hear at REST, threats of violence against both the victim and their family are common manipulation tactics to keep them isolated and separated from their family and friends. 

The Switch

Eventually, the once loving and exciting new relationship takes a turn—and what was once a consensual relationship turns exploitative. This is often the “turn out” point, where the boyfriend pimp uses manipulation to get his victim to sell their body to himself, a friend, or a stranger for the first time. We also see this in the pornography industry, where the victim is videotaped without consent, or the video is distributed without consent. This is the moment the dream turns into a nightmare. 

The Control

One key element in trafficking situations is the control maintained by a pimp or abuser. Manipulation tactics utilized include isolation, emotional, mental, and physical abuse. The stories we hear at REST include a wide variety of control tactics such as threats and actual violence against family and friends, physical abuse, taking control of personal documents like birth certificates and passports, financial control and much more. When that control is momentarily lost, and a victim is considered “out of pocket” (or disobeying rules), control is often regained and enforced through physical violence.

The Trauma Bond

Trauma bonding is a common outcome when a victim is put through ongoing cycles of abuse and reward—like being beaten for breaking rules, then being showered with affection. Trauma bonds are powerful and are a huge barrier for victims to escape their abusers. Even once someone has escaped, there may still be strong feelings of love for the abuser and the temptation to return. This is one of the reasons why leaving a trafficking situation can be so difficult—and may take many attempts to do for good. 

Now, as you read news stories about the trafficking of minors consider these questions:

  • What evidence do you see of the grooming process? 

  • How were abusive power dynamics, manipulation, and control tactics used against the victims? 

  • Do you see evidence of trauma bonds in the reaction of victims?

It doesn’t take billions of dollars and massive amounts of social power to create an exploitative situation for a child. Often, a simple promise of love alone can set the stage for the massive breach of trust, and abuse of power inherent in the trafficking of a minor. 

It can be years, perhaps even decades after someone is free physically before the trauma bond with an abuser is broken. At REST, we believe that every single person deserves to be loved, and deserves a life free from exploitation. We also know that healing is possible—we’ve seen it time and again. It’s why REST walks alongside survivors on their healing journeys and offers love, unconditional care, and trauma-informed support as survivors pursue freedom and the life they deserve. 

Our hearts break as we hear the stories nationally of minor victims of sex trafficking. We hope that the attention drawn to this national problem will fuel even greater resolve by our society to bring an end to this crime and offer hope and help to its victims.