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The Psychology Behind the Grooming Process

While many may think of human trafficking as something that is more prevalent in other countries, the unfortunate reality is that human trafficking exists in the U.S. and among all of us, especially amid the pandemic. Vulnerable individuals are being preyed upon and exploited. Moreover, COVID-19 has exasperated vulnerabilities for already at risk populations such as individuals suffering from unemployment or housing instability. Therefore, it is essential for us to analyze and understand the issue. As we seem to raise awareness and prevent, we need to pay special attention to the grooming process. 

While anyone can fall prey to trafficking, pimps/traffickers often seek out and recruit victims with vulnerabilities such as those without strong community ties, a sense of identity, and/or a safe place to live. The grooming process is known as the process through which traffickers recruit and exploit victims, and convince them that they have the power to choose to be participants in their own exploitation. While a substantial amount of research has been conducted on the grooming process and how traffickers choose their next victim, studies that investigate the psychology of human trafficking, or more specifically, the psychology behind the grooming process, are few and far between. However, it is important that we have a comprehensive understanding of the grooming process, victims’ needs and vulnerabilities, and how traffickers take advantage of this knowledge, before we can begin to explore the psychological elements pertaining to human trafficking.

In order to better understand the psychology behind the grooming process, let’s begin by looking at the first step a trafficker takes when recruiting a victimassessing and identifying the victim’s needs and/or vulnerabilities. Some common risk factors of human trafficking include: substance abuse, truancy, chronic homelessness, and having a disability. More specifically, there is a greater risk for individuals to be trafficked if a family member or friend who is involved in commercial sex work lives with these individuals, which is found to be exacerbated due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory regarding an individual’s hierarchy of needs is an essential place to start when thinking about the needs that a trafficker is going to be trying to appear to meet for a groomed victim (Operation 250, n.d.). First, Maslow’s theory explains that our most pressing needs are classified as physiological needs. These include necessities such as water, food, sleep, and air. Second, humans require a certain level of security that can be fulfilled by avoiding danger and having freedom from fear. This need can be met through protection provided by law enforcement officers or simply by having a job to secure one’s financial needs. Additionally, our needs for love and belonging must be met through companionship, healthy relationships, and having a group identity. For instance, having a strong support system composed of friends and family can help fulfill this need. However, it is at this particular level of Maslow’s hierarchy that traffickers will take advantage of this need by creating the illusion of love to lure the victim(Operation 250, n.d.). In other words, this particular strategy of luring victims by having them develop romantic or even paternal feelings for the trafficker is a defining characteristic of a Romeo Pimp.

The last two needs that Maslow identifies in his hierarchy are not as pressing as the others to fulfill, however, traffickers often pay close attention to whether these needs are being satisfied for a potential victim because they can be manipulated. After the need for love and belonging is met, humans require a healthy level of self-esteem,therefore, individuals with a weaker sense of self-identity are at greater risk to be targeted. Finally, the last human need that is featured in Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. Sadly, this realization of one’s highest potential is capitalized by traffickers who provide these women and girls with false dreams for the future. For example, a trafficker may promise a victim that the situation is only temporary and they will be able to accomplish their dreams together someday soon. 

Once a trafficker has assessed which of the victim’s needs are not being met, they begin to satisfy those needs for them, luring them into a false sense of support and security. In this step of the grooming process, a trafficker makes an “effort to build rapport with the victim” (Operation 250, n.d.). For instance, a trafficker may provide financial incentivization such as gifts for this purpose. If a victim seems hesitant or resistant, a trafficker may employ additional coercive tactics such as blackmail or bribery. 

After the victim’s needs have been satisfied, the victim trusts the trafficker to take care of them. At this stage, the trafficker may also attempt to persuade the victim that engaging in sexual behavior with them is good for them, and even educational. Once the process of relationship-building has manipulated the victim into exploitation, the final step of the grooming process is reached. This is otherwise known as when the victim is “turned out” or exploited and sold to buyers or “Johns.”

Upon a closer investigation of the grooming process, we can identify the dysfunctional attachments that occur because of the presence of danger associated with sexual exploitation. In other words, victims of human trafficking can form unhealthy “trauma bonds,” which can be noted by having an attraction to people who have hurt them in the past, attachments to known untrustworthy individuals, and persistent attempts to maintain contact a trafficker who acknowledges no responsibility for hurting them. In addition to these barriers preventing victims from escaping the trafficking world, other obstacles that exist include a limited knowledge of resources to help, fear of failure, dependency on their trafficker, and lack of a safe home to return to. Overall, these connections between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the grooming process contribute to our understanding of the underlying psychological intentions that human traffickers possess.

Now…What can we do now with this information?

We can raise awareness of the need for more research exploring the psychology underpining human trafficking and the grooming process. Additionally, we can share this information with our networks. With an increased community awareness about how traffickers capitalize on human needs, we can educate ourselves and others in order to better protect against victimization and exploitation. 

*This blog post featured elements from Dr. Ian Elliot’s work on understanding the psychology behind the grooming process*

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