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"He Doesn't Really Love You": Exploring the Boyfriend Technique

Updated: Feb 22

My boyfriend is in love with me and I’m in love with him. We’ve been together for eight months, and he buys me pretty much anything I want. A couple months ago, he broke up with me, but then he came back because he said that he couldn’t live without me. Before I knew it, we were moving in together! 

Sometimes my boyfriend tells me that he needs money, and that I can get it for him. It’s only happened a couple of times, but I’ve had to do things I didn’t want to do to get that money. It’s alright though, my boyfriend says that the money is going to go towards our future and that soon we’ll have enough money that I won’t have to keep selling my body. I am in love with him and I’m sure he’s in love with me too.

Unfortunately, in situations like that above, the boyfriend’s love might not be as genuine as it seems. While love can be a beautiful thing, traffickers also understand the power of love, and they are all too happy to exploit it in order to victimize those they traffic.

The use of love by traffickers around the world and in our own backyards has been dubbed the “boyfriend”, “loverboy”, or “Romeo” technique.

Loverboys are human traffickers who manipulate younger girls and boys–often minors– into trafficking situations by pretending to be in love with them. Once they convince their victims to fall in love with them, the traffickers will exploit them for financial gain, such as in the commercial sex trade. 

The strategies involved in the boyfriend technique may vary, but they usually follow a similar pattern. 

Step 1: The trafficker finds their target.

First, the trafficker seeks out a victim, often a vulnerable young person. Maybe this young person is being bullied. Perhaps this young person is struggling with their parents’ divorce. This person could also be part of an at-risk population, such as an unhoused individual, someone in the foster care system, or a runaway. This process of targeting can be on social media or offline. With the development of social media and dating sites, online recruitment has increased. Traffickers might use Instagram, FaceBook, or other sites to identify lonely and potentially vulnerable individuals. They might also use apps like Grindr or Tinder to identify people looking for romantic connection, which might make the boyfriend technique more effective.

Step 2: Grooming

Once the trafficker decides on their victim, they begin the next step: grooming. Grooming is the process by which a trafficker establishes a relationship, trust, and connection with a target with the intent of exploiting them. The trafficker will pinpoint what their target is lacking and try to fill that need. This may look like buying food, paying bills, providing substances like drugs or alcohol, or anything else that their target might like.

While the trafficker is grooming their target, they will also begin gradually isolating them from loved ones, friends, and support systems. The trafficker may convince their target that nobody understands them like the trafficker does, and the trafficker and target will begin spending time exclusively with each other. 

Step 3: Escalation

After the grooming process and isolation, the trafficker will then intensify the situation. This might look like traffickers breaking up with their target. They will go no contact with their target, then reach back out. Sometimes the target won’t respond, at which point the trafficker moves on. Other times the target will respond, often with joy and excitement at hearing that their “love” has returned to them. The trafficker promises more, and might even give them a place to stay. This results in the target becoming even more vulnerable to trafficking. The escalation stage may look different than this, but regardless of how it happens, this stage includes the trafficker doing something to make the individual being trafficked become completely trusting of and reliant on the trafficker.

Step 4: Emotional Manipulation and Exploitation

Once the traffickers have fully gained the trust of their target, they will then begin trafficking them, often using coercion and emotional manipulation. At this point, the individual being trafficked is completely dependent on their trafficker; often emotionally, psychologically, and/or financially. The manipulation may begin slowly. The trafficker might suddenly need cash and will suggest the individual being trafficked should sell their bodies. Maybe the trafficker will suddenly change their tune, and the gifts that they gave to the individual being trafficked during the grooming stage might no longer be free. Regardless of how it happens, the person being trafficked will likely find themselves trapped with no clear exit in sight. The individual being trafficking might not even realize they are being trafficked. Because the trafficker is still using love against the person being trafficked, the target might not see themselves as a victim, decreasing the likelihood of exit from the situation.

What does the boyfriend technique look like in real life?

Take the case of Stacy Lundren. Stacy was just 14 when a 22-year-old man reached out to her on social media expressing an interest in her. Stacy had been bullied at school, so she was excited about the affection her “secret boyfriend” provided. At first, her “boyfriend” was kind and attentive. However, the man began coercing Stacy into being raped by up to three men every week. She was fortunately rescued by undercover police before she was traded even further into trafficking. She has since become a mother, an advocate, and an educator on human trafficking. Stacy has stated about her trafficker:

“my Romeo pimp…he wasn’t the scary, creepy guy in the alleyway. He’s your next door neighbor.”

Another example is Wendy Barnes. Wendy was trafficked by her boyfriend and the father of her three children. Her trafficker identified her deep desire to be loved, and groomed her by promising her the perfect fairytale ending; marriage, kids, a home, good jobs, and a happy life. Eventually, the trafficker began sex trafficking Wendy. The trafficker exploited Wendy’s concern for her children and the love her children had for him to keep Wendy under his control. He isolated Wendy and degraded her sense of self, telling her that he was the only one who would ever love her. When he would put her in trafficking situations, he would remind her of the dream she had of having a good family and life, and convince her that the pain he put her through was only temporary.

Wendy finally emerged from this abuse after 10 years, but it would take three years of healing to realize that this wasn’t love.

Part of her restoration journey included recognizing that she was not unlovable, but instead loved by the people surrounding her every day. Wendy now works as the coordinator of the human trafficking response program at a large healthcare system, where she is able to share what happened to her to healthcare providers to help them understand what human trafficking looks like and how they can make a difference.

So what can you do to protect yourself, your friends, and your loved ones from the boyfriend technique? 

First, learning about the signs of trafficking and listening to survivors’ stories is a great way to train yourself to be able to identify a potentially dangerous situation. The eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know, so understanding what trafficking really looks like in your community can help you protect yourself and others. This can include reading up on our Brain Knows series.

Second, making sure that you are responsible online is an important way to guard against grooming. Many traffickers utilize online platforms to identify, contact, and groom their victims. Being cautious about what you or your loved ones post and avoiding talking with unknown people online is a good way to stay safer in our digital world.

Third, having open and honest conversations about topics like the boyfriend method with your loved ones and friends is a great way to help others be able to spot “Romeos”. While we would like to think that everyone courting your friends and loved ones have pure intentions, being able to identify the pattern of grooming, isolation, and exploitation that loverboys use so that we can escape the boyfriend technique and focus on the relationships that will provide us with true love and connection.


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