When you think about human trafficking and the gun-wielding thugs of films like Taken might spring to mind. But, while real-life human traffickers certainly can act in such bluntly aggressive ways, their tactics can also be far more insidious.
One frightening approach is the so-called ‘Loverboy Method’, which has only just started to enter public awareness.
The Loverboy Method explained
Despite the name, there’s nothing sentimental about how ‘Loverboys’ operate. Simply put, they are traders in human beings who weaponise affection to lure victims. Selecting young, vulnerable, impressionable women and girls, these traffickers can be seductive and charming at first, lavishing their targets with compliments, making them feel attractive and even loved.
Then, once the victims have developed an emotional attachment to the traffickers, they will be manipulated or forced into sex work. Often, the victims will be taken to another country, far from any possible support network of family and friends, where they become utterly dependent on their traffickers. The Loverboy façade may be entirely dropped by this point, with victims often beaten, kept prisoner and forced to work.
The Loverboy red flags
These Loverboy people traffickers, also known as ‘Romeo Pimps’, employ some tried-and-tested tactics to exert psychological control over their targets.
The first is carefully tailored affection. In an interview with the news website Thred, one victim recounted how her trafficker ‘mirrored’ her. Not in the typically understood sense of replicating her body language and other non-verbal cues, but by carefully questioning her on her interests, hopes and aspirations, to ‘offer… everything I ever wanted’. It was a kind of bespoke seduction, which made her feel listened to and strengthened the bond between them.
The traffickers will often employ coercive control techniques. One is breadcrumbing, which is where they lead victims on with sporadic texts and calls, and then pivot to being evasive and noncommittal in order to create a sense of loss and longing.
Another is gaslighting, where the traffickers will make the targets question their own instincts and perceptions, perhaps causing them to feel guilty about not believing the traffickers or making them doubt the goodwill of their friends and family.
Indeed, isolating their targets is a key part of the process, with Loverboy traffickers ultimately aiming to have the targets entirely in their power. Stepping up their aggressive behaviour, they may demand that the targets hand over their phone and bank details, break off contact with their loved ones, and accompany the traffickers to new lives abroad.
The Andrew Tate exposé
The arrest in Romania of the self-confessedly misogynistic influencer Andrew Tate and his brother Tristan has cast a stark light on the Loverboy phenomenon, with Romanian officials specifically mentioning this trafficking method in relation to the case.
Andrew Tate, who has been charged with rape and trafficking, once had a website on which he openly boasted, ‘My job was to get women to fall in love with me. Literally, that was my job. My job was to meet a girl, go on a few dates, sleep with her, test if she’s quality, get her to fall in love with me to where she’d do anything I say, and then get her on webcam so we could become rich together. Whether you agree or disagree with what I did with their loyalty, submission, and love for me doesn’t matter.’
The Romanian indictment alleges that the Tate brothers ‘recruited’ women for their online porn enterprise by falsely promising them marriage, placing their victims under constant surveillance, even forcing them into debt. Meanwhile, a woman known only as ‘Sophie’ has spoken to the BBC about her own, personal experience of Andrew Tate, alleging that he’d become tyrannical after starting an online romance with her and inviting her to join him in Romania.
When she moved there, he allegedly became violent and controlling, even fining her for going out without his permission. Her account emphasises how such abuse is anchored in the emotional connection that has been cynically created by the trafficker. In her words, ‘Any kind of rationale or logic leaves your body, and you find yourself doing things you wouldn't normally do.’
A British problem
While the Andrew Tate scandal has brought the Loverboy Method to wider public attention for the first time, officials in countries across Europe have long been aware of the problem. Romania has been particularly blighted by ruthless traffickers using these methods of control, with numerous accounts of schoolgirls literally being approached in playgrounds by would-be traffickers.
The ones who are successfully groomed and forced into sex work are subjected to gruelling exploitation, often in other countries such as the UK. One girl trafficked in this country, Elena, has told the BBC that she was made to sleep with up to 10 or 20 men per day, generating thousands upon thousands of pounds for her trafficker.
While raids do take place on the unassuming British houses that operate as brothels, getting girls to inform on their abusers is notoriously difficult, in part because of the nefarious emotional programming of the Loverboy Method.
Between April 2018 and December 2020, more than 6,000 victims of sex trafficking were identified in the UK, but less than 100 prosecutions were made – often because the victims refused to implicate the culprits. It's hoped that with ever-growing awareness of the tactics used by traffickers, more women and girls will be able to identify and evade those who would do such harm.