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Ieke de Vries: 'We're expecting too much from minors and young adults if we think they can protect themselves from sexual exploitation.’

What starts off gently may end dramatically. Many young people these days fall victim to sexual exploitation. How can we prevent this suffering? Ieke de Vries points to the living environment of (potential) victims.

When we talk about sexual exploitation, many people – researchers, care workers, ordinary civilians – think of underage victims who fall victim to a ‘Romeo pimp’, also known as a ‘loverboy’ in the Netherlands. An example:  

It starts with some minor sexual acts that slowly build up, each time going a step further. The girl's uncomfortable with it, but feels pressured to continue, even by her friends. Her boyfriend says he wants them to move in together or start a restaurant. That seems amazing to her, so she takes on a side job to save money. In the meantime, she keeps doing things in bed that she doesn’t feel comfortable with. It must be me, she thinks. He wants to build a future together, right? Later, when she cautiously puts the brakes on, he starts threatening her. From then on, she’s forced to hand over her pay to him. If she keeps protesting, he’ll share her nude photos with others. A clear case of sexual exploitation.

This stereotype account, however, by no means covers all forms of sexual exploitation.

Ieke de Vries

Not your 'run-of-the-mill' victims

One thing we know for sure is that what once started as gentle and subtle can easily escalate to become human trafficking. ‘Because that’s exactly what it is’, says De Vries, a lecturer at Leiden University. According to her, seemingly innocent terms such as ‘loverboys’ do no justice to the severity of the situation in which the victims are exploited. Moreover, the victims are not always underage girls. De Vries: ‘We see that young adults, boys, and people who identify with other genders, can also fall prey to sexual exploitation.’

Care workers naturally want to prevent new victims from falling prey to this kind of suffering. But where do you start when it comes to prevention? De Vries: ‘Previously, researchers and care workers thought that someone becomes a victim because they are more susceptible or have experienced something bad. That’s possible, but it’s not always the case.’ Because of that traditional approach, a large group of potential victims is overlooked. De Vries: ‘These victims are different from the stereotypical victim, in the sense that they aren’t drug addicts or victims of domestic violence, for example. I think that the crux of this problem is that these victims live in an environment where there is a risk of them experiencing sexual exploitation.’

'A large group of victims is overlooked.'

The environment needs to be alert

‘The current trend is to alert potential victims to the possible dangers.’ Although De Vries agrees that awareness is ‘extremely important’, her focus will be on the group surrounding potential victims. ‘I think we’re expecting too much from minors and young adults if we think that they can protect themselves from sexual exploitation.’

Based on her research, De Vries expects that the people surrounding the potential victim, such as teachers and care workers, will play a greater role. She wants to make that group more alert to the signs of exploitation. She hopes to provide them with new insights ‘about the environment in which young adults may find themselves and in which they’re more likely to be pressured to do things they don’t actually want to do’.

Veni grant for the role of the social environment

De Vries will conduct research on whether the social environment is as relevant as she suspects it is. The criminologist has received a coveted Veni grant, a research grant that NWO offers to boost ‘innovative research’.

She will build on previous research. ‘I’ve already established that the context in which victims find themselves matters.’ In particular, the family and friends of victims were found to have a significant influence on the likelihood of them becoming a victim. ‘That’s not surprising, as no one lives in isolation. Everyone has friends and contacts, and so do potential victims of sexual exploitation.’

‘Now, suppose there are perpetrators or victims of sexual exploitation in that social network. If there’s a reasonable chance that potential victims are in contact with those individuals – talking with them, going to the same school, or even befriending them – then they’re potentially going to find themselves in environments where others want to take advantage of them.’


De Vries will spend a large part of the research grant and time pooling data, including data from Statistics Netherlands (CBS) on the living environment. ‘I want to get an overview of the social networks and living environment of victims. Can I identify patterns based on the victims’ families, friends, work, schools, and the neighbourhoods where they live? I want to explore whether the victims’ social connections and the places they go differ to those of young adults who are not victims, or victims of other types of crime.’

Speaking with care workers

De Vries will also speak with care workers and police officers, among others, to hear about their experiences. ‘I’ll do this at an early stage, because I think it’s important to test my assumptions immediately. In other words: does scientific theory match what people encounter in practice?’ De Vries’ ultimate goal is to come up with practical guidelines that, among other things, can help prevent new victims of sexual exploitation.

Photograph at top of article taken by: Susan Q Yin via Unsplash.

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