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Europe

Charming the girls - then prostituting them

It may seem harmless, but the term "loverboy" has taken on a dark new meaning in the Netherlands. Loverboys, now also a phenomenon in Germany, are pimps who snare victims as lovers before forcing them into prostitution.

A red light shaped as a heart outside a brothel in Frankfurt

'Loverboys' conquer women's hearts, then send them out to the streets

Pimps who coax teenage girls into relationships and then force them into prostitution have become so common that Dutch police gave the pimps a name - "loverboys."

An estimated 5,000 young women in the country are believed to be victims of the tactic. A group called Stop Loverboys Now, founded in 2008, has helped more than a hundred girls.

Earlier this year, the organization opened an office in Germany where it is currently supporting four girls who fell prey to loverboys as well as several parents whose daughters were victims.

Appear genuine at first

For girls like Merel van Groningen, back in the Netherlands, these abusive relationships appeared to be genuine at first. Merel was 15 years old - and vulnerable - when she met Mike, a man 10 years older than her.

A couple watching the sunset

Girls start out believing they have found romance

"He was my first boyfriend, so I had nothing to compare him with. He made me feel good about myself," Merel told Deutsche Welle.

"My father had found a new girlfriend back then and my mother also had started a new family and I didn't feel welcome by either of them. But I felt at home when I was with Mike. He did everything for me. He said he would take care of me."

Merel ignored appeals from her mother, who told her that Mike was not good for her.

But before long, her new partner was asking her to sleep with other men for money. Indeed, Mike was also prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to make her comply.

Threatened and starved

He threatened Merel with a gun and deprived her of food until, feeling increasingly dependent upon him, she finally accepted prostitution as a way of life without ever earning a cent.

Methods adopted by loverboys are varied, according to Anita de Witt, head of Stop Loverboys Now.

Some tell the girl that sleeping with a stranger just a one-time thing to help pay a debt - otherwise their sweetheart will end up in jail. Others acquire naked footage of them on camera so that they can blackmail the girls, saying they will post the material on the Internet if they don't sleep with other men.

A computer, with a man holding a gun on the screen

Victims are threatened with exposure on the Internet, or violence

Regardless of the approach, one thing is common - the young women fall deeply in love and are made to believe the loverboy is all they have in the world.

The press office of the Amsterdam police said it could not provide official numbers of victims or perpetrators, something that de Witt said was understandable.

"There are a lot of girls who are afraid," she said. "They're afraid something will happen to the parents or their brother or their sister and that's why they don't want to talk."

A peculiar kind of loyalty

Journalist Maria Genova, who published a book about loverboys this year, has found that, despite everything, most victims remain loyal to their loverboys.

"There is support but a lot of these women don't want to be helped because they don't believe they are victims. It's so strange," she said.

"They really try to protect the loverboy," she added. "A lot of times after they get help they are still so in love with them that they go back to him."

Genova added that, in her opinion, the jail sentences given to such men are usually rather light - between two and three years.

A view of Amsterdam's red light district

Merel stood in a shop window as her price was negotiated

Merel ended up working as a prostitute for her loverboy for two months and said she would never forget the first time she stood in front of men negotiating her price.

"You're behind a window in your underwear. You feel very small because you're in your underwear and everyone's looking at you," she said. "Then you're only worth 20 euros for the man you thought loved you."

Helped to escape

Eventually a nearby shop owner realized Merel was underage and helped her escape. She returned home and never saw Mike again but wrote a book, "Misled," which was published four years ago.

Although the experience of recording her memories may have proved cathartic, the mental scars still remain for Merel. Mike was never brought to justice and she harbors fears that her past could catch up with her.

"If someone comes to my place to fix something I make sure that I'm close enough to the door so that I can run away any moment," she said.

"If I'm talking about it like for an interview I always look around to ensure no one knows me."

Author: Cintia Taylor (rc)
Editor: Kyle James

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