Loverboy pimps: ‘I really thought he loved me’

Francine Sporenda interviews Sandra Norak, who was involved in prostitution in Germany for six years. 

You entered prostitution when you were still in high school, through a ‘loverboy’ pimp – in other words a trafficker. How did he first approach you? []

I had a lot of problems when I was growing up because my mother was mentally ill and my father had abandoned us, so I spent a lot of time on the Internet. And that’s where I met him.

But before that, there was a woman I got friendly with online. We chatted and she listened to me and seemed interested in my problems. But then she introduced me to that man. Later on, I found out she was a former prostitute, she’d been prostituted by him, and when I met her they were searching for a ‘new girl.’

Do you mean that without this woman, you wouldn’t have been hooked by him?

I’m not sure, but I think not, because she established trust between us. I discussed my problems with her and she was the only person I could talk to at that time – so yes, without her, I don’t think I would have trusted that man. He was about 20 years older than me. She was also about 20 years older than me.

You say loverboy pimps look for ‘easy prey.’ What makes a girl easy prey?

Vulnerability of course – coming from a broken home, having experienced sexual abuse, violence or neglect in the past – these are the general preconditions for entry into prostitution. But it’s not limited to that. In Germany, there are women who’ve been victims of loverboy pimps who come from families where there’s no evidence of abuse or violence, but they met their loverboy pimp when they were very young. It was their first time being in love, they were like typical adolescents, rebelling against their parents…

So they’re in that phase where you reject your parents, and the loverboy fits into that rebellion – he sells them romantic love, “Your parents don’t understand you,” etc. So they get fooled?

I think so, at least sometimes. I’ve heard of cases in Germany where they don’t come from vulnerable families. So actually no girl is safe. It can happen to any girl.

So what was he like, your loverboy pimp?

In Germany’s official report, ‘Bundeslagebild Menschenhandel und Ausbeutung 2017’ you can read that one out of every four trafficking victims was recruited through the loverboy method. But in my experience, it is much more common than that.

A police officer in Augsburg explained it well. He said the loverboys are the most intelligent pimps, because when a pimp beats a woman, other people can see what’s happening just by looking at her. So that sort of pimp is much easier to prosecute and convict than the ones who pretend to have a romantic relationship and use emotional bonds to control her.

Loverboy pimps make everything look normal. The girls often still go to school, sometimes even continuing to get good grades. It makes it very hard for the untrained eye to see what’s going on, and it’s difficult for the police to prove it’s trafficking and pimping. Is the girl doing it out of free choice or because she’s being manipulated? In Germany, it’s very difficult to convict these men.

I think that police officer was Helmut Sporer. He says that standard procedures and police questioning don’t work with loverboy pimps, because the girl appears to be in prostitution out of her own free will.

Exactly! Because when you are in that situation, when you think this person loves you, when you are very young and you’re not aware that there are men out there who search the Internet or wait in front of schools to find girls to recruit into prostitution, and you’ve never heard of this possibility, you think this person loves you and that you have a responsibility towards them.

You don’t have any idea that you’re dealing with a pimp. You think you’re in a relationship. Loverboy pimps’ victims – and it was true for me – often have absolutely no awareness that they’re a victim.

It is possible in Germany to get a conviction without the testimony of the victim if the court has enough proof – for example, through surveillance and mobile phone records – but such convictions are very rare.

So he deliberately got you to depend on him emotionally?

Yes. I didn’t have any real deep friendships, because of my situation at home. I was very isolated – so when he entered my life, it was wonderful – I didn’t feel alone any more. He was the only person I could talk to and who would listen to me. He knew what I needed emotionally and he played on my emotional needs.

He said he could help me with my problems with my mother: “If you want to leave home, you can come and stay with me.”

And then what happened?

In the beginning prostitution wasn’t an issue at all, and this is typical of loverboy pimps. First the emotional bond must be established. It’s only after they know the girl loves them and is dependent on them, that they start talking about their debts that need repaying.

Before he asked me to be a prostitute and to bring him money, he took me to a brothel, just to have a cup of coffee. He told me that the brothel owner was a friend of his.

It was strange for me, suddenly finding myself in a brothel. I asked him, “What are we doing here?”

He replied, “Oh come on, it’s not a problem, it’s a job like any other. Prostitution is perfectly legal, brothel owners are regular businessmen, and the women are sex workers, so don’t be prudish.”

He used the German prostitution law to justify prostitution to me. The law helped him because it tells everyone exactly what he told me – that prostitution is just a job.

As time went by, I started to realize he was linked to people from a criminal milieu – that he was doing business with Hell’s Angels and people like that. But I had no idea what kind of business it was.

Then suddenly he asked me to prostitute myself because, he said, it brings in a lot of money. I said, “No, I don’t mind coming here to drink coffee and see your friends, but I don’t want to do that.”

That’s when he started to use the line about his debts. If you love a person, you worry about their safety and problems, about your shared future, and that’s how I started.

I saw a lot of organized crime during my time in prostitution. Most prostitution is organized by networks and is full of trafficking victims and women who really didn’t have a choice.

So you believed he was in danger and you were the only person who could save him?

I don’t know that I thought he was in danger exactly. But he said he had debts, and if he couldn’t pay them back, he’d have real problems. In other words, if I didn’t help him, he’d have to get even more involved in dangerous business with people like the Hell’s Angels.

You said that if the state had made it clear that prostitution was violence, you would have acted differently. So do you think the German state has any responsibility in your entrapment in prostitution?

Yes, because when I look back at the first time he took me to that brothel, I had a very bad feeling in my stomach. I wanted to get out. I saw the girls in high heels, and all the johns, the sex buyers, and they were all naked. It was such a strange feeling. I’d never seen so many people naked before, and I was thrown by that.

But just as I was manipulated by his propaganda, I was also manipulated by the official line that prostitution is just a job, a service, and we shouldn’t be prudish, and we have to accept it.

Basically the state says exactly the same thing as my trafficker did. So the German state helped him to prostitute me. Our legislation helps traffickers push young women into prostitution, because by saying prostitution is a normal job, all the harm and violence becomes invisible.

When you say, “It’s just a job, there’s no problem,” young people are not warned, and this obviously helps the traffickers.

If you were told, “This is a very dangerous business, there are a lot of violations of human rights, assaults on human dignity, there are close ties with organized crime,” you’d be much more careful.

I understand that you refused to testify against him. Why was this and why is it so difficult – practically impossible – for a woman in prostitution to testify against her pimp?

This actually happened very shortly after I moved in with him, when I was still in my final year of school. I really wanted to finish school. I tried so hard, but after two or three months it became clear that I couldn’t be a prostitute at night and go to school in the day. It just wasn’t possible and so I had to drop out of school.

About two or three months later, the police knocked on the door of the apartment where I was living with him – although officially he wasn’t living there – and they asked me if they could come in. I said no. I didn’t say why, but it was because he was there at the time, along with two other prostituted women.

The police accepted that I wouldn’t let them in but asked me to go to the police station within the next few days. They said they wanted to ask me some questions, because they’d been informed that I’d been induced into prostitution.

After they’d left, my pimp and the other two women went mad. They thought I’d informed the police – which I hadn’t, but they wouldn’t believe me. They threatened me. One of them wanted to throw me out of the window. They pulled my hair and became very aggressive.

I did go to the police a few days later as asked, but I didn’t tell them anything – because I was so afraid of what those people would do when I got home, and because – and this is hard to explain – if you see your pimp as your boyfriend, you don’t realize that you’re a victim.

Some people say, “But when they threatened you, when one of the women wanted to throw you out the window, how could you not realize you were a victim?”

My response to that is that being afraid doesn’t necessarily mean you can recognize it, because they tell you it’s all your fault. And you believe them, especially when you’re very young.

My pimp and one of the women were 20 years older than me. They knew how to control me. I was very vulnerable at the time, because of the situation with my mother. It took time for me to realize that he just took advantage of me and had never loved me. So their strategy worked very well.

What you’re describing is a kind of psychological manipulation that’s sometimes called ‘perverse communication’ or ‘gaslighting’ – the goal being to break down your resistance without using physical violence. Can you talk more about this? 

Over time he did progress to physical threats and warnings, and sometimes I even feared for my life, but in the beginning it was exactly as the psychologist Marie-France Hirigoyen describes in her book ‘Stalking the Soul:’

“[It] makes the victim doubt her beliefs. The victim loses consciousness of her identity. The goal of the perpetrator is to negate it and paralyze her at the same time, so that conflict is avoided. […] Something is said at the verbal level and the opposite is expressed at the non-verbal level. It is a paradox consisting of an explicit message and an ulterior motive that is denied by the aggressor. It is an extremely effective way to destabilize the victim.”

This really came into play when he raised prostitution – my prostitution – as a way of paying off his debts. That’s when he’d say things like he didn’t want to overwhelm me, that he loves me so much, etc. but at the same time he makes it clear with non-verbal communication that you’re guilty if you won’t help him by prostituting yourself.

This mix of verbal and non-verbal communication makes you feel guilty. He knows that you’ll eventually begin to prostitute yourself against your will and that is exactly the moment that Sun Tsu speaks of in his book, ‘The Art of War:’

“The resistance of the enemy is broken without a fight, without physical violence.”

The ‘enemy’ here being the woman or girl who doesn’t want to prostitute herself but whose prostitution he wants to exploit. By the way, my pimp always talked about this book, so he knew exactly what he was doing.

What do you think of Germany’s 2017 prostitution law reforms? It looks like many of its provisions are unrealistic (e.g. interviews to discern if the woman is being coerced) and some are impossible to enforce (compulsory condoms), and in practice many of the counselling services are controlled by the sex trade lobby, such as the Dona Carmen and Kassandra associations. 

Some of the provisions seem to be going in the right direction, because they try to reduce some of the worst aspects of prostitution – for example, sex buyers now have to use condoms, and women have to register.

But it’s still doesn’t recognize prostitution as violence. It still doesn’t recognize that there’s a lot of organized crime involved.

There are paragraphs in the law that seem positive, like the one that says that only people without a criminal record can manage brothels. But even in my time in prostitution (which was before the new law), the real brothel owners were not the ones on the official paper. The real ones operate in the background and are usually not known to the police. So this new regulation is unlikely to make much difference in practice.

Essentially this law takes us further in the wrong direction. To go in the right direction, we have to recognize prostitution as violence.

No one really knows how many women are in prostitution in Germany. Estimates vary from 200,000 to 400,000, or even a million. Most women who are in prostitution in Germany are not there because they dreamed of this all their life. We have a lot of trafficking, a lot of women who have been coerced into it by individuals or desperate poverty.

There is very high demand, and our legislation pushes this ever further, by reinforcing the notion it’s a job, that buying sex is OK, and that all that needs to be done is to regulate it more. So this law isn’t going to solve anything.

So this law is essentially harm reduction. It’s supposed to do away with flat rates and gang bangs, but brothels are still advertising them but using different words. Instead of ‘ gang bang,’ they say ‘orgy.’ But it’s still the same.

Of course, gangbangs still exists. Flat rates too, they just use another term for it.

Since the law passed, we do have more statistics. Now, there are about 33,000 people who have registered as prostitutes, but the actual number is still in the region of 400,000.

Some people say that the Swedish model drives prostitution underground, but based on these figures, it’s clearly already underground in Germany.

It’s absurd to say that the Nordic Model drives prostitution underground. As Simon Häggström (the police officer in charge of trafficking in Stockholm) says, the johns must be able to find the prostituted women. If these women are so underground that the johns can’t find them, there’s no buying, there’s no prostitution. The arguments of the prostitution lobby often make no sense at all.

Sandra Norak now works to raise awareness about the harms of the prostitution system and the realities of the different forms of human trafficking, including the loverboy method. She has spoken at parliaments in Germany and Italy and does prevention work in schools. She teaches girls how to identify loverboy pimps and strategies for protecting themselves. She has been in newspapers and on TV, and took part in the German documentary, ‘Brothel Germany: The Billion-Dollar Business of Prostitution,’ which was nominated for the Prix Europa 2018.

She is part of Sisters eV, a German NGO that offers exit services for women in prostitution.

Visit Sandra’s website:

This interview was originally published in French on the Révolution Féministe website. Published on this website on 3 March 2020.

Sandra Norak