From Online Romance to Real Life Slavery

When Elizabeth Shuvalova filled out her online dating profile on, she never dreamed that she would eventually end up enslaved in forced labor thousands of miles from her home. She had hoped to meet a man who cared about her and her teen daughter. But what began as online dating turned into human trafficking for Elizabeth. Could online dating be the next big trafficking trend?

When Elizabeth met Joseph Cunningham, a California native, on, their romance started off strong. He spent nearly two years wooing her, both online and in person. He traveled to Poland twice to see and get to know her and her 16-year-old daughter, Natalya. It seemed like the relationship Elizabeth had waited for. When he proposed, he promised that he would provide a loving and supportive family for her and her daughter. And so, the two women decided to move to America. Elizabeth spent her life savings on visas and other travel necessities. Natalya made the tough choice to give up the chance to study music in Russia to join her mother. But the “loving and supportive home” they were promised was anything but that.

Once the marriage was complete and the women were in the U.S., Cunningham enslaved them as his personal servants. Elizabeth and Natalya were forced to work 8-10 hours a day and subjected to verbal and emotional abuse for failing to complete duties. Elizabeth was prevented from leaving the house on her own. Natalya was forbidden from going to school, told that she was “too stupid” and instead forced to haul rocks and landscape on Cunningham’s property. Failure to obey orders or telling anyone what went on in the house, according to Cunningham, was punishable by deportation, beatings, or death. The guns and knives he purposely left lying around the house made those threats very real.

In addition to the verbal abuse, Cunningham would lock Natalya out of the house for hours at a time while he forced Elizabeth to give him naked massages and straddle him. His 35-year-old son forcibly kissed and fondled Natalya against her will, and tried to convince the 16-year-old to be his girlfriend. Eventually, Elizabeth and Natalya were able to sneak away from the property with the help of friends and stay at a women’s shelter in the area.

So is Elizabeth and Natalya’s story of trafficking resulting from an Eharmony love match a one-shot example of a bad egg? Or can online dating websites like Eharmony be used for human trafficking? The answer, at this point, is a little of both. This is the first time I’ve heard of trafficking resulting from an Eharmony match, but certainly domestic violence, sexual assaults, and other crimes have all come out of online dating in the past. As have some really great, healthy relationships. Online dating websites are different from international marriage broker (mail-order bride) sites in one key way: equity. Places like Eharmony and charge men and women equally, allow them to use the site in the same ways, and provide them equal protection. Marriage broker sites, however, are set up to give all the power and protection to the paying (and almost always Western male) half of the relationship.

Men like Joe Cunningham can abuse online dating sites to traffic women, but those cases (at least, up until this point) have been rarer than cases of exploitation stemming from mail-order bride brokers. Still, online dating sites have a responsibility to their users to provide safety nets, and anyone online dating should proceed with caution. Especially if you’re moving to another country. For now, trafficking via online dating is a disturbing occurrence, but not quite yet a trend.

Photo credit: audreycusak




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