Understanding Trafficker Recruitment Strategies Through Cultic Theory

16 October 2018
Survivor Authored

Megan Lundstrom  | Executive Director, Free Our Girls
Angie Henderson  | Professor of Sociology, the University of Northern Colorado

Editor’s note: This article contains explicit descriptions of abuse and trauma from trafficking victims and survivors.

Sex trafficking research has been plagued by the lack of reliable data, limiting the ways we understand the multi-billion-dollar sex trafficking industry. To remedy this, in the summer of 2017, we conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with a sample of 54 women in the United States who identified as either survivors or current victims of sex trafficking.  The sample was recruited through Free Our Girls’ existing national network of more than 1,600 currently and previously commercially sexually exploited women. Interviews were conducted in-person and over the phone. Using cultic theory as a framework, our unpublished research investigates women’s experiences of recruitment and control during their time of being trafficked. Cultic theory suggests that 15 mechanisms reinforce and stabilize cultic groups, each of which we argue contributes to institutionalizing and perpetuating the commercial sex industry.

A key characteristic of cultic theory holds that the group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. Economically, this makes sense given that the more victims a pimp has working, the higher his profit margin. As part of their recruitment tactics, traffickers occupy public spaces, looking for opportunities to interact with vulnerable women and girls. Our data reveal that traffickers often prey on victims’ vulnerabilities. According to our participants’ stories, traffickers seemingly anticipate impending crises in the lives of the girls and women they are grooming. One survivor actually used cultic language when describing how she was recruited: “These traffickers are so very schooled, you know? It’s almost like they go to trafficker school to learn how to use these cult type brainwashing techniques.”

These techniques were commonly described by the women in our sample. Traffickers would swoop in and offer a solution to an impending financial crisis. Homeless, one participant described attending a free breakfast where she was approached by a female trafficker:

So a woman approached …[and] she basically first said to me, “You, I can tell that you’ve been abused,” and she said, “I’ve been abused too so I know what it’s like.” So she really tried to build a very deep connection very quickly…[then she] took me back to her apartment…we get to her apartment and she closes the door and stands in front of it and tells me that the name that I knew her by was not her name. Then she put me in her bedroom and I realized that there were other men in that room…[I was] getting raped and so I was really broken during that time and then she turned me out. And so the recruitment process was much faster because of my past trauma, past experiences.

Our study found that sudden economic and housing insecurity frequently contributed to victims’ vulnerability as their would-be trafficker stepped onto the scene with what seemed like a simple solution. Nearly 40 per cent of the women who were recruited into sex trafficking indicated that a crisis of economic well-being preceded their recruitment. Thirteen of these women were in imminent financial danger: four were kicked out of their parents’ homes, five were already homeless or living in shelters, two had lost their jobs, and two had lost a relationship with a household breadwinner.

For most of the women in our sample, prostitution as a solution to financial issues had already been planted during the grooming process, which usually lasted between six months and two years. Typically, women would meet their trafficker and he would feign romantic interest to get to know them. During that time the victim’s economic or other vulnerabilities were uncovered, and subsequently exploited for the trafficker’s gain. A lack of options led these women to make the only perceived choice available—prostitution—and they do not perceive their trafficker as liable for their choice.

Blurred focus night shot. Unsplash/Alex Knight.

Other survivors discussed being put in a position to do the recruiting and grooming for the traffickers. As one participant noted: “During the life*, I was so good at training [new girls] that other pimps paid my man to have me train their girls. I could also find ways around any situation that would work and people paid my man for my knowledge.”

Though traffickers’ strategies vary, the common thread in our study is that recruitment is vital to the maintenance of the group, and that preying on the vulnerabilities of women is customary for bringing in new members.

Our research is important for understanding how practitioners can best serve their clients’ needs. In short, sex trafficking victims are a unique population that requires a range of services. Individuals exiting cults may experience post-cult trauma syndrome, necessitating special care from practitioners trained in addressing complex trauma. Given this, practitioners should be aware that survivors need time to deprogram their thought processes. Using cultic theory to understand pimp-controlled sex trafficking is still in its infancy; future researchers have ample opportunity to further explore these theoretical and practical intersections.

*“The life” is a commonly used phrase among trafficking victims to describe the time they were exploited in the commercial sex industry.


Megan Lundstrom is the Founder of Free Our Girls.

Angie Henderson is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Northern Colorado.

This article has been prepared by Megan Lundstrom and Angie Henderson as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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