Cults and Sex Trafficking

ICSA Today, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2017, 12-16

Cults and Sex Trafficking

Andy Vogler

This article reports on the ICSA Cults and Sex Trafficking Conference in Los Angeles, California in April 2016.

In April 2016, ICSA brought together academics, clinicians, and members of the public for a conference on the intersections between cults and sex trafficking. Hosted by the University of Southern California (USC) School of Social Work, the conference was the first of its kind to bring together these two fields, offering a unique opportunity to share the wisdom and experience of contributors Mary Jo Cysewski, LMFT; Annalisa Enrile, PhD; Marilyn L. Flynn, PhD; Michael Kropveld; Robin Boyle Laisure, JD; Michael Langone, PhD; Andrea Moore-Emmett, MA; Alan Scheflin, JD, LLM; Halleh Seddighzadeh, PhD; Jonibeth Whitney, PhD; and Doni Whitsett, PhD. The Cults and Sex Trafficking conference also advanced ICSA’s goal of holding more local conferences and events in major metropolitan areas. The presentations and follow-up discussions revealed much that is common among survivors of cults and sex trafficking. PowerPoint slides and other prepared notes from the individual presentations can be found at The following provides a brief overview of the conference and includes some details not covered in the materials available online.

Cults 101

Presenter: Jonibeth Whitney

Following introductory remarks by Dean Flynn of the USC School of Social Work, Dr. Jonibeth Whitney gave an overview of cults, including a discussion of common myths and misconceptions. Dr. Whitney emphasized that cult participation and affiliation is often involuntary, and that people can be attracted to cults for a combination of psychological and environmental reasons that may escape their conscious awareness. In reality, cults take advantage of certain psychological needs inherent in every individual—to belong, to find answers to universal questions (“What is the meaning of life?”), and to escape from stressful circumstances. And in dealing with these psychological needs, people are particularly vulnerable during normal transitional periods, such as when they are entering or leaving college or in middle age. And while some cult members may have a history of trauma or psychological disturbance that led to their involvement, research suggests that members are largely representative of the general population. Furthermore, Dr. Whitney pointed out that cult members are often subject to a bait-and-switch tactic—the group often turns out to be different from what the person signed up for. The difficulty new members have with recognizing the dangers of cults parallels the difficulty of attempting to define them.

The process of labeling and defining cult can be challenging, one of the reasons ICSA does not maintain a list of cultic groups. Instead of trying to list or categorize cults, Dr. Whitney suggested that it is more useful to isolate a number of cult characteristics that are helpful in identifying dangerous groups. She encouraged the audience to think not of a categorical cult-versus-noncult distinction, but of a continuum of control and potential harm. Dr. Whitney asserted that “there’s a cult for everyone, you just have to look hard enough”—dispelling the myth that cults are reserved only for those who are easily manipulated, desperate, or mentally ill.

Treating Former Cult Members

Presenter: Doni Whitsett

For the second morning session, with the audience on roughly the same page in terms of their understanding of cults, Dr. Doni Whitsett presented on treating former cult members, assisted by Mary Jo Cysewski’s contribution of a PowerPoint presentation available from the Conference page of the ICSA website listed previously. Coming from a trauma-informed perspective, Dr. Whitsett identified and targeted the traumatic reactions that often follow cult experiences. The post-cult syndrome, a disorder comparable to PTSD, can lead to symptoms of hyperarousal, avoidance, withdrawal or numbing, and altered cognitions or mood states. In extreme cases, individuals may even suffer from a dissociative disorder. While clinicians can target these symptoms through trauma-informed interventions, survivors of cult experiences may struggle with the therapeutic relationship itself. Establishing trust within a therapeutic relationship is a major obstacle with cult survivors. In any setting, the therapist-client relationship is inherently unequal. Regardless of how earnestly the therapist seeks to alter this dynamic, there exists a difference in power and authority. Survivors may also feel that revealing private thoughts and emotions will put them at risk, as was the case before. Dr. Whitsett advised that clinicians validate such concerns about self-disclosure, which may initially appear to be a barrier to treatment. Likewise, Dr. Whitsett suggested that clinicians encourage the survivor’s critical-thinking abilities and confidence to disagree with the therapist. This reinforcement should be part of the larger effort to assist survivors in reestablishing their own identity separate from the cult.

The process of reestablishing identity involves the recognition that the cult experience is now part of the survivor’s personal history. Despite the damage done by the group, there may have been benefits to participation, and even pleasant memories, however few. The therapist can facilitate the process of integrating the good and the bad of the cult experience. The therapist’s assistance is particularly useful when helping the survivor’s support network. As Dr. Whitsett noted, families and other close supports may not want to hear about the good things. Outside observers may struggle to understand the ambivalence that some survivors express. Here, clinicians with knowledge of cult dynamics can provide education and insight to family and friends, emphasizing the elements that attract members to the group and challenging black-and-white thinking.

During the question-and-answer session following Dr. Whitsett’s presentation, the discussion turned once again to the complexities of defining cults. Those who have witnessed a loved one suffering because of a manipulative group may search for an expert to label such a group as a cult. Likewise, victims of cult exploitation may become less prone to blame themselves when they can tag the denigrative label cult on their former group. However, the most important goal is identifying the abusive practices the person may have endured while in the group; whether one calls a group a cult or not is less important for healing and recovery than understanding the processes people commonly undergo during and after suffering abuse and manipulation.

Treating Sex Trafficking Victims

Presenter: Annalisa Enrile

To begin the sessions on sex trafficking, international advocate and author Dr. Annalisa Enrile provided the audience with an overview of the scope of the problem. There are up to 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, of whom a substantial number are sex trafficking victims. Although the majority of sex trafficking victims are between 18 and24 years old, the average age at which they become sexually exploited is between 12 and 14, which means that the vast majority of survivors who have been rescued ultimately suffer for years before being noticed. One of the most obvious issues Dr. Enrile identified is the problem of separating sex trafficking from human trafficking. They are often intertwined, with both involving force, fraud, or coercion, and ensnaring victims of all ages. And, as Dr. Enrile pointed out, in the United States there is arguably a greater problem with labor trafficking. Furthermore, from a policy perspective, sex trafficking and human trafficking have been combatted together.

Dr. Enrile explained that she focuses on the problem primarily from a systems and policy perspective. Through this lens, she discussed many of the legislative and governmental attempts to combat human trafficking both in the United States and abroad. Of these, perhaps the most significant to the U.S. audience is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 and its subsequent revisions. For instance, the TVPA allocates funds for shelter programs for minors and provides for visas to assist victims of human trafficking who lack documentation. The TVPA is also somewhat controversial for providing more resources for law enforcement and prosecution at the expense of prevention and services for survivors. Dr. Enrile argued that the TVPA places too much emphasis on enforcement and not enough on providing resources or encouraging partnerships among professionals and organizations. She highlighted the need for interdisciplinary cooperation in order to confront the problem from every angle.

Presenter: Andrea Moore-Emmett

To illustrate the intersection between cults and sex trafficking, one need go no further than the polygamist sects of the United States. Andrea Moore-Emmett’s experience covering the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (FLDS) provided just such an illustration. During her time as a journalist, Moore-Emmett learned that arranging sexual relationships between women and church-appointed men is a common practice within the FLDS church. Frequently, these arrangements are made regardless of any incestuous boundaries and against the will of the female victims, which further highlights the sex-trafficking aspect of this practice.

Moore-Emmett offered harrowing descriptions of polygamous sects that push the boundaries of religious freedom. While covering women’s issues, for example, she learned from a local health department that newborn infants were being buried in the desert. Born with significant birth defects, presumably from incest that is frequent within FLDS communities, these infants were either stillborn or killed shortly after birth. Even though the health department was aware of the problem, it was reluctant to confront these religious sects because, among other reasons, it wanted the groups to continue trusting the department so it could continue providing vaccinations the sects otherwise opposed. Incest is not necessarily sex trafficking, but within the FLDS, because of the forced nature of these incestuous relationships, incest often is considered equivalent to sex trafficking.

Moore-Emmett asserted that the polygamy of popular culture (e.g., reality TV shows) presents it as an alternative lifestyle, thus obscuring the harmful practices polygamy may involve. Also, people don’t recognize that there is a difference between freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs and freedom to abuse in the name of a religious belief. This confusion prevents the public from recognizing the exploitation so prevalent among these groups. Moore-Emmett argued that, to educate the public, polygamous sects must be discussed in terms of sex trafficking and child mistreatment.

Presenter: Halleh Seddighzadeh

As an international trauma specialist, Dr. Halleh Seddighzadeh began to concentrate her practice in the area of sex trafficking because of her experience with war conflict trauma and human-rights abuses. Dr. Seddighzadeh offered her insights into assisting survivors of human trafficking, with a particular emphasis on treatment. Echoing Dr. Enrile’s observation that there are no empirically supported interventions specifically tailored to survivors of sex trafficking, Dr. Seddighzadeh noted that many survivors require treatment for traumatic stress. As with cult survivors, particularly those who grew up within the high-demand environment, survivors of sex trafficking often require intensive case management. They may have little experience managing daily living activities over which they never had control. And given that the path toward recovery often requires navigating complex social-service systems, survivors need ongoing support from allies familiar with these resources. Still, in working with survivors who have experienced an extreme loss of personal autonomy, treatment requires both providing direct assistance and facilitating empowerment. The importance of providing treatment while still helping survivors to assert themselves is a theme with which both the cult and sex-trafficking fields are likely familiar.

Policy Implications

Presenter: Alan Scheflin

One challenge with assisting cult and sex-trafficking survivors is the difficulty of proving in legal proceedings of various sorts that social influence has interfered with a survivor’s free will. In other words, it is difficult to demonstrate that someone has been brainwashed, that she has been subjected to mind control techniques, or that her current attitudes are the result of thought reform. Alan Scheflin’s presentation on the legal concept of undue influence offered a framework to allow experts to bring these controversial topics into the courtroom. Although the reader is advised to consult Scheflin’s original paper published online (, a brief summary will suffice here.

Concepts of brainwashing, mind control, and thought reform have had a poor track record in the courtroom. Nor do they enjoy widespread acceptance within the scientific community. Because these are largely political terms, courts have never embraced their use. To avoid them in the legal context, while still considering the severity of social influence on victims of cults and other high-demand groups, Scheflin argues that attorneys, advocates, and expert witnesses should adopt the concept of undue influence.

Undue influence is a legal concept used to acknowledge when extreme social manipulation has overwhelmed an individual’s free will. For example, undue influence can serve to invalidate a will if agreements are made in the context of an impending death. The assumption is that people are more susceptible to social influence at the end of life, and that the law must protect people at such a vulnerable time. Although it is difficult to define, undue influence is no more vague than reasonable doubt, which requires the same judicial discretion as many other legal terms. Embracing such a well-known concept as undue influence allows courts to fully grasp and consider the level of social influence a high-demand group may employ. Use of the undue influence term also facilitates the testimony of expert witnesses and allows a complete discussion of the scientific evidence of social influence and cult dynamics.

Panel Discussion: What Can the Fields of Cults and Sex Trafficking Learn From Each Other?

Throughout the conference, audience members and presenters observed similarities between issues faced by survivors of cults and survivors of sex trafficking, the family members who support both, and the professionals who treat them. During the afternoon session, which featured professionals from both fields, several points of overlap emerged. While the discussion did not claim to be exhaustive, it provided a starting point for professionals from multiple disciplines to collaborate on policies and interventions. Those participating in the discussion were generally in agreement that, using a shared language, professionals from both fields can learn from each other and generate new ideas. Issues common to both cults and sex trafficking that participants discussed included those in the following subsections.

Attempts to Escape

As is well known from the domestic-violence field, survivors may require several attempts to leave abusive relationships. The same can be said of individuals involved in cults or sex-trafficking relationships. This reality calls for patience and persistence on the part of professionals and family members. It also calls for sufficient self-care among professionals and loved ones to avoid the pitfalls of burnout.


A frequent consequence of the perceived dependence of a victim on an abuser in an abusive relationship is the victim-blaming phenomenon. While professionals may be well aware of this dynamic, the general public is less so. As a part of any prevention effort, education about victim blaming can encourage the public to see victims not as prostitutes or psychologically weak followers, but as individuals who have been subjected to the exploitative tactics of manipulators. Cults can ensnare anyone, just as anyone can fall into sexual exploitation. While risk factors exist, nothing can fully inoculate someone against these dangers.

Believing Their Story

How outsiders—family, friends, peers, and professionals—respond often shapes the survivor’s path to recovery, and disbelief may be a common reaction if the abuses are deemed too terrible to be real. Clinicians must not repeat the errors of Freud, who viewed the sexual trauma of his patients to be merely fantasies of a debauched subconscious. Here, the necessary first step is to acknowledge the courage it takes for a survivor to reveal what the outsiders may already recognize to be abusive.

Social Bonding

Finally, individuals who become involved in cults and sex-trafficking relationships are often filling a need for social bonding. A sexually exploited child, for instance, may have no other support system than the trafficker. This fact is readily apparent among cult survivors, but perhaps less so among survivors of sex trafficking, as evidenced by the relatively recent discarding of the term prostitute when the trafficking involves a child. The recognition that survivors share a need for belonging is a reminder that professionals, family, and friends can play a vital role in their recovery simply by being present.


The Cults and Sex Trafficking conference provided a valuable forum for sharing ideas and experiences. This special event helped those who attended recognize the parallels between these two fields. Certainly, survivors of cults and of sex trafficking face challenges unique to their respective circumstances. And specialists working in these fields must address those specific challenges. However, as the ICSA conference demonstrated, specialists in these two fields also have much they can learn from one another.

About the Author

Andy Vogler, MSW, graduated from the University of Southern California School of Social Work and works as a mental health therapist with Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare in Portland, Oregon. Andy became involved with ICSA as a graduate student of Doni Whitsett, PhD, when he was introduced to the relationship between trauma and high-demand groups. His experience as a therapist at a rape crisis center has informed his understanding of survival from such groups. Originally from Chicago, Andy worked in education before entering the mental health field. His clinical interests include mental illness, addictions, and dual-diagnosis treatment. He is particularly interested in the importance of physical health in addressing psychological suffering. Andy enjoys triathlon, having recently finished an Ironman, and he currently lives in Oregon with his wife, Sarah.