The following is a composite vignette of a sex trafficking victim, which was compiled from thematic information collected in a study of 17 “bottoms” conducted in a collaborative research project with Dr. Angie Henderson at the University of Northern Colorado and Megan Lundstrom at The Avery Center for Research & Services:
Tiona was first groomed and exploited at the age of 18 by Devon, a man eight years her senior, who she initially believed to be her boyfriend. After several intense months of showering Tiona with love, gifts, and affection, Devon’s true identity became apparent: he was a pimp. A known gang member in the area, Devon had realized the substantial risk associated with his gang-related activities (including drug trafficking) once he turned 18 and had transitioned his criminal activities to sex trafficking.
By the time Devon targeted Tiona as a potential victim, he had perfected his craft of identifying and creating vulnerabilities to exploit. Tiona was easy prey for Devon – a history of child abuse and neglect, her childhood had left her with a distorted sense of attachment and belonging. Coupled with the fact that once she turned 18, her family members which had previously housed and fed her no longer saw it as their responsibility to provide stability, Tiona was out in the world alone and fending for her basic needs on her own. Devon came in and provided everything Tiona was searching for: love, protection, housing, transportation, food, clothing … and a plan to end the instability. Over the next ten years, Tiona would experience the daily intensity of the cycle of power and control: Devon would beat her for calling her aunt and then shower her with compliments in front of his own mother. He would withhold food for sometimes days if Tiona did not meet or exceed her nightly quota, and then take her to an expensive steakhouse for dinner at the end of the week. Tiona would not be permitted to pick up their three-year-old from daycare unless she had met her quota and cleaned the house to his expectations.
For years, Tiona found herself cycling through jail cells and emergency departments, and each time she interacted with these professionals, she learned to hear Devon’s voice in her head: “Trust no one.” As Devon continued to build his reputation in the pimp game, he traded other young women amongst his associates, slowly building his stable. With the ever increasing number of victims he exploited over time and concurrently, Devon knew sex trafficking awareness was increasing in his community and the cities he sent his victims to, and slowly began placing more liability on Tiona as he grew to trust that she was fully and utterly under his control.
Rather than travel with his victims, Devon had Tiona schedule out-of-state trips for the stable. Once arrived in a new area, Tiona would purchase disposable phones and prepaid gift cards and register them with her name and social security number. She would then post ads for each victim and check in on the other women throughout each night, keeping track of the money made. Early each morning, Tiona would call Devon and provide one summary report (as opposed to each victim placing an individual call) of the total made. Devon then ordered Tiona to open bank accounts at each major financial institution that had ATMs across the country. Each day, Tiona would deposit large sums of cash into her bank accounts, and shortly thereafter Devon would withdraw the same funds using the debit card in their city of residence. Other times, Tiona would schedule wire transfers into dummy business accounts.
Devon ran a tight operation and prohibited substance use beyond the social drink or marijuana, and Tiona was often the one who saw substance abuse and then had to report it to Devon, who would invariably beat the user, and then beat Tiona for not seeing the signs of drug use sooner. When Devon and Tiona went out in public, Devon would send Tiona across bars and nightclubs, malls and grocery stores to strike up conversations with young women he deemed potential targets. While Tiona struck up a conversation with the potential recruit, Devon would scroll social media using Tiona’s account, following and messaging other potential victims pretending to be Tiona.
When an undercover operation at a hotel netted a paddy wagon of prostituted women, it was quickly discovered that one of Devon’s victims staying in the hotel room reserved by Tiona was actually a juvenile. As the investigation proceeded, Tiona’s legal liability and involvement in Devon’s operation became increasingly clear. Eventually, Tiona and Devon were charged as co-defendants in a sex trafficking case. Throughout the investigation, interrogations, and even the trial, Tiona remained intensely defensive of Devon – he was her partner and confidante, the father of her child, her caretaker, and ultimately provided all of her basic needs. Tiona refused to take a deal in exchange for her testimony against Devon, in fact she spent a majority of her time on the stand explaining to the jury that she could not fathom a life without him, and she could not comprehend why everyone questioned if she had chosen this life for herself.
Stories like Tiona’s, to those outside anti-trafficking work, seem bizarre and shocking. For those of us intimately involved in advocacy, services, or the criminal justice system, cases like Tiona’s are a weekly, or even daily, occurrence. We can see the manipulation and deceit, and we know that Devon will never give to Tiona and their child in healthy and unconditional ways what they are desperately seeking from him. Statistically, we know that both Devon and Tiona will end up dead or in prison, and that their child will enter protective services, and the cycle will repeat itself. As we know at this point in domestic anti-trafficking work, there is no one solution, and there are no simple solutions, to these crimes. Complex macro and systemic issues must be addressed in order to eradicate sex trafficking. But at the micro level, how do we help Tiona in her current situation? What did her teachers, medical care providers, and community members need to know to recognize the grooming process a decade earlier when it was first beginning? In order to answer these questions, we have to understand the “how” and the “why” of the grooming and brainwashing processes, and this can be done effectively by applying cultic theory to pimp-controlled sex trafficking operations.
Originally developed by cult expert Michael Langone and adapted by experts Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, the checklist of 15 cult characteristics dates back to the early 1990s as a tool for families and professionals to identify if a loved one or client was in a high-control group. When I discovered it in 2013 shortly after escaping five years of pimp-controlled sex trafficking myself, I found the framework immensely helpful to give language to what I had survived, as well as a foundation for training professionals locally and across the country on what this form of organized
crime and horrific trauma looks like in detail. While all forms of third party sex trafficking – pimp, gang, and familial – have a wide array of overlapping similarities, my research these past seven years has been heavily centered around pimp control specifically, and The Avery Center’s direct service provision is built solidly upon this framework as we navigate outreach, intervention, and recovery efforts.
Forced criminality is a heinous act of placing liability entirely on the victim in a sex trafficking operation so that for all legal purposes, the victim themselves looks to be entirely complicit and totally benefitting from the crimes committed. In fact, within pimp-controlled operations, pimps use the acronym “AOB” or “all on a bitch” to imply forced criminality. There is a clash of systems when it comes to teasing out culpability – victim testimony and the hard evidence of a paper trail may either contradict one another, or together build a solid case against the victim. Through the application of cultic theory, defining if and where the victim had true choice can be clarified, which can increase the evidence against the trafficker, and reduce or eliminate the charges against the victim.
Of the 15 characteristics established by Longone, eight apply directly to understanding forced criminality. The following discussion unpacks these eight characteristics as they apply to Tiona’s experiences.
Characteristic #1: The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its
leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as Truth.
Following the recovery of the juvenile victim under Devon’s control, the law enforcement investigation began tracing both his and Tiona’s activities. Tiona’s daily routine was incredibly rigid and predictable: within moments of waking up, she would call Devon to check in, after which she would wake the other victims under his control and see that they were ready for the day. Then she
would spend an hour posting online advertisements for each of them before posting her own. Throughout the day she checked in with Devon using coded language to confirm how much money had been made, and where each victim was. At the end of each day, Tiona would deposit the total earnings into her bank account through the ATM, and then drive the victims to a local restaurant and pay for their meal together, collecting their prepaid cell phones as she dropped them back off for the evening. When both Devon and Tiona’s phone records were pulled, detectives observed a direct linkage between the language and instructions Devon would demand of Tiona, and the messages Tiona then sent out to Devon’s other victims.
Characteristic #2: Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
As Devon’s victims were identified and brought in for questioning, the content of their phones were dumped. A video on one of the victim’s phones was discovered of an interaction between Devon and Tiona and a new recruit in a hotel room: Tiona didn’t think the new recruit was putting in enough effort to make her daily quota for Devon. Devon stood by as Tiona yelled in the new recruit’s face, slapped her and pulled her hair. Then in the video, Tiona turns to Devon and says to him, “Aren’t you going to say anything to her? We don’t tolerate laziness in our house, right, Daddy?” Devon suddenly snaps into action, swinging his fist straight into Tiona’s head, knocking her into the hotel room door. Tiona stumbles, confused while Devon yells back at her, “Ain’t no ‘we’ around here, bitch! This ain’t no co-pimping situation, you got no place telling me what I need to be doing with my bitches.”
Characteristic #8: The group teaches that its ends justify the means – members may participate in behaviors or activities that would have been considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.
Files began to be developed by the detectives on each of Devon’s victims. Child welfare case notes, student files, juvenile delinquency and detention records, and family interviews began to paint the pictures of vulnerable girls and young women. As the team of investigators poured over yearbooks, family photos and social media, what struck the lead detective close to home was the striking resemblance of Tiona’s first grade class photo with his own daughter, who was now in middle school. He began thinking about his own little girl, and how excited she had been on career day back in first grade to dress up as a police officer just like him. No little girl goes to career day wanting to be pimped and prostituted, he thought, something happens along the way to make this seem like the best and safest choice – what horrors had Tiona lived through to get to where she was presently?
Characteristic #9: The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence or control members, often through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
When Devon’s stable of victims was at home, he made a point of intentionally pitting the young women against each other. He would berate Tiona and another victim who had a child living with them about the added expenses associated with the extra mouths to feed, telling them their quotas needed to be higher than the others’. Devon took turns inviting each victim to spend the night with him in the master bedroom, based on their recent acts of submission to his demands, or taking one of them to dinner or shopping after exceeding their daily quota due to stealing (“trick rolling”) a customer. He alternated between these divisive tactics with cursing and physical abuse, telling the women that “teamwork makes the dreamwork” – that only when they learned to work together would they be able to have financial stability and the love they craved from him. Tiona was regularly singled out in front of the other victims for vicious beatings, food and sleep deprivation, and verbal assaults about her post-partum weight. “You’ve been my bitch for ten years, hoe, you got vet status in this society. So why you got these green bitches out-performing you on a weekly basis?” he would yell at her as she cowered at his feet, his voice echoing throughout the house for all to hear. Tiona never replied with anything beyond a “yes, Daddy,” and “I’m sorry, Daddy,” because she had learned long ago to take the beatings and abuse and go out to the streets to prove her worth to Devon.
Characteristic #10: Membership requires members to cut ties with family and friends and radically alter their personal goals and activities.
With Tiona’s already-fractured family-of-origin, it was not hard for Devon to totally isolate her from family, friends, and community at large. Fresh out of high school with no plans or support to continue her education or find employment, it was an easy feat for Devon to persuade her that student load debt and minimum wage jobs were not the path to success – prostitution was. At first, Devon didn’t seem to mind Tiona attending the occasional family birthday or holiday celebration, but over time, he began intentionally sending her out of town days before a holiday with an exorbitant quota to make in order to be allowed to return home, ensuring she would have to tell her family she wouldn’t be there that year. With the birth of their child, Devon monitored every conversation of every visitor at the hospital, insisting that she check herself out just 24 hours after the delivery, saying her family would try to take the baby from her if they found out what she was doing. The fear of losing her child to the system she had grown up in was enough to motivate Tiona to limit phone calls and visits from her aunts and grandparents. She worked extra hard when she was around them to present the picture of a very happy, successful, well-dressed young family to dissuade them from thinking anything was wrong or the child in danger. As time moved on, Tiona began to dream of opening a massage parlor or strip club in her name that would allow her to run Devon’s operation through a legitimate business front, and that would also give her the relative freedom of running the business as opposed to continuing to prostitute. Devon fueled this dream regularly, telling Tiona it would only be a few more years before they had enough money for her to retire in this way.
Characteristic #11: Members are preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Since the beginning, Devon would randomly take Tiona to dinner or local activity center under the guise of spending time quality time together. The first several years, Devon would half-listen to Tiona as she babbled on, excited for what she believed was his undivided attention for once. Devon would interrupt her after scanning the room to point out different young women – other diners or attendees, sometimes even the waitresses. “See her? She fucks for free, that’s what sluts do. Real Ps want a bitch like you that fucks for a fee.” Tiona soaked up this praise. “Look at that one over there in that group. Not the pretty alpha female, the one behind her. Yeah, the chubby one. See how she keeps looking to her prettier friends? See how she keeps checking her clothes and looking around at other girls here? That’s a hoe just waiting to be turned out.” Tiona learned through these conversations how Devon identified potential victims, and Devon soon made a game out of it, they would spend their date night seeing who could pick out the next target. Then Devon began suggesting Tiona approach the target and strike up a conversation. He coached her on flattering the potential victim, learning important details quickly, and exchanging phone numbers. From there, he would take Tiona’s phone, pretending to be her, and spend days and even months texting them, coaching Tiona through phone calls, and ultimately having Tiona invite them over to smoke weed or cruise around town in Devon’s flashy foreign car. After years of Devon training Tiona to recruit, she began to act on this programming automatically – attempting to recruit grocery store clerks, single women sitting next to her on airplanes, and singling out the victims in the holding cells in jail who had no one to bail them out.
Characteristic #12: Members are preoccupied with making money.
The first time Tiona was arrested on solicitation charges, Devon beat her so severely he paid for a hotel room for a week so that she could rest out of sight from the rest of his stable. When he allowed her to return home, he sat her down at the table and totaled the cost of the bail, lawyer, court fines, the total of the hotel for the week, and the loss of income from her not making her quota for seven nights. This $10,000 debt would need to be repaid to Devon before the end of the month, in addition to her standard nightly quota. For additional punishment, Devon forbid Tiona from using online advertisement websites to pay off this debt, instead, he told her should would walk the track day and night. Within a week of this debt bondage repayment plan, Tiona was hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion. Her hospital bill went to collections. Since that time, any time Tiona was arrested, she was sure to recruit another victim as a gesture of financial repayment to Devon for bailing her out and paying her lawyer and court fines. Devon just so happened to be out of town grooming a new recruit when Tiona was placed under 30 days of house arrest as terms of probation. She suffered several days of panic attacks and extreme anxiety, fearing for her life when Devon returned home to find that she would be unable to make her nightly quota for 30 days. By the time he returned, she had built a website selling her used underwear and explicit photos, and had created an account on OnlyFans to sell private webcam footage from her bedroom in an effort to offset the loss of revenue and avoid another severe beating. Devon yet again beat her for the judge’s decision for house arrest, and the bruises on her thighs and back were visible for weeks in her video and photo uploads.
Characteristic #14: Members are encouraged/required to live and socialize only with other
Devon kept his entire stable under one roof, in a gated, upscale community in the suburbs of town. They all shared bedrooms with one another, traveled together, went to the hair and nail salons together, and had gym and tanning memberships at the same companies. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, they ate traditional meals and opened gifts together before being sent out to work the bars and hotels for the night. Devon also allowed, and actually required, his victims to use social media under his strict supervision. He had the passwords to all of their Instagram accounts, and regularly used them to private message other potential victims. All of his victim’s handles contained his street name “Diamond Dev”. Tiona’s handle was @DiamondDevsBottomB, other victims had handles such as @property_of_diamond_dev and @DD_prettychocolatebunny. Devon had explicit rules for what was shared and how interactions on social media were conducted. First and foremost, his victims were forbidden from following any other pimp except Devon, and they were instructed to decline and block any requests or messages from other pimps. They were permitted to post photos of Devon, but only if his face was covered with a king emoji. All of their bios had to have the words “Under Proper Instruction”. All his victims were required to follow one another, and to like, comment, and share one another’s posts daily. Comments between one another were to be positive and encouraging. Photos and captions were to share the glamour of their life under Devon, and their gratefulness and dedication to him by thanking him for clothing and meals and bailing them out when arrested. They were only allowed to interact with other prostituted women if the interaction could include an attempt to recruit them. Devon’s victims were only allowed to follow other prostituted women, creating an algorithmic reality bubble that the entire world was filled with women just like them. By structuring his victim’s social media interactions in these ways, Devon leveraged the power of social media to normalize the abuse, assaults, exploitation, and deceit they were subjected to on a daily basis while isolating them from other perspectives that could generate cognitive dissonance or victim identification efforts.
Together, over a decade of physical and psychological abuse, arrests, sexual assaults, deprivation of basic needs, and social isolation, women like Tiona find themselves facing charges as co-facilitators in trafficking investigations due to the criminality forced upon them by the actual trafficker. Continuing along the line of cultic theory, women like Tiona are likely to testify in defense of their trafficker and to assume responsibility of the crimes they were, in reality, forced and coerced to commit. The intervention process can vary by victim in duration and strategy but ultimately, I have found that intervention methods successful in helping cult members can also be used with victims of trafficking. These methods are all centered around several concepts. First, to provide a safe space where basic needs are consistently met so that the victim is able to focus on the information being presented. Second, to learn about the victim’s experiences and perspective of events that lead to where they are currently, in order to identify critical points of information and provide thought-provoking conversation. And third, to provide macro and micro factual information through dialogue that catalyzes the beginnings of cognitive dissonance in the victim’s mind. The first indicators of a re-activation of the critical thinking process can include a willingness to provide contextual information as opposed to simple-phrased and programmed answers, as well as to begin to ask the interventionist questions about specific scenarios or additional requests for more information during the dialogue.
Physical intervention during an arrest is relatively easier than the psychological intervention, and yet it is the psychological component that must occur if a victim is to truly be able to find their freedom.