March 24, 2022 Recap – Cultic Theory

March HT-RADAR Quarterly Meeting recap on the Avery Center’s Cultic Theory, presented by Megan Lundstrom


Megan Lundstrom, MA
Megan Lundstrom, MA 

A special thank you to Megan Lundstrom for presenting on Cultic Theory!

These quarterly meetings are a partnership between Point Loma Nazarene University and San Diego District Attorney.

Cultic Theory – Director of Research and Co-Founder of the Avery Research Center, Megan Lundstrom, MA will be presenting on Cultic Theory. The Avery Center posits that domestic, pimp-controlled sex trafficking – commonly referred to as “The Game” or “The Life”, is a commercial, polygamist cult. This theory is built upon their own research, as well as work from 15 Cult Characteristics by Janja Lalich, PhD., and Michael Langone, Ph.D.; the BITE Model by Steven Hassan, PhD.; and 8 Mind Reform Techniques by Robert Lifton, M.D.

Megan Lundstrom is a co-founder and the Chief Executive Officer of the Colorado-based, nationally recognized non-profit, The Avery Center for Research & Services.  Beginning in 2013, Megan began to research sex trafficking through a cultic theory lens as she discovered that her own pimp-controlled exploitation met all fifteen characteristics of a cultic group.  Since that time Megan has presented cultic theory of sex trafficking at places like the International Cultic Studies Association Annual Conference and Villanova University’s Institute for the Study of Commercial Sexual Exploitation.  Megan has published and presented research findings on the topic through United Nations University’s Centre for Policy Research, American University’s MOSAICS project for criminal justice professionals, the Journal of Urban Crime, and at various conferences for law enforcement, and medical professionals, and direct service providers across the US. Additionally, Megan works as an expert consultant on sex trafficking investigations and prosecutions as well as private family cases. Megan has equipped The Avery Center’s direct service team to view engagement and intervention efforts with sex trafficking victims and survivors through this framework and has developed successful programs and practices that are being implemented internationally at this time.

In case you missed it – This presentation was not recorded, but we encourage you to explore the resources on the Avery Center’s website about Cultic Theory.

There you will be able to find a few video presentations on Cultic Theory that are worth viewing and sharing with colleagues. 

FollowUp Questions:
Megan Lundstrom responded to the followup questions the group had after the presentation:
  • Where can we find a list of the cult characteristics that you used?
    They were derived from Janja Lalich’s 15 characteristics associated with cults

    1. The group displays an excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
    2. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
    3. Mind-altering practices are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
    4. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.
    5. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members.
    6. The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
    7. The leader is not accountable to any authorities
    8. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.
    9. The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Often this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
    10. Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
    11. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
    12. The group is preoccupied with making money.
    13. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
    14. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
    15. The most loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. 
  • How do you measure “connection and belonging” through research? Studies have measured this using a sense of community index and belonging/loneliness measures.
  • What are the titles of your publications? Do you have links? Please see Cultic Theory – The Avery Center for our work on cultic theory.
  • How can Survivors participate in the research? They can engage by going to  
  • Are there workbooks that you would suggest for survivors to use when having a support group? There are support groups we work with. We encourage you to reach out to us through this link for more materials.
  • What is the age range for this research? We tend to work with people 18+ and all genders. We also work with minors but request they reach out with a caseworker or a parent to have appropriate consent.
  • How can we apply this theory to prevention and not only intervention? By understanding the characteristics and how they are used we can teach stakeholders and vulnerable people what to look for.
  • Did you find any unique characteristics of sex trafficking or are they all part of the general cult theory characteristics? All the characteristics apply, some may be more prominent than others as each situation is unique.
  • You specify pimp-controlled human trafficking, from what I understand that’s the vast majority of human trafficking. Do we have a sense of roughly what percentage is pimp-controlled or is that data not known? Studies show that 80-90% of prostitution is third-party controlled.  Familial trafficking intersects with pimp controlled and standalone familial is underreported, so it would be difficult to say for sure.
  • Regarding interactions with health care, what are your thoughts on how to better increase the trust and care of a possible victim? It is very difficult to identify a possible victim in a busy emergency department. First, the care must be trauma-informed, and it’s unlikely a victim will self-identify.  Caregivers should know what signs to look for, what questions to ask, and they must respect the person’s boundaries even if it means they don’t accept resources.  In our studies, we’ve heard how by respecting their boundaries they may not accept resources at that time, but it may plant a seed for them to act in the future.

You can contact the Avery Center for more information on Cultic Theory or any of their services here.

Thank you again for joining us!