How Abuse Produces Similar Psychological Effects in Cults & Sex Trafficking Survivors: Pseudo-Identity Development

Recent research has revealed that there are many psychological parallels between cultic high demand group involvement and the lived experience of sex trafficking in recruitment, retention, sexual and emotional harm, and exploitive manipulation (Hassan & Shah, 2019; Thomas, Miller, Phelps, Hassan, 2014; Lundstrom, 2016). Untold millions of lives have been arguably hijacked around the world by the undue influence of human trafficking and cults (Bert, 2018; The Polaris Project, 2020; US Homeland Security, 2022; Hassan & Shah, 2019). Both forms of coercive environments are widely viewed as ‘”voluntarily”‘ joined (Doychak & Raghavan, 2020; Lalich, 2004). Both populations are typically exploited sexually, financially, emotionally, and psychologically (Thomas, et al., 2014; Hassan, 2016). Both populations involve a type of rape: physical, psychological, or spiritual (Farley, 2003; Dubrow-Marshall, 2010; Bandow, 2016).

One of those parallels between sex trafficking and secular or religious cultic high demand group survivors occurs in the development and progression of a pseudo-identity. Cultic identity discussed below also applies to sex trafficked victims.

Cultic Identity Progression

Multiple forms of identity are noted in research literature. When an individual enters a high demand group as an adult, they usually do so with an intact pre-group identity, and/or personality, and/or social identity. Group identity is defined as an “individual’s sense of self as defined by group membership” (American Psychological Association [APA] Dictionary of Psychology, 2023). Personality is defined as: “the enduring configuration of characteristics and behavior that comprises an individual’s unique adjustment to life, including major traits, interests, drives, values, self-concept, abilities, and emotional patterns, … [and] identification with significant individuals and groups” (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2023). Social identity, according to “social psychology, is the part of self-concept that is derived from memberships in social groups” (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2023). The individual generally understands their own likes, dislikes, humor, style, values, preferences, political views, interests, and skills.

After group involvement, one’s personality can be overcome by the multiple levels of social pressures of the group. Hassan (2013) described the pseudo-identity development as a direct result of cult membership as:

  • Unfreezing the previous identity through disorientation, sensory deprivation or overload, physiological manipulation, activity encouraging dissociation (meditation, chanting, etc.), questioning one’s identity and redefining the person’s past.
  • Changing with the creation of a new identity, which occurs step-by-step:a) This begins with indoctrination meetings, membership, reading books, booklets and listening to podcasts. In sex trafficking, the thrill and enticement of the intense lifestyle, the empty promises of long-term riches and a happy future, and the isolation of only watching sex traffick encouraging movies and music can replicate the indoctrination meetings.b) Behavior modification is developed through punishments and rewards, environmental controls and techniques forcing thought interruptions.c) Utilizing Lifton’s (1961) mystical manipulation causing a trance state described by Herman (1992) as holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time.

    d)The use of mind-altering techniques i.e., substances, hypnosis, repetition, monotony, rhythm, chanting, decreeing, praying or visualizations. Rhythm is used in sex trafficking environments through the rapping verbiage by the pimp or the loud rap music played continually (M. Lundstrom, Personal Communication, 2019).

    e) The use of powerful confessions and moving testimonials.

  • Refreezing with the new identity, social system, and a separation from family and friends.

Upon entering a dubious high demand group, a destabilization of the sense of self can occur (Singer & Lalich, 1995; Doychak & Raghavan, 2020). A new cultic or pseudo-identity/personality is gradually formed through peer pressure, the interactions with the new social structure, and the intense psychological milieu causing transitions in one’s group identity and social identity. This transition grows decision by decision (Hassan, 2000). For sex trafficking, it could arguably be Trick by Trick or Purchase by Purchase as the pimp buys one’s love and loyalty (West & Martin, 1994; Tobais & Lalich, 1994; Singer, 2003).

Recovering victims describe the cult personality as superficial. Researchers describe the pseudo-personality remaining in a child-like state through psychological age regression and thought-stopping or thought suppressing techniques, preventing one from maturing emotionally. This is known as arrested psychological development, and the victim remains anxiously group-dependent (Jenkinson, 2008; Hassan, 2010, 2013; Lifton, 1961; PsychCentral, 2022). West and Martin (1994) also noted that being in this new altered personality state increases controllability and suggestibility with the new way of life absorbing deeper and deeper into the psyche, as Dubrow-Marshall (2010) theorized totalistically. Herman (1992) wrote “The final step of psychological control of the victim is not completed until [they have] been forced to violate [their] own moral principles … this [is the] point that [they are] truly broken” (p. 83).

This pseudo-identity evolution migrates from the pre-cult group identity to categorizing a group as a deeply emotionally desired social group (Dubrow-Marshall & Dubrow-Marshall, 2015). The person’s clothing, likes, dislikes, humor, values, friends, political views, and pre-group personality begin to take on that of the characteristics of the group (Dubrow-Marshall & Dubrow-Marshall, 2015; Stein, 2016). Further, accepting the actional group norms reinforces the new totalistic and completely dominating group identity (Dubrow-Marshall & Dubrow-Marshall, 2015). This new group identity becomes more important than one’s individual identity (Shore, 2012, as cited by Wilder & Woolridge, 2022) melding into a cultic pseudo-identity with energy and excitement that can seem larger-than-life as they now experience a new existential purpose (Dubrow-Marshall, 2010). The scenario often culminates into an us-vs.-them view of the world and a coerced group-dependent dynamic (Dubrow-Marshall, 2010). Controlling the language within the group, called group-speak, and controlling the social environment, called milieu control, works to bind the newly developed pseudo-identity to the group (Dubrow-Marshall, 2010; Lifton, 1961). A Totalistic Identity, coined by Dubrow-Marshall (2010), is described as “The domination of a person’s self-identity by a single identity with a group or person to the exclusion of other aspect of identity with potential effects on mental health” (Dubrow-Marshall & Dubrow-Marshall, 2015, p. 393), which can result in pathologic psychological changes. The pathological issues can include depression, anxiety, phobias, personality changes and varying levels of dissociation (Dubrow-Marshall & Dubrow-Marshall, 2016; Hassan & Shaw, 2019). Stein (2016) referred to this identity progression as “isolation from the self, rejection of the self, suicide of the inner self,” self-mutilation of the psyche, and “ideological divorce” (pp. 66, 3, 5 respectively). Shengold referred to this process as “soul murder” (as cited by Farber, 2014, p. 1). Soul murder is the “intentional attempt to stamp out or compromise the separate identity of another person” (Farber, 2014, p. 3). The victims of soul murder remain as if possessed by the leader and their souls are in bondage to the leader (Farber, 2014). The overall cultic impact on identity becomes an internal “destructive predatory influence” in both populations of sex trafficking and cult survivors (Hassan & Shaw, 2019, p. 106). Herman (1992) stated that “traumatized people suffer damage to the basic structures of the self. The identity they have formed prior to the trauma is irrevocably destroyed” (p. 56).

Stein (2016) stated:

“The social structures of totalism and the belief systems they exhibit enter deep into the lives of those targeted. They penetrate the most personal and tender parts of us: our hearts, the places in us that seek attachment and intimacy with others. And they penetrate our brains, the places in us that usually work to help us solve the problems of survival. They detach our higher-order cognitive thinking from our sensory perceptions and emotions and leave us, thus, helpless to understand which way to turn to avoid danger” (p. 7). “This brings on extraordinarily high levels of control over the followers” (p. 14).

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual-5 (2013) has decreed identity disturbance as a qualified diagnosis under the classification of Unspecified Dissociative Disorders. The diagnosis code 300.15, stated in the second descriptor that “Identity disturbance due to prolonged and intense coercive persuasion … (e.g., brainwashing, thought reform, indoctrination, … recruitment by sects/cults …)” (p. 306). The DSM-5 TR (2022) diagnosis code is F44.89. Of course, victims of sex trafficking fall under this category.

Stein (2016) highlighted that there is a triple trauma bond formed between the victim, the leader, the organization, and their peers. In addition to working through many physical and psychological traumas, clinicians should help the client break all three trauma bonds, disassemble the pseudo personality, and help to reassemble their pre-group identity and authentic self. A tremendous complication arises if the victim has been conscripted into the high demand group under the age of 12, as they have not fully developed both psychologically and in brain development. Therefore, there is no pre-group identity from which to return, and much emphasis should be placed on personal empowerment, emotional regulation and discovering who they want to be.


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Connie Mitchell is a Licensed National Board Certified Counselor (NCC) and is certified in tele-mental health (TMHC). She graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her clinical special interests include: women’s issues, spiritual wounding, complicated grief, trauma, psychological undue influence, cult/high demand group recovery, sex trafficking recovery and identity issues. She hosted a professional conference titled: Undue Influence: Manipulation and Exploitation in Sex Trafficking, Cults & Gangs; presented at ICSA’s Santa Fe Regional Conference; is a member of the Advisory Committee of Denver Anti- Trafficking Coalition (DATA) and Co-Chairs a Mental Health Subcommittee of DATA; presented Counseling with Sex Trafficking Survivors for the Asian Pacific Cultural Center in Denver; presented Counseling High Demand Group Survivors at SummitStone Health Partners and an article has been accepted for publication through the International Journal for Coercion, Abuse and Manipulation. She also presented at the 2023 CCA annual conference.


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