196 – Rachel Thomas: Ending the Game

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak are joined by Rachel Thomas to discuss psychological coercion. Rachel is a personal survivor of human trafficking and has extensive experience teaching, training, curriculum writing, public speaking, and mentoring.  She is the director of Sowers Education Group and lead author of Ending The Game: An Intervention Curriculum for Survivors of Sex Trafficking.

Key Points

  • Psychological coercion is manipulating someone’s behaviors, beliefs, and personhood in a way that’s against their own best interest.
  • S.T.R.E.A.M. of influence stands for survival, trafficker, recruiter, environment, media
  • Coercion in sex trafficking is exploiting past vulnerabilities and negative experiences.
  • Supporter training allows professionals and family members, alike, to understand the psychological coercion process.
  • Umbrella beliefs of those in “the game” are 1) it’s better to get paid for sex than to do it for free, 2) squares, people outside of the game, are losers, 3) this is as good as my life will get, so I should make the most out of it.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 196 – Rachel Thomas: Ending the Game.

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:35] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. And today we have with us an important voice in the human trafficking conversation, a survivor. And as we’ve had many times, Sandie, another perspective from a survivor in our conversation. And I’m really pleased to welcome to the show today, Rachel Thomas. Rachel is a former music video model and sex trafficking survivor. She is now a dynamic educator who speaks from the heart and aims at the head with a Master’s in Education from UCLA and over 12 years of experience in teaching and mentoring. Rachel founded Sowers Education Group to sow seeds of Sex Trafficking Awareness and survivor empowerment. Rachel was a junior at Emory University where she unknowingly met a trafficker, a professional and well-spoken “modeling agent”. He had business cards and a portfolio of contracts with beautiful models of all ethnicities. He groomed her with high-quality all-expense paid photo shoots and legitimate modeling work in various music videos and magazines. Then after he had collected a W9 form from Rachel, including her parent’s address and Social Security number their relationship became dangerous. He began forcing her to have sex with buyers, threatening to kill her and her family if she didn’t obey. He became physically and psychologically abusive, ushering Rachel into the dark world of sex slavery. Thankfully, the police and FBI were eventually able to help Rachel and the traffickers dozens of other victims to escape this devastating situation. As Rachel continues to overcome and understand her experience she is turning a mess into a message that will spread prevention and empower victims. Sandie, I’m so glad we get to welcome Rachel to the show today.

Sandie [00:02:32] Hi Rachel.

Rachel [00:02:34] Hi.

Sandie [00:02:35] We are so glad to have you. I’ve known you for a number of years now and what I really appreciate about you is your slow, methodical, professional approach to education. And I suppose that’s not surprising considering you have a masters from UCLA. So thank you so much for agreeing to be on the Ending Human Trafficking podcast today.

Rachel [00:03:00] Thank you. Thank you both for all that you do and for spreading these important messages. I’m really honored to be on today.

Sandie [00:03:07] So let’s start out, can you just give us an overview of this curriculum, Ending the Game?

Rachel [00:03:14] Sure, so Ending the Game is an intervention curriculum for victims of commercial sexual exploitation. And really it is the curriculum that I needed and that so many other victims need on our road to survivorhood, when we’re trying to take two feet firmly out of the game, or the life, and walk in a new direction. So it’s a cycle educational curriculum that teaches about the psychological coercion that lures people into sex trafficking and then how to break those bonds.

Sandie [00:03:49] So where is the Ending the Game curriculum being used?

Rachel [00:03:54] So we actually it’s our five year anniversary this year, it’s very exciting. So we are in over 100 facilities, we’re in 23 states, and we have we met the 500 mark for trained facilitators.

Sandie [00:04:09] Wow.

Rachel [00:04:09] Yeah, we’re all over, and we’re growing. And it’s all through word of mouth because survivors, you know, attest that it works and it’s helpful. And it’s kind of been a missing link in helping someone on the road to recovery because we can take someone out physically and you know give them shelter, and food, and get them medical attention, and cover a lot of the bases. But psychologically, mentally you know if they’re still entrapped in that thinking, in that lifestyle they will find their way back.

Sandie [00:04:44] So let’s focus on that psychological coercion piece. Can you explain what that is?

Rachel [00:04:49] Yeah, so psychological coercion is mental manipulation, mind control. Anytime that you are manipulating someone’s thinking in a way that eventually will manipulate their behavior and beliefs and their whole you know personhood in a way that’s against their own best interests. You know it’s really it’s not specific only to sex trafficking at all. I mean from advertising, there’s a whole spectrum. And as I’ve learned from one of the co-authors of the curriculum, Steve Hasson, there is influence everywhere. When you’re watching TV, when you’re speaking with a co-worker, there’s influence all around us. But when it becomes harmful influence is when they’re exploiting negative things or providing false good things. I can explain it specifically for sex trafficking, but really it’s just the process of feeling someone’s true identity and hijacking thought process and kind of building someone into what you want them to be.

Sandie [00:06:06] So let’s look at that in sex trafficking, how does that coercion function?

Rachel [00:06:13] So what we see, in our country specifically, is more of a lure into sex trafficking. In America we don’t have an overt red light district where women are just posted, you know, or girls or boys are in windows for sale. We have a strong enough police presence that there is not just as overt as in some countries. So the lure is more of a grooming process. And in the curriculum we have a term “stream of influence” and the stream is an acronym. And it’s six different ways that someone can be influenced or lured into trafficking. So S is for survival, you know a need to survive just having no food, no place to stay. For people who are addicted to drugs that could feel like a survival need. T is for the trafficker, R is for a recruiter, E is for the environment, A is for abuse specifically sexual abuse, and M is for media. And really any one of these agents can be an influence.

Sandie [00:07:25] That acronym is amazing, S.T.R.E.A.M. Now I want to write it down again. Tell us again what the letters stand for. The S?

Rachel [00:07:37] S is for survival and this can be an influence into trafficking. It’s really just not having those basic needs for survival met: a place to stay, food to eat, clothes on your back. And so a lot of times with youth, especially runaway youth, it first starts as survival sets and then that’s a lure into sex trafficking when somebody takes advantage of that, and now there’s a third party exploiter.

Sandie [00:08:06] That’s where the T comes in then.

Rachel [00:08:08] Exactly. Yep, T is for the trafficker. And this happens very often as well. You know recruitment, grooming through social media, a family friend, someone in the neighborhood. So the traffickers are definitely still the main source of luring somebody into sex trafficking. R is for a recruiter, and so this is a peer that you think is a friend that is working for a trafficker and this is somebody that you know looks like you, sounds like you, may even live in your group home placement, or be a co-worker at your job. E is for the environment, and so this one encompasses those neighborhoods where prostitution is seen by youth and just kind of maybe not the most devastating parts of it. And so it just seems kind of like a viable career option. Maybe you know a way to make some money or something.

Sandie [00:09:08] That’s a scary thing to think that youth feel like that’s a viable career option. That makes me think of Pretty Woman. And so even media is part of our environment that contributes to that.

Rachel [00:09:23] Yeah well you know media is so influential that it has its own, M is  for media. And you’re right, I mean it is scary from music to even our news media and the language that is used, entertainment media and what we celebrate. And it’s scary how much media can be an influence on sex trafficking.

Sandie [00:09:46] And then I made you skip A, go back to A now.

Rachel [00:09:50] Yes. So A is for abuse. And this one is specific to past sexual abuse before there was any commercial aspect to it but being sexually abused. That is the number one risk factor that all sex trafficking victims share is childhood sexual abuse before there was a commercial aspect.

Sandie [00:10:11] Right. Okay. So let’s talk a little bit more then about how that actually impacts someone’s thoughts and their beliefs.

Rachel [00:10:22] So the way it’s taught in Ending the Game curriculum is to kind of take inventory of which of these factors were at play, and for a lot of people there can be multiple. You know, they grew up in the environment, and then they were approached by a trafficker, at the same time and they had a need for survival, and they were already had experience sexual abuse and so it just kind of became this vortex of vulnerabilities. And you know they’re already listening to the music that was pro you know hypersexuality and stuff like that. So what we see for many survivors is that there are many of these factors. And once somebody is under, not even under the control knowingly, but when somebody is specifically being targeted by a trafficker, that’s when the more direct and damaging psychological coercion starts. And so, as I said before, it’s really a combination of exploiting past negatives. So the one we hear exploited often is the past sexual abuse. I’ve had younger survivors that I’ve worked with say, “well you know in the grooming phase and I thought he was my boyfriend and we were getting to know each other. I shared with him that I had been sexually abused at the age of three by an uncle. And at the time I told him, he let me cry on his shoulder and offered protection and was very sympathetic.” And then once that control is there in the breaking process then it’s well you’ve been seducing men since you were three and you were born for the sex industry. They couldn’t resist you back then, this is who you are. And so it’s exploiting past vulnerabilities and negative experiences, as well as false promises. So false love, teaching someone how to find false pride in being expensive, you know oh you go for a hundred dollars and these other girls only go for fifty dollars so that means you’re worth more. False sense of family of belonging, really exploiting all those needs on Maslow’s chart in a way that gets somebody to act against their own best interests.

Sandie [00:12:40] Wow. Yeah. So when people start looking at things like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Need, we could probably use that same tool to not only identify how the traffickers are manipulating but perhaps how we can do a better job of intervention. And it seems like that’s one of the main goals of the Ending the Game curriculum. So how does someone begin the process to overcome that coercion? I love how you said to take both feet out of that lane.

Rachel [00:13:18] Yeah. We actually do use the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs chart and D’Lita Miller, who’s an amazing survivor leader in L.A. County, three years ago when I first heard her speak maybe five years ago I saw her presentation where she showed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs chart and then she switched the wording around and now it explains from the traffickers perspective how I can exploit each need and how I can present myself as the solution for each need. And it was really eye-opening and so we actually still use that within our supporter training. And that part of the training can be found on the website. We just published it for free because we think this information is so important to get out there. So it’s endingthegame.com and it has a tab for support or training.

Sandie [00:14:07] Let’s stop there for just a second and explain to me what you mean by supporter training? Who are the supporters?

Rachel [00:14:16] When we wrote the Ending the Game curriculum it was really for survivors, for being the curriculum that I and so many others need. And then that request from professionals to have separate training for staff and family members to understand the psychological coercion process. The supporter training is for everybody that has any interaction with victims of commercial sexual exploitation. So DAs, group home staff, government officials, families of survivors, nurses.

Sandie [00:14:53] That’s amazing. Rachel, I love that in fact, I’m going to add one more checkbox to your list of people who should check that out. Ending Human Trafficking podcast listeners should be looking and being on that list too. So say the Website one more time.

Rachel [00:15:11] Sure it’s endingthegame.com and there’s a tab for ending the game supporter training. So it’s a full eight-hour presentation, but we uploaded the one hour segment specifically on psychological coercion because it’s so understudied and under-addressed, but it’s critical to providing services. Because you know oftentimes with a survivor of trafficking who’s still in the victim mentality, we’re met with anger and apathy and things that don’t really scream out “I’m a victim and need of help, thank you for services.” And so we can kind of take it at face value and say ya this isn’t presenting like a victim, it’s hard to help somebody that doesn’t seem that they want to help themselves. And so this is critical for understanding what’s going on beneath the surface, some of those thoughts and beliefs that were planted there that’s causing this behavior and apparent compliance or wanting to stay in the game or in the life.

Sandie [00:16:10] So how do you actually intervene and help put them on a path where they are not going back?

Rachel [00:16:20] Well, with the curriculum there are 10 sessions and each of those sessions focuses on first explaining one tactic of psychological manipulation that is often used to lure someone into sex trafficking and then we focus on how to overcome that. For example, isolation; we’ll learn for the first half of class about how isolation works. What is the impact of isolation? How does it happen specifically in sex trafficking? And then we’ll spend the second half of class learning how do we overcome this? Have we been affected? Have we been isolated from our support, from our family, from anything positive? And then we learn how to overcome that. So isolation is less than three but every week we’re learning about how psychological manipulation happens in sex trafficking and how to overcome it.

Sandie [00:17:19] And what’s the environment for teaching? I know that sometimes we’ve had opportunities at like a juvenile hall. What are some other environments?

Rachel [00:17:31] So our model is to train fast service providers to use it within their facilities. We have some requirements for which facilities can use it. But we are in juvenile detention facilities, we’re in women’s prisons, we’re in drop-in centers, churches, LGBT centers, anywhere where there are hands-on direct services to victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

Sandie [00:17:59] Okay. That’s great. I know that sometimes there’s concern that we’ll be able to continue when there are transitions so that means that it doesn’t just have to be when especially with our youth victims while they are in a secure facility.

Rachel [00:18:19] Yeah.

Sandie [00:18:20] So after isolation, Rachel, then what’s the next lesson?

Rachel [00:18:24] All of the lesson topics are listed on the Web site, but really they all fall under three umbrella belief, coercive beliefs that are implanted when you’re in the game. And so we came up with these three umbrellas after interviewing, surveying over 100 survivors, and really looking at our own experiences. The curriculum is survivor written and also we collaborated with experts in mental health and psychology and so. The top three umbrellas coercive belief: one is that it’s better to get paid for sex than to do it for free. And this is something that most people aren’t born believing. But it’s gonna be a belief that your trafficker and you know that lifestyle will implant to get you to stay there. I remember in my own experience, you know I’m from a wonderful upper middle class, two-parent home, I didn’t have the previous sexual abuse, I didn’t have any vulnerabilities really I was in college at a top 20 university. And you know, you read a little bit of my story earlier, he said he was a modeling agent and I remember the first night I saw him become violent with another one of his models and I was freaked out and I was like Oh my God. And I had known him for about a month and a half at that point. He had been polite and professional and nice, and so the day after I saw him hit another model. I called him and I tried to backtrack out of the contract and I said you know thanks but no thanks. And he said, “Bitch I own you, you’re going to do what I tell you to do, or somebody is going to get hurt.” And then he read off my home address. And he told me when and where to meet him that night, and he said if I don’t come to him he’s going to come to me. And then he read off my address where I was living with my roommate near campus. And so I mean the whole thought process of what do I do, do I call the police, do I you know call my parents. But since I had known the nice, polite, professional guy for a month and a half and then I saw him flip out you know the night before, I said, “Well let me just stay on his good side, give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that was his girlfriend or something and I don’t know.” And so I met him when and where, and he had a buyer lined up. And I remember the transaction, hate to call it that, took place in the backseat of his car. And when it was over and I was crying and traumatized, and fearful, and just in a horrible mental state and physical state, the buyer got out of the car and the trafficker got into the front seat. And he looks back at me and he said, “What are you crying for?” And you know it was obvious to me, so I didn’t respond. And he said, “well were you a virgin before tonight?” And at 20 years old I wasn’t, and so you know I shook my head and he said, “Well you know, I don’t see a ring on your finger. I see a cross around your neck, you know like you’re some kind of Christian, but you’ve been doing this all along. This wasn’t your first time having sex and what do you have out of it. You know, did you get a broken heart? Did you get an S.T.D.? You don’t have anything to show for it.” And he threw cash at me in the backseat. He said, “this is what you got for it tonight.” And it didn’t change my mind in that moment, it didn’t take any of that trauma away, it didn’t make me want to do that ever again. But it planted guilt and it planted a different way of thinking. And you know the best coercion has a little bit of truth in it. The best lies have some truth in it. That you know I wasn’t a virgin and no I had never received anything tangible from it before. And so this is without getting too deep into you know specifics, that’s how coercion works. You know exploiting anything negative and promising something positive in a false way. And so in that moment that planted the seed of getting paid for sex.

Sandie [00:22:57] Wow.

Rachel [00:22:57] And so that was something that you wouldn’t really become a firm belief of mine, until maybe four months later after you’re isolated from other supports and ways of thinking. And you’re just kind of ushered into this whole subculture where that’s who you’re interacting with, and that’s the music you’re listening to, and you’re getting the false good things out of it, the material things and the affirmations and other things. But you know and it’s subtle and coercive how much of yourself you’re losing.

Sandie [00:23:31] Wow that’s really the whole idea of losing your true self is such a profound statement. So you said there were three umbrellas and so we’ve looked at this one. Briefly, what are the other two, we’ve got just a few minutes to wrap up.

Rachel [00:23:49] For the second one is that squares are losers now a square is anyone not in the game, not a trafficker, and not a victim. Squares are losers, they’re boring, they’re broke, they’re being taken advantage of by the system, they’re weak. Kind of this idea that you know in the game you’re rebels and renegades, and you’re making your own schedule, and you’re not paying taxes, and you’re getting paid for what other idiots are given away for free. And so kind of acceptance into a rogue or cool lifestyle.

Sandie [00:24:24] And the third umbrella?

Rachel [00:24:26] The third is that the game, or the life, is as good as my life will get, so I should just make the best of it. As I gave the example before, past sexual abuse. You know you were you were born for this, you were made for this, this is who you are. So instead of trying to escape it, or find an exit path, or see yourself in a different light, just jump in with two feet and be the best at it that you can be, win at the game.

Sandie [00:24:54] So how do you break out of that game? How do you break those lies?

Rachel [00:25:00] Learn how to recognize what the lies are and the impact they had on you, and choose truth.

Sandie [00:25:08] So what do you teach them to tell them how to break that in their own lives? Do they do exercises?

Rachel [00:25:17] Yes. So the curriculum is also informed by cognitive behavioral theories and so like I said each of the 10 has a separate topic and has a separate, I don’t want to call it a solution, but a separate lesson for how to overcome this particular part of exploitation. So just in keeping with the same example for less than three about isolation, we learn how isolation works and that doesn’t mean you’re locked in a basement. You know you can be around people and be isolated. And so for that one, the ending the game technique that we use is reconnecting with resources. And it sounds simple but if we walk them through the activity of resources, people, places that made them feel their best selves that saw in them their best, who they truly are and want to be, and reconnecting. Because a lot of times you know we had survivors have had that teacher, or that friend, or that cousin, or someone who was a positive person in their life who they had become isolated from either through shame, or guilt, or the trafficker saying you know you have to cut off these relationships or you’re moving away from this place. And so that simple process of reconnecting with positive support or alternatively if they can’t think of anyone that they want to reconnect with then they can just do a search of local resources in their communities. Sometimes you feel hopeless because you don’t know what’s out there, you don’t know that there are support groups, or that there are tattoo removal services, or that there are dentists in your area that do free dental work you know if teeth were knocked out. I mean just things that you never even thought were out there that you just feel so alone and hopeless. But there are people who want to help. And there are church groups, and medical clinics, and all kind of people who are ready to help and be welcoming, once you step out of that isolation that is in lesson three.

Sandie [00:27:22] I love that. I love that because connection is really a key and one of the things that I’ve experienced as a leader in this in my community is volunteers want to do something but they don’t always understand how to do something significant. And they sometimes want to jump in with both feet, if you will, but all they have to do is be available to make that connection because it is so important for survivors to find another way and to realize people are there and connecting in the community is really a key that can make a big difference. And it doesn’t have to you know have to change your career, you can just be available. So Rachel, can you tell people how to find you if they want more information about bringing Ending the Game to their community?

Rachel [00:28:25] Sure, the Website is www.endingthegame.com. And to reach us via email contact@endingthegame.com.

Sandie [00:28:42] Well that was easy and I am so appreciative of your willingness to do this interview and to share what you’ve learned. The idea of those three umbrellas of that entry points for coercion, of manipulation are really revealing and it helps me understand how to have better conversations when I’m talking to victims and survivors as well. But also you’ve really opened a gateway for understanding really best practices in cognitive interventions. We have to change the way we think and a lot of these issues are in varying levels in other aspects of our lives and to lead healthy lives and have healthy relationships. This is a great pathway and I want to just thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us.

Rachel [00:29:43] Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Sandie [00:29:47] And we will call you again to bring you back and I’m sure that we’re going to find more ways to partner with Ending the Game and Ending Human Trafficking. So thanks, Rachel.

Rachel [00:30:01] Thank you.

Dave [00:30:02] I’ll echo Sandie’s thoughts. Rachel, thank you so much for your bravery and sharing your story with us. And we hope that Rachel’s story and her work has inspired you to take the next step. If you’d like to take the next step, in addition to discovering the resources on Endingthegame.com. We also invite you to hop online and download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, a quick start guide to ending human trafficking. Sandie’s guide will teach you the five critical things that the Global Center for Women and Justice and Sandie and her work has discovered that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. As we say often, it’s really about studying the issues, so that we can be a voice, and then make a difference. You can get access to that by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s also where you’ll find all the episode notes for every episode we’ve aired since 2011. And of course all the links to Ending the Game that Rachel and Sandie discussed today. So go discover that, and Sandie, I’ll see you back in two weeks for our next conversation.

Sandie [00:31:12] Thank you, Dave.

Dave [00:31:13]  everyone. Have a great day.

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