In the Media

McAllister Olivarius of counsel Carol Merchasin speaks to OCCRP about human trafficking in the US

Experts Explain Driving Factors Behind Human Trafficking in the U.S.
Human traffickers in the United States are making billions in annual profits, but money is not their only motive. Sometimes it’s the urge to sexually control and dominate women in spiritual communities.


But that is not to say that sex trafficking need only be tied to labor; there are other motivators that traffickers can be driven by, claims Carol Merchasin of McAllister Olivarius, an international law firm that specializes in handling cases of discrimination and abuse.

Her work, which pertains to legal cases involving sexual misconduct in religious communities, has brought her into contact with survivors across a number of spiritual movements.

Any instance where a person is “fraudulently offered or coerced into performing a sex act as a condition of their ‘spiritual development’” could lead to a human trafficking claim, she told OCCRP.

She explained that, in her legal work, it is common for a victim to be “coerced into sex because it is disguised as a religious practice” or that “an authoritarian leader will make the fraudulent claim that performing a sex act will lead to ‘spiritual enlightenment.’”

“I would say that authoritarian leaders of cults, religious and spiritual communities can be charged with human trafficking when they use their authority and the promise of spiritual benefit to entice or recruit their members to have sex with them,” Merchasin said.

She added that, in these instances, it is not the threat of force by which victims become entrapped, but rather the will of “an authoritarian leader whose authority cannot be questioned.”

Add that to the isolation such communities are situated in—away from the prying eyes of society and law enforcement—and you suddenly find yourself in an environment where human trafficking and sexual assault can go unreported for decades, Merchasin said.

For those who do manage to escape, their road to recovery is by no means a simple one, regardless of the circumstances that led them to be trafficked in the first place.

“Often survivors do not have any family support network,” said Hilda Fernandez, CEO of Camillus House, a nonprofit in Miami that helps human trafficking survivors re-enter society by helping them manage their PTSD and by emotionally preparing those who might one day confront their former captors in court.

She explained to OCCRP that this lack of support can stem from a variety of factors. But more often than not, it’s because survivors feel there is a stigma that comes from being trafficked; especially in cases where they were sexually exploited.