Traffickers’ Use of Substances to Recruit and Control Victims of Domestic Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in the American Midwest


  • Dr Erica Koegler
  • Dr Claire A. Wood
  • Lilly Bahlinger
  • Dr Sharon D. Johnson



substance use, human trafficking, perpetrators, American Midwest


This paper describes how traffickers use substances to recruit and control victims of domestic trafficking for sexual exploitation, as reported by service providers working with trafficking survivors in the American Midwest. This data was derived from interviews with 15 service providers in a major metropolitan area. Findings revealed consistencies with previous literature and new insights into the trafficker- substance use dynamic. Traffickers’ use of substances with victims was pervasive when trafficking was for the purpose of sex but not other labour. There were several examples of how traffickers use substances for victim exploitation and recruitment. These include using substances to ensure a victim is in a euphoric mood prior to sex work, to reward victim sex work productivity, and to initiate withdrawal effects to demonstrate the traffickers’ supreme control. Novel findings include how and why traffickers might deny victim use of substances and how they might give substances to victims without the victim’s knowledge. Implications for how these findings can be utilised for victim treatment and for future research are discussed.


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Author Biographies

Dr Erica Koegler

Dr Erica Koegler is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work, University of Missouri–St. Louis. She received her PhD from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and her MSW from the University of Chicago. Her research examines the syndemic nature of poor mental health, sexual risk, and violence among vulnerable populations, including those who have survived human trafficking and conflict. Dr Koegler has active research projects examining aspects of human trafficking in the American Midwest and the Western Cape, South Africa.

Dr Claire A. Wood

Dr Claire A. Wood is an Assistant Research Professor at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health, University of Missouri–St. Louis who specialises in applied research focused on the development, implementation, and evaluation of effective overdose prevention strategies and the alignment of public safety and public health practices. Specifically, her recent work has been dedicated to understanding characteristics of impactful public health-oriented programmes as well as overdose education and occupational safety trainings for first responders. She is also currently the Project Director or Lead Evaluator for several statewide, SAMHSA- funded opioid initiatives focused on harm reduction, overdose prevention, treatment, and recovery from opioid use disorder.

Lilly Bahlinger

Lilly Bahlinger is a graduate from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a Master’s in Criminal Justice. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology from the University of Arkansas. She has supported Erica Koegler as a research assistant in her studies of the relations between human trafficking and substance use within the Midwest metropolitan area. She has worked as an intern studying and coding human trafficking cases at the Human Trafficking Research Center (HTRC) in Fayetteville, AR, and as a video creator at Gateway Human Trafficking in St. Louis, MO.

Dr Sharon D. Johnson

Dr Sharon D. Johnson is Professor and Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She is a trained psychiatric epidemiologist whose research focuses on the risks associated with addiction and specifically on sexual risk behaviours, HIV/AIDS, and trauma exposure among these often- vulnerable populations. Her federally funded training grants prepare students for practice in integrated behavioural health settings. She conducts community needs assessments and social service programme evaluations primarily aimed at strengthening agencies’ abilities to provide quality services to at-risk youths.




How to Cite

Koegler, E., Wood, C., Bahlinger, L., & Johnson, S. (2022). Traffickers’ Use of Substances to Recruit and Control Victims of Domestic Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in the American Midwest. Anti-Trafficking Review, (18), 103–120.