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Is Sugar Dating Empowering?

By October 26, 2022No Comments

Episode 81

Is Sugar Dating Empowering?

A Conversation With Megan Lundstrom, Sociologist And Co-Founder Of The Avery Center

Trigger Warning: This episode contains discussions of sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Listener discretion is advised.

This week’s interview is with exploitation and trafficking survivor turned sociologist, Megan Lundstrom. Today, Megan is the Co-Founder of The Avery Center, an organization dedicated to ending commercial sexual exploitation. She is a contracted trainer, consultant, and a national speaker. In this episode Megan speaks with podcast host Garrett Jonsson, about her own lived experience of being exploited through sugaring websites, sheds light on the impacts of a pornified culture, and explains what has to change to end commercial sexual exploitation.


Garrett Jonsson: At what point did you start to realize then that this wasn’t gonna be like a sweet setup and it was gonna turn bitter?

Megan Lundstrom: Oh, I don’t know that I ever really fully realized that because it is marketed as this, like, “it’s really empowering and it’s fun and you can, there’s so much potential to meet these like, mystery guys that are gonna take you on cruises around the world.” Like, it’s completely counterintuitive to where our society is going right now. And I think that’s a big piece for people that do sugar, kind of have that revelation of like, “Is this actually empowering? Like I don’t think it is cuz I’m still dependent on a man to be able to pay my bills at the end of the day.”

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Garrett Jonsson: My name is Garrett Jonsson, and you’re listening to Consider Before Consuming, a podcast by Fight the New Drug.

And in case you’re new here, Fight the New Drug is a non-religious and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts, and personal accounts.

We want these conversations to be educational, uplifting, and hopeful. As we sit down with experts, influencers, activists, and people with personal accounts, we cover a wide variety of topics that may be triggering to some- listener discretion is advised.

Today’s episode is with Megan Lundstrom, an exploitation and trafficking survivor turned sociologist. Today, Megan is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Avery Center, an organization dedicated to ending commercial sexual exploitation. She is a contracted trainer, consultant, and a national speaker. During this conversation we talk about her own lived experience of being exploited through sugaring websites, the impacts of a pornified culture, and what has to happen to end commercial sexual exploitation.

With that being said, let’s jump into the conversation, we hope you enjoy this episode of Consider Before Consuming.

Welcome to the podcast. Welcome to Consider before Consuming.

Megan Lundstrom: Hello. Thank you.

Garrett Jonsson: Uh, let’s start with the groundwork, like the basics, like who are you, what are you up to, and why did we ask you to join us on Consider before Consuming?

Megan Lundstrom: Oh, man. Okay. My name is Megan Lundstrom. I am one of the Co-Founders and the Chief Executive Officer at The Avery Center. Um, and I am also a survivor of human trafficking. What was your second question?

Garrett Jonsson: Oh, yeah, I asked too many questions. Right? A row, huh? [laughter]

Megan Lundstrom: That was a lot [laughter]

Garrett Jonsson: Okay. So you answered who you are.

Megan Lundstrom: [laughter]

Garrett Jonsson: And you answered what you’re up to kind of when in regards to business. You answered what you’re up to. What else are you up to these days?

Megan Lundstrom: Oh man.

Garrett Jonsson: What does your day to day look like?

Megan Lundstrom: Uh, different every single day. So I do run The Avery Center, um, but I also do a lot of contract, uh, consulting, training, and public speaking nationally. Um, so I do a lot of traveling, um, currently working on several different really exciting research projects. Um, so I’m kind of all over in the anti-trafficking field right now.

Garrett Jonsson: Wow, good for you. That represents a lot of work. Like you’ve put in a lot of work to be where you’re at today.

Megan Lundstrom: It’s, you know, it’s so crazy. Um, so I have five years of lived experience, but then I have been in this field for almost a decade too, so thinking about like 15 years, like that’s almost half of my life.

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, which just feels really weird to even say. So. Um, yeah, I’ve gotten to see a lot, seen a lot of growth, seen a lot of really weird stuff in this field, um, but also got to me a lot of really amazing humans.

Garrett Jonsson: That’s really cool. I am curious to know more about the research that you’re, are you performing research? Like you’re the one doing the research or just kind of participating in a way?

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah, so The Avery Center actually has a full research department. Um, so I was previously the director of research and then we restructured this year, so I moved into the role as CEO, but I still take part in, um, some of the research projects. So some of those I’m kind of just in the background of and get really cool updates of what’s going on. Um, like our Only Fans research. Um, and then there’s other projects that I am directly overseeing. Um, one of the projects that I’m working on right now is looking at long term career path development for survivors of exploitation, um, and then also working on a really new project with Polaris and looking at financial crimes.

Garrett Jonsson: Wow. That’s good work.

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah. Super cool. It’s nerdy.

Garrett Jonsson: Your resume’s impressive.

Megan Lundstrom: Oh, [laughter] Yeah. Did you look at it? Oh, geez…

Garrett Jonsson: I just listened to it.

Megan Lundstrom: Oh… [laughter]

Garrett Jonsson: And I’ve looked at it as well. [Laughter] Um, well, you answered all three of the questions, who you are, what you’re up to, and why you’re here on the podcast with us today. And a lot of our listeners aren’t gonna know, aren’t gonna gonna be familiar with the term “sugar dating.”

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah.

Garrett Jonsson: So I think it might be good to start off the interview or conversation with you defining what is sugar dating?

Megan Lundstrom: Sure. So sugar dating is really kind of, um, let me break it down. So, uh, based on research, uh, you typically have a sugar daddy or a sugar mommy, but, um, overwhelmingly it’s sugar daddy, so men, um, who are, um, pretty stable, uh, financially and have some disposable income. And then you have the sugar baby, um, which also can be any gender. Um, and, but again, research shows that most sugar babies are women. Um, typically very young women, so 18 to 24, college age students are who is kind of the target demographic for sugar dating. Um, and those individuals are more likely to be persons of color, um, more likely to have like lower levels of education compared to sugar daddies. So there’s, there’s definitely this like, um, a gender and an economic, uh, power differential in those relationships. And well, quote unquote, I’m gonna use air quotes, uh, for relationship because really what it is, is a transactional relationship where the sugar daddy provides, um, financial support or gifts in exchange for, again, air quotes, companionship. Um, but that companionship more often than not is actually, um, sex and sexual services.

Garrett Jonsson: Hmm. Okay. And you mentioned that you have five years of lived experience, and when you say lived experience, you’re referring to, you experienced, you were a sugar baby, is what they refer to them as, Right?

Megan Lundstrom: Yes. That is really how I initially got into the commercial sex trade and then ended up being trafficked from there.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay. And from what I understand, uh, you learned of a website called, correct?

Megan Lundstrom: Yes.

Garrett Jonsson: What’s the context behind that story? Like how did you happen upon that website?

Megan Lundstrom: Sure. Um, so at the time, I think I was 22, 23 years old, I was going through a divorce, um, from the father of my two older kiddos. Um, and, you know, 23, like who gets divorced at 23? That’s so young, like a lot of people aren’t even getting married at 23, much less divorced.

Garrett Jonsson: Mm.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, and so one of my girlfriends from high school, you know, we would hang out and she came over one day and she said, “Oh my gosh, I just saw this commercial. And it was talking about these like, uh, arrangements that, you know, you get to go out on dates with these really wealthy guys that are generous and good looking, and they take you on trips and out to dinner and stuff and help you out with some of your bills.” And she was like, “You know, you’re just getting out of a marriage. You probably don’t wanna jump into a serious relationship, um, but you’re also kind of struggling financially to support your two kids by yourself.” So she was like, “I don’t know, like I, I would totally do it. I just don’t know if I need guys would like me.” But she was like, “You’re super cute, you should try it out.” Um, and I just kind of thought about it, like, “I don’t know, I guess like that logic seemed to make sense in my head. Like none of those things were untrue.” Um, and so that’s, that’s kind of the where I ended up at, at the top of the slippery slope, and it literally was downhill from there.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay. And you mentioned that there are certain populations that are more at risk to becoming victims of, uh, sugar dating and, and trafficking. Do you consider yourself at that time, at age 23 with two kids, in the middle of a divorce? Do you consider yourself to have been a, a member within one of those more vulnerable populations?

Megan Lundstrom: Absolutely. So Rachel Lloyd, who is the founder of GEMS in New York, um, she’s also a survivor. Uh, she presented at a conference once and drew kind of like three overlapping circles, like a Venn diagram and explained that commercial sexual exploitation happens at the intersections of race, class, and gender. Um, and so when you look at where were my vulnerabilities at that time, while I am a woman, um, I was a very young woman at that time experiencing significant financial instability and a lack of, um, social supports to help, uh, reduce that vulnerability. Um, and I was also a survivor of multiple types of gender based violence up to that point. Um, so when you have all of those vulnerabilities and kind of those intersecting identities, you’re at extremely high risk for exploitation.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay. Thank you for explaining that.

Megan Lundstrom: Mhm.

Garrett Jonsson: And I just wanna say that I admire you because if I put myself in your, your shoes as a 23 year old with two children, man, that is very, very, that’s a tough situation. I have kids myself, and I know how, how challenging it is to raise kids with my partner, and so I just have empathy for the 23 year old you.

Megan Lundstrom: Thank you. It’s something I’ve definitely learned to have some empathy for myself because I, you know, it’s easy to look at somebody else and feel that, um, but then criticize yourself. Um, and so as I’ve moved forward in my healing, I can definitely look back now and see, like I was, I was just a little girl still that, that didn’t have anybody to protect me, and I did so good with such horrible options.

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah. It’s interesting that you refer to yourself as a “little girl” at age 23. And I, I find that so true because when I look at myself at, you know, in my early twenties, you know, the, the, the brain doesn’t fully develop until you’re supposedly like late twenties and my wife says that mine didn’t develop until just like last week. So…

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah.

Garrett Jonsson: [laughter] No, I just joking. But the reality is, is like even though you’re an adult at 23, you’re still young.

Megan Lundstrom: So young. And I like my, so my oldest kiddo is 18 now, and I had him at 18.

Garrett Jonsson: Oh wow.

Megan Lundstrom: And I look at him and I’m like, oh my gosh, like somebody entrusted me at your age, like handed me a baby at a hospital and was like, “You’ve got this.”

Garrett Jonsson: [laughter] Wow.

Megan Lundstrom: So it’s, it’s been like watching him grow up has definitely helped with some of that empathy of like, I was just young and I had a lot of unprocessed, uh, trauma on top of that. So like my brain was literally in this like arrested development stage where I didn’t have the ability to really think through the consequences and outcomes of things. Like my prefrontal cortex was not fully working some days, like you’ve said, like some days I still question if it is, but…

Garrett Jonsson: [laughter] Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, yeah, it’s, you’re so young at that age when you look back, but, you know, tell a 23 year old that and they’re not gonna believe you.

Garrett Jonsson: [laughter] Yeah. You tell an eight year old that and they think they know everything. So…

Megan Lundstrom: Of course [laughter]

Garrett Jonsson: Well, I think it’d be interesting to understand how you define trauma, because you mentioned that you had unprocessed traumas at that time. How do you define trauma?

Megan Lundstrom: Ooh, I thought I was gonna be prepared for all the questions you had. Um, so trauma to me is loosely based off of all the work that I’ve done and, you know, books I’ve read and stuff. So to me, trauma is an event that you do not have control over in the moment. Um, but that afterwards, this is where like trauma gets stored in our bodies and impacts our development, is we don’t have the social supports around us to walk us through processing the emotional component of that trauma. When you’re in a traumatic experience, like your brain literally goes into survival mode, you’re not thinking through like, “Where am I feeling tension in my body right now?” You know, “If I could label this feeling…” like you don’t have time to do those things. And if you don’t do those things afterwards and, and move through those, that trauma stays stored in your body and it impacts your development.

Garrett Jonsson: Right. The body keeps the score.

Megan Lundstrom: Yes. [laughter] You pass the test.

Garrett Jonsson: That makes sense. That makes sense.

Um, jumping back to your experience, we talked about how you happened upon this website and how you, that that idea of doing this, it was planted in your brain. You’re like, “Okay, maybe this could work, maybe this could be beneficial.” Can you speak to your experience like the first couple dates that you went on and how those played out?

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah, definitely. Um, again, like at 23, I just look back and I was newly divorced and very much feeling like I missed out on, um, just being a young adult. Like I didn’t get to go to college, I didn’t go get to go to house parties. I didn’t get to hang out with girlfriends. Like I didn’t do those things. And so at 23 I felt like I needed to catch up for lost time. Um, so kind of went through like a little bit of a party girl phase with girlfriends and, um, and I think that that’s really common with sugaring, especially with college age students who are exploring their own identity and sexuality and what they’re comfortable with and, and defining those things for themselves. So, um, those first couple dates I do remember like, you know, messaging a few guys and it, it just feeling off.

So not following through. Um, one of the first guys that I did meet up with, um, he picked me up from my girlfriend’s house cause I felt like that would be safer than giving him my address, which I’m like, was that actually safer? It was safer for me, not her.

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, and going back to his loft and just feeling very uncomfortable and his behavior while I was there, um, I started to suspect that he was maybe recording our interactions and so I didn’t feel comfortable engaging in any sexual activity with him because I felt like something, like something was just off. Um, so he did end up taking me back to my girlfriend’s house. Like thankfully nothing, you know, worse happened. I think back to that, like, that could have gone horribly. Um, another guy that I went out, um, on an initial date with, um, I think really quickly honed in on the fact, like how vulnerable I was.

Um, I think it was like maybe November, December. I mean, it was cold out and I didn’t have a jacket. Like I couldn’t afford a jacket. And so he was like, “Well, if you wanna go out with me next week, like, um, come to my house, we’ll eat dinner, We’ll spend some time together and then I’ll buy you a jacket.” Um, and again, I just look back like I had a basic need that wasn’t being met and rather than having people around me that could just help meet my basic needs because I’m a human, um, this guy was leveraging his sexual desires, um, to meet my basic needs like having a winter coat. Um, so that individual, I ended up going to his house a few times. Um, he did get physically violent. It was a very scary, um, situation, and also ended up, uh, basically not giving me money, um, the last time that we met up with one another because I did not consent to the things that he was wanting to do. Um, and that was really scary. And, and he did know where I lived. He dropped me off, you know, right in front of my apartment building. And again, I just think back like how, how dangerous that could have been. It was scary and traumatic anyways, but it could have been worse.

Garrett Jonsson: Right. It seems like, from what I know about sugaring is that the sites that facilitate it often market themselves as like progressive and win win situations. And like these setups are like sweet, sweet setups for these young women, young girls, but oftentimes the, the experiences become bitter. Right? And so can you talk to that, like, you’ve already talked to it a little bit about the first time you suspected that this individual was gonna engage in some type of non-consensual image based abuse, you left. And then the, the violence on the second one, the violent behavior. At what point did you start to realize then that this wasn’t gonna be like a sweet setup and it was gonna turn bitter?

Megan Lundstrom: Oh, I don’t know that I ever really fully realized that because it is marketed as this, like, it’s really empowering and it’s fun and you can, there’s so much potential to meet these like, mystery guys that are gonna take you on cruises around the world. And so the messaging that I internalized, I think primarily just being a woman is that it’s my fault that these things are happening to me and that I’m not making good picks with the sugar daddies that I’m engaging with, or that like, you know, I am a single parent, so I, I didn’t have the ability to travel, so maybe I’m not as accessible or I’m not as pretty as, you know, these really successful sugar daddies wherever they are. Um, and I think that, yeah, I think just socially, like that’s part of the messaging as women that we carry in our culture. Um, but then when you’re, when you participate in sugaring and like, here’s what’s so crazy is these websites gaslight you. Um, so if you think about like, where is culture headed right now? I, I don’t know about you. I am addicted to TikTok. I have a lot of opinions about some of the things on TikTok, but I freaking love, I just love it.

Garrett Jonsson: [laughter]

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah. It’s like a wormhole of like :40 second videos. It’s crazy.

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, so my, my master’s degree is in sociology, so I am legitimately obsessed with just watching people. I’m just fascinated by how people operate. So TikTok really sucks me in, but, but this, like, this glorification of, uh, this lifestyle, um, the, the normalization of these like outdated gender roles. So I see a lot of messaging around like women’s empowerment and like having access to our own bank accounts. And like, I bought my own house and my own name two years ago, and like, women are really coming to this place of like, you have to bring more the to the table than a paycheck. Like you have to be a whole human and, and be willing to be emotionally vulnerable and, and support me in that way if we’re gonna be in a partnership.

So I see our culture kind of moving in this way, and then you go look at seeking arrangements or other sugaring websites and it’s like, “Oh, like you can find a wealth, like young girls can find wealthy gentlemen to take care of them. And that’s empowering.” And you’re like, you’re literally being gas lit by this logic. Like, it’s completely counterintuitive to where our society is going right now. And I think that’s a big piece for people that do sugar, kind of have that revelation of like, “Is this actually empowering? Like I don’t think it is cuz I’m still dependent on a man to be able to pay my bills at the end of the day.” So how is that giving me freedom in a society that, like we’ve moved away from that?” And I think one of the misconceptions from people that maybe don’t have lived experience within the sex trade, um, is that each kind of form of exploitation or each venue is its own silo.

So like, oh, like there’s people that work in strip clubs, there’s people that work in massage parlors, there’s people that sugar, there’s people that engage in street prostitution and yes, to some degree, like different people get put in different venues, but ultimately traffickers don’t care. And oftentimes it’s the exact same people that it’s, it’s touted within the commercial sex trade as having like multiple streams of revenue. So you’re going to be actively, um, having active profile on a sugaring website and you’re going to be posting on websites like back page, or skip the games, and you’re gonna be generating content on only fans. And then, you know, on the weekends you go work in a strip club too.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, so even though I started exclusively on sugaring websites, it very quickly, um, at that kind of, at that same time I met my first trafficker. And so he taught me about back page, but I still had that active profile, um, and was still engaged off and on the entire time I was being trafficked all five years, um, with sugaring relationships. And then some individuals that I met through like traditional, like escort websites eventually became sugar daddies, um, because they were my regulars and they were paying bills more so than just like an hourly rate or a transaction rate.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay. Thank you for explaining that. The sugar daddies, I’m sure they don’t present themselves as a trafficker. They don’t say, “Hey, I’m Alex, I’m a trafficker.” I think that some of our listeners could benefit from understanding what traffickers look like or other labels that we can use for traffickers. From what I understand, there’s three different types of pimps or, or traffickers. Can you speak to the different types of pimps that exist?

Megan Lundstrom: Sure. Yeah. So there’s kind of, um, as you said, there’s like three different kinds of third party traffickers. Um, so you’re gonna have pimps, which a lot of people think of pimps, like the purple fur coat and like the pimp cup and kind of that flashy, um, urban, for lack of a better word, um, kind of attire. And so like, yeah, those, those individuals do exist. A lot of pimps don’t necessarily physically look like that anymore.

Garrett Jonsson: Mhm.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, but it is still a typology. Um, you have gang controlled trafficking, um, which is more like organized crime. So you may have like street gangs, um, biker gangs, um, organized like international crime syndicates, like illicit massage businesses are oftentimes run by gang controlled trafficking operations. So gang control typically doesn’t have like one trafficker. There’s multiple traffickers. Um, and the, the victim is really kind of property of that group as opposed to the person.

Um, and then you have familial trafficking, which is kind of self explanatory. So somebody from, um, typically your family of origin is your exploiter. Um, and obviously there’s gonna be overlap between all of those. So a lot of gang members, um, who maybe have like aged out of gang activities or have a criminal arrest record or have been identified as gang members move into pimping because they can make just as much money selling people as they have drugs and weapons previously. Um, but significantly lower cost of risk. Um, and then with both pimps and gangs, you see, um, like a generational cycle there, um, of individuals that grow up in that environment and it’s normalized and so familial trafficking happens there. Um, but you also, like, when you think about sugaring, like yes, there’s absolutely like third party traffickers that can create a profile and pretend to be a sugar daddy and then groom and recruit you and, um, traffic you to other people.

Um, but sugar daddies can be traffickers in and of themselves, um, just in a direct transaction with the sugar baby or the victim as well. And I think that’s something that, um, we don’t talk enough about. Uh, we kind of think of all trafficking as being this like third party, um, but sugar, sugar daddies. Um, so a lot of states do not recognize, um, that like, “Oh, I didn’t know she was under 18.” That’s not a valid defense in a lot of states. Um, and so sugaring websites don’t have age verification. They don’t do any type of screening background check anything for sugar daddies or sugar babies. There is no way to guarantee, So if somebody is a sugar daddy and they’re talking to somebody, you don’t know if they’re over the age of 18 or not. Um, and so that may or may not be a valid defense if that individual is identified as a trafficking victim.

Um, another way that sugar daddies can be be a ker, again, under the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act, when we start looking at force, fraud, and coercion and like the AMP model, um, the act means and purpose. Um, so obtaining somebody through forced fraud or coercion is considered trafficking with or without a third party. Um, and internationally, the Polaro protocol looks at, uh, poverty is a pimp in itself. And so if you are paying for commercial sex transactions from somebody who is in poverty, that is exploitation, um, by definition. So, um, I, I think people just need, we need to be having more conversations about some of those nuances and how that can show up. Uh, or even just just some of the rationalizations I think that sugar daddies may have around like, “Oh, I’m helping out with school tuition.” or, um, “Well, I’m not giving her money for sex. I’m buying her handbags and she hangs out with me and goes to dinner.” Kind of that like trying to sterilize what’s happening. Um, and the reality is that a lot of it is trafficking.

Garrett Jonsson: Can you elaborate a little bit more on amp? I’m not very familiar with that.

Megan Lundstrom: So we use, um, the AMP model, uh, at The Avery Center when we do client intakes to screen and just determine if somebody has in fact experienced human trafficking. Um, and so it stands for act, means, and purpose. Um, and it is literally just taken directly from, um, the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act. It is the definition, um, but just broken down in a way that’s a lot easier to understand. So action is the, the actual activity that’s, um, that is like procuring the individual or exploiting the individual. So, um, inducing recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person, um, means is through that force fraud or coercion component, with the exception of if somebody is under the age of 18, forced fraud and coercion do not need to be present. Um, people under the age of 18 cannot legally consent in the United States to commercial sex acts.

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Full stop. Um, and then purpose. Um, so commercial sexual exploitation or labor and services in the cases of labor trafficking. Um, so just a really helpful way to kind of break that down and think through is somebody engaging in trafficking? Well, let’s look at the AMP model.

Garrett Jonsson: So looking back on your experience, when do you identify or label your experience going from dating to trafficking?

Megan Lundstrom: Good question. Um, really I think, I think like the first couple, like sugar daddies, um, like that first one I said, you know, nothing sexual happened. It was super uncomfortable and I wanted to leave. So I see that situation as being like I was being groomed

Garrett Jonsson: A potential trafficking situation.

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay.

Megan Lundstrom: It absolutely would’ve been trafficking had a sexual act occurred, um, from there forward, I do consider every single instance I experienced to have been trafficking. You know, even before I met my actual third-party pimp traffickers. Um, because I was living in poverty, I was severely traumatized from past gender based violence. Um, I had an absolute lack of other options. And, and I think that that’s a big piece. So like, how do we, how do we define consent? Um, to me, consent is really like, “What other options do I have? Do I have other options? Because if I do, um, then I’m able to evaluate which option is the best choice for me. But if I’m facing, um, my kids go hungry tonight, or we get evicted at the end of this month, um, or I go have sex with this stranger.” That’s not true choice. That is not consent. Right. That’s extremely constrained.

Garrett Jonsson: You weren’t thinking of these individuals in a sexual way. It was, it was purely about the the need for resources.

Megan Lundstrom: Absolutely. It was, this is, you know, plug this into this equation like, I need this and in order to get this, I have to do this and this, and I get this outcome and my need is met.

Garrett Jonsson: In the moment. You, I’m assuming maybe I shouldn’t assume, but I would assume that in the moment you didn’t think of what you were doing or what you were experiencing as trafficking.

Megan Lundstrom: Absolutely not.

Garrett Jonsson: At what point did you identify and were able to label it as trafficking?

Megan Lundstrom: You know, this is one of the conversations we have at the Avery Center all the time. Um, because what we see and what I experienced, you know, I exited in 2012, um, my entire time I was in the commercial sex trade, I identified as a sex worker. Um, and I was very adamant about that. And I was aware of the tvpa, I was aware of anti-trafficking efforts. I was aware that bial definition, um, people would term my experiences trafficking. And I was extremely existent, insistent that that was not my experience and that people didn’t understand the game or the life. Mm. Um, so it was not until after I exited about two years after, um, so I started therapy about a year after exiting, and after about like six, six or nine months of therapy, um, had finally arrived at this place where I was like, “I, I think I got taken advantage of a little bit.”, um, but I still did not identify with the term trafficking. And it really wasn’t until I started doing public speaking about human trafficking awareness, ironically, um, that I was able to start to put together like my own experiences and go, “Oh, I did experience trafficking.”Like this is, this is what trafficking looks like.

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah. Do you think that cognitive dissonance played a role in that denial of you saying, “No, that that wasn’t me, that wasn’t my experience.” Was cognitive dissonance a big player in that?

Megan Lundstrom: Absolutely. And creating cognitive dissonance is probably one of my favorite intervention tactics now, uh, when we do like outreach and intervention, uh, with, with potential victims. Um,…

Garrett Jonsson: How do you, how do you create cognitive dissonance in those people?

Megan Lundstrom: Um, so cognitive dissonance is a good thing, right? Like, we need to have some of that like mental friction to figure out like, what do we align with? Where are our values? Um, what do we wanna pursue? Um, it’s just that traffickers step in or like the, the desperation to have our basic needs over overwhelms our ability to actually look at something objectively and go like, Here’s the pros and cons, here’s the pros and cons. So,…
Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, during my trafficking, and this is what we’ve heard from a lot of survivors in our research and just in peer support groups that I’ve, um, been a part of over the years, when you are being trafficked and like, this is human nature, right? Like, nobody wants to admit that they don’t have control over their life. Like, how would you feel if somebody just showed up at your door and was like, “You’re making all the wrong decisions and you can’t see it clearly.”

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Like, you’d immediately get defensive, like, what are you talking about? Um, and so because you have such a lack of control in a trafficking situation, you hold onto any shred of an idea that you have choice and you have control. And so by saying, “I’m making these choices, leave me alone.”, that’s like the one piece of control you have, um, in that moment. And so it’s really not until somebody has control in other areas of their life that all of this lack of control starts to come out and they start to process all these things like, “I had no control over my life this whole time.”

Garrett Jonsson: Mm.

Megan Lundstrom: But it’s really hard to process those things when they’re actively happening.

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah. And I’d imagine that once you’re able to confront the cognitive dissonance and acknowledge the reality, I bet that’s a very powerful moment. And that’s probably why you create, you, you deliberately create the cognitive cognitive dissonance for people so that they can hopefully launch forward into more of an empowered state.

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah. So my research this last decade has centered around cultic theory. So pimp controlled sex trafficking meets all 15 characteristics of a cultic group. Um, and one of the, the strategies that, that traffickers use, uh, that like cult leaders use as well, is shutting down that critical thinking process in your brain and literally programming you to just obey and stop having kind of that conflicting back and forth.

Garrett Jonsson: Mm. Don’t question anything.

Megan Lundstrom: Don’t question anything.

And you learn not to because you’re punished, you’re socially isolated, you don’t have access to other outside information that can kind of help create a different frame of reference. So that’s why I love using kind of planting those seeds of cognitive dissonance because it creates discomfort. And as humans, we’re wired to move towards comfortability. And so if we can make people feel uncomfortable, that sounds like torturous, but it’s not, it’s

Garrett Jonsson: A mental discomfort.

Megan Lundstrom: Yes. Create some mental discomfort around like, is this what I want? Is this aligning with my long term goals? You see people more likely to engage in, um, like self-advocacy because they have come to that conclusion versus me saying like, this, “You’re making really bad choices and you should do something different.” Like, I don’t wanna hear that still to this day. I get defensive when my therapist tells me that [laughter]

Garrett Jonsson: [laughter] imagine that the work you do at the Avery Center, you really have to empower the women that you work with. Do you work with men and boys as well, or just women?

Megan Lundstrom: Yep. Yeah, we work with all genders.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay. So, so that term self-advocacy, how important is it that they engage in self-advocacy? Because you can’t push someone, someone along in this journey to the, to the point of exiting and thriving. They they have to engage as well, they have to be on board. Correct?

Megan Lundstrom: Yes. Yeah. And it’s, it is I think why The Avery Center’s, uh, services are so successful, why we do see such, um, like high rates of initial engagement and then long term recovery. Um, but it’s also something that, like, you can’t create a cookie cutter formula. So I’m, I’m very left brained, so I’m always like, how do we create a formula that you like, plug in this number of things and you get this output?

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah.

Megan Lundstrom: We’re humans. We don’t work that way. Um, but I literally…

Garrett Jonsson: You can’t, you can’t create a Monday board of how to get someone out.

Megan Lundstrom: Listen, if we could, I would, I would copyright that thing and give it to every organization in the country.

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, but it, it really, you know, if you have not had access to choices, like true unconstrained choices sometimes since birth, if you were in a familial trafficking situation, being offered to choices is so overwhelming. And so you really have to start at this very small place of offering choices. So we talk about, like, even during an intervention or like a client intake, we provide a series of choices like, do you feel comfortable doing your intake over the phone, or would you like to set up a zoom call? Which do you feel more comfortable with? And then once they decide that, or like, do you wanna do it over the phone or do you wanna come into to the office if you’re local? Or would you like to meet somewhere in the community for coffee?

So really, I mean, those are like baby step choices, but those can be really overwhelming for survivors who haven’t been able to do those things.

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, but it’s also really important, you know, as a survivor starts to move into that place of like, “I do have the ability to make choices for myself.” So it’s super important that we have lots of options to talk through with our clients, and we are completely forthcoming about those options in a fact based, evidence based manner. And then we support them in making the choices that they feel are best for them. It’s not our life. We don’t have to live out the consequences or the fallout or whatever. Um, so we’re not gonna make those decisions for other people. But it’s such a journey to empower people to that place of like, you get to make this decision. How do you wanna make this decision for yourself? And once you see people start to make those choices for themselves and start to feel empowered, it’s like a snowball that picks up speed. And then you get to this place where you’re like, I need this, I want this. Like, this is not okay. And like, this needs to change and that feels so good to get to that place.

Garrett Jonsson: Right? Yeah. When you start to have that snowball effect and you’re aligning your actions with your aspirations, that’s a really powerful and, and rewarding moment. So that’s, that’s really cool.

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah.

Garrett Jonsson: I have to ask the following question because of our mission statement. Our mission statement is to educate individuals on the harmful effects of pornography using science, facts, and personal accounts. And so I have to ask, did pornography play a role in your lived experience?

Megan Lundstrom: I think I was very fortunate. So we’re working on, um, research with Only Fans right now, and I have learned so much about, shall we say, the healthcare of content creators and people in the porn industry that I had no idea. And like, it’s stuff that I will probably carry with me the rest of my life, vicarious trauma wise. Um, so my intersection with pornography was during the grooming process with my first trafficker. Um, and he was, um, encouraging me to branch out from just sugaring and start posting on back page. And I was like, “You know, isn’t that prostitution? Like, I don’t know how to do that. Like, I’m scared.” He encouraged me to watch pornography as a means of like, if you can perform this way, like this is what men want sexually and that’s what they’re paying for. And so if you can perform like these porn stars that these guys are already watching, they will come back to you for more. Um, so pornography absolutely plays a role, and we see it when we facilitate our, um, like buyer diversion programs. Um, 100% of the men arrested, um, in demand reduction operations that we’ve done for six years now. 100% of them have struggled with pornography in the past.

Garrett Jonsson: Hmm. Makes sense. So I have two questions and I’m trying to decide which one to ask first because they’re kind of related.

Megan Lundstrom: [laughter]

Garrett Jonsson: Uh, the first question, I guess is you talked about exiting the life of sex trafficking after five years

Megan Lundstrom: Mhm.

Garrett Jonsson: some of the challenges that a person might face. We talked about the cognitive dissonance and all of that conditioning that happens in, in that process in the life. Can you speak to some of the challenging aspects of leaving your trafficker and exiting the life?

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah, absolutely. I actually am working on a research study about this right now. Um, and I was just, I was ranting to Daniel and Angie, uh, this morning about some of the, the statistics and just some of the like assumptions or stereotypes around exiting.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, so in my situation personally, I really did get to a place where this cognitive dissonance got so loud that I couldn’t reconcile what was being done to me anymore.

Garrett Jonsson: Mmm.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, and so I am extremely fortunate and I wanna make it very clear that I am statistically an outlier in that I have a family of origin that is, was safe for me to reach out to and ask for help. That is not a common experience for most survivors. And I definitely attribute that foundation to my ability to exit and get to where I am today. Um, if you don’t have that, you’re starting at ground zero, you have absolutely no social support system and it’s incredibly difficult.

Um, so I was able to relocate back, um, home to the city I grew up in. Um, my family had lived there for most of my life, and so they had a lot of connections. I was able to access housing despite having a criminal record because they had those relationships in the community. Um, same thing with like employment. I was also extremely, uh, fortunate that I got a full ride scholarship for my undergraduate program. And so that included, uh, room and board. Um, so again, like all of these things came together that really made it possible for me, um, to successfully exit. But it was not an overnight, like, like clawed through the floorboards and ran off into the forest kind of a thing. Um, it, it’s a process. It’s not an event most of the time. And I think that’s another area, the anti-trafficking field has some work to do, um, is recognizing how complex it is to leave and that it’s not, most of the time you don’t just like pack your bag and walk out and start over.

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, so it took me about six months from exiting, from getting away from my trafficker, um, to really get to that place where I was able to leave the commercial sex trade entirely because I did not have another source of income. I didn’t have housing in housing stability. All of those things had to be in place. So once they were, I was able to exit long term and then I had all of these supports that were falling into place at that time. Okay. Um, so that’s pretty common. Uh, research shows that if you were first exploited under the age of 18, it takes an average of 12 attempts to exit the commercial sex trade. Um, if you’re first trafficked over the age of 18, it takes about six attempts to exit. Um, which, you know, counting back through all my attempts, so it was around five or six times over those five years that I tried to leave, um, until I was finally successful long term. Um, and…

Garrett Jonsson: That was my next question was, is it common to exit the life and then return to the life.

Megan Lundstrom: Extremely common? Yeah. So we use at The Avery Center, uh, the stages of change model. Um, so if you haven’t looked at it, this is to all the listeners, is your homework assignment, go Google stages of change model. Um, but it really helps explain how as humans we move through behavior change processes. Um, so even things like setting New Year’s resolutions and why most of us fail at them by like March.

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, it’s, it’s the same thing. We don’t have enough supports in place to maintain all of these changes at once. So, um, our goal at The Avery Center, all of our services are built with that like relapse, whether it’s substances or relationships or an environment that you go back to, that relapse is a part of the learning process. Um, and so it’s our goal that we see people go on an upwards spiral, um, and they are able to stay in like the maintenance phase or like the exited piece longer. Um, and they reach out while they’re in relapse and stay connected with us just checking in. Even if things have changed and priorities have changed, that’s okay- we just wanna stay connected. Um, and we’ve seen a lot of success with that model.

Garrett Jonsson: From what I know, based on speaking to people who have experienced the life a big challenge in regards to exiting the life is stigmatization.

Megan Lundstrom: Mhm.

Garrett Jonsson: And I’m just wondering if you can speak to that a little bit as you move back home and we’re able to have access to resources to help you get back on your feet and align your actions with your aspirations. Did stigmatization play a role in you ever wanting to return back to the life?

Megan Lundstrom: Absolutely. Stigmatization is one of my favorite things to talk about, and I have exciting news that’ll be like groundbreaking. Um, cuz it just happened yesterday and it’s, it’s a continuation of that for me.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, so when I first exited, so mind you, I had a, a criminal arrest record. I had 11 arrests. Um, one of those arrests that I have carried just the emotional weight of, So on a police report, there’s a line that you can write, the police officer can write if there’s a victim in the crime that happened.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay.

Megan Lundstrom: And so in my arrest record, um, one of the officers had written that I had victimized society.

Garrett Jonsson: Mm.

Megan Lundstrom: And so I carried that with me that I was making these choices, that I was doing these things to other people around me. Um, not necessarily that these things were being done to me, you know, I’ve done a ton of work and now I’m like, actually those things were done to me.

I was not victimizing society. Um, prostitution across the board is horrifically traumatic to whole family systems, which we could do a whole other podcast on. Um, but it’s, it’s horrible. Um, but I carry that with me. And because I was criminalized for my exploitation, I was never identified as a victim. So I didn’t qualify for services in my community. I was on probation. My probation officer was like,” What, what the f**k’s wrong with you? Like, get your shit together.” And I was never screened for like, oh, like maybe you actually were a victim of a crime. Let’s do a human trafficking screening of you. Um, through all of my arrests, I was never screened as a victim. Um, and so that makes it really hard to access services. So then on top of that, because I re returned to the city that I grew up in, pretty small town, um, there was a lot of rumors about like, “Oh, Megan’s a sugar baby.”, and “Megan’s involved in prostitution.”

And, um, but people didn’t know the truth. They knew these rumors. Right?

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: And so that made connecting at more of a personal level very difficult too. So I was struggling to access systems and resources, and then I was struggling to build like a social healthy social support network.

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, and, and those things are really common. Um, and, and they, they carry with you. So that’s the piece that I was like, this is what’s exciting to share. Um, yesterday I actually attended court in Las Vegas virtually. Um, and my petition to have my record, um, sealed was granted.

Garrett Jonsson: Wow.

Megan Lundstrom: And it will be, it’s like exactly 10 years. Um, it was like 10 years. This May was my last arrest in Las Vegas. So it has been a decade where I have carried that shame, um, and barrier to options. So one of the reasons I started my own organization was because I had a criminal record and I was applying for jobs and nobody would hire me because nobody wants to hire somebody who’s a prostitute.

Um, and has that on their record. There’s all kinds of stigmas around that. Um, so that’s one of the reasons that I started my own organization. Thank goodness, uh, things have worked out well.

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, but I also, like, I have kids who are in school and I wanna volunteer and I have to go in every year and do a background check and disclose that I have prostitution charges and I have to hand that to the front office manager who now knows so much about my past. She knows everything and nothing.

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: And so those are the stigmas. Like 10 years later I am still carrying those things.

Garrett Jonsson: Wow. Do you see a shift in our society in regards to becoming more trauma informed and being able to facilitate or use trauma informed care?

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah, I definitely think, like as a society, generally speaking, we are moving to a place where we are recognizing how many people have trauma, not just, you know, gender based violence trauma, but all kinds of trauma and how that shows up in our families, in our friendships, in our work environments, in our choices, in our behaviors, um, the correlation with addiction and substance use disorders and homelessness. Like all of those things, we’re starting to have those conversations. Um, and, and we’re really starting to move towards this place of like, something has to change both at the micro level, like we all need to do our own work, but really at the systemic level. Like there’s so many systems barriers, um, that, that keep people from being able to thrive because of what was done to them.

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah. Because it would’ve been nice if that officer was able to engage in trauma informed care and recognize that you were a victim and not place that and increase the level of stigmatization. Right?

Megan Lundstrom: Absolutely.

Garrett Jonsson: So being a researcher and a sociologist, I’m sure that a lot of your work is founded in curiosity.

Megan Lundstrom: [laughter] Yes.

Garrett Jonsson: You’re like, why is this happening? Why do we react, why do people react in this way or that way?

Megan Lundstrom: Mhm.

Garrett Jonsson: And so I’m wondering the question is, what drives you to stay dedicated to this work? Is it the curiosity?

Megan Lundstrom: Ooh, that’s such a good question. Um, so I started therapy the beginning of 2020 because the pandemic brought up so much unresolved trauma that I did not realize was there. Um, and so one of the first, uh, sessions I had with my new therapist, she was like, “Let’s figure out like why you do the work that you do. Because like, this is super intense stuff, especially considering [my] history with it.” Like I have a direct connection. So, you know, my work is not just work that’s my life at the same time. And it’s hard to navigate those boundaries. Um, and really walked out of that. Um, so she, she had kind of asked me, you know, the similar things and, and she made a comment like, “Well, you know, um, most research is me search.”, and that has just stuck with me the last couple years.

And so we’ve actually, um, built that into our research departments practices of, um, what survivor leadership and career path development looks like in the research space. So all of us as survivors, like if you sit down with any survivor and you say like, “If you could do a research project or if you could solve something…”, we all are pulling on our own experiences where we experienced harm or like service gaps, um, or just things like, “Why did my family member do this to me?”, that we really wanna understand and we wanna, we wanna understand what happened to ourselves, but we also have this like deep sense of justice, of like, “I don’t want this to happen to other people.”

Garrett Jonsson: Right.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, and so research has become very healing and, um, I, I advocate a lot for involving survivors, not just as like research subjects. Like we’re not just Guinea pigs, um, really in the development process. So we actually have a project that we’re working on right now, um, with a research fellowship. I think we have 10 survivors going through it, but it’s, they get to pick the research topic that they’re gonna do and design kind of a mini project. Um, and I think every single person’s project is based off of their own lived experience and something that they just wanna better understand. So…

Garrett Jonsson: It becomes a therapeutic tool for them.

Megan Lundstrom: It is so healing and it is, I think I will probably do research forever because I just have so many questions about people.

Garrett Jonsson: That’s cool.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, but for right now, like doing research in human trafficking and there’s been, you know, topics where I’m like, “I, I think I’m good.” Like I don’t interview victims about their trauma history. I get it. I’ve interviewed enough people, I’ve lived it. Um, I have gone through a phase most recently of interviewing sex buyers, um, and doing content analysis of like hobby review boards and that kind of stuff because I needed to understand like, “Why do these men do these things?”

Garrett Jonsson: Mm.

Megan Lundstrom: Um, and so I still don’t fully have that answer, but it’s, I’ve been able to kind of integrate. So back to that body keeps the score, um, I’m able to feel my feelings now and I’m able to process like the emotional side and the logical side of, of this experience and go, Okay. Like I can put this behind me.

Garrett Jonsson: Cool. Thanks for sharing. How do you get in contact with the survivors and victims that you work with? How does you and, and those you work with at The Avery Center, get in contact with those you work with?

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah, so we, we definitely have a lot of community partnerships. So we get referrals, we provide trainings to other organizations who are serving, um, high risk populations and are likely to interact with trafficking victims. Um, but I was, um, my second trafficker, uh, part of my exploitation, my grooming recruitment exploitation happened on social media. Um, and so I still have access to that community on social media and it’s, um, grown exponentially over the last 12, 12 ish years now. Um, so we have a network of about 5,000 individuals, primarily across the United States, but it, that network is international. Um, and most of them are currently in the commercial sex trade. Um, so we’re able to do digital outreach, we’re able to send care packages. We have a virtual drop in center, um, with some of that like cognitive dissonance information, um, and then get folks connected with services like peer support groups, housing, employment, um, and so on. Um, but social media is, I mean, it’s a, it’s a double edged sword basically at the end of the day.

Garrett Jonsson: Yeah, that makes sense. How can, how can we support you and The Avery Center?

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah, so, uh, so many ways. So, um, easiest hands down, easiest way to support us is to follow us on social media. Doesn’t cost anything. Um, we’re really big on educating, um, spheres of influence. And so a simple like, or share, um, can impact and kind of create this ripple effect. So, uh, we are on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. LinkedIn is having a moment. So if you’re a, a professional, um, you can follow us there too in this field. Um, but our handle is just @theaverycenterorg, um, on Facebook and Instagram. Um, right now. So our care package program is probably one of our biggest needs that we do not receive like government or foundation funding for. Um, we send out a hundred care packages every month to active victims and exited survivors across the United States. Um, and we need affirmation cards for those two handwritten affirmation cards.

So, um, there’s ways to engage with us, uh, affirmation cards, you know, if you have scrapbooking material at home, you can put together affirmation cards, um, and send them in. We need a hundred every month, so there’s literally no such thing as too many cards. Um, and then sponsoring a care package, it’s $5 a month for, um, postage and $10 a month for the items in it, or $15 a month to sponsor one individual, um, for a year. Um, so if you think that like, no, you, like, “I don’t have enough money to really make an impact.”, like literally $5 can make an impact in somebody’s life.

Garrett Jonsson: Okay. What is a care package consist of usually? What are some of the common items?

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah. Our care packages are so cool. I lowkey wanna sign up for one myself.

Garrett Jonsson: [laughter]

Megan Lundstrom: Um, they’re really focused on self care and, um, building like relationship or community. So, um, this last month, um, our actually The Avery Center team painted little like flower pots. Um, and then we sent soil and seeds. So it’s kind of like you can do that activity by yourself or with your family. Um, and the messaging. And we have some like, activities online that go with that. And it was all about growth and kind of like goal setting and a new chapter. Um, we have done, I think this fall, um, we’re doing one with like tea mugs and tea or hot cocoa and fuzzy socks and just kind of like a fall themed. Um, so just really fun stuff.

Garrett Jonsson: That’s really cool.

Megan Lundstrom: That just says, We see you. Yeah. And we care.

Garrett Jonsson: Is it something that comes monthly to these victims and survivors or is it just a one time thing?

Megan Lundstrom: Yeah, so they can sign up. Um, we usually open our signups in January for the new year and they sign up one time and can receive a package every single month for the full year.

Garrett Jonsson: Wow. Cool. Yeah. Well, I wanna leave you with the opportunity to have the last word during this conversation. If there’s anything on your heart or mind that we haven’t talked about or something that you wanna reemphasize now would be that time. Cause we’d love to hear those thoughts as well.

Megan Lundstrom: Sure. Um, I think kind of my, my closing thoughts particularly anytime when speaking with, um, potentially like a, uh, male audience is that sometimes some of this stuff can feel really attacking, um, of like, “Men are the whole problem in the whole world.” Um, and I can only imagine what that, that feels like to kind of be on the receiving end of some of that. Um, but I also wanna highlight that while, um, individuals who have maybe consumed porn or paid for sex, um, in some form or fashion, um, with regards to human trafficking are identified as kind of like the problem, um, they’re actually the solution. Um, and, and I think that that’s a really important piece. There is literally mathematically no way to end commercial sexual exploitation, um, without men changing their behaviors and educating their spheres of influence. So, um, like you and I don’t have the ability to go into every single locker room, and uh, bar night and poker game and, uh, bachelor’s party, um, and talk to people, but the listeners here, like we get to multiply that. So anybody that’s listening that is in those, those spheres, like you guys have the ability to speak truth and bring awareness and encourage your peers to make different choices. Um, and, and that is how we end this.

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Garrett Jonsson: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Consider Before Consuming.

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