Sarah was 21 when she escaped a cult. Then she was 'trapped' again through coercive control.

Content warning: This story mentions abuse and assault, and may be distressing to some readers.

Sarah was 21 when she left the cult she was raised in.

"I grew up in an environment that was very heavily influenced by an extreme religious group," she told The Sunday Project.

But even after leaving, some of the teachings ingrained within her followed her throughout her adult life.

"One of my friends summed it up to me that we were never allowed to say no to a man and I think unfortunately that had huge ramifications for me later in my life."

Watch: Sarah speaks to The Sunday Project about modern slavery. Post continues below. 

After leaving the cult, Sarah found herself in a string of "problematic" relationships. 

"I had to do whatever the man told me to do, I didn’t know anything about consent, I didn’t know that I could say no to things."

She began working as nurse by day and a dancer by night as she worked to pay off approximately $20,000 of debt she had accumulated. 

At the time, Sarah felt the thousands of dollars in debt would "bury" her.

Then a friend at the strip club she was working at, told her about an opportunity to work for a man.


"She was like 'he'll set you up, he'll keep you safe'," she recalled.

Looking back, Sarah said there were red flags from the start, but she was too "desperate and blinded" to see them.

"[Things] changed quite gradually, the guilt trips started, there were belligerent phone calls telling me...'you don’t care about me, you girls are all selfish', all of these kind of psychological things."

"It became hard to say no to any kind of work because you knew you’d pay for it for hours or days even."

Sarah felt 'trapped' and 'unsafe'. 

She was coerced into forms of sex work that she wasn't comfortable with and had to constantly tell her employer where she was. There was also abuse and assaults. 

"I just felt like I was owned by someone I didn't have any choice about my own life anymore... I couldn't voice needs [or] feelings. Or if I did, there would be consequences."

Leaving also came at a cost. 

"He made us feel like we owed him for this giving us work. He said we had to buy that out because of all the work he’d invested and the loss it would be to him if we left."

When she asked how much it would cost to buy her freedom, he told her $25,000. Another woman was told it would cost $10,000. 

Sarah said it took her a while to eventually recognise the coercive control she was being subjected to. 

"It took me months to kind of understand the part that manipulation and coercive control had played in this and the guilt that he made me feel for even wanting to leave, and adding things like drugs and alcohol, debts to pay off and physical violence make all those things all that more difficult to actually leave."


She eventually managed to speak to a lawyer about her situation, who brought up terms like "debt bondage" and "trafficking", something Sarah thought only "happened to people that were kidnapped".

"I didn't know that it could happen in different ways," she said. 

When asked if she accepts that she was "enslaved", Sarah said she's more comfortable with words like "exploitation" but agreed "we do need those words to have the gravity that they do because the impact of this situation has been catastrophic in my life". 

Modern slavery, which includes forced marriage, forced labour, and sex trafficking, continues to occur around the country. 

"Here in Australia we think there are as many as 41,000 people in modern slavery," NSW Anti-Slavery Commissioner James Cockayne told The Sunday Project.

"It’s clearly very hard for people in these situations to come forward and get the help they need. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology only 20 per cent of people are presenting."

Sarah is now helping others as part of a survivors council, which advisors the anti-slavery commissioner. 

"I had to watch a lot of the people around me suffering and [see] bad things happening to them... So reclaiming my voice now is not just for me, it's also for them."

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Feature Image: Channel 10/ The Sunday Project.