I’m sitting here in the University of Toledo Student Union, taking in presentations at the 8th annual Conference on Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work. The theme for this year is “collaboration,” which is great, because that is why I am here. A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about human trafficking in our community, and in researching that blog I came across this conference. As I said there, “The Bible is a story of redemption, liberation, and restoration” on personal, communal, and cosmic levels. Although many of the statistics, images, and stories of human trafficking and prostitution can be heart-wrenching, I have been encouraged by passionate people from a variety of fields (professors, police, politicians, pastors, and lawyers to name a few) who are joining God’s Story of redemption, liberation, and restoration in this area whether knowingly or not. The question I’ve found myself asking is, “Where does the Church and Point Place UCC fit into this web of collaboration?” I have appreciated the way this conference has addressed the variety of dimensions that exist in the human trafficking epidemic. One presenter decried the common image of prostitution that we see: the lone woman standing under a street lamp. This image neglects the buyers, pimps, recruiters, media, pop culture icons, cultural assumptions, etc. that contribute to the systems of human trafficking and prostitution.
I did address some of these various dimensions haphazardly in my last blog, but since I really enjoy lists, I thought I would try to more clearly point out the many dimensions of the human trafficking and prostitution system. As you look at them, consider what ways the Church could get involved in any of these particular areas to bring redemption, liberation, and restoration.
1) The communities that produce sex slaves and prostitutes. Everyone’s story is different, but there is no statistical doubt that prostitutes and sex slaves are more likely to be recruited from poorer countries, communities, and families. The option of prostitution becomes more viable and even perceived as necessary in places where hope is weak. Indirectly, serving and identifying with these vulnerable communities impacts the ability of traffickers and recruiters to deceive and coerce.
2) The sex slaves and prostitutes themselves. Traffickers, recruiters, and pimps target “vulnerable” individuals who feel like there is no other source of hope, acceptance, or survival besides selling their bodies. There is more than “individual choice” involved. Instead of putting so much energy into criminalizing prostitution as most cultures have done historically, at this conference, prostitutes (adult or children) are usually referred to as “victims.” This is not to say there is no choice or responsibility, but that there are lots of other factors that leave certain people vulnerable to manipulation, coercion, and deception. This group may be the most visible, catchable, and punishable in the trafficking/prostitution system, but does that make them the most culpable? Most (around 85%) have a past involving sexual abuse and/or abandonment, and many foreign nationals are unequipped to function in a different culture. It is unjust to put the full weight of this evil system on one part of the system that may be least able to make a free choice. As Christians, we have a message that every human life is valuable because we are “created in the image of God” and continue to be loved, called, and purposed by God. How does the church seek to help the vulnerable become less vulnerable to traffickers and recruiters? How do we help them value their bodies, sexuality, relationships, and lives as God values them?
3) The customers/buyers. Fact is, prostitution would not remain a viable business for traffickers or prostitutes if there were no demand. That’s how businesses work. What creates this demand and do we have something better to offer sex purchasers (predominantly men)? Men tend to feel guilt and shame when they engage in these activities. Rightly so, I would say. But the Gospel suggests that God’s grace and love are our only and ultimate sources of healing. A number of the presentations have focused on “decreasing demand” in a variety of ways. Again, the Church has something to say about what it means to be men, to be sexual beings, and to be relational beings. We need to be unafraid to address these issues and the real struggles that men and women face in regards to sexuality that may lead to becoming purchasers of sex.
4) Cultural norms and messages. Two of the most insightful presentations I have attended dealt with pornography and cultural messages on sex. Why in the world would we be surprised that prostitution is rampant in a culture as “sexualized” as our own? Pornography has become almost a rite of passage for boys, an accepted practice. We obviously do not appreciate spiritual or physiological forces if we expect people to abruptly draw the line at porn. As one presenter said, “Porn is advertising for prostitution.” Sex outside of God’s design follows the path of other addictions: more and newer experiences are required to overcome growing tolerances and desires.
Some other cultural messages that came up that subtly support the trafficking industry might surprise you. American individualism and meritocracy likes to think that everyone has complete control over every decision that is made. This causes us to stigmatize prostitutes (the most visible poor-decision-makers) and ignore the many other factors behind the scenes. This makes it all the more difficult for prostituted women to get out of the lifestyle. The other side of individualism is the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” approach to healing. Over and over, studies show the importance of social support, community, and counseling in addition to personal motivation. Community has healing power that (most) individuals simply do not. We also tend to assume that parents are always loving and caring people. When we thoughtlessly assume and tell a child that their parents love them without knowing what really goes on in that household, children learn to be unquestioning of their parents and accept blame when something does not feel right. One presenter was prostituted out by her father from infancy until age ten. If we assume that all parents love their children, we may be reinforcing some of the twisted messages being sent these children at home. The same holds true with other forms of child abuse. All parents do not love their kids or love them well. We must face this reality if we are really going to recognize vulnerable youth.
I could go on more about these cultural myths, like those about what it means to be a man or a woman that influence our twisted views of sex, love, our bodies, and ourselves. But I won’t…for now.
5) Traffickers, recruiters, pimps, etc. At the risk of promoting sex trafficking, I will quote one of this morning’s presenters: “If you are willing to do anything to get rich, getting involved in the sex industry makes sense.” It is profitable! As Paul once wrote, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” It is important to address the moral issues here, but it is certainly worth some effort to make trafficking, pimping, etc. a less viable business track.
6) Legislation and politics. As Dr. Celia Williamson points out, trafficking tends to flow towards the location with the weakest laws and enforcement. Toledo is blessed to have an FBI task force now. But we must be advocating for stricter, more comprehensive legislation that seeks healing, not just enforcement of laws. There was a presentation by a group from Portland about how they have joined forces between the office of the District Attorney, the police department, and a therapy/service provider for prostitutes seeking to transition out of that lifestyle. Great stuff. But do you know how it came about? When the communities that were directly affected by prostitution got together and demanded something be done. No politician is pro-sex-slavery. They need to know their constituents care about these issues. We need to care about these issues for the sake of redemption, restoration, and liberation, and not just to get “those people” off our streets.
7) Consumer trends. Consumerism is a huge factor in trafficking. The whole building block of the industry is the commodification of sex and the body. This is a far deeper systemic issue that we all participate in. In what ways is our adoption of consumerist perspectives and identities contributing to the commodification of sex? These are questions that must be asked, and are questions that the Christian Story is more than prepared to speak to, if not answer. God has a lot to say about our identities and personhood being rooted in very different categories than consumer/commodity. One question that was raised at the conference, though, is whether we can own our place in the consumer system, and use it to fight against the business of the sex industry. Failure to do so is another way that we avoid the hard work of opposing unjust systems and joining God’s work in liberation. Doing so is transformative stewardship of what God has entrusted to us.
It’s amazing that a conference could almost move you to tears of despair and fill you with hope. The despair comes from the havoc sin, violence, lies, greed, and despair are wreaking on so many lives. The hope is in hearing about how awareness, collaboration, and passion are growing to join God’s healing work. And it is God’s healing work. Though this conference has been largely from a secular standpoint, I’ve almost laughed a few times when presenters have curiously wondered at the positive effects of religion they have seen on women who have exited prostitution, or heard arguments that echoed key components of biblical justice and sexuality.
Normally, I don’t advertise the fact that I’m a pastor for a variety of reasons. Yesterday, however, I was convicted that I need to make my vocation known in the interactions I have with people here. Because people need to hear that the Church cares about this issue and is mobilized and mobilizing to fight this battle for healing. The Church has the Story, the calling, and many of the resources to make a difference in this brand of our world’s darkness. There are plenty of “options” of where we can get involved and how. We don’t have to do it all, but we are responsible to do what God has given us the gifts, opportunities, and callings to do. So let’s seek to discern these things in prayer, in study, in conversation, and in collaboration with what God is already doing. And let’s engage in prayer that rebels against the status quo of evil in the form of prostitution, lust and trafficking, that lifts the burden off of the shoulders of so many who are doing hard work in these areas but do not pray themselves, and that asks God to nurture our hearts to life-transforming, world-blessing passion, wisdom, and love.