I’d be remiss if I didn’t start out with a confession; like many, I had no clue that there was such a thing as sex trafficking. Sure I’ve heard biblical stories of men working for the right to marry their wives, I’ve read history books of our nation’s poor choices in enslaving African Americans, and I’ve even heard stories of children and women being held captive or for ransom. The truth is that sex slavery and sex trafficking is alive and well; more rampant than it’s ever been at any time in history, and as a business, cheaper to purchase a life than it’s ever been. This crude and saddening truth isn’t only an issue abroad, it’s also an issue occurring in our nation’s own backyard, and is happening in cities all over the U.S.
If you’re reading this and, like me, you didn’t know about it before, prepare yourself. Human trafficking is the trade in humans, but most commonly, the trade of humans into a sex industry. These victims are held against their will and sold or bought and forced into sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking uses physical coercion, deception, submission, control, and abuse of power to keep a victim in sexual bondage. In the words of racinedominicans.org, “Sex trafficking victims are generally found in dire circumstances and easily targeted by traffickers. Individuals, circumstances, and situations vulnerable to traffickers include homeless individuals, runaway teens, displaced homemakers, refugees, job seekers, tourists, kidnap victims, and drug addicts. While it may seem like trafficked people are the most vulnerable and powerless minorities in a region, victims are consistently exploited from any ethnic and social background. Traffickers, also known as pimps or madams, exploit vulnerabilities and lack of opportunities, while offering promises of marriage, employment, education, and/or an overall better life. However, in the end, traffickers force the victims to become prostitutes or work in the sex industry. Various work in the sex industry includes prostitution, dancing in strip clubs, performing in pornographic films and pornography, and other forms of involuntary servitude.”
It’s not very often Hollywood teaches you something in terms of bringing social awareness to a modern day problem. However, that’s exactly what happened one winter night in 2009 when I headed to the movies to see “Taken.” I thought I was headed to see just another action movie with cool fighting scenes. But I left the theater that night utterly shaken and rocked to my core. The movie is about a retired CIA agent who must travel to Europe and rescue his estranged daughter who has been kidnapped and placed into sex slavery. After seeing this movie, I became aware of a modern day truth and problem that I was so moved by, my heart could not ignore this issue. From that day forward, I was compelled to do something to stop this tragedy.
The human sex trafficking industry is a growing global epidemic that requires immediate attention and action.
Upon realizing the problem, I began researching more about it. As the movie “Taken” took place in another country, the door of revelation was only cracked open. It seemed possible that even though this issue of trafficking was extremely barbaric and emotionally saddening, it was still a problem worlds away. What I soon learned however was that it wasn’t an issue worlds away; it’s an American issue that has been going on right under our nation’s nose. The human sex trafficking industry is a growing global epidemic that requires immediate attention and action. The more I learned, the more I saw that this is one of the biggest social issues facing our world today.
Sex trafficking enslaves more than 30 million women, children, and men every year. Runaway children and youth are at an especially high risk. “Of the one million runaway children in the United States, about a third have some exposure to prostitution.” As of 2005, fifteen cities have been identified as American centers of the sex trade: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Oklahoma City, San Diego, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tampa and Washington DC. Atlanta is one of the major sites for the sex trade industry not only in the United States, but also in the world. “Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the world’s busiest passenger airport, which provides easy access for men seeking sexual services.” Men fly in from all over the world in order to purchase their prostitutes, specifically international men because they have a strong sexual desire for young American girls, especially virgins. “In the city of Atlanta, sex trafficking has become an epidemic.” According to the U.S. department of domestic violence and human sex trafficking, the United States is the number one destination for child sex trafficking in the world.
Young girls who feel they are not attractive enough to manipulate their sexuality feel powerless, so when a man tells them otherwise, they are deceived into feeling powerful and loved when in reality they are truly and tragically, enslaved.
A child is reported missing every forty seconds in the U.S. Statistics show that most runaways are approached by a pimp within twenty-four hours of leaving their homes. In 2003, the Department of Justice reported the largest concentrations of trafficking survivors who received federal assistance resided in California, Texas, New York, and Oklahoma. In 2004 the FBI’s program “Stormy Nights” rescued thirteen Oklahoma children ages twelve and up from a prostitution ring operating at Oklahoma City truck stops. In September 2006, an Oklahoma City federal court handed down a judgment against men running a human trafficking scheme where workers from India were lured to Oklahoma for forced labor at a manufacturing facility in Tulsa. In February 2009, the FBI Task Force, working with Innocence Loss, rescued several girls from forced prostitution through a Craig’s List sting operation. Oklahoma cities are on major human trafficking routes throughout the Midwest.
Pimps and traffickers prey on young girls who are more likely to have a low self-esteem and/or body image issues, a bad relationship with their family, or who are lonely and don’t seem to have a close community of loved ones. These factors make the girls more vulnerable to sex predators. Sex trafficking violates women’s fundamental human rights. It is not a glamorous industry and most women do not want to be sex workers. According to the United Labor Organization up to 96% of women in prostitution want to escape but feel they cannot. American sex slaves are coerced into sex slavery due to their vulnerability. Many times, prostitution and sex slavery are synonymous, especially in the U.S. (The Cold Facts of Modern Slavery, 2012). Secondly, the sex slavery industry is massive.
Trafficking alone brings in over 32 billion dollars per year according to the United Nations and “over 27 million people are enslaved around the world. This is more than double the number of Africans enslaved during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade”. Thirdly, children make up a great number of those who are trafficked. A child is trafficked every 30 seconds according to UNICEF and the average age of entry into commercial sex slavery in the United States is just 12 years old according to the Department of Justice. Lastly, sex trafficking has been found in a variety of venues including online escort services, brothels disguised as massage parlors, strip clubs, street prostitution, and hostess clubs, many of which are in the United States.
Escape from sex slavery is nearly impossible. Even in the United States captors are usually intimidating, powerful, and capable of brainwashing their captives into a state of “willed” submission, often by frequent beatings and rapes. Somewhere, right now, there’s a young girl, teenager, or woman terrified about the next time she’ll be forced to have sex with a stranger, get beaten up by her pimp, or gang raped into submission. Some of these girls and women are forced to have as many as 20 sexual partners a day. Their bodies are sore, their spirits are crushed, their future is bleak (as most sex workers do not live past 30), and we remain blissfully unaware.
One of the most horrifying facts is that four out of five victims of sex slavery in the US are American citizens. How do American girls, most of them entering sex slavery at around 12 years old, become victims of sex trafficking in their own country? “Trade in Hope” is a documentary that was filmed to expose the prevalence of sex slavery in Austin, Texas. In the documentary they showed the interview of a former pimp with an FBI agent. The agent asked him, “How do you get your girls? How do you get American girls to go into this kind of life?” The trafficker’s response was chilling; he said, “I just go to the malls and tell the girls I’m interested in recruiting them. ‘You have pretty eyes;’ if they look at me, smile, and say ‘thank you,’ I know I better move on. But if they look down with doubt and say, ‘No, I don’t,’ then I know I have them.” At this point the trafficker, often an attractive younger man, treats the future sex slave like a treasured girlfriend, gains her trust, and then thrusts her into the world of sex slavery, where there are little to no means of escape. They understand that girls in America are subjected to images of what a women should be that make them insecure and vulnerable to manipulation at the hand of traffickers. Young girls who feel they are not attractive enough to manipulate their sexuality feel powerless, so when a man tells them otherwise, they are deceived into feeling powerful and loved when in reality they are truly and tragically enslaved.
“Modern slavery.” It sounds like a paradox. Hasn’t humanity progressed? Didn’t social reformers like Lincoln and Wilberforce legislate against such cruelty over a hundred years ago? So we had thought. But, with over 27 million enslaved people in the world, human trafficking is once again the battlefront of the century. (Benjamin Nolot, Freedom, blog posted 10 2012, February)
So what is causing all of this? What role is our government playing? And most importantly, where is God in all of this? To look for these answers, we need to start with our culture. The hesitation to attribute the atrocities of sex slavery with presentations of women that have become so commonplace in our culture is understandable, but an exploration of these connections may reveal how our culture has created a demand for sex slavery. I believe we live in a modern-day culture that tends to blatantly objectify women. I believe this is one of the vital pieces leading to the prevalence of the sex slave industry in America. Our culture objectifies women by presenting images that make them appear as useable and disposable objects through sexual references (and often outright blatant) infused in our media. With many pieces contributing to the problem, it is truly multi-faceted. You can also point to a growing fatherless culture, raised without identity and a set of values and morals. You can point to a corporate America that continues to move away from the family values that were once at its foundation, spurring more workaholism. Is it even possible our “fallen world” plays a role too? A fallen world where sheer will power, lack of self-control, and instant gratification are valued above patience, honor, respect, and love? Listen to the radio and you’ll find the songs being put out today continue to deliver a message of “dying young,” “living the night away,” and “getting lucky” as its main viewpoints. This, at the very least, has to be playing into the thought process of our youth and culture in some way.
One of our favorite ways to view the statements that media sends us is through our televisions. Since the beginning of the sexual revolution, female sex symbols in television have risen and fallen as the goddesses of perfection; from Marilyn Monroe to Angelina Jolie these “symbols” remain objectified as the fantasies of men everywhere. With the recent explosion of television channels and accessibility we’ve seen an accelerated flow of information– including sexual information. Along with sex becoming more predominantly viewable, even on prime time television, internet has played an extremely large role in the process of objectifying women by providing the “false intimacy” being looked for by many men as well as women. The amount of pornography that enters U.S. households via the Internet is staggering. 89% of pornographic web pages are U.S. based. Currently, the pornography industry is larger than the revenues of top American companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, bringing in an estimated 97 billion dollars in 2006 alone. “Every second $3,075 is being spent on pornography. Every second 28,258 Internet users are viewing pornography.” Pornography is a big business and the U.S. is at the forefront. The United States currently ranks as the largest producer of Internet pornography in the world. From 2005 to 2008 the visitors to adult websites increased from 37.5 million to 75 million.
“The torrent of injustice that cascades through the global sex industry threatens the very substance of our humanity. Veiled by seduction and masquerading as freedom, the injustice of sexual exploitation has become deeply entrenched within our world. Little by little, our sanctity and solidarity are breached. Little by little, our decency and dignity are shredded like a cheap cloth. This pervasive sexual brokenness exposes the depth of humanity’s wound like perhaps no other issue.” (Benjamin Nolot, Freedom, blog posted 10 2012, February)
According to Robert Boyer’s article in the Journal of Political Science, “Attitudes Toward Sex in American High Culture,” we’ve moved out of the time when culture understood sex as mysterious and “magical” into a time where it is commonplace and crude. In 1943, only 12% of women approved of pre-marital sex, and by 1999, 73% did. As time has progressed, America’s view on sex has become more and more open and liberal (in the sense that sex has become more accessible). According to Brian McNair in his book Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratization of Desire, “Today, across the range of artistic, promotional and journalistic media we are likely to view, discuss, and think about sex with greater frequency and attention to detail than at any previous stage in history.” As we’re all aware, this era isn’t the only example of a sexual revolution, or that sex obsession is a particularly new phenomenon. Clearly, elements of our history include types of sexual revolutions demonstrated, for example, by the American frontier. However, America is currently experiencing a rapidly increasing phase of sex obsession that is more visible and accessible than ever. While the effects of the media on society and individuals cannot be isolated or accurately measured, it is important to still regard the media as a reflection of what consumers want to see. As long as there are ads that sensualize women, as long as there are television shows that devalue women, as long as there is pornography that manipulates and disrespects women, there will be ideologies that objectify women. As long as there are ideologies that objectify women, there will be sex slavery.
“The enforcement by media and the advertising industry of beauty standards as a measure of women’s worth, the marketing of all manner of consumer goods by means of women’s sexual appeal, and the cultural disciplining of women to conform to and accept a wide range of sexual abuses and violations, both in images and actuality, have made the world unsafe for women. These examples of consumerism have become normative in the global economy; they contribute to the legitimization of the buying and selling of women for sex. To reduce the voracious global appetite for exploitative sex, we need to decommodify women altogether.” (Bonna Haberman, Feminist Liberation Theologian)
So what role is our government playing in this fight against sex slavery? One non-profit organization in particular is fighting to make our government aware of this issue and pushing them to make a change. Polaris Project is a leading organization in the global fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Named after the North Star “Polaris” that guided slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, Polaris Project is transforming the way that individuals and communities respond to human trafficking, in the U.S. and globally. After much lobbying and pushing from Polaris Project and many other non-profits in the fight to abolish sex trafficking, the government pushed to outlaw sex trafficking and the charges being brought against the sex victims as if they were somehow the criminals themselves. They’ve helped pass 18 state-level bills aimed to strengthen the legal framework of trafficking to ensure sex slave victims are helped and perpetrators are punished. These are known as “Safe Harbor laws.” Other organizations are helping to lead the cause as well such as Not For Sale, Loose Change to Loosen Chains, Teen Rescue and F.A.C.E.S.S. (Freeing American Children from Exploitation and Sexual Slavery.) The government is awakening to the international epidemic and taking steps legally to see it dealt with nationally. But there is still much more work to be done.
It is our job to seek justice in the world by emphasizing God’s presence and action in the world, recognizing the call of all Christians (people of liberation) to participate in God’s mission.
So how does God fit into this equation? Who is God to these women who have been so brutally abused and used? And are these young women and children not children of God created with a truth that they have self worth? These are some of the questions that we need to ask as Christians called to be abolitionists. To be a liberator and abolitionist, we must believe that we were created with great worth and value and we must also believe that these women and children were also created with the same great worth and value. As abolitionists we must wrestle with several questions. Where is the place of God in the experiences of these women and children? I have often thought of God as existing and being present in one’s significant life experiences. I believe that through those experiences one will develop and construct an understanding of reality as well as the reality of God. But when you are a child that is locked up, raped, and rejected, what does this do to your understanding of the reality of God? What then is real? Is their reality that God is an abuser? Or is their reality “a fantasy world where they can escape in order to feel trust and love?” Is “real” something that the young women and children in the sex trafficking industry can become again? Maybe we should shift our minds from thinking of God as not just reality but also potentiality. Reality is normally defined as what is. But can it be that reality could be defined as what can be? We as liberators are called to restore the hope and faith in the potential for healing and reality. God gives free will, even if it may not reflect his heart, his purity, or his will. But on the other hand, he also calls those in tune with his heart to exhibit, in our own free will, what his intentions are, and that includes freedom and safety for all. It is our job to show those victims who have been brutally forced into sex slavery that it was not God’s heart or plan for them to be captured and abused. It is our job to march on the frontlines of justice until the change is made. It is our job to seek justice in the world by emphasizing God’s presence and action in the world, recognizing the call of all Christians (people of liberation) to participate in God’s mission. By doing so, we carry the potential to restore the reality of God’s love, grace, beauty, hope, and faith to a hurting world.
If you feel called to help change this global issue, start on your state level. Write your state representatives and support the non-profit companies trying to change the sex slave industry. It’s by these means we can start saving as many lives as possible. You can bring about change; you can help bring a life out of slavery and into safety, freedom, and love.