“It’s the oldest profession,” a sportsman said in a video we watched at a recent training sponsored by the National Center for Sexual Exploitation. He was referring, of course, to prostitution, defending himself for having been recently caught buying sex. No, our trainers told us, “It’s the world’s oldest abuse story.”
How true. I sat there thinking about women in the Bible – even Sarah being given over by her own husband Abraham to be Pharaoh’s concubine, Rahab the prostitute, Tamar, the woman at the well – the sad stories of sexual brokenness even in Scripture.
This ancient abuse is fresh again today – always there – and closer than you think.
It’s important to remember these important points when striving to understand sex-trafficking:
- LOCAL: This problem is not just something that takes place far away in Europe and Asia; it is a local problem. The United States is a serious offender, and it’s a huge money-making industry. Some mistakenly believe that to qualify as “trafficking” there has to be transportation across state lines, but this isn’t true. Legally, any act of recruitment, harboring, transportation, provisioning, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting; by the means of force, fraud, or coercion; that results in serious harm for the purpose of exploitation, can qualify as sex-trafficking.
- NOT CONSENSUAL: Some defend prostitution, saying that it is a matter of consent – that these women are offering it and totally fine with it. In reality, most of these women don’t know if they have other options, are often facing serious physical, emotional, and mental trauma, and are being pimped out – these pimps being the real financial benefiters in the industry who draw women in with serious manipulation. Sometimes women can be beaten for not bringing in enough, or branded with their pimp’s name. Despite these horrors, they are rarely literally chained to the bed. Instead, the coercive methods of desperation for basic food, shelter, and money, combined with a twisted view of love compounded by childhood abuse and trauma bonding, keeps them in “the life.” They are often blinded to this, however, and it can take a while before they recognize themselves as victims of abuse.
- THESE ARE CHILDREN: I was shocked to learn that there are so many prostitutes who are not adults at all. Seventy to ninety percent of adult victims started as children! The average age to begin in the sex trafficking industry is about 13. Girls are often abused long before that – by uncles or stepfathers for example. The good news is that the law was very recently changed to proclaim that buying a prostitute who is a minor is automatically illegal because she is below the age of consent. This helps protect minor girls, who can be taken to a department of children and family services and not be arrested.
- THE PORNOGRAPHY LINK: Let’s call it like it is. Porn is evil and at the root of sex-trafficking. In our technological age, children are being exposed to porn at age five, and have moved on to harder and more violent porn by age eight – meaning that props and weapons and violent acts are becoming commonplace in order to achieve arousal. After a while, they want to act out what they see – so they find a prostitute on backpage.com, for example, which is sometimes filmed to make more porn. One particularly poignant line from the training was: “Porn is … prostitution as long as someone gets to take the pictures,” and “Porn – prostitution for mass consumption.”
Once we grasp the problem a bit more, we can take hope that there is a way forward towards reducing this exploitation:
- BETTER POLICY AND LAW ENFORCEMENT NEEDED: I was shocked to learn that sometimes cops promise not to arrest the girls in exchange for sex themselves. There is a better way. We were introduced to a Florida police force that advocates for better cop training to avoid corruption and ensure effective rehabilitation. Cops, for instance, often have to learn to patiently give women multiple chances to join a “Turn Your Life Around” (TYLA) program, be accompanied by trained civilian counselors, and stop using an accusatory aura. The program in Florida has begun a four-pronged approach, away from only the single-pronged, harsh stigmatization and criminalization of the girls themselves that occurred in days past. Now the four prongs include: the girls – but using less punitive efforts, the “Johns” or buyers – including sending letters home and confiscating vehicles used to sex-traffic, the businesses – including keeping an eye on hotels and whether they abate or aid in trafficking, and finally the pimps – trying to get at the men behind the scenes.
- COLLABORATIVE SOLUTIONS WORK: The training highlighted that TYLA is a new and successful partnership between the Sarasota police department and Selah Freedom, a NGO. The two joined forces to find common ground and work against sex-trafficking together. TYLA has brought many women out of the trade, and now they have succeeded in getting the courts on board with a specialized court room, so that these women are given special treatment oriented towards rehabilitation.
- SAFE HOUSES AND REHABILITATION EFFORTS: We learned that the girls need somewhere to go in order to get out. In the TYLA program, there are several houses where the women live as the readjust to real life. Without being safely housed in single-gender, supervised housing, the women won’t leave their traffickers – for fear of being punished and on the street. Even some “shelters” end up being recruiting grounds if not really a permanent home. One of the women training us – a survivor herself – even recounted that she keeps girls in her own home at times.
- FAMILY MATTERS: When you look closely at this issue, broken families are at the heart of it. The women often started into the sex industry after being abused by family members. Can you imagine your own family member selling you for sex? Fatherlessness is at the root of so much of this. Then there is the issue of the buyers – themselves often from fatherless or broken families, sometimes cheating on their wives, lonely and depressed and then addicted to pornography, becoming a player in more and more of the same vicious cycles. Fighting this at the root means valuing and supporting positive family life.
- PRAY A LOT: There are so many factors in the effort against sex trafficking outside our control. Will the woman be in the right position to leave? Will she be safe? Will she succeed at the detox center and safe house? Will the cops be able to crack down on that massage parlor? Will the court be merciful? Will a good law pass? There are things we can do – and then there are times when all we can do is pray and pray more.
It is hard not to simply weep. It’s easy to get overwhelmed or depressed learning the full extent of the brokenness of the world. There is deep pain, but there is also deep joy. To be healed – in that is joy that abounds even more than having never been in need of it.
And the women can heal. I fear we will never end poverty, prostitution, and pornography this side of heaven. But we can try; we can reduce it – and give people a way out of it. And that is a worthy cause. As Christian women, we celebrate that God is the great deliverer. Amen, Come Lord Jesus.
Chaney Mullins serves as Concerned Women for America’s Special Projects Writer.