*See original article on CBE International's blog HERE.*
For the last five years, it seems that sex trafficking has become the social justice issue—the cause that everyone can get behind. Diverse groups of people who agree on nothing else are united in their conviction that sexual slavery is evil. Still, many groups diverge over which method best eradicates it.
Many focus on cutting off the “supply” (i.e. how to help women and children be less vulnerable), but few focus on the “demand” (i.e. male buyers, prevention, rape culture, normalization of sexual violence). This is where things get a little too personal and a little too political for most.
Between one in five to one in six men in the US self-report purchasing a human being for sex. The numbers are most likely even higher because many more will not admit to this. This statistic does not include men who spend their bachelor parties at a strip club or their Sunday evenings with their laptops open, masturbating to men’s sexual abuse of women in porn.
In other words, we’re looking at a church that claims to be outraged by sex trafficking while contributing significantly to the demand that sustains it.
Sex trafficking is a tale as old as time. It is even depicted in the Bible, under a different name. Female victims of male exploitation were blamed and dismissed as sinful harlots, while the men that bought and sold them as chattel were never questioned or held accountable.
Prostitution/trafficking was born from male entitlement, itself a product of the world’s oldest oppression: patriarchy (Gen. 3:16).
Now that the world is more aware of the problem of sex trafficking, the church has become very vocal about its desire to “rescue” victims.
Though well-intentioned, rescue does very little to help victims in the long run. If every single victim of trafficking were “rescued” today, trafficking would persist because of the demand for millions more bodies tomorrow.
Not only does the demand remain, but so do the reasons women are trafficked in the first place. Rescuing victims, on its own, neither eliminates the demand nor does it challenge an exploitative, male-centric culture. The conditions (both individually and structurally) that fuel sex trafficking have not changed.
While rescue makes the rescuer feel good and powerful, it leaves the victim still vulnerable. After she (or he) is rescued, then what? She can’t go back to the home where she was originally abused. She has no place to live. She doesn’t have a job. And if she has a criminal background, finding either is extremely difficult. She may not have an education or marketable skills.
She still lives in a world where her value is determined by men. She still lives in a world where men feel entitled to use and abuse her for selfish gratification. And they do. I believe this is primarily why, even after being rescued, some victims go right back to the people and systems that exploited them.
This happens all the time, although it’s a side anti-trafficking organizations rarely talk about. It’s not exactly the fairytale ending many prefer—easy and emotionally-satisfying. A rescue narrative is often more appealing because it takes significantly less investment than the difficult struggle of liberation from the oppressive systems that create and sustain the slave trade.
Rescue is immediate. Radical cultural change takes time and commitment.
Rescue on its own is often a paternalistic Band-Aid—the more powerful person takes control and becomes the hero in the story. The victims are reduced to pitied, disempowered sleeping beauties that need a prince (often male and white) to save them. Disney has mastered the art of the “damsel in distress,” but patriarchs/complementarians often thrive on similar “savior” narratives.
In a “savior” narrative, rescuing men who raid brothels, bust down doors, beat the “bad guys,” or slay the dragon are central. Rescuing a trafficking victim (or a princess locked in a tower) is less about the victim and more about men showcasing their manhood and warrior prowess. Conversely, women are portrayed as weak, helpless, and in desperate need of men to save and protect them.
Consider also the gender roles assumed in Wild at Heart, one of the most well-read books on “Christian masculinity.” The “savior narrative” runs much deeper than the church’s approach to sex trafficking. It’s about maintaining the classic gender doctrine of male authority and female submission. It’s no wonder some complementarian churches refer to women and girls as “God’s little princesses.”
The best part of the bargain for patriarchs and rescuers is that they can do their “good deed” and leave without requiring any structural change or critical analysis of how that woman got there and how men (sometimes the same men rescuing them) contributed to her oppression. Rescuing keeps the heat off all men and distracts people from asking who is doing the victimizing and why.
In patriarchy, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys.” All guys need to be held accountable for their words, their actions, and especially their inaction. Even men who renounce sexism can unknowingly perpetuate it by upholding patriarchy. A few examples: patriarchy is upheld when a pastor’s gendered joke about women’s ministry goes unchallenged. Or when men don’t use the platforms given them to empower less-heard women speakers. Or when abusive leaders are welcomed back into church leadership without protest. In other words, if a man claims to renounce sexism, I believe he should also challenge the everyday injustices women experience in the church. He should act on his words.
Further, women don’t want to live in a world where some men “rescue” or “protect” us from other men’s violence. That’s not good enough. We want the violence to stop. Plain and simple.
And if we’re serious about stopping men’s violence against women, we need to stop pulling up weeds (only focusing on rescue efforts) and attack the root of that violence (patriarchy).
Victim/survivors, and all women, deserve more than short-lived, feel-good acts of chivalry or performative rescue missions. We need men to radically step out of their comfort zone and use their existing relationships and platforms to promote resistance and build long-term solutions.
I need more than grand acts of glory. I need to see men uphold the dignity of women in smaller moments that matter:
Meaningful male resistance must be centered in personal responsibility and social accountability. I want to see men taking deliberate action against patriarchy—not for glory, praise, or “social justice cookies,” but because patriarchy is evil; justice is right; and women deserve better.
 “Percentage of Men (by Country) Who Paid for Sex at Least Once: The Johns Chart”, ProCon.org, January 6, 2011. Accessed September 15, 2017. https://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=004119
The following is a letter I read to the participants in our court-ordered accountability class for male offenders who have been convicted of soliciting a person for commercial sexual exploitation. This letter is read at the beginning of the eight-hour session, followed by letters throughout the day that have been written by survivors, to the "johns," on the impact of the men's choice to sexually exploit women.
I am very glad you are here. I’m not just saying that, I truly mean it. This class today has the potential to change your life. We wouldn’t spend this much time with you if we didn’t believe in you and your capacity for change.
I can assume most of you are coming into this class with some shame because your actions have been exposed.
Hopefully, through this class, your guilt will transition from a place of feeling bad only because you got caught, to a place that drives you to be better, because you now have the full knowledge of what you have done to another human being and will have no desire to inflict such deep hurt again.
Shame comes from internal and external sources. When shame speaks, it tells you that you are worthless, incapable of loving and being loved, a bad person, and will never be able to change. I will tell you now that none of those messages are true about you.
Guilt is an important emotion. When you feel guilt, it means you have violated your values and morals. You know at your core that it was wrong to use a woman for your consumption and disposal, and that women deserve better than that- to be treated with dignity, respect, and humanity.
Guilt is what motivates us to change and make right what was wrong. Guilt can drive us to be better.
By now, you have probably discovered that your choices do not only impact you. They impact the women you used, your partner, your children, your friends, your employers, co-workers, the entire community, and people who you don’t know and will never meet.
Our culture feeds you the lie that pornography, prostitution, and the sex industry are harmless and people choose to do this. We’re going to share the unsanitized truth with you today.
The differences between rape and exploiting someone in the sex trade are insignificant. Buying a human being’s body in this way is both sexual violence and slavery. However, it is more socially acceptable because as a man, you have been conditioned to believe that a certain class of women should be available to serve you whenever you want, however you want. This is what we call “entitlement.”
I guarantee you will have some deeply-held beliefs and attitudes challenged today. The content today is likely to be uncomfortable for you, and that’s okay. This is how we grow. If you feel uncomfortable simply listening to women's experiences, imagine living them. Tap into the discomfort you feel and use it as a first step in making a positive change.
I know what discomfort feels like. I work with the women you have abused and purchased. I listen to the degrading things you say and do to them day after day. As advocates and counselors, we carry these stories with us.
You don’t get to see what we see. You only see the facade that you pay to be displayed for you. You pay for her to smile and act as if she enjoys whatever vile fantasy your project onto her body.
You may have already discovered that some women are more convincing actresses than others. She doesn’t like this. And deep down you know that too, because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t see the need to pay her in the first place. You pay to control--to remove her boundaries and her ability to say no. Your payment is coercion and you know it. This may make you may feel better, but throwing money at someone, before or after you abuse them, does not magically transform the experience for them.
Never confuse or call what you did to her, "sex." That was not mutual sex, it was masturbation. Her body is simply the method you used. And it's not "harmless." It's not "a good time." And it sure as hell is not "okay."
You don’t see the pain, the tears, the bruises, the emotional scars, the fear, the rage, the destruction, the feeling of hopelessness, or the lifelong trauma inflicted by your hands. You also don’t see how brilliant, thoughtful, passionate, intelligent, opinionated, empathetic, strong, skilled, humorous, kind, hardworking, and resilient these women are. They are amazing people. But none of that mattered to you. The only thing that mattered to you was getting off. In that moment, you didn't care about anyone but yourself.
Many of the survivors we work with deal with Post-Traumatic Stress all their lives. They have nightmares, they can’t sleep, they are terrified, they feel they have lost control, they feel unsafe, they are constantly hyper-vigilant and plagued with anxiety, they have trouble forming healthy relationships, they develop mental health issues, they try to numb and cope through substances, and they live with endless shame because of what you have done.
That shame should not be theirs. Your actions created the lifelong burden that survivors are forced to carry. Let me remind you that this was all preventable, had you made a non-exploitative choice.
You may realize the women that are prostituted may refer to you “Johns.” Do you know why they call you “John?” John is probably the most generic, common name out there. This is symbolic of how they see you--generic, common, and like every other man they’ve ever met.
Survivors see a world where men, all men, are only capable of merciless sadism- because that has been their experience time and time again. Can you blame her for thinking that? Every time you abuse her, you reinforce this message and continue to shape her worldview.
Throughout the day, you will be hearing directly from the women we have served who have been trafficked in this area. These women have written very raw, brave, and personal letters to you. Not to some other man in this room who you feel did something worse. It is addressed to you. We will read these letters throughout the day. Though we can’t convey their voice or emotion behind what they wrote, you will find that most of these letters are a plea- begging you to stop taking pleasure from their pain.
But this is really a plea on behalf of all women. This is personal to every one of us. Why? Because all women live in this world- a world that says we are not human and we are sellable commodities and sex objects. A world that says you can get away with rape with impunity. That for just the right price, or just enough coercion acceptable under the law- meaning acceptable to other men- you feel entitled to use us.
It hurts all women… simply to know that your degradation and humiliation of us, your sexual cruelty brutalized on our bodies, are central to your arousal.
It hurts for me to simply be up here knowing that you believe this about women. If men can justify hurting one woman, or one group of women who you deem unworthy of your respect, then you can justify hurting any woman.
Your personal closeness, intimacy, care, proximity, or relationships to particular women does not protect them. So, you may not be able to justify hurting women you claim you care about, but guess who can? All the other men in this room. They don’t care about your wife, your sister, your best friend, your daughter, or any other woman who means the most to you because she isn’t “theirs.” The woman you care most about means nothing to the other men in this room. She is an object, not a human being.
The group of particular women you want to protect are the same group other men feel free to exploit. The group of women you want to exploit are the same group of women that other men want to protect. So, this really means all women are unprotected, all women are exploitable, and you can force any woman to be your possession if you just say the word.
When the worth of a woman is determined by individual men, this subjective standard means no woman will ever universally be respected. The justifications you use are the same justifications other men use. Your circumstances are not unique, special, or more complex.
You are not more “deserving” of a human sex toy because of any pain, loneliness, or hurt you have experienced. We are not your emotional outlet in which you get to discharge. We are not for your entertainment or escape. Women are not your property, not your possession, not your punching bag, and not a canvas to display a pathetic and fragile idea of manhood that stomps on others to feel powerful.
You are all responsible for this. But you no longer need to play a role in her pain. You can be part of the solution.
We don’t need your guilt, your shame, or you beating yourself up because none of those things change anything for us. In fact, your guilt and shame will continue the status quo and keep things the same—the same, meaning women continue to be raped, beaten, sold, harassed, mutilated, enslaved, and murdered at exponential rates.
We don’t want your patriarchal “protection.” Frankly we can’t differentiate who is here to protect and who is here to hurt us because men who are close to us (family and partners), who a person would suspect would be the safest, statistically, are the men who are most likely to abuse, endanger, and traumatically betray our trust.
For many women, no man is safe, everyone is a potential abuser and rapist. Rather than getting frustrated and defensive at this being our reality, work to change it. Work to create a world where women don’t have to be constantly afraid of you and your friends because we have no reason to be. This is on you, not us.
What we do need from you is to break the bro code and the fraternal solidarity of men that conspires against women. We need you to intervene, speak up, stop enabling other sexist abusive men, and do everything you can to uproot this in yourself. Because ultimately this is about changing yourself FIRST, embodying what is respectable.
Many women are not interested in your grand gestures, chivalry, pedestals, or even your public denouncing of violence against women. What we want from you is so maddeningly simple: stop using us and abusing us.
We want you to do the hard, uncomfortable, challenging internal work which means you don’t get to be hero and no one may witness it and pat you on the back and tell you what a good guy you are. You create open space for women to call you on your shit without getting defensive and gaslighting her. And you do it because it is the right thing to do and you want to be better… not because you want praise, recognition, or something selfish that again comes back to you and your ego.
I want your moments of integrity when there isn’t an audience, I want you to make the same respectable choices when you are alone and when you are with your male friends and co-workers that think it’s funny to laugh at our expense. Most importantly, I want you to hold yourself and others around you accountable.
You’re worried about being laughed at from standing up and women are worried about being raped and murdered. Seriously weigh the costs here.
If you hadn’t realized it already, you will find that there is a cost to consuming porn and there is a cost to exploiting women in the sex industry. The cost I’m talking about is not the monetary price you pay. The cost I’m talking about should mean something more, because the cost is women’s lives.
Today you get to decide: is it really worth it to you? Are a few seconds of selfish orgasm worth destroying another human life?
What you gain from today is entirely up to you. It is up to you to look up, break the denial, truly listen, and engage both your heart and mind with our speakers and the testimonies of the women who have been deliberately silenced.
We’re not buying the lies and ultimately, we hope you decide today that you won’t either.
You are a person who has all the potential to become someone you admire, someone you are proud of, and someone of character and integrity who is worthy of respect.
You have the opportunity to make a decision for yourself and only you can decide what kind of person you want to become from here on.
Today, if you so choose, you can begin a journey towards truth, accountability, empathy, reconciliation, and reconnection to the humanity of others and the humanity in yourself.
That is why today, we’re not going to define you by what you did. You decide your future, and what kind of man you want to become...