I was asked to speak about sex trafficking at the St. Cloud, Minnesota #WomensWave March on 1/19/19.
Here's a little background/all the things I couldn't say in the speech:
In a large audience of mostly progressive women and men, I did not want to waste a precious and extremely brief, three-minute platform, to talk about an issue as uncontroversial as sex trafficking. Everyone in that audience would agree this is a terrible injustice.
However, I wanted to challenge what I felt the audience might not agree on- commercial sexual exploitation/prostitution, or what some in this crowd would call "sex work."
Though there are some beliefs within the "sex worker's rights" platform that I do agree with, their fundamental premises I cannot. I don't believe prostitution is "work" like any other, I don't believe "stigma" is what causes additional violence to prostituted people (what causes violence are the actual agents of violence- almost always male buyers and traffickers), I don't believe paid coercion can ever be consent, I don't believe prostitution can ever be non-exploitative, and I don't believe in harm-reduction-only "solutions."
I want to make clear that these statements I've made do not stem from a distanced and detached academic analysis. My views have been carefully developed through years of direct experience working with survivors of the sex industry, prostitution, and trafficking, from facilitating a male offenders program, and from the wisdom of many survivor-activists and feminists who know this issue inside-and-out because they have lived it.
At our advocacy center, we use the empowerment model. We do not support paternalistic practices. We do not claim to "rescue" people or ever use such language. If there is any "rescuing" going on, it is our clients who rescue themselves. They are their own s/heroes. Any professional that takes credit for a survivor leaving the life has a savior complex that needs to be addressed. But as much as SWRAs claim all professionals in the field are like this, that is simply not true. (But quick PSA to faith communities: please stop doing this!)
We do employ harm-reduction approaches (e.g., safety planning and handing out condoms and lube), while also fighting for the total abolition of the sex trade. That is because we are not defeatist. We do not believe so little of men that they will forever use women's bodies as masturbation fodder. We will not enable bad behavior by men and agree that "boys will be boys." We will not respond with a shrug and say, "Oh well, sexual abuse has existed for a long time, so we just have to accept it, maybe make sexual violence a little less violent, and move on." No. That is unacceptable. We are either massively burned out or in the wrong line of work if that is our response to sexual abuse in any form.
However, sometimes grief and hopelessness in social justice work "boxes us in" and limits our capacity to creatively envision a world outside of what we see in front of us. When it comes to these issues, it does not have to be one or the other (e.g., harm-reduction or abolition, shame everyone in the sex industry or shame no one).
As an agency, we advocate and emotionally support all people in the sex trade, regardless of where they are at, regardless of if they plan to stay or plan to leave... while still critiquing and working to abolish the sex industry/trade that exploits them. Yes, you can do both. Shame and judgment have historically been reserved towards the exploited, prostituted, and trafficked- but this is victim-blaming, wrong, and 100% misplaced. Those who are prostituted should never be judged or shamed. The blame rightfully belongs on the exploiters who made the choice to exploit. The buyers (rapists) and traffickers (facilitators and profiteers of mass gang rape) have remained invisible and unaccountable for too long. Times up.
So with all that background, here's what I said...
(Intro, name, agency, etc.) Many of us here know that sexual exploitation is a serious issue and is happening in our community. CMSAC serves close to 100 victims of exploitation/trafficking each year, and the number of people we serve only scratches the surface.
No one would argue that trafficking is acceptable, and that’s why we need to talk more about prostitution and pornography, which is what traffickers make their victims do. Society often sugarcoats the reality in which a person in prostitution lives. Regardless of if she has a trafficker or not, whether she was groomed through sexual abuse or groomed by a misogynist culture, whether she is sold on the streets or sold in the nicest hotel room, whether she is paid $1 or $1000…
A fancier environment and all the money in the world does not erase the trauma of being used as a sex object. Prostitution takes place when entitled, mostly white, men bribe access to women’s bodies, especially Black, Native, and other women of color. He pays her to do what he wants, when he wants it, how he wants it. He pays to control her dress, her speech, and her body. All coerced sex, including sex coerced by inequality, survival, or financial struggle, is sexual assault- a violation of human rights. In 2019 and in the #MeToo Era, this should no longer be up for debate.
Agencies like the Central MN Sexual Assault Center and Terebinth Refuge that work with victim/survivors of the sex trade on a daily basis, we do whatever we can to support, advocate, and help strategize with them to reduce harm in whatever small way we can- because some survivors don’t see a way out, some don’t have the resources to leave even when they desperately want to, and some traffickers have convinced them that this is the only thing they are good for.
We are privileged to be able to march today. Many women can’t. They’ve been murdered, battered, violated, silenced, and terrorized.
We as feminists can honor these women by speaking up in solidarity and telling the truth even when it’s not comfortable or popular: prostitution is not a “choice” that women enthusiastically make, porn is filmed violence no matter how much people like using it, the enormity of sex trafficking is not a surprise when men feel sex is a right they are owed… and in a world where rapists and batterers almost always walk free. Prostitution is not a “job.” This is not paid “work” - it is paid rape and we need to stop adopting euphemisms to make the systematic sexual assault against women more palatable.
If you believe women’s lives are important enough to work to abolish these exploitative industries once and for all, I ask you to join CMSAC to end it. Advocate with us for survivors, take power away from the pimps, and change the systems that normalize abuse and sexism.
Womanist sister, Audre Lorde, said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
*See original article on CBE International's blog HERE*
At the beginning of 2017, I wrote a blog calling women to speak out and use our voices like never before. And did we ever!
2017 began with the largest single-day protest in US history: The Women’s March. As the year progressed, women of all political, religious, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds broke their silence about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. And because of their courage, many powerful and influential men who were once untouchable are now being held accountable. The year culminated with TIME magazine deeming “The Silence Breakers” their “Person(s) of the Year” and Webster Dictionary announcing “feminism” as their top-searched term and 2017 “Word of the Year.”
Women persisted in 2017. Women resisted. Women were loud. Women were bold. Women were brave. Women put everything on the line—status, careers, relationships, and safety—to fight for their rights and the rights of their sisters. And against all odds, women prevailed.
And yet, for many of these brave women, each new story of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault was triggering.
Every show of support or defense of perpetrators in 2017 was an insult to women. The denial of women’s stories—in public and private—was one more crime piled on top of the abuse, harassment, and violence we’d already endured. And when sexist/abusive men got away with hurting women and either retained or gained power, it was another jab at an already raw and open wound.
Despite the pain and pushback, women pressed on to tell the truth.
Society has now reached a point of no return. The visibility of men’s patriarchal power and violence was in our faces (almost daily) this year in the news. After the initial “shock,” many recognized that men they admire and respect are just as capable of abusing their power as men they don’t.
Thanks in large part to the women’s rights movement, public awareness of these realities has increased in the last forty years. In the age of the internet, anyone can access the ingenious analysis of feminist writers and theologians and read survivors’ personal accounts.
And now that we have arrived at this reckoning, we have an opportunity to think critically about what we can do differently in 2018. In that vein, I have two questions as we begin this new year.
1. How should we support survivors in 2018?
We should not ask women to share and relive agonizing and humiliating experiences over and over—so that we might be convinced of their truthfulness and jarred awake from our social apathy. We have heard the stories now; we can no longer plead ignorance. “We didn’t know” is no longer a defense for systemic, institutional, and personal inaction against sexism and abuse.
We can’t ask survivors to reopen their wounds in the public sphere again and again—to bleed out their most painful, vulnerable, and traumatic experiences—whenever we need to be stirred to action. It is our job as allies to remember and to help carry the burden. It is not a survivor’s job to re-engage us.
Often, instead of holding survivors close and supporting them, we distance ourselves and/or minimize or deny their experiences. We often tell survivors to “move on” or “forgive and forget” simply because we can’t take the discomfort. Judith Herman writes:
"It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil... In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting."
Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens.
In 2018, we need to send a strong message to survivors:
We see you. We believe you. We will support you. And we will respond.
2. How can we defy patriarchy’s attempts to exhaust and silence us in 2018?
Awareness is meaningless without action. We are all responsible for demanding accountability and collectively fighting patriarchy, sexism, and abuse.
We can and should rejoice in every smidgen of progress, every advancement, and every victory. But we can’t afford to grow complacent when the war is far from over. Oppressors rely on the surrender of those they subordinate. They count on the oppressed growing tired, apathetic, complicit, or even satisfied. For this very reason, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking gains are permanent and can't be taken away.
Our victories were not given to us as “gifts” by men in power. Women before us were jailed, beaten, punished, and killed so that we might be free. And women today are still fighting and struggling for their rights and lives.
Patriarchy may take new forms, but the oppression and the system that executes it remain the same. Cynthia Enloe describes patriarchy’s strategic and creative revival as “stubborn” and “stunningly adaptable.” Oppressive systems survive through constant reinvention. We must always be on our guard to address patriarchy's next manifestation.
And, with all progress comes opposition. The oppressors have punished the resisters in every major human rights movement in history. In the words of Susan Faludi, “The anti-feminism backlash has been set off not by women's achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It is a preemptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finishing line.”
It makes sense that patriarchy would punish women for fighting back. It’s predictable that patriarchy would attempt to push women “back in their place” by retaliating against us; silencing us; and attempting to exhaust us. But we cannot be stopped.
We have a spiritual and moral responsibility to dismantle patriarchy and build a world where women are safe, respected, and treated with dignity. We know our enemy well by now. We will not allow it to deter, silence, or exhaust us in 2018. We persisted in 2017. We will persist again.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
 Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence- from domestic abuse to political terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 7-8.
 Cynthia Enloe, “The persistence of patriarchy” New Internationalist, October 1, 2017. Accessed December 20, 2016. https://newint.org/columns/essays/2017/10/01/patriarchy-persistence.
*See original article on CBE International's blog HERE*
I have never been raped or physically assaulted. That can change at any moment.
We’ve all heard the stories. We’ve read the statistics. We know the pain and fear of men’s violence against women.
All women live with some level of primary (first-person) and/or secondary (vicarious) trauma due to men’s violence, abuse, and sexism.
Experiences of abuse and sexism are not isolated. They happen daily for so many women, sometimes multiple times in a day. That’s a painful reality.
I recently did a presentation on rape culture to a church group and diverted from my usual script. I spontaneously spoke about my experience working with victims of sexual violence. I shared how that work has exposed me to the deepest level of pain I’ve ever known.
I found myself choking up on the stage in front of a large group of strangers. In the hundreds and hundreds of presentations I have given, I have never done that before. I was unprepared for the grief I felt in that moment.
Afterward, I was a little embarrassed about my “lack for professionalism” as I called it at the time.
But then I realized how difficult it is to be truly vulnerable and honest—with others and even myself—about how truly painful this work is.
As advocates and counselors, we carry the stories of others. We also have our own experiences to add to that burden. The weight is heavy. We can literally feel it in our aching shoulders.
Our culture is tremendously terrified of confronting pain, and of facing anger. We medicate, distract, distance, and deny to effectively detach ourselves from our personal grief or to avoid sitting with others in theirs.
As women, the inescapable and constant threat of men’s violence can be paralyzing. If we thought about it all the time, too long or too deeply, we would live in constant fear.
But we are also trained to push aside that pain and minimize the abuse done to us, saying: “Oh, this happens to women all the time. It’s not a big deal. Boys will be boys. This is normal male behavior. You know men...”
“All of us are doing what women have always done: We're trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn't really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.
Maybe we're afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we've grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet, because we've seen that people often won't take our word over his. Or maybe we don't want to believe that there are still people out there who think so little of us as women.”
These were a few of the many powerful words from a recent speech by Michelle Obama. Her voice shook and she was clearly on the verge of tears as she delivered them.
Yes. It hurts. It hurts deeply to be treated as subhuman. To be reduced to a punching bag or piece of meat. To be told we are unfit for leadership or ministry because of our sex. To have our callings, missions, vocations, and ability to hear from God invalidated.
My challenge for 2017: I invite women to press towards honesty, start acknowledging this pain, and cease to push it away or minimize it. To not shy away from speaking the raw, unfiltered truth about our experiences of sexism, abuse, and violence.
Let’s not sanitize, sugar-coat, or coddle the feelings of the audience. Men need to hear from us. And if men aren’t going to ask us about our experiences, then we need to tell them anyway.
There is nothing more powerful than a woman who uses her voice and uses it well.
What if all women (not just a few activists) did this? Our voices would be impossible to muffle.
When we speak loudly about our experiences, we make it extremely difficult for supporters of patriarchy to continually deny its consequences for women.
Complementarians believe that it is possible to have non-hierarchical, non-abusive patriarchy. This opinion is only conceivable when women do not share with men (and even other women) what we go through on a daily basis.
But if we tell our stories loudly and insistently, we will be impossible to ignore. Rise, warriors—let’s not allow oppression the last word.
We must allow this grief, pain, and anger to incite a righteous battle for freedom and liberation. Anger towards injustice is not wrong. It is very, very right. God places this fire in us—not to consume us, but as a driving force for good.
The work of justice requires a long-standing purpose, rooted in truth. Our work will collapse when it’s only about us as individuals or if we withdraw when it gets tough or uncomfortable.
Results are never immediate. We may not see the fruit of our fight in this lifetime. We have to be okay with that. We have been commissioned to deny ourselves and carry our crosses daily. It will cost us. But labor births new life.
We will certainly grow tired and weary, but Jesus said, “Come to me, I will give you rest.”
Second-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin gave an impassioned speech to 500 men at a conference in Minnesota thirty or so years ago. She ended in a plea:
“I want one day off, one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old, and I am asking you to give it to me... I want a twenty-four-hour truce during which there is no rape.”
We will put our faith in our liberator, Jesus, and we will keep fighting until that day of truce comes. It may not come until this life passes away, but an eternal “truce” has been promised to us in Revelation 21:4, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
We were entrusted with the caretaking of this earth and all those in it. I want to leave this life with the full knowledge that I gave all I had to care for my sisters and the broken-hearted who God so passionately loves.