Towards a Consistent Ethic of Social Justice: Confronting Prostitution Exceptionalism in Abolitionist Discourse
Social Justice & Community Organizing Master's Thesis Abstract
(c) Rebecca Kotz | May 9, 2021
Are abolitionists committed to ending all forms of oppression, or do exceptions for sexual exploitation exist? This thesis uses radical feminist, anti-neoliberal, neo-Marxist, and anti-violence movement analysis to examine and confront the ideological contradictions in prison abolition discourse. Though abolitionist discourse promotes revolutionary, anti-capitalist principles, it adopts neoliberal “sex work” ideology that reinforces objectification, commodification, and the globalization of the prostitution industrial complex. Abolitionist discourse recognizes the multiplicity of harm and enslavement but supports a false consent/coercion binary that ignores the entrapment and less visible cages within the sex trade. While claiming to envision transformative justice, abolitionist discourse pivots to prostitution reformism and tolerance of sexual exploitation. Finally, abolitionist discourse analyzes how spectacles of violence create public support for prison expansion yet does not consider how pornography acts as similar propaganda that normalizes sexualized dominance and sadism. The significance of these findings affirms the essential need of the prostitution and prison abolition movements to join forces to end interpersonal and state-sanctioned patriarchal violence to advance a consistent ethic of social justice at every scale.
This was a short piece I was asked to write for a Catholic Charities newsletter in the aftermath of many clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse cases in the diocese. There is so much more I wanted to say (and scream), but this was meant to be a brief "101" and gentle challenge to church communities to examine bias and stereotypes about abusers, offer a possible explanation as to why people may react in harmful and victim-blaming ways, and confront the cost of prioritizing our own comfort over the safety, healing, validation, and support of those who have been abused.
Have you ever heard someone say, “they weren’t who I thought they were…”?
This is an example statement of someone expressing a feeling of betrayal. Unfortunately, betrayal is common in human relationships, as we all can hurt and be hurt in big ways and small. However, betrayal can sometimes have such a profound effect on a person that they experience life-altering trauma and post-traumatic stress symptoms.
“Betrayal trauma” is a psychological concept originated by Jennifer Freyd in 1994. Betrayal trauma can occur when a person or institution we depend on for survival, support, or are significantly attached to, critically violates our trust or well-being.
This violation of trust can happen on both a micro/individual level and a macro/institutional/ systemic level.
Abuse by a parent, partner, family member, caregiver, spiritual leader, a “caring/helping” professional, or systemic/institutional failures can shatter a person’s worldview and sense of safety. When you put your trust in someone/something, and they become the agent of hurt, pain, trauma, and abuse, you can question deeply held beliefs about the goodness of people. This questioning is a normal reaction and a way our body and brain work to protect us.
The rampant sexual abuse crisis in the church (and so many institutions) is likely to cause betrayal trauma. Could we have experienced betrayal trauma from the church, but never recognized it as such?
People make sense of betrayal in varying ways. Betrayal trauma may manifest as questioning the validity, integrity, truth, or faith in the church and God, especially when we are told that religious leaders represent or embody God. If clergy cannot be trusted, can God be trusted? If even the church can’t be trusted, where can my family and I be safe?
These may be frightening and unsettling questions, but they are also important questions that lead to more honest assessment and much-needed accountability if we are serious about creating a safe church for victims/survivors and holding abusers accountable. We can do both; we must do both.
Jesus didn’t shy away from hard questions or preaching difficult truths. He radically challenged religious leaders and the comfortable status quo with empathy, grace, strength, conviction, and truth. Jesus did not remain neutral or “wait for all the facts”—he consistently sided with the marginalized every time.
Although Jesus affirmed that all human beings matter and have inherent worth and dignity—he focused most of his time specifically on those whose lives were deemed least worthy in society. Instead, he centered on those deemed in society as “the least” in his work and ministry—the poor, immigrant, widowed, prostituted, oppressed, sick, incarcerated, and outcast. Jesus, a man of color, was not lynched for sharing messages of peace and love. He was crucified by law enforcers for many reasons, but one was certainly his prophetic disruption of “business as usual” and his rebellious solidarity with the oppressed.
It is normal to have mixed emotions after a shocking discovery. You may know an abusive person—but still believe they are good, recognize the incredible gifts they may have to share with the world,
remember how they showed kindness to you, appeared to be a “man/woman of God,” or you may have trouble believing that the person you know could be capable of causing such hurt, pain, and trauma towards others.
Social norms and media play a significant role in skewing our perceptions and generating inaccurate stereotypes of abusers as easily identifiable people. This often leads us to overlook those in our own lives and prevents us from looking inward to see our own complicity and some of the unhealthy, manipulative, or abusive behavior we may have perpetrated ourselves. Instead of allowing new information about people and institutions to shift our beliefs, even disrupting our worldview, reputation, or perception of another, we tend to deny that new information. We tell ourselves: this can’t possibly be true.
Although denial is often used to give us a false and temporary sense of protection or comfort, Christ following, peace-making, and justice demands us to be uncomfortable.
Holding the tension of mixed views/emotions can be difficult. Human beings are far more complex than the neat boxes we try to force them in. All people have goodness and redeeming qualities. People who abuse are not monsters. They are people just like you and me.
Black-and-white binary thinking is common—we tend to label people as either “good” or “bad.” Binary thinking can have detrimental effects. Suppose we cannot hold this tension and accept that sometimes people are not who we thought they were, have different “sides” we don’t see, or that someone we like/love is capable of abuse. In that case, we tend to shift blame from the perpetrator (who is responsible for the abuse) to the victim (who is not responsible for the abuse perpetrated against them). As a society, we have found it easier to punish victims who speak out or other messengers of painful truths, instead of directing our anger at the source of the problem.
This response to victims can cause severe, compounding harm, and additional trauma. Shifting blame onto the victim is especially devastating in a church setting or with other religious/spiritual people, where people often expect support and healing and instead feel abandoned.
Instead, sometimes betrayal trauma looks like invalidating the righteous anger of the victim. It looks like siding with the perpetrator. It looks like blind loyalty to abusive people and institutions. We deny, minimize, trivialize, justify, dismiss, or even excuse the gravity of abuse.
This is particularly common when the priest or clergy member abuses an adult. Adult victims of abuse are far more likely to be held responsible for the abuse perpetrated against them. Sexual abuse against adults, which involves a spiritual leader or counselor engaging in any sexual activity with a person in the congregation or who is receiving counseling (regardless of any appearance of consent) is always an abuse of power.
This is not a misunderstanding, mistake, miscommunication, affair, inappropriate relationship, or an overwhelming temptation. It is a deliberate pattern of behavior chosen by the abuser. A more powerful person takes advantage of a less powerful person, often in a state of vulnerability. The clergy member is often a beloved person of status, respect, and moral authority in the community. The abuse is often additionally spiritualized as the religious leader uses scripture or theology to manipulate the victim into doing what he wants.
It is critical that we hold abusers accountable, regardless of our personal feelings and experiences with that person. Accountability is the best thing that can happen to an abuser—it interrupts their destructive choices, brings the harmful behavior to the light, and provides an additional opportunity for change.
Betrayal Trauma and accountability are something, as a church, we must do the hard work to confront— to reckon with, reflect on, but most importantly—push for change and real accountability. No one is above accountability. Sometimes we are so obsessed with preserving and defending our worldview, the church, and our beliefs, that we become incapable of thinking critically. Human beings with power, status, moral prestige (paired with lack of accountability) are those that are most likely to abuse, not least likely. As a person gains power, too often, they feel more entitled to the use of others and know their positive reputation will protect them. Abusers groom not only the victim; they often groom the entire community.
We must end the worship of flawed human beings and institutions and refuse to accept the illusion that they can do no wrong. From a Christian theological standpoint, Jesus was the only perfect person—no other human being or institution deserves worship. When we put people and institutions on a pedestal, we far too easily become blindly loyal and avert our eyes to the blatant abuses and pain in front of us.
As a church, we can heal or harm—which path will we choose going forward?
200+ prostitution buyers convicted in central Minnesota.
Most men are never caught.
our brothers, husbands, sons, athletes, clergy, police, military, educators, co-workers, business owners, classmates, public officials, our president...
Rally speech from the Stop Traffick: End Demand 2020 Demonstration held in Saint Cloud, Minnesota on January 25th, 2020.
"We have made some amazing progress in the past ten years thanks to the tireless work of victim/survivors, advocates, and activists throughout the state, country, and across the globe.
In this new decade, we are moving the conversation forward. By now, many have recognized that anyone can been sexually exploited or trafficked. On the other hand, how many of us have truly considered that anyone can be an exploiter, rapist, abuser, or trafficker? That people we know, people we love and respect, even people who claim to be allies to women and survivors, are capable of this?
Today we honor January’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month with renewed commitment to bold anti-violence activism with a strong message centered on promoting male accountability and systemic change against patriarchal, sexist oppression.
During the planning process for this event, we wanted to be intentional about how this message was framed today. No one would say they are PRO-exploitation/trafficking. However, what we’ve learned as we’ve done education in the community—is that once we get into the details, once we talk about what sexual exploitation encompasses—who is doing it, where they are doing it, and why they are doing it--suddenly people want to draw lines, debate the exploited person's “choices,” and discuss the so-called “nuances” of the issues. These are all excuses to do nothing.
We need to take a closer look at men’s choices: 1 in 5 U.S. men self-report buying a human being for prostituted sex. At least 75% of men use porn at least once a month. Men’s use of strip clubs is also normalized where men bond over sexual objectification. This is even seen as a “rite of passage” for young men's birthdays and bachelor parties.
What often happens when we talk about power-based abuse and violence is that we don’t name the source of the problem. We have been conditioned to submit and to protect the very individuals, institutions, and systems responsible for oppressing and exploiting us.
We’re not doing that anymore. Male violence is not an accident or a misunderstanding. We need to stop treating male violence as if it is an unfortunate natural disaster that "just happens." It’s a conscious choice. It’s a functional act—both personal and political—to terrorize and subordinate women and children. As feminists have been saying for decades, "prostitution is the world's oldest form of patriarchal oppression."
The irony of all this is that the dominant groups and oppressors (particularly men, white people, and the rich) are always centered in our culture… except when they do bad things. Then, they suddenly become conveniently invisible and people get uncomfortable when they are named.
We need to lean into the discomfort. Choosing comfort over justice is why people in power get away with the atrocities they do.
Today, we are naming the problem and we are naming the solution: it’s men. This is also not an issue that arises from isolated individuals. Patriarchy, sexism, racism, white privilege, capitalism, classism, militarism, colonialism, heterosexism, and ableism culminate into a sadistic industry controlled by men, demanded by men, and profited to men.
The bar for men right now is insultingly low. And we need to raise it.
When people talk about men’s use of women in prostitution, porn, and strip clubs, we no longer will say “boys will be boys.” We say boys and men will be held accountable.
We expect men of integrity. We need men to stand alongside us, not sit back and remain silent.
We expect men refuse to use sex as a tool to violate, conquer, control, or commodify us.
We expect men and boys to treat women and girls, and all people, with respect, equality, dignity, safety, and mutuality.
We expect men to make choices to give up their advantages and entitlements to work towards our collective liberation.
And we’re not going to beg for it or offer trophies for decency.
We have the power to relearn and teach these beliefs and build a different world. That kind of world is one worth fighting for and it is in our hands.
Sexual exploitation is not inevitable, it is preventable—but as Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without demand,” which is why we are here today.
We are demanding an END to sexual exploitation—once and for all."
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.*
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...
*See original article on CBE International's blog HERE*
The Western sexual revolution brought renewed emphasis on consent, body affirmation/confidence, female pleasure, and women’s equal (and enthusiastic!) sexual participation in marriage. We should celebrate those gains. But it also brought a slew of toxic, oppressive ideas about female sexuality.
When we consider God’s holistic vision for human sexuality, we see that some of the things women are told will be “liberating” are actually exploitative. God calls women (and men) to see through the bluster to a corrupt system that only wants to use us.
Ironically, the world tells women that we will find our power in men’s desire for and sexual use of us. Some people even claim that women are empowered by the Fifty Shades phenomenon, hook-up culture, and porn. And the sex trade is the only industry in which women consistently earn more money than men. Yet these are not examples of women’s sexual power. They’re symptoms of women’s social disempowerment.
Men still feel entitled to rent women’s bodies and women live in a society that demands their submission to men. Never forget: the demand creates and sustains the supply.
Some women appear to participate in their own sexual objectification, claiming to derive power from different strains of the Western "sexual revolution." But instead of shaming women for making choices we don’t understand, Christians should be asking how a sexist, hypersexualized culture restricts and shapes women’s choices, and what we can do to correct that.
In a culture built on male power and dominance and in an economic system where women are poorer and have less opportunity, why might women participate in men's sexual objectification of us? Of course, many women have no choice at all because they are trafficked or have no other economic options.
Women who are ethnically, racially, or economically marginalized comprise the overwhelming majority of women who are sold for sex. So, in a culture that further oppresses women of color, women with disabilities, women in poverty, and women with sexual trauma, women's options are limited.
Is it possible that some women feel compelled to cooperate with the very system that oppresses them in order to survive?
Stockholm syndrome is a coping mechanism that manifests when a victim feels they cannot escape a horrific situation. A victim may see no other option but to cooperate with an abuser to live through it. They believe that submission will protect them or potentially decrease the violence.
Dee Graham coined the term: “Societal Stockholm Syndrome.” Because patriarchy is a system, Graham argued that all women have internalized survival strategies and adaptations. She believes that women may seem more submissive, agreeable, timid, and dependent than men because they have adapted to their social context. But these supposedly feminine traits some women exhibit are, Graham argues, just a byproduct of women’s collective fear of men’s violence and powerlessness in a patriarchal system.
Interestingly, many male survivors of abuse display these same behavioral adaptations.
Stockholm syndrome is strengthened by a temporary “reward system” which incentivizes victims to conform their behavior to the will of their abuser/oppressor. Abusers may offer affirmation, affection, and kindness; spend large sums of money; make them feel special, empowered, and loved. But the purposes of this build-up and break-down is control.
These rewards are relative to the larger pattern of abuse and exploitation. I once counseled a woman who believed her abuser truly cared about her because he put a gun to her head and decided not to pull the trigger.
The sex industry is an institution where men bribe women to sexually abuse them. In exchange for their compliance, women receive the supposed rewards of money, desirability, security, protection, and the illusion of power.
Women are deemed more likeable; receive male approval; hold the male gaze; and even acquire brownies points for being “fun,” “chill,” and not uptight. We may even be exalted as “one of the guys” and praised for not being like “most women.”
Clearly, women who are not physically forced into the sex trade or into self-objectification are still shaped by a society that actively limits their options in life and rewards them for conforming to patriarchy.
Anti-porn activist Gail Dines argues that because young women are trapped in this hypersexualized culture, women/girls are either “fuckable or invisible.” Dines argues that no one wants to feel invisible and too often, the only path to being “seen” in our culture is to allow ourselves to be sexualized.
If women are socialized to see themselves as objects for men’s consumption, what happens when women aren’t used? Well, we become useless. Invisible. Nothing.
Women should not have to choose between objectification and invisibility. We must fight for a third view: God’s original vision for men and women, before sin was systematized in patriarchy.
Sex is meant to be an intimate, egalitarian, humanizing, safe, passionate, and mutually-pleasurable expression of authentic, selfless love and commitment.
Not a weapon. Not a commodity. Not a tool to use, degrade, and dominate others. Not a performance for voyeuristic eyes.
Rather than rebranding a patriarchal system determined to exploit women, we should acknowledge that the world is determined to use women, and women themselves are affected by that objectification.
Rather than shaming women for making choices we don't understand, we should deconstruct the patriarchal system that seeks to control female sexuality through degradation, objectification, and intimidation. We need to challenge the system that makes exploitation the path of least resistance, because that’s not what God wants for women.
Jesus turned hierarchal systems and Greco-Roman sexual politics upside-down.
With Jesus, women felt truly seen; never leered at. Listened to; never ignored. Validated; never brushed off. Touched; never invaded. Invited; never avoided or excluded.
Jesus didn’t patronize women. He never stifled women’s gifts. He didn’t tell them they were “too much.” He certainly wasn’t intimidated by strong women. Jesus didn’t bat an eye when women stepped outside what was culturally acceptable. He welcomed women as ministry partners and students of theology.
He spent time alone with women and didn’t see them as a “temptation” to be avoided. He didn’t tell women to dress differently to avoid “provoking” men’s lust. In fact, he told men it was better to gouge their own eyes out than to sin (including the sin of objectifying women)!
He didn’t see women as either romantic interests or sexual temptresses. Women were neither to Jesus. Women were simply human. Women were partners in Jesus’ ministry, his disciples, his allies, and his friends.
This new gospel ethic was radical in Jesus’ culture, and sadly, it’s still countercultural today. We need to start seeing women like Jesus did, as human beings created in the image of God. Now that is a sexual revolution worth fighting for.
 Graham, Dee. Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence and Women’s Live (New York: New York University Press, 1994).
 Dines, Gail. Pornland: how porn has hijacked our sexuality (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010).
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As an activist, speaker, writer, counselor, and consultant, my mission is in advocating gender, relationship, and cultural revolution for a world without abuse.
I have counseled many individuals who have experienced some of the deepest, darkest, most horrific levels of violence imaginable. This has changed me. The victim/survivors I have worked with have made me the activist I am today.
I believe in social transformation and moving people for justice.
I believe in the beauty of vulnerability and the healing power of healthy relationships.
I believe that women have a right to humanity, dignity, safety, autonomy, and respect that is real.
I believe in men and their capacity to resist a culture of toxic messaging that says they cannot amount to anything more than rapists, batterers, traffickers, and johns.
I believe we can create a world where men's violence is no longer normalized as if "this is just the way things are."
Fundamentally, I believe this is not the way things have to be.
That is why I do what I do. I believe we must take responsibility and raise the bar.
As Andrea Dworkin said, feminism is a "movement against human suffering... the ultimate goal of feminism is to make feminism unnecessary."
If you would like to contact me or donate, please click HERE.
Thank you for supporting my work. I hope you will join me in the fight for our lives!
*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.