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.
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.*
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*
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.
*See original on CBE International's blog HERE*
In the last few years, it has become popular for people (especially celebrities) to identify as “feminists” on the secular stage.
While this may sound like a positive trend, it has effectively rendered the term “feminist” meaningless. Anyone can join the club. You can be a pornographer or hold deeply sexist attitudes toward women while simultaneously self-identifying as a “gender equality advocate” because you supposedly “love women.”
But this version of equality doesn’t threaten the status quo, it reinforces it.
Defining feminism as an ambiguous ideology of “equality” may destigmatize the movement and get more people on the bandwagon, but doing so also neutralizes its power. Patriarchy, power, and privilege will certainly go unchallenged.
If feminism were just about equality, many could (and do) argue that women and men are already “equal” under the law (hence the growing “I don’t need feminism” movement). However, this supposed “equality” has not stopped men from discriminating against, battering, raping, selling, buying, harassing, and murdering women en masse with impunity.
General “equality movements” appeal more to privileged groups because the specific systemic oppression that privileges those very groups is not critiqued. Instead, root causes are ignored and only surface-level issues are addressed.
Dismantling the entire social order of our culture is no small task. And it can’t be done when we don’t name the system that inflicts these injustices.
That system is patriarchy. And feminists aren’t afraid to name it.
Women have been overlooked all our lives. Our achievements, ideas, and accomplishments have been historically attributed to men. So, women need to be seen, women need to be heard, and women need to be named.
The importance of naming the women’s movement as “feminism” is similar to the importance of naming the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
The purpose of using the name “Black Lives Matter” is not to say that black lives are moreimportant than other lives or that they are the only lives that matter. The purpose of the name “Black Lives Matter” is to point out that if black lives truly mattered as much as white lives, there would be no need for the movement in the first place.
The same can be said of feminism. Feminism centralizes the female reality. This centrality is a necessary rebellion in a world that constantly overlooks women. It is a challenge to a culture that prioritizes the narratives of men and white people.
When we say “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter” or “equality” instead of “feminism,” we erase the experiences of the oppressed group and we assuage the conscience of the privileged group—for the sole purpose of palatability.
This problem is evident in how we talk about men’s violence against women. In calling it “violence against women,” we fail to name the perpetrator. And in not naming the perpetrator, we also fail to hold men accountable. We make men’s violence appear as if it is an isolated, random event that “just happens” to women.
Properly naming men’s violence as men’s violence against women is critical.
Men’s violence against women is political, calculated, and functional. Because patriarchy requires control, patriarchy also requires violence. Violence is the ultimate weapon that keeps women in fear, codependency, and in submission to men.
Ending men’s violence and abuse is the most basic, foundational goal of feminism. Justice for women will never be achieved as long as patriarchy is the way of the world.
So let’s be clear: feminism is a threat to patriarchy. This was, and should continue to be, the entire purpose of the women’s movement.
Although patriarchy negatively affects both women and men, it places women in mortal danger of bodily harm and even death. As Margaret Atwood once said, “'Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Indeed, at least a third of female homicide victims in the US are murdered by their male partners.
In a patriarchal society, men are not permitted to express the full range of their humanity. They are discouraged from showing vulnerability, emotion, and empathy. They are restricted from seeking intimacy with others. On the other hand, women are not considered human at all. Globally, women are denied their most basic freedoms, agency, safety, and in the most severe cases, their very lives.
However, rather than hating males and seeking revenge, feminists have historically been one of the few groups that genuinely believe in men.
A patriarchal/complementarian church will tell men that they are naturally aggressive, controlling, lustful, unempathetic, violent, and animalistic.
A feminist will tell men the opposite—that none of the above traits are natural. A feminist will tell men that they are not born as batterers, rapists, traffickers, or exploiters. A feminist does not think so little of men. A feminist knows that patriarchal values are taught and men are socialized in an oppressive system. They are not a product of an intrinsically violent male nature.
A Christian feminist knows that God designed men with all of the humanity, compassion, integrity, strength, and tenderness that he designed women with.
Christian feminists reject the low bar society sets for men. Feminists believe men have the full capacity to make choices that oppose patriarchy—choices that are not centered in a hunger for control or in abusing women to maintain that control.
Just as Jesus did, we call men to more. A feminist doesn’t lower the bar—a feminist raises it. We don’t excuse toxic, life-destroying behavior from men. We don’t say “boys will be boys,” as if that’s all men can amount to.
When others say, “this is just the way things are,” feminists say, “this is not the way things have to be.” We believe in men. We believe another world is possible. We believe we have the power to create that world.
Jesus called us out of our comfort zone and away from the path of least resistance. In fact, Jesus believed in our capacity to change, to make progress towards justice, and to enact the will of God on earth, so much so that he proclaimed in John 14:12,
“Truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”
Let us live as change-agent Christians who love and live radically in Jesus’ name! May we be courageous opponents of patriarchy. May we follow the example of the trailblazers who paved the way before us in the women’s movement. May we be unafraid to name ourselves feminists!
*See original article on CBE International's blog HERE*
Our character as human beings is determined by what we do when no one is watching. When no one is watching, many in the church are watching porn.
Pornography has been declared a “public health crisis” by political officials. At least a third of US men self-identify as being addicted to it. In April, Time magazine featured a front-page article exposing the harmful impact of porn on society.
Despite this, two-thirds of practicing Christians feel no guilt about their porn use. What does this extreme level of consumption (and lack of guilt about it) say about the condition of the church as a whole?
For readers unfamiliar with the state of modern porn—it looks less like sex and more like sexual assault. Unlike yesterday’s softcore porn industry, mainstream porn today is definitively hardcore—exploitative videos saturated with physical violence, bondage, verbal abuse, sadism, brutality, humiliation, and degradation.
Women’s pain is the cornerstone of porn, and the industry derives both pleasure and profit from it.
Porn delivers an endless assortment of cruelty, divided into categories based on the (mostly male) viewer’s fetish. Regardless of its diversity, porn has a common theme: women are objects.
In one genre of porn, these objects ask nothing, say nothing, and offer nothing but exist to meet the demands of men. They always smile, always obey, and always eagerly embrace their subordinate status.
The other popular genre of porn eroticizes women’s agony and makes no attempt to conceal its fascination with female suffering. Instead, the pornographer zooms in. Some sites even boast about their original content of “real sexual abuse scenes.” Just to illustrate, last week, I typed in “rape porn” on Google. There were 122,000,000 search results. That number increases daily.
Let that number sink in.
One hundred and twenty-two million search results, many of them real rape videos.
As I speak with churches, I find they are overwhelmed by the effects of porn on their congregations: sexualization of children, widespread addiction, abusive sexual practices, infidelity, broken marriages, intimacy problems, sexual violence, domestic violence, and trafficking.
In the struggle to address pornography and other forms of men’s violence against women, the church is either missing the glaringly obvious cause, or intentionally ignoring it.
I am often asked by the church, “How could this be happening?”
My question in return is always, “How could this not be happening?”
Pornography and all forms of sexist violence will continue to prevail until the church purges itself of deeply patriarchal values and practices. In identifying the root cause (patriarchy), we also find the solution. If the harm of patriarchy is acknowledged, the damage reconciled, and the system dismantled, the church can begin to heal. There is no other way.
Whether in the church, the world, or the porn industry, women are constantly reminded of their supposed “place.” The messaging of objectification is more subtle in the church, and it’s often wrapped neatly in spiritual language. But women don’t need to be naked and videotaped to be objectified.
Youth group sermons on purity tell a woman the greatest gift she can give to her husband is her untainted sexuality—a gift she is told will be the pinnacle of her existence, second only to having children. Her small group options include crafting or a Captivating study on using femininity to “entice” a husband. She is told she is beautiful, certainly, but she is told little else. At the same time, she learns that her body is dangerous and will tempt men to sin.
She hears the pastor gush at the pulpit about how “hot” his wife is, but he doesn’t mention how brilliant, talented, strong, insightful, or passionate his spouse is. A woman's voice is often only validated in relation to, or in the presence of men. She is encouraged to enthusiastically celebrate her supposed “equal dignity and value” won through Christ, yet is constantly excluded from using her gifts of leadership, pastoring, and preaching.
The examples could go on and on. She represents all of us who were/are subject to patriarchal/complementarian theology. The idea of “equality” between women and men in the church is illusory and empty when women hold no real power. If women’s purpose in the church is to support the men who are doing the “important things” women aren’t allowed to do, all claims of equality are rendered meaningless.
Many women don’t feel like human beings in the body of Christ. Many feel like objects. Some even feel like slaves, kept in chains by patriarchy.
Sociologist Robert Jensen describes pornography as “a mirror” that reflects our patriarchal culture. Porn imitates the patriarchal values we often find in the church. There is a striking overlap between pornography and patriarchy if we take a closer look in that mirror.
Both pornography and patriarchy tell us that men naturally dominate and women naturally submit. Pornography and patriarchy silence the voices of women. Pornography and patriarchy extinguish women’s gifts. Pornography and patriarchy exalt power, inequality, and control. And both pornography and patriarchy ultimately deny the humanity of both women and men.
From the start, God revealed a different narrative—the unshakeable dignity and equality of women in Genesis. It was sin that corrupted, sin that created patriarchy.
Fast forward to the New Testament. The gospel exposes the consequences of propping up worldly desires of power, control, lust, greed, and violence. Jesus’ deliberate rebellion against these patriarchal values is evident throughout his ministry. Jesus reminds us that patriarchal, power-centric values have no place in his kingdom.
His radical, counter-cultural response should be of no surprise to Christ-followers.
Jesus gives us infinitely more than what the world has to offer: love instead of lust, liberation instead of enslavement, bravery instead of fear, justice instead of oppression.
The church has a responsibility to do the same: to re-reveal the humanity of women and demonstrate their value. The church must move beyond equality in theory to equality in practice.
Only then will the church be released from the bondage of pornography, addiction, and global enslavement. Only then will people lift open hands to God instead of clinging tightly to power and hierarchy. Only then will the body of Christ truly reflect the beauty of Jesus’ mission.
We must recognize, once and for all, that there is a cost to benching half the church. There is a cost to consuming porn. There is a cost to marginalizing women. There is a cost to the betraying silence of the church. And ultimately, the cost is women’s lives.
Combatting patriarchy within the church is not optional—it is an emergency.
 Gary Wilson, Your Brain On Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction (UK: Commonweath Press, 2014), 73.
 Josh McDowell, “Porn in the Digital Age: New Research Reveals 10 Trends” Barna, April 6, 2016. Accessed July 25, 2016. https://www.barna.org/research/culture-media/research-release/porn-in-the-digital-age-new-research-reveals-10-trends#.V5uEzfmAOko
 Robert Jensen, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (Brooklyn: South End Press, 2007), 16.