I was at a conference about a week ago about prostitution and human trafficking, listening to Rachel Lloyd, author of Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls are Not for Sale, and the founder and executive director of GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Service), a program that helps girls in prostitution leave the life in New York. Her talk that morning focused on the need for survivor leadership in the anti-human trafficking movement—that views about women in prostitution have gradually begun to shift, and must continue to do so, from criminals to victims, from victims to survivors, from survivors to victors, and from victors to leaders. She is herself a survivor, a victor and a leader, and I was inspired.
Later I was sitting in on a workshop at the same conference which was led by several other survivor-leaders. They talked about their work—in providing services to women in prostitution, in partnering with law enforcement to help other women in prostitution successfully receive services and get out of the life, in social media, literary and research-based activism. And I was inspired.
Then one of the women, the founder and executive director of an organization that provides services to women trying to leave prostitution, proceeded to rail against the faith-based community. She said that churches have come to her organization with nice messages of hope with no follow-through, with exhortations to become believers without love, and with promises of something better without willingness to enter into relationship. She said that in the end, these groups that came to “help” ended up doing more damage to the women in her care than had they not come at all. And my heart was broken.
How is it that her view of the Church was such that it was her enemy in this work and not her partner? This is not to say that the whole church community is like this. I’ve seen many Christian organizations at work who are impacting lives and that are well-respected by the anti-human trafficking movement. In Sacramento, I go to The GRACE Network (TGN) meetings where a group of individuals that all represent anti-human trafficking organizations—both secular and Christian—come together to strategize, encourage, pray and share the lessons they have learned in laying down their lives for this work. Through the resources in TGN, several young women in Sacramento have been provided with host family homes where they can be safe and cared for, others have received tattoo removal services to remove the physical evidence of their time in the life, and others have received dental and health care. I remember one evening my fiancé received an email from TGN—they needed a home for a young woman who was about to age out of the youth shelter program and didn’t have a place to stay. My fiancé made a couple phone calls and found one woman who said she and her husband would pray. The couple aren’t activists and they were not specially equipped (though they have received vital support from other service providers in the area), but they simply trusted and heeded God’s call. The young woman is thriving and still living with them today.
At the same time that I know how much good the Church has done, it pains me to know that this woman’s organization and, more importantly, the women she works with, have felt so burned by groups that have come to visit her in the name of Christ. We must work harder to understand how to live out our mandate to serve, to love and to live out “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father . . . to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1: 27).
Part of this is in understanding and hearing what survivor-leaders of prostitution have to say to us. One of the women in the workshop asked the audience a question—“what do prostituted women say is their greatest need when they are first trying to leave the life?” Several answers flashed through my head. Housing. A safe place. Food. Childcare. A job. But none of these were correct. The answer was simple—that we look at her like a person.
Human trafficking is one of the hottest topics in social justice today, but somehow prostitution gets left out of the discourse. What we miss is that it isn’t just girls who are being trafficked. When a girl reaches eighteen years old, her exploitation doesn’t simply end. More importantly, we miss that pimp-controlled prostitution is essentially trafficking. Why are the women (and occasionally men) there? It’s complicated.
I work for a couple non-profits: Prostitution Research & Education, which generates academically rigorous research and spreads awareness about the need to abolish prostitution and human trafficking, and Hunt Alternatives Fund, the Demand Abolition Program, which focuses on ending the demand for commercial sex as a strategy for ending human trafficking and prostitution. I work for them because, as a Christian and a lawyer, this was one small way in which I could use my skills and my time to serve others.
Through my work, I’ve begun to learn. I’ve learned that women and girls enter prostitution because of poverty, high-pressure circumstances in which they needed quick cash, abusive homes, racism, homelessness, incest, and the erroneous cultural belief that men are for some reason entitled to buy sex. They are there because they ran away from home and a pimp found them, became their boyfriend and told them he loved them. They are there because they are told that this is the only thing they are good for.
That’s the harsh reality. While some women in prostitution are there for less than dire circumstances, for most women, that is not the case. It isn’t about empowerment or freedom, it’s about bondage and subordination. I’ve read interview after interview of young women who have been beaten by their pimps when they didn’t bring home enough money; who have been tattooed with their pimps’ names and brands; who have been beaten and raped by sex buyers when they didn’t give the buyer what he wanted; and who know of other women who have been killed while in the life.
Too, I’ve learned that women in prostitution overwhelmingly say they want to get out of the life, but studies show that for most women to leave, it takes on average six attempts to finally get out and to never go back. This doesn’t mean, however, that they want to be there. Rather, it means that it is really hard to leave—whether it is the only thing they have been told they are good for, whether their pimps are the only people who have offered to love them, whether it is their only means for making money to support their children or families, or whether it is some combination of these and myriad other reasons.
My job and our job is to recognize that prostituted women are our sisters and that we are called to love them. Period. No judgment, just love, understanding, and a willingness to hear them, learn from them, and partner with them in fighting against injustice. Even more importantly, however, that love must extend beyond trite promises. That love must be lived out, daily, consistently, and in relationship.
This is not to say that sharing Jesus with someone is a trite promise. Sharing the Gospel with someone is the very best that I have to offer to someone in need. However, it is to say that sharing the Gospel in word can become as empty and as damaging as a pimp’s promise of love IF it is not accompanied by action—actions like those of the individuals in TGN. Actions like the couple who brought in a new daughter when she didn’t have any other options. This is a challenging thought because it means that in order to live out the Gospel, we must embed ourselves in women’s lives whom society, for so long, has labeled the “other,” and to be willing to, in many ways, step outside of our comforts to engage with them and show them that we truly see them and love them as people and as sisters.
Additional Reading (in case you are interested)
I’ve learned a lot and have been greatly challenged by reading about what these brave women have to say, and I would encourage you to do the same: http://survivorsconnect.wordpress.com/ and http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/blog/the_survivors_view/.
It isn’t light reading, but the battle to end human trafficking is no light charge. Human trafficking will not end until the institution of prostitution, which allows trafficking to persist, is abolished—and it is time that we both expand the conversation as well as recognize that the “others” around us are in fact our sisters and brothers who deserve protection, love and safety.