It is impossible to tell someone one time that she is valuable and for her to treasure those words in her heart forever. It is impossible to tell someone one time that you love her and yet do nothing to show her what love is. And it is impossible to “save” a victim of trafficking simply by knocking on her door one time, asking her to walk out of a brothel and doing nothing more.
While numerous surveys of women in prostitution and trafficking show that most of them want to leave the life, other studies have shown that, on average, it takes a woman in prostitution six attempts before she can successfully leave and start a different life. Why this discrepancy?
Sometimes it is because of coercion. There may be a pimp, a trafficker, or a so-called boyfriend refusing to let her leave, sometimes applying physical and certainly emotional pressure on her to stay or come back. Sometimes it is because there is no place to go. In the U.S., one of the greatest challenges to women in prostitution is that they don’t have safe housing apart from their pimps. They often have criminal records so they can’t get a job or have difficulty qualifying for low-cost housing or welfare programs that help them get back on their feet. They go back to their abusers because they don’t know where else to go.
And sometimes it is because they have been told all their lives that this is all that they are good for—to make money for others by selling their bodies–and that their worth is based on how much money they can make. These lies pervade the commercial sex industry; even where there is no physical force being employed, the emotional force, the lack of other options, the pressure from her family or boyfriend is enough to keep her in a place of exploitation.
In Cambodia, we have been working with young women who are not physically restrained from leaving the karaoke bars and beer gardens where they work. In fact, they live off premises and, depending on their managers, they can choose whether or not to go home with a client at night. It is well understood, however, that beer gardens and karaoke bars are where men go to find sex for hire, and it is also understood that the young woman will not make a living wage without the tips they get from their clients.
Our job here is to fight sex trafficking, but it does not mean that we are knocking down brothel doors and carrying young women out to safe housing. No, here it means going out and meeting these young women. It means talking to them, building relationships with them, sharing with them new ideas—ideas about what they could do instead, and, more importantly, new ideas about where their value really lies. It is not in how much they receive in tips but in their inherent value as people, as daughters and creations of God.
It is an uphill battle. Many of these young women have been raised to believe that this is their role. Most, if not all, send a fair sum of money home to their families every month. The families often put immense pressure on them to remain in the bars. Many of them have grown up to believe that their entire worth is dependent on how much money they earn.
There are some young women who leave. We have several young women currently living with us at our center, Rahab’s House, and we are working with them to find good, well-paying jobs, to get them vocational and academic training, and, most importantly, to help them see how valuable they really are.
It is worthless to meet a young woman and to tell her one time that she is priceless. This doesn’t translate. Even though the young women who are at Rahab’s House might have left because they started to believe us and want a different life, they still deal with the family and cultural pressure to make more money fast.
The only thing that works, what the work of fighting trafficking is, is day in and day out showing young women that they are valuable and showing them what love is. It is the daily demonstration that we love them, not just in word but also in deed, showing them what real love is—that it is sacrifice and consistency, being there. It means speaking and living out truth in areas where so much of their lives have been filled with lies. It means showing them through love that they are valuable because they are daughters of Christ.
At the risk of sounding trite, remind the women in your life today that they are valuable. We fight trafficking and all forms of sexual exploitation by speaking truth about women to women, by helping them know and live in the truth about themselves. Too much of sexual violence today remains hidden because it is shrouded in shame for the victims. Too many women–our friends, sisters, even our mothers and our daughters–live in a cloud of guilt which should be on their abuser and not themselves. Confidence and a strong sense of identity come not just from one person, saying one thing, one time. Rather, they come from knowing real love from the people who give input into our lives and ultimately, having our identity firmly rooted in Christ.