NATURE OF THE PROBLEM
On September 9, 2010, a Missouri television station released a report detailing the arrest of four men from Southwest Missouri and one from St. Louis because of their participation in a commercial sex-trafficking conspiracy. Authorities charged them in an 11-count indictment for the sexual abuse and torture of a young, mentally deficient woman. The abuse occurred over the span of 5 years, ending only after EMTs took the victim to the hospital after she suffered cardiac arrest when her perpetrators suffocated and electrocuted her in a torture session.1
The wife of the primary exploiter later went on record to defend her husband, claiming the girl liked posing for pornographic photo shoots. She told authorities they had not forced her participation; it was consensual.
This woman’s rationale says much more about how she, and perhaps parts of our American society, view reality and truth than about the victim herself. If someone has sexually violated and tortured a teen girl as a slave day after day for years — and also by men who pay to exploit her — does the fact she has learned it is useless to fight back justify the abusive actions of the adult men who held her captive? This is only one in a disturbing number of cases in America now coming to light. Sex trafficking is no longer just a horrible issue in other nations and continents. This horror has come home to America.
Over the last several years, the U.S. State Department has estimated that traffickers in other countries are selling 17,000 to 18,000 women and children a year and bringing them into the United States for sexual exploitation.2 In addition, another report estimates that 100,000 American juveniles (with estimates as high as 300,000)3 a year are being trafficked annually within our nation for the purposes of sexual exploitation. These numbers are staggering indicators of the number of lives of women and children being destroyed daily by sexual slavery within the United States. They also reveal another sobering reality: There are staggering numbers of men in America who are creating the demand for these sexual services.
Many men in America are living double lives in their hidden bondage to sexual addictions, including child pornography and pedophilia. Without this demand for enslaved women and children in America, there would not be a disturbing burgeoning sex market.
HOW IS SEX TRAFFICKING FLOURISHING IN THE UNITED STATES?
Global sex trafficking tends to flow from the poorer nations — where poverty creates desperation — to the richer nations, where the affluent have money to buy and sell persons for sex. For this reason, trafficking victims generally come from poverty-stricken areas of Asia, Africa, Russian-speaking Europe, and Latin America. The receiving nations tend to be the more affluent nations of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States.4
Traffickers bring women and children into America through major cities on the East and West coasts, as well as through Mexico into the southern border states — California, Arizona, and Texas — in particular. They have “broken in” these women through gang rape, violence, and intimidation before arriving in the U.S. By the time these women arrive — often unable to speak English, traumatized through rape, and threatened should they try to run away — they easily disappear into the world of sexual slavery. Because illegal immigration has been such a volatile political topic, it was not until the last several years that law enforcement began to realize that many women and children coming into the U.S. across borders are being brought under force against their wills for sexual exploitation.
WHY WON’T SEX TRAFFICKING VICTIMS GO TO THE POLICE?
In many nations where people are trafficking women and children, should-be protectors have become predators. For example, one of the places in India where men are most likely to rape women is the police station. It is not unusual for police to hold young girls taken from brothels in a police raid for several days under international media or political pressure. After the cameras are gone, policemen violently rape the “rescued” girls and then return them to the brothels. For this reason, international trafficking victims do not turn to police for help when they arrive in America
Sex trafficking is also flourishing in the U.S. because courts are more likely to punish criminals for selling drugs than selling innocent children. Laws put the burden of proof on victims as to whether they can prove they were “forced” into sexual activity rather than on the men who buy and prostitute them. Also, drug dealers can only sell drugs once; sex traffickers can sell a woman or child over and over. Sex trafficking, especially of children and minors, is becoming a very profitable industry in America.
The average age of young girls being trafficked into prostitution in the U.S. is 12-14 years of age.5 Victims are frequently runaways, running to escape sexual violence and abuse at home or in abusive foster care homes. According to Sergeant Byron Fassett with the Dallas Police Department, a nationally recognized law enforcement expert on the issue of domestic minor sex trafficking, a history of sexual abuse seems to be one of the major contributing factors — why one child versus another child is more likely to become a victim of domestic minor sex trafficking.6
Pimps have radar for young, vulnerable teen girls on the street, who feel unloved and unvalued. They are willing to tell a girl everything she is emotionally hungry to hear. If someone has already abused her, she is willing to believe that this man “loves” her and will “take care of her.” Sadly, like all exploitation, pimps are lying. Sex trafficking begins with lies, pimps perpetuate it by lies, and it can end in violent death — all surrounded by lies.
In an extensive 2-year U.S. government-sponsored study of domestic trafficking in America (2008), researchers documented that pimps are selling America’s children for sex not only on the streets, but also through Craigslist, and at truck stops across the nation.7
WHAT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE CHURCH?
It is critical that the church become aware of the exploding trafficking issue in the United States and factors contributing to it. While the church has traditionally avoided sexually related issues, distorted sexual images and practices bombard both believers and nonbelievers in every area of American society. The church, through its age-appropriate ministries, has the opportunity to provide children, young people, and adults with healthy biblical perspectives on sexuality. If the church in 21st-century America does not address sexuality from God’s perspective, church members will by default be enculturated into distorted cultural perspectives on male-female sexuality. These contributing factors include easy access to pornography, the sexualization of children — especially young girls — an acceptance of violence toward women, and a glamorization of pimp and prostitute culture. These trends create fertile ground for sex trafficking of women and children in America.
When churches create awareness among believers, the following practical steps for action and engagement become possible:
Prevention: By including the topic of sexuality and the injustice/danger of sex trafficking in Christian education curriculum for upper elementary children, middle school, and high schoolers, the church is helping forewarn young people to the dangers of trafficking. Middle school girls are especially vulnerable if they are unhappy at home, in an unhealthy home environment, or if someone has already sexually abused them as children.
Knowledge about trafficking framed in compassionate concern for young people within our churches and communities can open doors for dialogue with vulnerable children and teens, making potential victims less at-risk for traffickers who want to victimize them. A healthy identity in Jesus Christ and understanding one’s value as a child of God created for good purposes are the greatest deterrents to exploitation.
Prayer and Intercession: In Jesus’ announced ministry mandate in Luke 4:18, His anointing not only included proclaiming the gospel but also for setting the captive free. As Pentecostal followers of Jesus, this is also the mission of the 21st-century church. However, the first step in helping men and women in sexual slavery — like any other kind of slavery — is for God’s people to pray and intercede for those in bondage in our communities. Steps for strategic intercession include:
- Praying over the areas of our cities/communities where evil reigns. This includes known areas of prostitution and drug use.
- Beginning a prayer group in the church among women with a heart for sexually exploited women and children. We must precede all action related to spiritual bondage with intentional, intensive intercession. Vision, passion, discernment, workers, and empowerment flow out of prayer.
- Beginning a prayer group among men in the church for men who are exploiters and who are themselves in sexual bondage to pornography or sexual exploitation. Jesus came to bring freedom for both women and children who are being exploited through trafficking and for the men who exploit them — whose hearts are bound with evil.
Research: Investigate what others are already doing in your community in terms of sex trafficking. Learn what respected state or national secular or faith-based organizations are already doing. Inquire of law enforcement and social services to learn if and how trafficking is occurring within your city. Is your city a city of origin, transit, or destination for victims? Bring together those in your church who are employed in law enforcement, social services, public schools, counseling, medical workers, and legal professionals to get a clearer understanding of what is happening locally. Knowing what is happening and who is already helping victims or potential victims in your community helps you understand how your church can help engage practically and share the hope and healing of Jesus Christ.
Note: Ruthless organized crime largely controls sex trafficking. You must precede any action to help victims with prayer, research, and dialogue with law enforcement professionals who work with this issue. Trafficking laws in America define how people can give help, so become aware of the legal issues surrounding your potential engagement with victims.
Examine your hearts and attitudes as followers of Jesus: As members of the body of Christ and a local church, prayerfully considering how to engage in ministry to those in sexual slavery requires us to examine our attitudes toward prostituted women and children. Do our attitudes reflect our culture’s attitudes or the heart of Jesus?
As parents, teachers, social workers, medical personnel, counselors, middle school/youth pastors, here are questions to ask ourselves:
- If a young girl of age 10 or 11 looks promiscuous or highly sexualized, how did she get that way? Little girls are not born sexualized. If they look highly sexual as a minor, something has happened to make them see themselves as sexual. Sexual abuse is not their fault or responsibility. Do we naturally blame the victim?
- Secular culture portrays child pornography as a victimless crime. How did a young girl come to be in front of the pornographer’s camera? Who or what is keeping her there? How does it destroy her future?
- If a prostituted teen or woman comes to our church, will we welcome her in our hearts and community of faith on her journey to healing and deliverance? Or, will we reject her because of personal fear and judgment? Or, is our compassion conditional, based on how she ended up in a life of prostitution?
Jesus demonstrated compassion and forgiveness for all, including prostituted women and men who exploit them. Are we, as His followers, willing and ready to extend the same grace and opportunity for forgiveness and healing?
WHY THE CHURCH MUST ENGAGE
Several years ago an official with the U.S. State Department confidentially approached me. She shared her concern that the success rates for secular agencies working with trafficking victims in America were dismally low. For that reason, she stressed that the church must become engaged with helping trafficking victims if they are to experience any long-term hope and change.
There is no full recovery, freedom, and hope from the trauma of sexual slavery without Jesus Christ. Many good secular organizations in America are helping survivors with legal, medical, political, or social services. However, since sexual slavery is more than physical slavery — it devastates the spiritual, mental, and emotional dimensions of the person as well — only Jesus Christ can bring new life, healing of body, mind, and spirit, and a new beginning for victims. Through His love and liberating truth, Jesus can make a prostituted man, woman, or child a new creation, transforming their identity into one with value as created by God. “If any man [any woman] be in Christ, he [or she] is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17, KJV). Jesus’ mission through His church is to take broken, exploited people and help them become strong, valued men and women of God.
Restoration from sexual trauma is a healing journey. This healing journey is best walked with patient people of faith who believe in God’s work in the trafficking victim’s life — people who believe in miracles and know that God is not willing that any should perish without Him. Sadly, what society offers in terms of victim services is often weeks long at best. Who better to walk with survivors of sexual exploitation than the community of faith who can pray, trust, and love on the healing journey? When social services stop, who will be there for survivors?
In the evil darkness of sexual slavery, the light and love of Jesus Christ and His people shine most brightly. A graphic description of a dark world of violence and injustice in Isaiah 59 is a frighteningly accurate portrayal of what is happening in areas of America’s cities and even small towns. God’s response to such violence and evil, however, was not avoidance but sending truth and salvation through His Son. God sent Jesus to invade the darkness of evil and redeem those in bondage to it.
In the same way, the church in America cannot allow the present darkness of sexual slavery and its related evils to intimidate it nor can the church ignore it. Rather, it is time for the church to challenge the darkness with the proclamation and engagement of Jesus Christ’s love, power, and truth. As the church does, it will see God’s raw grace at work as exploited men, women, and children find healing and freedom through Christ Jesus. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Helping trafficking victims requires an engagement of the whole gospel. Sometimes we view ministry to those victimized by sexual exploitation strictly as compassion ministry or a humanitarian endeavor of the church. The truth is, helping victims of sexual exploitation find new life requires the whole ministry to which Jesus has called the church: a transparent presentation of Jesus as Savior, Lord, and Healer integrated with Christ’s compassion expressed in practical ways to survivors. An authentic integrated compassionate ministry will see men, women, boys, and girls find healing, be set free from sexual bondage, and become redeemed brothers and sisters in the community of faith.
The Spirit-empowered church is uniquely equipped to facilitate healing for trafficking survivors. Dark spiritual power is often evident in those who have experienced years of sexual exploitation, especially victims who have been subjected to religious rituals as a part of their bondage. As a result, it is the work of the Holy Spirit through His people in discernment, wisdom, healing, faith, and deliverance that is critically needed to help the sexually exploited find deliverance and freedom. May God give His church wisdom and courage to engage in this battle for freedom.
1. http://www.kspr.com/wdaf-story-sex-trafficking-charges-090910,0,1114255.story. Accessed April 11, 2011.
2. See U.S. State Department website, sex trafficking. Accessed April 11, 2011.
3. National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children. Shared Hope International. May 2009. Executive Summary, iv. Accessed April 11, 2011.
4. See Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
5. “Statistic Snapshots” by Polaris Project. Accessed April 11, 2011
6. Statistics from the “National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” Shared Hope International (May 2009). Remarks by B. Fassett, Shared Hope International National Training Conference on the Sex Trafficking of America’s Youth.
7. Kimberly Kotrla, “Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking in the United States” (2010). Also, L. Smith, (2008, July) in her keynote address delivered at Catholic Charities Anti-Human Trafficking Training, San Antonio, Texas.