Sex trafficking is the work of the devil, and it’s all around you.
With some caution, and even reluctance, let me offer you a very concrete and very real picture of what this means. Kim (not actual name) is 18 years old and has been prostituted all around the United States since she was 13. She has been sexually abused and assaulted more times than she can count. The first abuser and rapist was her father, followed by her brother, two of her mother’s boyfriends, and a new step-father.
She ran away from home at 13 to live with her 18-year-old boyfriend, who groomed her to be a prostitute through his friends. He abused her and then sold her to another pimp when she was 14. This man got her pregnant soon after buying her, and he gave the baby to his family so that Kim had to stay with him and do whatever he demanded in order to see her baby.
Over the next few years, paying men forced themselves on her every night. She has been kidnapped, tortured, and on more than one occasion threatened with death. Over the last five years, she has been abused by thousands of men and women. Beneath it all, the guilt, shame, and sense of defilement she feels is overwhelming, and she has often wanted to end her life. But then she wouldn’t be around for her daughter, and that has kept her from committing suicide.
How can Christians and churches care for a woman like Kim? Should we point her to non-Christian social workers for “getting help” and then invite her to church when she is more stable? Do we send her to progressive churches that offer self-esteem therapy sprinkled with religious language? Do we shrug our shoulders and assume she is beyond help?
If none of these options are correct, how do gospel-centered Christians draw a woman like Kim to the full hope, healing, and promises of the gospel of Jesus?
TRAFFICKING: MODERN-DAY SLAVERY ABROAD AND NEXT DOOR
Kim’s story is horribly tragic, but sadly common. The average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over 300,000 American children are at risk for sexual exploitation, and that an estimated 199,000 incidents of sexual exploitation of minors occur every year within the United States.
Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. It is defined as the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or taking of people by means of threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception for the purpose of exploiting them.
The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million people are trafficked annually. The U.S. State Department estimates an even higher number: about 12.3 million adults and children “in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution around the world.” Human trafficking deprives people of their human rights and freedoms, is a global health risk, and fuels organized crime.
Victims of trafficking are forced into labor or sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking is one of the most profitable forms of trafficking and involves many kinds of sexual exploitation, such as prostitution, pornography, bride trafficking, and the commercial sexual abuse of children. According to the United Nations, sex trafficking brings in an estimated $32 billion a year worldwide. In the U.S., sex trafficking brings in $9.5 billion annually.
The United States is a significant destination country for international trafficking: foreign women and children are transported into the United States for purposes of sexual and labor exploitation. The U.S. State Department estimates that approximately eighteen thousand foreign nationals are trafficked annually into the United States. Victims come from Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa. Most such women and children are forced to work in massage parlors, commercial or residential brothels, escort services, and strip clubs.
Sex trafficking also happens to United States citizens within U.S. borders. The Department of Justice estimates that more than 250,000 American children are at risk for trafficking into the sex industry annually. The average age of entry for girls into street prostitution, again, is between 12 and 14.
Traffickers coerce women and children to enter the commercial sex industry through a variety of recruitment techniques, such as the lure of love, protection, wealth, designer clothes, fancy cars, and exclusive nightclubs. Pimps move from city to city looking for children and young women who are easy prey—the lonely, desperate, and alienated. They particularly target runaway, homeless, and foster-care children. Often these children have run away from home in order to flee incest and other forms of abuse.
Once a pimp moves a victim from her hometown into a strange city, he can easily force her to work as a prostitute. Thousands of children and women are victimized in this way every year.
PROCLAIMING LIBERTY TO CAPTIVES
My wife and I have been involved in reaching out to victims of the sex trafficking industry for a number of years. In the summer of 2009, I was finishing my sixth year of teaching in the University of Virginia’s sociology department, specializing in violence against women. My wife Lindsey was working as a case manager for sexual assault and domestic violence victims. We both cared deeply about the issues of sexual assault and sex trafficking.
We knew that many churches are not aware of, comfortable with, or equipped to confront these issues, and we knew the pitfalls of churches making social justice their primary mission—to the detriment of gospel proclamation. Still, we loved the idea of serving in a place where the fight against sex trafficking and sexual abuse was treated as a natural outgrowth of the gospel ministry, not a replacement for it. We believe that wherever the gospel of Jesus is preached, lives will be transformed, healed, and freed. People who have been freed from spiritual slavery to sin will in turn want to proclaim freedom to others who are still in bondage, of whatever kind.
That summer we received a call from Mark Driscoll, founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Washington State is a hotbed for sex trafficking, with its major shipping ports and the important north-south Interstate 5 corridor. Sophisticated criminal networks smuggle thousands of people from around the world into and out of Washington. Seattle itself is one of the top cities in the United States for underage prostitution. Mars Hill Church wanted to expand its ministry to victims of sexual abuse and was also open to starting an outreach ministry to combat sex trafficking.
When the offer came, it didn’t take long for my wife and me to make the decision: we were moving to Seattle. Not only was Seattle a strategic place to fight sex slavery, but we also knew that Mars Hill Church was Bible-preaching, Christ-focused, and gospel-based, so this important humanitarian work would be framed rightly as a fruit of the proclamation of the gospel.
Soon after we had settled into our new home in Seattle, my wife and I finished writing a book on gospel hope and healing for victims of sexual assault called Rid of My Disgrace. Around this time, we met with leaders and deacons of the church who were interested in starting an outreach ministry to women and girls working on the streets.
Under the authority of the Mars Hill elders and spearheaded by one of our deacons, a ministry called REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade) was born. Volunteer teams of church members were trained to go out in the evenings, strike up conversations with the women and girls, offer practical help, and invite them to church. Rather than immediately launching into either evangelism or rescue attempts, the teams learned how to navigate the difficult waters of coercion, dependence, and mistrust that often ensnare workers in the sex trade. This approach seeks to build relationships and trust that ultimately lead to opportunities for real help and for sharing the gospel.
REST organized teams of female volunteers to visit known track areas, strip clubs, massage parlors, and bikini barista stands (a growing Seattle phenomenon). While these venues do not, strictly speaking, provide prostitution, they often serve as gateways to more serious forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. REST also built teams to do weekly Bible studies at a juvenile detention center to reach at-risk girls, teams to help and counsel men who are trying to buy sex, and teams to regularly pray for the battle.
The fruit of these initial efforts was very encouraging: many women and girls escaped the trade, connected to the church, and gave their lives to Jesus. Some immediately began serving with REST to help others escape the sex trade. Others, however, demonstrated how difficult it is to leave a pimp because of the coercive emotional and psychological control they experience.
In late 2011 our church decided to spin off REST as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that worked alongside the church in order to invite Christians and churches outside Mars Hill to participate and thus allow us to pool resources rather than compete. Mars Hill leaders and members continue to serve on the board and in outreach, but this institutional separation allows REST to pursue fundraising from outside sources and to work more easily with other churches and with secular agencies where appropriate. There are also plans to expand the outreach teams and to create temporary housing for girls as they attempt to transition out of the sex trade.
Historically, the Christian church has at its best been known for its exemplary love and sacrificial service to “the least of these”—the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. The 4th-century church provides one example:
In his attempt to reestablish Hellenic religion in the empire, [the Emperor] Julian instructed the high priest of the Hellenic faith to imitate Christian concern for strangers. Referring to Christianity as “atheism,” he asked, “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?” He therefore instructed the priest to establish hostels for needy strangers in every city and also ordered a distribution of corn and wine to the poor, strangers, and beggars. “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”
Similarly, in more recent history, Christians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led the charge for the abolition of slavery, again providing a strong apologetic for the Christian faith and visibly embodying Jesus’ mission to proclaim liberty to captives. The growth of modern-day slavery in the heinous form of sex trafficking is another opportunity for Christians to take the gospel to those who are most in need, provide an alternative community centered on Jesus to the marginalized and oppressed, and show the transformative power of the gospel to the watching world.
Moreover, responding to this epidemic in our communities is a way the church can practice the charge of James to practice “pure religion” (James 1:27) by caring for vulnerable women and children.
SIX WAYS CHURCHES AND INDIVIDUALS CAN FIGHT SEX TRAFFICKING
Many churches may not have the resources to start a ministry like REST. But there are still many ways to help. Here are six ways churches and individual Christians can help fight sex trafficking:
- The single most important step is to get informed and inform others about the prevalence of the sex trade right under our noses, not only in cities, but also in the suburbs. A recommended reading list on human trafficking can be found here on the Resurgence.
- Read our book Rid of My Disgrace to learn about the effects of sexual assault and sex trafficking, and the hope and healing for victims that is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
- Support organizations that are fighting trafficking: a) REST; b) International Justice Mission; c) Love146; d) Not For Sale; e) Unearthed Pictures; f) Abolition International.
- Get involved.
- Be an informed consumer.
- Join a local or state anti-trafficking group.
EPILOGUE: KIM’S STORY CONTINUES
After meeting some REST volunteers, Kim started coming to Mars Hill Church and getting connected to healthy community. Through REST, she was offered a safe place to stay where she could begin healing. Though she struggled on and off with going back into prostitution, she has found freedom and hope in Jesus for the first time. She is now actively involved in reaching other girls who are trapped in the sex industry with the message of Jesus and the freedom of the gospel.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary.
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