Christians Rescuing Trafficked Victims and Helping Sex Workers: same thing??

On Friday night, I had the privilege of attending a very special celebration for a non-profit called Abeni. This name means “girl prayed for”, representative of the heart of this faith based organization, that offers spiritual support to girls in the sex industry.

“Hang on, what?” you might ask “spiritual support to girls in the sex industry?”

Well yes, actually. You heard right. I had a chance to have one-on-one chats with Board members to discuss challenges that girls in the sex industry face in L.A., and ways in which the church can help. The thing is, most of the momentum is towards rescuing victims – something I also support. I recently blogged here about abused minors in the porn industry after learning shocking facts on how porn captures users and subjects alike. There are many real stories of girls in developing nations who find themselves in terrible, terrible circumstances – basically, enslaved in the West.

However, the reason there is a sex industry trafficking victims is because there are adults putting their energy behind building one.

Due to their simultaneous emphasis upon rescuing women from sex work AND their use of the sex industry, reports show development workers are increasingly cautious about aligning with and supporting Christian ministries. Meanwhile these ministries are raising millions of dollars towards trafficked victims. The irony is that many of the same individuals and families are addicted to porn, and using prostitutes.

But the greatest problem, according to researchers? The skewed stereotypes that Christian ministries use to portray sex workers. Most images presented are “girl who does not have a choice” or “girl who arrives at the industry due to financial circumstance” — but Christians absolutely refuse to admit “girl who wants to become a prostitute”, “girl who feels empowered by sex work” and “girl who has a sexual addiction and uses prostitution as her outlet”.

Here’s an image posted by a group of my friends yesterday.

1150800_10151649470831230_1135366192_nIt’s a group of great men riding to raise money for trafficked victims. It’s taken in Belgium. Behind them is a semi-naked female body. The initial instagram posts were simply informative, evocative and used to raise awareness and monetary support for the ride. Honestly? it doesn’t even look real to me – it seems to be a lingerie mannequin.

There’s definitely no way to know through the image alone that this female figure was forced into exposing herself, or that she is naked against her will, held to the window i.e. that she is “trafficked”. But it quickly became a symbol online as people reposted it on their own pages. I watched things quickly decline on facebook, with Christians saying things like this:

“it’s so sad!”

“disgusting”

“how revolting”

My issue is not with the initial post. And so I don’t feel I need to identify where it came from, because I want to say positive things about this great organization when I do. Maybe you know the source, and that’s fine. My issue is with the wide-scale Christian social media response to sex trafficking, and using a naked female form as iconic of that work.

I have a problem with the way words convey moral judgements about female sexuality to a watching world. Unless everyone else received a manual explaining how to read this image, it’s just a lady (with no arms) in her bra and undies, caught behind a group of cyclists. There’s nothing disgusting about it.

If we communicate that a lingerie mannequin is “disgusting”, “revolting”, “sad”, then why on earth would a sex worker want to turn up at church? accept a bible? have a conversation with a pastor about their values?

We have to be really careful we don’t put capes on and fly to the rescue of people who do not want help. It’s counter-intuitive.

Imagine I was convinced that most porn was accessed through mobile phones. Then, I came to you and said “I’m going to rescue you from the terrible effect of your mobile phone”. You would probably initially humor me, and then you’d say “Um… you’re crazy! My mobile phone is very useful, and I don’t need rescuing from it. Go away”. Then, imagine I gathered a group of people to come back and to say to you “You must stop using your mobile phone”. Imagine if I grew a community committed to communicating the evil of mobile phones, and posted value statements about your mobile phone as “sad”, “disgusting”, and “revolting”. You would say to yourself, “I need protection from this group of people”, and you’d start building walls to ensure that you never saw my group of friends again. What if you turned around and realized that it was your mobile phone causing you problems? You would definitely not come talk to me, or my friends. Trust is a huge issue, and it is broken with actions that convey condemnation.

In the same way, sex work fulfills many functions of real women. That’s why Abeni was created… to try and listen to what sex workers actually need and want, and find ways to support them. Every single girl in the sex industry has a story, and all are different. By all means, support the ending of human slavery and trafficking! But if you also want to reach a wider group, that of sex workers, donate at this site: http://www.abeni.org.

I can vouch for the fact that Abeni cares about sex workers as individuals with a multitude of stories. And that’s saying something special.

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