Disrupting Demand

This was a good week, but a draining one. We volunteered at this year’s Juveline Sex Trafficking Conference in Cincinnati. And now we’re exhausted. Physically and emotionally. And we’re also fired up, encouraged to continue fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves.

It was a long drive from North Carolina to Ohio. And the days were long too, as we showed up early to help with registration, assisting other attendees, responding to technical problems, and answering endless questions as best we could. Between our assigned tasks we attended as many sessions as possible. There were sessions on gang trafficking, online predators, legislative actions, the role of law enforcement, trauma awareness, decriminalization, trafficking in the foster system, and on and on and on. More than 70 sessions in the course of three days.

Beyond the crowds and the noise and the business of the conference, there was an ever-present reminder that this work we do is deeply human. Many in attendance were survivors of trafficking and sexual abuse. And many of those have used their experience to help others escape or recover from their own situations.

One of the main focal points of the conference this year was reducing the demand for commercial sex in all it’s forms, from prostitution to online porn. Historically this has been a seemingly futile effort, as it’s largely considered an individual, internal, personal choice. After all, prostitutes are there voluntarily, possibly because they have a child to provide for, or medical bills they can’t pay, or maybe they have an expensive drug addiction. Girls who pose for online porn are able to pay for college with their earnings. And they can stop any time and go on to live lives of freedom and prosperity with their hard-earned degrees. If anything, becoming a consumer of commercial sex is, in a way, helping them survive. Right? These are the arguments we’ve heard over and over again from those who see the tip of the iceberg.

But we’re at a point in this fight where the information is all starting to come together into one very large, cohesive picture. And it’s getting harder to ignore the truth.

Let me try to explain…

As the anti-trafficking community has invested countless hours and dollars to research in the past several years, we have found that the vast, vast majority of girls involved in all aspects of commercial sex are actually victims of earlier crimes and trauma. Some experience physical and sexual abuse at the hands of family or family friends. Some are abandoned at a young age and left to navigate the shark-infested waters of life alone. Some come from seemingly great families but were enticed by a predator when they were in their most vulnerable and insecure stage of life. 

Whatever the circumstances, the one thing we never seem to find is an adult prostitute devoid of prior trauma, who just woke up one morning and thought, “You know, this seems like a great career choice.”

Do you understand what that means?

If you have ever dismissed that wild-eyed, drug-addicted, dirty, nasty-looking streetwalker as a waste of life, I’m talking to you. And you know what? I’m talking to me too, because I’ve had those thoughts. But now I’ve learned that there is more to her story.

The implication of our current understanding is this: That virtually every soul who owns a body that is sold for any reason, with or without their consent, is a soul that is deeply wounded and in need of compassion.

Even when they are addicted to meth.

Even when they have AIDS.

Even when they are uneducated, dirty, rude, and angry.

And yes, even when they look perfectly normal, well-adjusted, and happy. Like they want to be there. 

Because friends, you do not know what led them to that place. You don’t know, and you probably could never imagine.

And this leads us back to the issue of demand.

Simply put, if there is no demand, there is no need for supply. Don’t kid yourself, this is NOT about sex. It’s about money. And it always has been. Remove the money and there’s no market.

When it comes to prostitution, this is an easy concept to grasp. Just…don’t hire a prostitute. It’s also easy to take this concept down the line a bit. Don’t go to strip clubs. Don’t go to illicit massage parlors.

For most of us, this is something we can get behind. How many of us have even seriously considered any of the above offenses?

But here’s where it gets more personal: Don’t use porn.

“Oh, I don’t. I mean, sometimes I look at naked pictures, but none of that hard stuff.”

Right. Guys…that’s porn. Stop it. And ladies, you too. Stop it. Female porn addiction is becoming shockingly prevalent, and it feeds into the same systematic exploitation of the vulnerable.

I’m not going to tell you to stop using porn because it’s bad for you. Or Because it’ll destroy your family. Or because it’ll warp your view of sex and women in ways you’ll never recover from. You wouldn’t listen to any of that. I know, because you’ve heard it all before and it hasn’t changed a thing. In one ear, out the other. What I will tell you is that when you visit pornographic websites, they get money. From you. Because of you. Even if you don’t use your credit card, they are paid by advertisers.

And guess what, folks? That makes YOU a buyer of commercial sexual exploitation.

Let that sink in for a minute.

I’ll accept that some of you out there have a personal moral compass that allows you to do whatever you want in the privacy of your own home. But what I won’t accept is your belief that it’s ok to contribute to the abuse and exploitation of another human being for your own personal pleasure.

In the past, we got around these murky waters by believing that these girls all participate willingly. And on the surface, yes, they do. But dig deeper, and you’ll almost always find a person who is trapped by the circumstances of her life. Desperate for answers. Desperate for hope. Doing the only thing she feels she can do to survive.

Can you say, with absolute certainty, that the sexy girl on your screen doesn’t cry herself to sleep at night? Wondering how her life turned out this way? Feeling worthless, because the only thing anyone wants from her is her body?

Can you say, with absolute certainty, that the young girl on your screen is not a desperate 16-year-old posing as a young adult? Do you know for sure that she didn’t run away from a sexually abusive father, only to find herself homeless and starving on the streets before being lured into taking nude photos in order to survive?

Can you ever know their stories? Or do you just ignore the fact that behind most of those bodies you look at are deeply hurting human beings? And the only reason they are there, is because you continue to look.

If you have any compassion whatsoever, this is what I want you to think next time you’re tempted to open that “Incognito” tab.

“Am I contributing in any way to the emotional, sexual or physical abuse of the girls on my screen?”

You know the answer, don’t you?

Maybe you didn’t know yesterday, but you know now.

To the men out there, I have this message: For a long time now, toxic masculinity has been the only form of masculinity we talk about. After generations of abusing our position of power, we’re under pressure to denounce our masculinity entirely. Let me suggest an alternative. Men, let’s take back the best parts of our masculinity. We are fierce warriors. Protectors. Providers. We sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. It’s not enough for us to stop doing toxic things. We need to rise up and start doing what we were made to do. We need to take a stand against those who exploit the vulnerable. Stop ignoring the locker room comments because you’re “non-confrontational”. Stop it. Be a man and say something. You can’t take a little confrontation? Are you so fragile that your personal comfort is more important than the wellbeing of those who can’t defend themselves? If you’re worried because the guy bragging about his abuse of women is bigger than you, think about how she must feel. Be a man. Take the hit if you must, for calling him out on his inexcusable actions. You’re a big boy, you’ll survive. But stop walking away in fear, making excuses about your own risk when you know someone more vulnerable than you has no one on their side.

And men, this extends to ALL vulnerable people. You are free to disagree with someone’s lifestyle. But don’t use that as an excuse to ignore their abuse and exploitation. Real men put themselves on the line for the sake of others, without first judging if they’re worthy of help.

I’ll say it again: It’s not enough for us to stop doing the wrong thing. We have to actively confront evil whenever it appears.

This applies to us all. But for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have an even greater responsibility. Because the one you claim to follow told us that the most important commandments are to love God, and love others as much as we love ourselves. Or our daughters. Or our wives. Would you stand up for your own daughter, Christian? Why, then, would you ever dream of walking away from an opportunity to defend someone else’s daughter? Christian, you have been bought with a price. You are not your own. Jesus commanded us to love others. Turning a blind eye to abuse is not loving. Allowing evil men to continue hurting the vulnerable is not loving to either the men or their victims.

There is no honor in being passive, keeping the peace, and “just getting along” in these situations. There is only shame for failing to do what you know is right. Imagine trying to explain yourself to Jesus. Imagine claiming that being passive in the face of evil is “Christlike”. Friends, Jesus was not one to pull his punches. You can read all about it in the best-selling book of all time. He called it as it was, every time. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “Child, I love you, I’ll die for you, but I just can’t get involved. I can’t intervene. I don’t want to cause trouble.”

Jesus did not walk the earth as a coward. Do you?

I hope you’re fired up. I hope you’re angry over the injustice so many girls, and even boys, are facing today. But don’t live on emotion. Make a commitment to action that will endure once the anger fades. In your moments of weakness, never forget the soul on the other side of the computer screen. Imagine what her story (or his story) might be. Hold onto that thought, and fight the temptation with all the strength you have. And when that’s not enough, find someone to fight it with you.

I know you don’t want to be the kind of person who exploits others. So don’t close your eyes and pretend that pornography isn’t exploitation. Let’s kill the demand. Let’s destroy the market. Let’s protect the vulnerable.

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