Why Sex Still Dominates Christian Focus On Human Trafficking

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In 2008 I first entered seminary and quickly found myself passionate about justice issues with a fervor I hadn’t experienced before. The issue that ended up blinking the brightest on my justice radar was the issue of human trafficking– something often reported to be the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. What had long been carried by secular circles had quickly become a Christian issue, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor early on.

The idea that human trafficking– otherwise known as modern slavery– was happening in my day and time was something that was shocking to me, and continues to be for many. The initial human trafficking narrative I was introduced to was a powerful one: hundreds upon thousands of women and girls being forced into sex slavery, both here and abroad. My initial interest in the issue continued to be fueled by a growing popularity in the media, leading me to devour television spots with names like, “Sex Slaves in the Suburbs” and the like. I was hooked on the narrative I was sold; it’s a powerful narrative.

Within a few years I found myself doing my doctoral research in this area, and I began to see the issue of human trafficking far beyond anything I had anticipated.

One of the most pressing truths I have come to see in the world of human trafficking is that Christian focus on the issue of modern slavery is still centered around, and dominated by, the same narrative it was in 2008: sex. While human trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation is heinous and in need of attention, what I came to realize over the years is that we as Christians have focused disproportionately on a very narrow slice of the human trafficking pie– the piece with sex all over it. And this, I fear, is a glaring omission– for which there are reasons.

While scandalous television programs play up the narrative of sex slaves in your neighborhood, the reality is that human trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation encompasses only 21.43% of all human trafficking cases (see ILO data). That means the vast majority– a whopping 78.57% of modern day slavery isn’t for sexual exploitation at all, but for the exploitation of labour. While not to minimize the 21% that is commercial sexual exploitation– it is an evil we must stop– I have grown concerned that the vast majority of Christian attention and efforts have been aimed at the smaller of the two sides of modern day trafficking.

The question becomes, why? I think there are two main reasons:

First, there’s the issue of sex. Sex sells and gets people’s attention. In addition, narratives that center around sex fit nicely into Christian purity culture. The only thing worse than someone willingly giving up their purity is someone forced to give it away, so it becomes a no-brainer partner of purity culture.

Furthermore, I think there’s a sizable number of Christians who found in human trafficking empowerment to wage a culture war against anything connected to the adult entertainment industry/ sex industry– though I’m not sure many of them consciously realize it. Once one accepts the not-exactly-true narrative that “most of them are doing it against their will,” it becomes blanket permission for a broader culture war that isn’t so much about ending modern slavery as it is about policing purity. Now, this isn’t to say that all Christians are in it for motives other than ending slavery– I know many, many who are in it for the right motives, but I think we should work to honestly answer the question as to why the Christian focus on trafficking has been so one-sided. The issues of sex and policing purity are among the answers that can’t be swept under the rug.

Second, and here’s the ginormous beam in our eye: if we focused on doing something about labour trafficking, we’d have to change how we’re living.

While it’s easy to say, “let’s end the demand for commercial sex!” it’s much harder to say, “let’s end the demand for cheap food and clothing.” It’s easy to cast judgment on a John who buys sex, without acknowledging that you and I are the Johns of labour trafficking.

 A host of our every-day products are all tainted with human trafficking. Chocolate, coffee, your shrimp at Walmart, your gold, diamonds, clothing, the palm oil your fast food was cooked in, the list is almost endless. Just go spend a few minutes surfing around Slavery Footprint, Free 2 Work, or a host of other resources you could find on your own, and what you’ll discover is that a lot of what you and I buy is tainted with human trafficking. The vast majority of modern slaves are in chains not for sex, but so that you and I can save a few bucks at the store.

So this is the question as Christians we need to be asking: why are we focusing on the 21% and almost ignoring the 78?

Yes, trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation is evil– and we must continue to address this form of modern slavery.

However, we cannot ignore the vast majority of human trafficking victims: the ones who work for us.

So, the next time you watch one of those Sex Slaves in the Suburb shows and look with disgust at the Johns out on the street trolling for sex, just remember: you and I are the Johns of the vast majority of human trafficking. Until we’re willing to stop purchasing slave tainted products, we might do well to re-think our disproportionate focus on the smaller side of human trafficking- lest we be hypocrites.

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