Surprise! Evangelical Efforts Against Sex-Trafficking are “Colonialist”!

Surprise! Evangelical Efforts Against Sex-Trafficking are “Colonialist”! January 24, 2013

Editor’s Note: Erik Campano has been conducting a series of interviews for Patheos around the issue of human trafficking. I’ll publish more of those soon. One particularly provocative interview was published over at the News and Politics Channel, of Yvonne Zimmerman. Zimmerman is quite critical of evangelical anti-trafficking efforts, in part because they focus on those who are trafficked for sex instead of those who are trafficked for labor, and in part because they apparently assume a (presumably oppressive) evangelical understanding of sex and sexuality. You see, removing women (or in most cases, little girls) from situations in which they are raped, often violently, many times a day, unfairly assumes that they do not want to be raped over and over every day. Apparently they might enjoy it, or at least prefer it to the lifestyle these rescue ministries provide for them. 

While I do think that the free will of those who have been abducted should be respected, for obvious reasons, (1) I would ask the young ladies more because they should understand the risks (for themselves and sometimes also for their loved ones) involved in a rescue, not because they might be perfectly fine with their lifestyle, (2) sometimes their free will has been so stomped upon (think Stockholm syndrome, or think of 13-year-old girls who are forced onto drugs in order to increase their dependency on their captors) that they’re neither able nor willing to make a mature and well informed decision, and (3) sometimes the practical circumstances may not allow for a calm conversation about the pros and cons while the slavers and pimps bring some mint tea and join the chat. I would think that rescuing the 99 who are desperate to leave would outweigh the occasional 1 (if there is a one) who truly prefers to stay. Moreover, evangelicals are committed to rescuing the sex-trafficked not because they disapprove of the sex workers’ activities but because they feel compassion for the little girls (and sometimes boys) who are raped for profit. To call this “colonialism” in another form may make for a passing dissertation but honestly it’s the kind of nonsense I fled academia to escape. In any case, I asked John Mark Reynolds if he might respond to the interview — and he did so with his usual puckish charm:


Proving the dictum that no Evangelical deed goes uncriticized in academic circles, the leadership of people like Louie Giglio in the modern abolition movement is worrying people who are in no danger of being slaves. Of course, Evangelicals were leaders and the foot soldiers, dying in their thousands, in the previous American war against slavery and were criticized for that too.

Abolitionist motives and sanity are always questioned, especially religious abolitionists. Slavers accused us of bad religion and madness. Worst still, we were “unsubtle.” Evangelical abolitionists in the nineteenth century, you see, kept ignoring the economic side of slavery and so missed the “complexity” of the issue. Now we are accused of having bad motives for our abolitionism based on our bad religion or in thinking that spiritual health matters as much as physical well being.

We are opposed to sex for sale and so hate forced prostitution disproportionally. We ignore economic slavery, because of our closet libertarianism. We are too much Rand and not randy enough, for these critics, and yet Evangelicals overwhelming know that Rand is rotten and I have never yet met a puritanical Puritan.

It is true that voluntary labor for what seems low wages to me disturbs me less than the concentration camp labor in atheist China and North Korea. I refuse to conflate voluntary labor with slavery — even if I think factory owners should pay their workers more. Scrooge is bad, but Simon Lagree is worse.

Conflation of the two was a tactic of slavers in the nineteenth century — “Northern factories are worse than our plantations for people!” — but now of those who use opposition to human trafficking to justify further expansion of statism globally. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “wage slavery” if a man or woman can leave. Of course, if a system is rigged so “you owe your soul to the company store” then it is bad, but that a different bad than slavery.

But yes, our motives probably are mixed as motives generally are. It is true, I know it is true, that thousands of the boys in blue who died to end slavery had mixed motives. Examine the Iron Brigade that died in hundreds and racist views would crop up. Even Mr. Lincoln had mixed motives for becoming the Great Emancipator.

In his campaigns for president, he used Sunday School lessons and sermons to motivate his Evangelical base, though Lincoln wasn’t much of church-goer: the hypocrite (I jest). We read thousands of copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and cried over fiction more than the advertisements for actual slave trades.

And yet, bad motives and all, we died “to make men free,” because “He died to make men holy.” The man or woman who does good deeds with bad intentions hollows out morality, but does not destroy it. I think liberal religion is neither liberal nor much of a religion, but when a person joins the good work of abolition I do not question motives.

Intent matters, but it does not matter as much to the slaves, the sex workers, and the unborn as freedom, dignity, and life. God and a person’s priest can question the reasons we fight for justice, but I will not.

I oppose all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman as immoral. I view human dignity as grounded in the Image of God found in each person.

Those are two of my motives for opposing sex trafficking and slavery. One view is found offensive and the other false by the majority of academics. The prostitute delivered from slavery, fed, and sent to school by Evangelicals will be able to criticize us later if she pleases in learned papers.

I doubt she does.

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  • Thanks for sharing this powerful piece. It’s hard to imagine that someone would piece-meal another persons motive while that person is attempting to put a stop to something as horrendous as sex-trafficking. Of course there are other things involved. There is, perhaps, a deep and abiding suspicion of anybody who believes in the upside-down, beautiful cruciform. To my mind, it is precisely that cruciform that compels Christians to sacrifice their lives to stop the ugly in this world.

  • Well, first of all, I’d like to say, “YES!!!!!” Then I’d like to move on and register more formally my thanks for this wonderful piece. Actually, both for Timothy Dalrymple’s introduction and the JMR piece. I’ve always been flabbergasted by the sort of opposition to missionary work that results in mouths being fed and minds being educated, simply because there is a “religious agenda.” Yes, there is. Christians, along with thinking food and education is good for people, also think Jesus is good for people. We try and give both. The same thing applies to freedom from the sex trade.

  • Dave B

    Tremendous post. That meme has been bouncing around in the sociological lit for a while. Currently reading both Tappan and Wilberforce and it’s fascinating to see the same discussions repeat themselves.

    That said, there is a very legitimate critique that present systems of NGO fundraising commodify both donors and those they intend to help, using them instrumentally to advance NGO institutional interests. There are heroes in these NGOs, but structural incentives are powerful. We need to think together about how to celebrate the dignity and unique giftings of all involved – rather than reducing people to PayPal links, mobilization should meet and engage people as whole beings. Otherwise we run the risk of paralleling the things we’re fighting against. One glaring present problem – we have a glut of skilled pro bono offers, but due to lack of shared strategy and community in the movement, these offers go to waste. In order to go from a collection of brand names into a movement, our resourcing model needs to look less like building the Golden Calf and more like building the Temple.

  • I have always been suspicious when evangelicals talk about such-and-such a mindset/person/group being “morally bankrupt.” It always seemed like just so much rhetoric and propaganda.

    But no, Yvonne Zimmerman has demonstrated very clearly for us what moral bankruptcy looks like. Thanks, JMR, for answering her so clearly, boldly and unambiguously.

  • Jess Peacock

    I find this response to Dr. Zimmerman’s interview disturbing for many reason, not the least of which is the line “I oppose all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman as immoral.” But I will get to that in a moment. The writer basically makes an argument for good intentions being the end-all-be-all for within the work for social justice. Unfortunately, within the topic of human trafficking, the old adage of the road to hell being paved with good intentions has never been more true.

    Expressly, the overriding question I see stemming from the interview with Dr. Zimmerman is: is it an obligation of a rescue organization to remove someone from their circumstance of sex vocation against the will or wishes of said individual based on what that rescue organization deems to be morally correct or socially oppressive? In addition, is it possible that a rescue organization might actually cause more damage to the individual being rescued?

    • Isn’t the question whether minor children have a “will?” Intentions matter as I pointed out . . . and the UN demonstrates daily that good intentions can harm a culture, but some culture practices are so wicked that no Christian can tolerate them. Christian cultures have generally not given you the right to commit suicide for example.

  • Jess Peacock

    It is doubtful that anyone would allege genuine cases of sex trafficking are anything less than disturbing and require concerted efforts to curb. However, in the process of evaluating the problem and constructing the inevitable efforts of control and regulation, it is important to figure out exactly what the problem is, the scope of it, and which strategies are effective with regard to cross-cultural contexts and values, and which might just exacerbate an already difficult situation. Otherwise, attempts to produce social goods can have disastrous consequences.

  • Jess Peacock

    Individuals involved in commercial sex do so for a variety of reasons, not simply as a result of coercion. This reality smacks hard against the narrative wall constructed by the rescue community. Ironically, while those involved in sex commerce in other cultures are labeled as victims by western standards of morality, sexuality, and propriety, it can be the process of rescuing itself that actually engages in victimization by stripping workers of their agency, as well as their financial and material security.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The article’s not about prostitutes in general, but the victims of sex trafficking.

      • Jess Peacock

        True, but unfortunately most evangelical anti-trafficking groups lump sex commerce in with prostitution.

        • Jess Peacock

          Sorry, I meant to say most evangelical anti-trafficking groups lump sex commerce (prostitution) in with sex trafficking.

  • Jess Peacock

    Rescue groups must accept some amount of moral responsibility for their actions as it pertains to abducting sex workers and inflicting upon them a structure of oppression that, while well intentioned, only succeeds in worsening their ability to survive, feed their family, and to carve out some semblance of a standard of living that might otherwise be impossible when sewing clothes in an apparel sweatshop. All because “sex outside of marriage is bad.” Different cultural contexts will most likely lead to varying understandings of morality, justice and freedom. And thus, what rescue groups may see as responsible action may in fact be interpreted and manifested as a unilateral use of force against a culture, no matter the benevolent intentions behind such action.

    • Kelly

      It seems you misunderstand what these anti-sex-trafficking groups are doing. They are not looking for adult prostitutes who willingly enter the sex trade as a means of supporting themselves. They are looking for children and teens who have been physically kidnapped and mentally manipulated into slavery. There’s a very big difference.

  • Jess Peacock

    Step one for these organizations should simply reside in asking those who they view as oppressed what it is they really want and need, versus perpetuating a mythology of widespread sexual trafficking. The effects of this religious and moral narrative in a cross-cultural context contains the potential to damage the lives of individuals that are perhaps seeking a different form of freedom in a framework not fully understood by evangelical anti-trafficking activists, which could ultimately result in well-intentioned attempts at social justice and religious conversion that unfortunately possess the capability to result in dire consequences for non-western cultures.
    Or maybe I’m just a morally bankrupt academic.

    • Charles W. Baldwin

      I’m going with the latter.

      • Jess Peacock

        Wow. Feeling the love of God.

        • Jess:

          Cultures that present women the “choice” to prostitute themselves or starve are morally bankrupt.

          Right? We don’t have to respect all cultures equally do we?


        • Don’t think for one second that “the love of God” means not denouncing evil.

        • Charles W. Baldwin

          You volunteered it; I agreed. When you substitute academispeak for moral clarity, then, yes, you risk being viewed as morally bankrupt.

    • Jess:
      A finite but real number of slaves did not want to be “freed” or at the very least remained in a close relationship with “master” even after freedom. Should abolitionists have listened to their voices? Advocates of slave culture in the South said so . . . perhaps we should have sent sociologists to measure the happiness of the freed communities and all the trauma they face in the North after they were coerced/bribed/urged to “run away.” If a “house slave” was well fed, safe, and “happy” . . . were abolitionists right to raise discontent with the culture?

      Should people now (of any race) be able to “sell themselves” as slaves if they wish? We don’t allow it . . .and I think for good reason.


    • I also don’t think asking a child what they “like” is helpful.

  • I am just unable to conceive of how warped your thinking has to be in order to say it’s not good to rescue little girls out of sex slavery.

    I get that it’s fighting the symptom instead of solving the cause, but when the symptom is little girls being raped over and over again every day so their pimps can make money I think it’s okay to fight the symptom too.

  • Moral reasoning is rightfully tested by how well it stands up against evil. There were many very bright academics who justified collaboration with the nazis. For the most part their names are forgotten, and rightfully so. Those not forgotten spent the rest of their academic life trying to hide their past. If our reasoning doesn’t give us the backbone to oppose child rape it’s not worth much.

  • John A

    “We are opposed to sex for sale and so hate forced prostitution disproportionally. We ignore economic slavery, because of our closet libertarianism. We are too much Rand and not randy enough, for these critics, and yet Evangelicals overwhelming know that Rand is rotten and I have never yet met a puritanical Puritan.”

    O.k. so the problem is recognized. Great job working on sexual slavery. Now also work on economic slavery also and people cannot complain.

    “Malachi 3:5
    New International Version (NIV)
    5 “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.”

  • Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

    I don’t know a single person – ANYWHERE – who would argue that removing minor children from sex work is “colonialist”.

    You are constructing a straw man, sir. I wonder why you need to? Perhaps because arguing against the mythological supporters of child prostitution is so much easier than arguing against what your critics are really saying?

    The colonialism that’s endemic in the rescue movement has nothing to do with saving children and everything to do with your organizations’ insistence that adult women sex workers should have the rights and responsabilities of children.

    • I don’t know a single person – ANYWHERE – who would argue that removing minor children from sex work is “colonialist”.

      Did you read the Yvonne Zimmerman interview that the OP links to and is a response to? Because that’s precisely what she argues.

  • Beth

    Wow I as a survivor of sex trafficking find this conversation unbelievable. First of all, Jess you are absolutely wrong. I was trafficked at 16. When I turned 18, it was NOT a magic number. No one mailed me a bunch of information about choices I had now that I was of age. If you asked me if I liked it at 16, I would have said yes in fear of my life being snubbed out by my pimp or his counterparts. I didn’t enter that world willingly. I was told I was going to a party by a man who said I was beautiful and wanted to be my boyfriend. When I did arrive to a new state not knowing a soul, being beaten all the way there, being stripped of anything that resembled my “other” life. I learned to comply quickly. I tried to have the police help me, and they did or so I thought until they had me on a bus to go back to my home state. You see I got off the bus to use the bathroom & the pimp was there. He dragged me back to his car and beat me so bad I almost died. Now in my world view the police are part of this whole “new Life” I surrendered and did as I was told.
    When I was out there, There were some religious people that would come to the corner I stood on to tell me I was going to hell If I didn’t change my ways. They wanted to pray with me. One day I said OK I’m tired. I just got out of jail & was beaten and forced back out on the street. I said yes please will you take me with you? She said NO – She could only pray with me. They had nowhere to take to take me. Really? So now these people were full of it too. They didn’t really want to help me; they wanted to FEEL like they were evangelizing by “Praying” for sinners like me. My point is that ALL, EACH & EVERY one of the grown–ups around wouldn’t help me. They were all in this together, or at least it felt like it.
    If you would of come up to me & said come with me you can live in this room as long as you accept my religion believe God loves you, and NEVER look back. Once again your whole life will be stripped from you but this time it is for the good. Right Christians? That is what my pimp said.
    I hope this shines a little light on your perspective………………If you really want to help DON’T force religion down anyone’s throat or say it’s a requirement to be safe. It is NOT that the girl likes what she is doing; it is that she has learned to survive where she is with what she is doing. The life is so violent and disturbing that you don’t think and live, you survive & exist.

    • Kelli

      Beth, thanks so much for sharing your perspective. It breaks my heart to hear of what you went through, and it’s enlightening to learn how your thought processes changed as a result of what happened to you and how you learned to survive. I will soon be joining in work to help victims of sex trafficking, so knowing how to do so best is something I really want to do. Your description of how the religious people didn’t help you at all was especially eye-opening to me and made me very sad. Our job as Christians is to show the love of God to everyone, and it’s often necessary to do so in very tangible ways.

  • ABF

    Please stop playing the victim card when it comes to “academic circles” or the culture at large. Christians are misunderstood the same way other groups are misunderstood (you should have seen the piece on yahoo recently castigating “foodies” who love quinoa, which is driving up prices of quinoa in S. America and leading to malnutrition among the native inhabitants). This “us vs. them” mentality is really self-serving and obscures the fact that evangelical Christians are often the very ones who create the negative stereotypes in the first place. Best to start with the speck in your own eye.

  • francisbeckwith

    ABF, in your transparent “you v. those who don’t think like you” account of the wrongness of the “us v. them mentality,” you were unable to hide the irony. Just sayin’