Human retail: Commercial sexual exploitation and the everyday
by Elizabeth Hunter
Above the gum, mints, and candy bars at the grocery checkout, two rows of glossy women’s magazines caught my eye. Alongside the cover-model cleavage were headlines like “How to blow his mind,” “99 sex facts,” and “outfits your man will love.” All that these magazines wanted to sell me, it seemed, were ways to attract attention from men.
A quiz to determine one’s “type of sexiness” asked: What holiday gift would you give your guy? The three possible answers: “tasteful nude photos” of yourself, a watch, or golf lessons.
A teenage girl might actually think the first option was a smart, sophisticated idea. But doing something like that could quickly put her in a terrible situation. The boyfriend she gives the photos to can quickly become an angry ex-boyfriend, and suddenly, those photos are going around to everyone in her high school as well as most of her town, or plaguing her for years to come on the Internet. And that’s sexual exploitation.
I attended a conference on commercial sexual exploitation sponsored by several Lutheran groups from the United States and Canada.
There I met an attractive, funny woman with whom I had many things in common. But there was one experience we didn’t share: Joy had been raped as a child and prostituted for more than 20 years. She’d been told this was her power as a woman. She’d also been rejected time and time again by well-meaning church people like me.
Now, together, we listened to the voices of prostituted women and children from around the world as well as the voices of the men and women who had helped them to survive. About 50 of us worshiped, sang, and cried together, and networked about what church people can do to prevent and confront commercial sexual exploitation. As church members, as consumers, as children of God, our hearts were convicted.
Instead of telling women and girls — and increasingly boys —that their power is in their sexuality, what if magazine editors provided different content? Like this:
Seven things you should know about commercial sexual exploitation:
1. What it is.
Commercial sexual exploitation is one of the most lucrative criminal activities in the world. It is a multi-billion dollar business that includes prostitution, phone sex, pornography, and nude photos posted on the Internet.
2. Why it’s not a choice.
Joy told me that people don’t choose to be prostituted. She was raped at 15, then prostituted or trafficked for more than 20 years by pimps and men who claimed to love her.
Walking away wasn’t easy, she said. “You lose your spirit and your will. You can’t trust anyone. Cops are customers too, and once you’re labeled, it’s hard to get out.”
Joy now works with women and girls who are prostituted and men who are ordered by the courts to attend “john school.” She tells men who have used prostitutes that it is a myth that women choose this lifestyle. Their lack of choice turns into a cycle of arrests, poor education, and addiction. We should “stop saying prostitutes,” she said. “This is being done to them. They’re being prostituted.”
3. How to keep children away from sexual predators on the Internet.
Children and teens need rules, clear communication, and supervision when they use the Internet.
Chelsea Snarr of Canada helps children, parents, and organizations know how to avoid the pitfalls of the Internet.
One in four children online have had someone they don’t know ask to meet them in person, Snarr said. Yet most children don’t think of an Internet friend as a stranger, and predators use the pretense of friendship to manipulate them. Snarr said that smart kids who would be suspicious of an encounter in person are often taken in online, where there’s no body language or other clues to suggest that someone is lying.
4. It can happen to anyone.
Perhaps you can look back on your own life, or the life of someone you know, and think of at least one incident that could have turned out badly.
When I was in high school, adult men would approach me and my friends in malls, on the street, and outside school trying to interest us in making money by modeling. Though we were curious, we were cautious enough not to act on their invitations, having heard that this was how some strip clubs, porn producers, and so forth hired workers. One deeply guarded secret added to our unease: One of us had been molested by a neighbor when we were pre-teens. So we trusted no one outside of ourselves and our family.
5. You don’t have to be involved in prostitution or pornography to contribute to the problem. You just have to belong to our society.
I now know that I’ve contributed to the problem:
* By not providing a forum for healthy messages about sexuality to the young people growing up around me.
* When I can, but don’t, communicate to others what I’ve learned about commercial sexual exploitation.
* If I don’t care that rising property values in my neighborhood are eliminating affordable housing, which leads people living on the edge to exploit themselves to pay their rent.
* If I don’t write my congressperson to say I’m concerned about making sure that immigrants sold into sexual bondage outside or within the United States are treated fairly by our legal system.
6. Helping sexually exploited people can be an uncomfortable experience.
What does it mean to be the kingdom of God and welcome people who are drunk, high, prostituted, or otherwise sexually exploited?
To be brutally honest, I don’t do this so well. It was one thing to sit and talk with Joy, who is now a survivor. It’s another thing to sit down and talk with a woman who is currently being beaten with pipes, thrown from moving cars, and eating out of trash cans. But this was where Joy once was. Yet the church didn’t help her.
Joy told me: “More than once, I went to churches for help but I didn’t find refuge. I got judged because of how I looked.”
7. We are all called by God to help.
Ruth Wright, a United Church of Christ pastor in Vancouver, B.C., told us about her congregation, which offers people who are homeless and prostituted healthy food, clothing, a safe place to sleep, a mailing address, worship services, counseling and something more rare — respect. Wright reminded us to see every person as a fine, bright, intelligent person of worth, created by God.
So what should you do?
Here are four things to consider:
* Pray for people who are homeless or living in poverty–they are the ones most likely to be victims of sexual exploitation.
* Ask your elected representatives to pass legislation that punishes traffickers and helps people living in poverty avoid sexual exploitation.
* Talk with young people from an early age about what makes a friendship healthy, so that they are equipped to evaluate whether they’re being manipulated.
* Be aware of how you may be seen as welcoming or unwelcoming. Be honest about your own shortcomings, as well as everyone’s true beauty and worth as a child of God.
Remember that everyone is called to help, but you can’t do everything. What specifically can you do?