Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Thoughts on Trafficking and the Religious Right

Last week, I attended a professional training on gangs and sex trafficking, presented by several law enforcement officials from around the country. The all-day training, which explored gang culture, the dynamics of gang sex trafficking, and law enforcement and criminal justice strategies for combating trafficking, was an intense experience. The training, combined with a recent FBI crackdown on juvenile prostitution, has focused my attention on trafficking, which I’d like to talk about.

For the past six years, I’ve work at a progressive nonprofit that addresses violence. In that time, I’ve learned about the pervasive reality of violence against women and children. Sadly, prostitution and sex trafficking are among the many forms this violence takes across the globe. People involved in the sex trade often live within cultures of violence, experiencing disproportionate rates of sexual and physical assault. Psychological trauma and health problems are predictable results. Women living in poverty, First Nations/Native American women and girls, and LGBTQ youth are at disproportionate risk of sex trade involvement, illustrating the intersections of economic injustice, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, and sex trade involvement. Think legalization of prostitution is an easy answer to these problems? Not necessarily. In short, when we speak of the sex trade, we must acknowledge its violence and injustices, as well as the need for sophisticated solutions in tackling it.

On a hopeful note, amazing people are actively confronting prostitution and trafficking. Organizations such as the Polaris Project and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking work diligently to combat prostitution and trafficking. Service providers such as Samaritan Women, Thistle Farms, and GEMS (featured in the documentary Very Young Girls) provide assistance to survivors of the sex trade. These organizations, and many more, give me hope that trafficking can be overcome.

For those out there who claim that anti-trafficking sentiments are the fever dreams of “moral guardians”, who belittle service providers as part of some “rescue industry”, who delude themselves into believing that sexual exploitation doesn’t exist, save it. Spare me your ignorance. A robust body of research says otherwise. Law enforcement and criminal justice professionals say otherwise. Most importantly, survivors of trafficking say otherwise.

I remember a man I met last year at a conference in Washington D.C. who dismissed sex trafficking as a “moral panic”. His combination of arrogance and bald-faced ignorance floored me. Are you an idiot? I thought. Do you read newspapers? Have you done even two minutes of research on the subject? I thought to myself. Such ignorance is dangerous, because it blinds people to a very real social problem that must be addressed.

In short, prostitution and trafficking are serious problems that require insight, collaboration, and hard work. Slowly, the problem is registering in the public’s consciousness, where increased awareness may help bring about prevention and solutions.

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Because prostitution and sex trafficking are serious issues, it disturbs me when the Religious Right uses anti-trafficking rhetoric to push its agenda. More and more, I hear voices from the far right using trafficking to bludgeon enemies or attack reproductive rights through shallow moral equivalency.

  • During the controversy over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) earlier this year, Penny Young Nance of Concerned Women for America blasted the full version of VAWA for allegedly neglecting trafficking victims. Nance alleged that Senator Patrick Leahy's amendment to VAWA would supposedly decriminalize prostitution of minors and eviscerate "conscience protections" of religious groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nance not only fails to provide evidence for these claims, but ignores VAWA's many provisions for serving sex trafficking victims, combating trafficking, and punishing traffickers. (More here.)

  • In 2011, after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) refused to allow its programs to share information on contraception or abortion with sex trafficking victims, the Department of Health and Human Services denied its anti-trafficking grant request. Rather than offer said services to trafficking victims, a USCCB spokesperson accused the Department of Health and Human Services of "politicizing the grant process", according to CNN.

  • New Apostolic Reformation preacher Lou Engle has a history of suggesting moral equivalency between abortion, "sexual immorality" and trafficking. For instance, in his 2009 book Nazirite DNA, Engle claims that God is raising up believers to "tear down altars" of pornography, abortion, "sexual immorality", and sex trafficking. During OneThing 2011, Lou Engle's comments suggested a moral equivalency between reproductive choice and sex trafficking. "I tell you, I believe we are heading into a moment when God wants to make war on sex trafficking. He wants to make war on the abortion of babies and the destruction of women's lives, and a people that are hearing the prophetic voice are not playing games," he said. (More here.) At OneThing 2010, Engle lumped sex trafficking together with Hollywood moguls, earthly rulers, and the "pagan priests" of academia as evils that God would overthrow. (More here.)

  • The Iowa-based Family Leader organization also suggested that trafficking, promiscuity, and abortion are somehow morally equivalent. During the 2012 presidential race, the Family Leader released a pledge entitled "The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family." Signatories vowed to protect women and the "innocent fruit" of sexual union from trafficking, prostitution, pornography, promiscuity, infanticide, and abortion. (More here.)

  • In 2011, following the release of a controversial LiveAction video, the Religious Right accused Planned Parenthood of ignoring or abetting sex trafficking. (The fact that Planned Parenthood informed federal authorities of suspected sex trafficking escaped them.) For example, the Family Research Council and LiveAction co-sponsored a webcast entitled "Expose Planned Parenthood", alleging that Planned Parenthood had done wrong by trafficking victims. (More here and here.) During the 2011 Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference, Michele Bachmann called for a defunding of Planned Parenthood, accusing it of overlooking trafficking of girls. (More here.)

Trafficking victims deserve better than this. They deserve to be treated as human beings, not political banners.

Enough with using trafficking rhetoric to slam Planned Parenthood and VAWA, which actually help trafficking victims in concrete ways. Enough with attacking reproductive rights by placing abortion in the same moral category as sex trafficking. The Religious Right needs to show actual concern for women and girls, instead of using sex trafficking as a cheap rhetorical device to promote its anti-choice, anti-woman agenda. Trafficking deserve serious thought and action, not shallow lip service by Religious Right forces with agendas. We must call out the far right when it tries to use trafficking rhetoric for inappropriate ends.


  1. Thanks for writing about this issue, Ahab. It's important to keep trafficking in the forefront.

    I can definitely see your point about the Religious Right's uncouth use of trafficking as a political tool. However, even with that, I am tempted to cut them a little slack here. Maybe less so for the leaders, but at least they are talking about this issue. The more minds focused on it, the sooner it will be resolved.

    1. Wise Fool -- It's good to bring this into public consciousness, but I worry about the message getting buried under all the anti-choice rhetoric.

  2. Great post! You're right to point out the RR's linking of abortion and sex trafficking. Thanks for writing about this issue, also for your activism.

    1. Donna -- Thanks. I'm eager to see where the Religious Right will go with this.


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