A Few Things to Know about the US Commercial Sex Market
I spoke with a British gal recently who explained that she was a social worker in the UK’s equivalent of the foster system where there are currently many broken families and hurting people. She then tried to change the topic by saying, “But that’s depressing stuff. Let’s talk about something more uplifting: what do you do?” I didn’t know how to answer, so I just said the truth: “I’m doing an MA in Human Trafficking at St Mary’s University in Twickenham [London].” Talk about a conversation killer.
Although my studies are in the UK, my focus has been on the US commercial sex market. As I relay my learning to friends and family, I find many of them are surprised by certain key concepts. I’ve summarized them in this letter to you, my dear reader. My goal is to ask questions. I don’t offer thorough answers. If the questions raise more questions for you, I encourage you to investigate the topic. I’ve included links to get you started. If it’s overwhelming, choose just one and explore that. Anyways, here’s the gist of what I want to say: we have a problem with domestic sex trafficking in the US and we need to be aware of whom it targets, the reason for the problem, and possible responses.
We’ll start with this question: What’s the problem? “Why are people making such a big deal about sex trafficking all of a sudden?” “Haven’t there always been prostitutes?” And “don’t they do it because they want to?” Well sure, there are likely to always be prostituted individuals who actively “choose” - a potentially misleading word - to sell their bodies for sex. However, industrialism and prostitution don’t mix well, and today’s sex industry is nothing like the ancient phenomena. In the modern sex market, the game is real, demand is high, and there is money to be made. Lots of money. Billions-of-dollars-annually type of money. In this market, the more demand increases, the higher the chances that more unwilling victims will get dragged into the industry. That, to me, is a big problem. (Here’s an in-depth study by Demand Abolition that illustrates the demand-driven aspects of the sex market and its lucrative nature: Demand Buyer Report.)
This raises the next question: who are the victims? While many people think that most sex trafficking victims are foreign nationals, and while that is a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed, studies reveal that an overwhelming number of US sex trafficking cases involve native-born victims, especially cases with minors. (For more information, take a look at the National Criminal Justice Reference Services’ report. Also, know that many of these native-born victims come from a disproportionately large number of minority ethnicities.) In other words, children within the country’s borders, teens and pre-teens, are being dragged into the prostitution industry. Many of these teens - and adults, for that matter - aren’t locked to a bed or hidden in a basement out of sight. Many of them still live “ordinary” lives in some respects. A trafficked child, for example, might appear to have an average life, but then skip class one day because of a pimp or a “boyfriend,” or go on a “business trip” with an uncle and return to class the following day. The child may play soccer in the evenings, and may even attend church on the weekends, all the while maintaining a relationship with the trafficker. Runaway boys and girls seem to be especially vulnerable to traffickers. Sometimes their traffickers will continue to exploit them for weeks or years after they return home. One of the mistakes people make is they think of sex trafficking exclusively as something involving physical chains and visible bondage. Although that does happen in the US, it is important to look for, and pray against, the invisible chains and psychological/spiritual bondage that often go undetected by authorities and even family and friends. That said, let’s be vigilant to not overlook the less tangible forms of sex trafficking that can often exist right under our noses. (Here’s a helpful report from the Polaris Project that shows the estimated victim demographics and vulnerabilities: National Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics.)
Alright, so it’s a bigger problem these days with many undetected victims. But all that begs the question, Why are so many people looking to buy sex? Well, first off, let’s face it, the majority of demand comes from my demographic: men. Now let’s briefly consider who primarily teaches men about their sexuality. Oh wait, it’s the same for both sexes: the porn industry. Studies suggest that porn can reach many children by the age of 8, and that most children have indeed experienced it by the age of 14. Why does the porn industry manage to educate kids on sex more effectively than parents, ministries, and other well-meaning programs? Well, I suppose it depends on the situation. But for the majority, the well-meaning people aren’t incentivized to educate kids nearly as much as the porn industry is to groom them into consumers. Is this explanation too capitalist? Maybe so, but so is the “sex industry.” The fact that we even have a “sex industry” is indicative of the problem. The more our culture commodifies sex, the more incentivized businesses will be to market that product, and the more likely they will be to “educate” potential consumers - younger ages being the ideal starting point - on how to use those products. Not to mention the brutally violent and exploitative nature that most porn is trending towards nowadays - novelty only lasts so long, you know. And on that note, it’s no mystery that porn use can lead novelty-seeking users to prostitution, looking to replicate what they see in porn. There’s much more to be said about this, but I’ll end it here and let you continue studying if you’d like. (For parents who want to educate their kids, check out Liz Walker’s resource list. For more information on the harmful effects of porn, Exodus Cry has lots of resources. The Australian Institute of Family Studies also has a thorough study: The effects of pornography on children and young people)
So what can we do with this information? There are lots of good answers out there and I don’t need to recreate the wheel. But here are a few things I’ve been thinking about lately. What if we all worked to educate potential sex buyers (AKA: youth and young men) about the dangers involved in commoditizing sex and the devastating effects that sex demand has on a country? Could today’s boys be tomorrow’s men who decide to stop buying sex and using porn? When demand decreases, so does exploitation. Next, when we pray, let’s address the spiritual bondages of the victims of sexual exploitation, the spiritual bondages of the users of sexual services that fuel the exploitation, and the spiritual bondages of those selling it (just like Lecia exemplifies in her written prayers - such great resources!). Also, talk openly about stories you hear regarding sexual exploitation in the context of hope and mercy (here are stories from the Polaris Project). One way to change culture is to tell stories. Many potential buyers and victims don’t realize that sex trafficking can happen free from physical chains and locked doors. Openly discuss stories you hear of invisible bondage so potential victims can be aware of the red flags and signs and so potential interveners and buyers can know what to look for. Ok, one more. If you're a man and you think - like I did at one point - that there’s little men can do to address the issue, think again. Apart from what I’ve already mentioned, check out the Epik Project and consider volunteering with them (they’re all over the US).
Lastly, let’s embrace hope. God is at work. He always has been and will continue to be. Yes, sex trafficking is a major problem right now, and yes it’s daunting. But God IS in control and will continue to redeem broken people and broken situations, and He’s inviting us to be part of that work! Let’s join Him in praying for His redemption at work in the hearts of those involved in the sex market!
If you have questions, I’d love to hear them.