Sexual Exploitation Is Not Limited to Human Trafficking

On Thursday, the ELCA’s young adult cohort culminated our participation in the UN CSW by attending (and being represented on) a panel put together by the Lutheran World Federation: “Three Lives, Twenty Years After Beijing.”

LWF UN CSW Panel

During the question and answer section of the event, one of the panelists, Dr. Fulata Mbano-Moyo, told a story about speaking to a group of women. At one point in that group’s conversation, the question was raised: “Who here has ever sold sex?” Fulata explained that one woman, the wife of a preacher, had raised her hand and said that she sold sex to her husband; she felt she had to have sex with him in exchange for the security of her own material survival.

That story was striking at the time, and has been haunting me since then.

Fulata explicitly framed the worldwide sexual exploitation of women not just within the problem of human trafficking, but also as part of the problem of inequality and exploitation within marriage—an argument I have never heard put quite so directly and succinctly. It’s an argument that, if applied as extensively as I think it ought to be, could challenge the way many Christians in our national context understand the institution of marriage and the roles of men and women.

In the past, the ELCA has articulated its understanding of sexual exploitation as far more broad and pervasive than the exploitation of trafficked people: it is present in the pornography industry, in other manifestations of the sex work industry, in the media’s sexualization of women and girls, and in sexual abuse. In a “Social Message on Commercial Sexual Exploitation,” the ELCA has even stated that sexual exploitation can happen “inside or outside legally contracted marriage.” However, other faith traditions and groups, especially within Christianity, have been much more reticent about sexual exploitation and reluctant to see marriage as a context in which it happens.

As a part of a year-long research project I did during my last year of college, I spent months looking at evangelical* Christianity (within the United States) and its response to intimate partner violence (IPV). Almost unilaterally, pastors, theologians, and authors from those communities and perspectives have been unable to 1) admit that IPV is a problem that occurs within their congregations as well as in society, 2) understand IPV as a problem of dominance and control instead of anger management, or 3) offer a theological or faith-based response to victims beyond the encouragement to stay in marriages and forgive their abusers. This is because hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians in the United States believe that a man’s primary role in marriage is to be a spiritual, social, and financial leader, and a woman’s role is to be a caretaker and to promise sexual fidelity and availability. These roles are not just dictated by convention or by example, but by a mandate stating women and men were created by God to serve God and each other through these roles.

I wish I was making this stuff up. Now fast-forward to this last week:

At the Faith, Justice, and Culture meet-up that our young adult cohort hosted last Monday, I spoke with a woman who we’d met through our Ecumenical Women orientation. She told me about the evangelical presence at her university, and its recent work with END IT. She told me that since I wrote that research paper, there has been a surge of awareness and activism within many of those communities against human trafficking. Now, the more research I do, the more examples I find of evangelical and non-denominational Christians in the US raising awareness and money around the topic of human trafficking.

END IT

My first response to hearing about this movement is, perhaps, inappropriate, because my particular context and experiences in the world have made it so that I first think cynically about the sociocultural and theological implications of the movement, even before reflecting on the immense potential for justice and positive change that it has created. However, I’m going to write down my first reaction anyway, praying and trusting that you know I rejoice whenever I hear about the work others are doing to create a more just world, whatever my suspicions about their motivations.

Simply put: from the perspective of evangelical Christian pastors and leaders, participating in this movement is strategically brilliant. This topic offers youth groups and young adults the opportunity to engage with a trendy social justice issue, an issue already animating young adults, especially young women, across the country, and doing it through the lens of a conservative theological anthropology. No one needs to believe that women are equal to men in order to believe that human trafficking is wrong, nor is it necessary to believe that women ought to be empowered with the right to decide when and how to use their bodies. Caring about human trafficking doesn’t require any understanding of patriarchy or a deconstruction of any problematic scriptural interpretations or theologies. Instead, I gather that many of these Christians simply believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong, and that a woman’s sexual purity must be protected—a conviction that I think even the most socially conservative Christians would rally behind.

Again, I am overjoyed to learn that hundreds of thousands of American Christians are learning about human trafficking and donating money and time to bring about its end; I hope that the movement is effective, and that it leaves room for victims of trafficking to, as Jen Engquist would say, be the heroes of their own stories. I also hope that this movement might open the door for socially and morally conservative Christians to begin to think about sexual exploitation more broadly than within this particular context.

What if those evangelicals championing the cause of anti-human trafficking could have heard Fulata talk about the preacher’s wife who sells sex in exchange for safety, security, and material survival? What if condemnation of human trafficking could be pushed further to include all forms of sexual exploitation, inside and outside marriage? What would that mean for marriages built on the idea that men are created to be benevolent leaders of their households, and women, in loving obedience, must perform their God-given roles as home-makers, mothers, and wives who are sexually faithful and available to their husbands? For me, Fulata challenged a major pillar of popular Christian theological anthropology regarding gender roles in heterosexual marriages.

I would never dream of trying to compare the degrees and types of suffering experienced by victims of trafficking with that suffered by those in abusive, unhealthy, or unequal relationships—that would be foolish and irresponsible—but I do see similarities in the way that patriarchy has exploited women and girls. When a woman or girl (or anyone for that matter) consents to sex with someone (a husband or otherwise) out of implicit or explicit fear of the alternative and its impact on her survival, it is a part of this web of exploitation. Money may not have changed hands, but as a preacher’s wife once pointed out, this is still sexual exploitation.

As a member of the ELCA and a proud supporter of many of its moral condemnations of sexual exploitation, my conversation at our meet-up about END IT, and Fulata’s story at the panel have given me reason to hope, to question, and to push other Christians within my context. However long-lasting and however effective this emerging campaign to end human trafficking, I will be looking for ways to take those principles and beliefs employed in the movement and apply them to evangelicals’ convictions about marriage and gender roles. I will be challenging the evangelical Christians who are physically, socially, and digitally near me to understand sexual exploitation as part of a web of patriarchy that uses, violates, imprisons, and dehumanizes women in communities across the world and down the block—in brothels and in marriages.

–Erin Parks

*When I use the word “evangelical” in this blog post, I’m not using the word in the same way many of us, as part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, use it. Instead of talking about all Christians who are called to share good news, I’m using the term to talk about a relatively recent, widespread, very loosely identified “type” of Christianity that places significant emphasis on personal sinfulness and salvation through faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross, Biblical inerrancy, conversion, and the importance of family and marriage. My descriptions of evangelicals as having certain theological anthropologies and socially conservative values are not necessarily meant to describe all evangelicals and communities, but are meant to represent most of those communities and theologies in general.

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