Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sex Trafficking, Sex Work, and Yes All Women

My fiancee (if you've been paying attention to the promotion that I'm offering, then you'll know she's only my fiancee for one month longer) found this article and found it interesting: 9 Lies We Have to Stop Telling About Sex Workers.  I find it interesting, too, and so am commenting on it a little.

First of all, this article is about prostitutes.  The author, as far as I can tell, is what I call a high-end prostitute, and therefore doesn't really deserve the term of prostitute.  We generally think of prostitutes as people who stand out on the corner of a street and wait for clients.  Many prostitutes do that, but many prostitutes do not.  Those who do stand out on the street offering themselves up for sale are the definition of a prostitute: from the Latin for exposing and offering up for sale.  That is what the word means and it sums up what is going on quite well.  There are others, though, who put themselves out there, advertise and sell themselves with far more agency.  What the author of the article says applies to these sex workers more readily than it does to the stereotypical prostitute.  A high-end sex worker does have freedom, agency, and can earn a significant amount of money (shouldn't be surprising considering how desperately our cultures are wrapped up in sex).  With that said, this article is not about sex workers who are not working, who are forced into what they do.  What this author says about human trafficking in the article is understandable, but a little misguided: if you are not in the world of human trafficking, how can you properly use your experience as a measure?  Can I truly say, "Human trafficking isn't a problem where I live because I haven't met a single slave"?  No, I can't; I know human trafficking is out there, and I will find it if I look hard enough.  Indeed, my fiancee and I found it just a few weeks ago and we weren't even looking very intently.  This author's experience with a certain form of sex work should not suddenly derail all the hard work people are putting into making us aware of how massive human trafficking is. 

Before going any further, I do want to say that the general tone of this article is appropriate and much needed.  Sex workers, pornographic actors, and of course sex slaves, are all human beings.  Sex workers have lives with meaning, the same as all of us.  Sex workers have the right to choose and make a living how they see fit, the same as all of us.  This is a good and necessary reminder.  Often we get so caught up in talk of human trafficking and forget that we are talking about human beings; often we make philosophical decisions on pornography and prostitution and forget that we are talking about human beings.  At the heart of what we are doing is, or should be, the concept of full living: we are working to provide a full life to all people everywhere; not a life that is diminished or degraded by slavery or by the lack of appropriate choices. 

While I appreciate this article (especially No. 9, since the same could be true for slavery), it's my last phrase that catches me up: we do not want anyone having to live a life diminished or degraded by the lack of appropriate choices.  Yes, sex work can be work, but then what does that mean?  Can we really separate out "good" sex work from "bad" sex work that is degrading or under the umbrella of slavery?  Should we be okay with sex work, knowing that for at least some it is a choice of last resort, of only resort?  Should we be okay with sex work, knowing that for at least some it will be degrading and will mean that they can never find work that they feel is meaningful?  Or, perhaps more importantly, should we be okay with sex work, knowing that it's very existence and propagation are signs that our society is desperate for sex, meaning that our society survives without a center, without meaning, without sustained confidence, and without hope?  If we respond "yes" to this last question, or respond to this last question by saying, "hey, your question is misleading!" then we must also be okay with the fact that sex work leads to slavery, for it is in our cultural blood to want what we want at the cheapest cost, at the least effort; and if pornography or high-end sex workers are out there offering us more and more of what we want, then eventually we will find what we want for less, for the cheapest: slavery. 

At the beginning of the cycle that takes us to slavery is the lack of appropriate choices.  We must be able to create a world where people can find meaning and joy and hope without having to turn to sex.  The Isla Vista killer, Elliot Rodger, could not do that and so turned his rage on those that he perceived to be robbing him of his destiny.  Well, how great would it have been if he could see that women are not his playthings, that women are not around for his enjoyment?  How great would it have been if he could have found meaning without sex?  How great would it have been if he could have found meaning on his own?  Not all men are like Rodger, yes, but our culture breeds men (and women) like Rodger, who are incapable of finding meaning without sex, without power, without money.  There must be more opportunities out there, there must be a greater standard of living for all people so that we can spend more time on ourselves and being okay with ourselves.  Until that happens, the reality of Rodger and other men like him--indeed, the reality of slavery will haunt us.

Folks, we live in a world where slavery, in this case particularly sex trafficking, and fools like Elliot Rodger exist because we cannot come to grips with one simple fact: we are lost.  The #YesAllWomen hashtag is necessary because we are lost; I'd even go so far as to say the unique perspective in my book, 27 Million Revolutions for 27 Million Slaves, is necessary because we are lost.  And those who are so-called good people refuse to see how they are contributing to our cultural lost-ness by not doing anything.  Our very attitudes must change.  Sex should not be such a desperate goal, whether we are inclined to pornography, prostitutes, high-end sex workers, or murderous intentions.  Sex will not save us, no matter how much Rodger may have thought so, no matter how much those who knowingly and unknowingly contribute to slavery may think so; only God can save us.  And if we don't believe in God, then only we can save ourselves. 

Changing our attitudes toward sex and love (and power) while simultaneously putting an end to slavery and all related activities are urgent tasks.  There are human beings out there who are crying out for our help, and there are many women and men that we can preemptively save from bewildered idiots like Rodger.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Nigerian School Girls

 A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook.  The article is written by a Nigerian-American named Jumoke.  My friend headlined the post by saying, "Pushing the question of American involvement in Nigeria. Worth the read and discernment. What am I even doing about human trafficking in my own community?"  I read the article and then wrote the following comment:

'Jen, your question is a good one and I thank you. The rest of what I'm about to say is not directed at you but at the American people who have looked at this story all wrong. A good rule of thumb is to assume that human trafficking is going on in our own communities. My fiancee and I just called the Human Trafficking Hotline the other day about a suspicion that is more than a suspicion. I ask, also; if the U.S. government were to get involved in every country where trafficking abuses are occurring, then, a) the U.S. government would be involved in EVERY country, which clearly oversteps our boundaries and possibly also oversteps the resources we have that we'd need to be effective; and b) we'd be more involved in trafficking abuses in our own country. The news from Nigeria really sucks, but, at the risk of sounding inhuman, I question why it has become news. I don't mean to say that this is not news. But how do some pieces of news about abduction and slavery become major attractions and others do not? Jumoke, the writer of the article, is on to something: maybe we want to get involved more in Nigeria, and so, heyo, we jump on news like this. That may or may not be the case. In my opinion, though, the big news should be that no country anywhere, including our own, is doing enough to prevent or combat slavery. American outrage should be pointed not at Nigeria, and not at our military for not flying in there and dropping bombs, but when news like this breaks our outrage should be pointed at ourselves: oh, woops, there's a slave right down the street that I'm blind to because I want justice (read: people killed) in Nigeria. We first should make sure that we ourselves aren't somehow contributing to slavery around the world and in our own communities, and then take care of our own backyards, and then, maybe, we can start thinking about other ways to end slavery.'

Another friend of mine sent me a message on Facebook asking me how the situation in Nigeria could continue.  Her question being, if awareness should consequently lead to the elimination of slavery, then how can the world be aware of the captured schoolgirls that Boko Haram claims to be throwing into slavery and not put an end to the whole deal?  Well, my above response is part of the answer.  Combating slavery is complicated and, unfortunately, bringing governmental forces into play is probably not the answer right now.  The military, and even the government in general, is tricky.  Moral capital, genuine and valid moral capital, is the answer, because it is the only force powerful enough.  

I first encountered this term, "moral capital," in a book of the same name: Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, by Christopher Leslie Brown.  At risk of boiling the book down into too simple formulations that are then incorrect, I will say that the book essentially argues that the abolitionist work of the great William Wilberforce, one of my heroes, and his friends, like Prime Minister William Pitt, were not necessarily, or at least not only, aimed at doing good in the world.  Brown argues that in the wake of the American Revolution, or what we from the States call the Revolutionary War, the British Empire needed some way to reinstate its validity and virtue across the globe.  How do you do that if you cannot win a war?  You accumulate moral capital.  And how do you accumulate moral capital?  You eradicate the worst crime known to humanity; you also eradicate other evils, as Wilberforce took aim at gambling and alcoholism after ending the slave trade.  Being the first country invested in the slave trade to end the trade and end slavery gave Great Britain the continued leverage it needed.  Then Britain could say to the world, "Look, we are still the greatest nation on this planet.  We ended slavery, for goodness sakes!  We might have lost a war to those rebels, but they're not the holders of morality--we are!  They still hold slaves!  And they're a bunch of drunks!  Their government is corrupt!  Not convinced?  Well, can we say again that we ended slavery??"  The reason that the British Empire did not fall apart following the American Revolution, according to Brown, is that the Empire rightly (rightly in terms of its preservation, anyway) turned its sights on moral capital.  That way the Empire could legitimately say, and mean it with all honesty, "Let us into your country.  Because of all we've done for good in the world, can't you see that letting us rule you will be mutually beneficial?"  I do not mean to enter into a conversation about colonialism here.  I only mean to point out that the British Empire stood as long and as powerful as it did because people could actually believe in its promise.

Now we are faced with the horrible truth of slavery abroad in places like Nigeria.  Boko Haram flaunts it in our face.  Our government will, if our citizens continue to push for it, take advantage of an awareness capital to assist in eliminating the threat of Boko Haram and return the kidnapped girls to their families.  But will such action be invited?  Will it actually be helpful?  Without question our assistance, even if it's not military assistance, will increase our dominance in the region.  And without the surety of morality on our side, dominance in any region is scary.  While avoiding a colonial spirit we should take a page out of the British Empire's playbook: increase moral capital at home.  We cannot share capital if we do not have capital. 

Recap: moral capital, which is seeded in the soil of awareness, will overwhelm the evil of slavery.  A corrupt society, even if our (I mean, the society's) intentions are good, cannot defeat slavery through force... or any other means.  We must maintain our integrity first.  If we do not, then the horrifying news stories that we hear about slavery in our world today, like that of the school girls in Nigeria, will only multiply with no one and nothing to stop the advance.  How can the school girls not have been returned to their families by now?  Because we have allowed our culture/society to wallow in arrogance, to wallow in the apathy of misguided pride (we ended slavery and other horrible crimes years and years ago!).  As a whole we have done this to ourselves and to the world.  When we ask why we can't stop the Nigerian madness--which probably shouldn't be the question anyway, since slavery is everywhere--then the only clue can be found in our history, in our recent history of blindness.  

Let's reverse our course so that we can compound real moral capital.  Then we can do some good in our country and in the world.  In the meantime, we need to support graceful political means rather than violent ones. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Massage Parlor in Vermont

A few days ago my fiancee did something truly great.  My eyes may or may not be tearing up as I think about it and how proud I am of her.  Without doubt, she found a front for human trafficking, called the Human Trafficking Hotline, and put Polaris Project on the hunt.  On the one hand, I'm thinking to myself, "With all my talking about how we need to keep our eyes open, why couldn't I have found this place myself?"  On the other hand, it's not about me at all.  It's about awareness leading to action.  It is because she knows me and has talked with me about human trafficking for countless hours, and therefore has grown immensely aware of trafficking, that my fiancee was able to realize that a certain massage parlor in Vermont is not really a legitimate massage parlor.  Awareness does lead to greater action.

I've decided that I have qualms about using names and real information of a place that hasn't yet been busted.  A whole series of "what if" questions are running through my head.  The major questions being, "What if the place happens to read my article, and they decide to pack up and move and continue enslaving elsewhere?" and, "What if some jerk-face reads this article and decides to go see what it's like being serviced by a slave at slave-rates?"  No, thank you.  As much as I would like to point out the good work that my fiancee did and show you how sketchy the place is, which hopefully would also inspire and help you to keep your eyes open for possible cases of trafficking, the conservatively reflective side of me figures it best to leave all the information in the hands of professional investigators.  The professionals can investigate the shady location, the sketchy website and the very suspicious reviews. 

Still, I can tell you, and tell you proudly, that indeed ordinary people like you and me can be greatly involved in ending trafficking.  There are bills and petitions we can sign, there are changes we can make in our own life, and if we keep our eyes open, we can help Polaris Project and other organizations do the dirty work of putting an end to human trafficking.  Your community is not free of slavery, if only because there are people living in your community who hold attitudes that might open doors for traffickers, and it is up to you to change that.  I am proud of my fiancee for performing such a great deed, and I'm sure there are many ways that I can be proud of all of you, too.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The United Methodist Book of Discipline

Human trafficking/slavery can be stopped without the help of religion or religious organizations.  Indeed, many might argue that religious organizations have contributed to the propagation of slavery, not only throughout history (which is definitely true) but even today.

I would argue that religious organizations do not contribute to slavery today but that religion does.  Being religious myself, about to be appointed as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, how can I say that?  Well, religion does accord a person the opportunity for hypocrisy: "If I believe this and do these things, then I am good; it doesn't matter what I do in my personal life."  The concept of religion opens the door for a person to have two separate beings: to structure an external life around the principles of the religion, feel good and justified for having done so; and then to ignore, because of the external image, what is going on inside the person's mind and heart.  Ignoring what's going on inside one's head and heart leads even the best of people to live a secret life, without ever feeling guilty about that secret life as long as it remains a secret.  For as long as the secret life remains a secret, the person's better half literally won't be able to comment on the secret personal life.  It may sound like I'm describing a mental illness, but I'm not--this is a natural occurrence that all people deal with on some level.  Religious people may be more susceptible to the phenomenon of tearing ourselves in two, but the vast majority of people of all faith backgrounds perform the same binary fission.  Religion may play a different role, but all people will have to deal with themselves at some point in the pursuit of ending human trafficking. 

Of course, on the other hand, all religions that I know of ask for a person's heart and mind.  While some people may use religion to split into two halves--the half that is devoted to a god or belief system, and the screwed-up half that the first half can't see--faith and religion are meant to reconcile the two halves of our being into one.  The first half of our being must acknowledge that the second half exists, and the second half of our being must declare that it wants to begin the arduous journey to hook up with the first half.  The vast majority of us love the idea of power and lust and greed, so bringing the two halves together is not an easy task.  Faith and religion, and philosophy, are the tools by which bringing the two halves of our being together becomes easier.

As anyone who reads this blog or has read my book should know, I truly believe that changing our attitudes, thoughts, and everyday actions can change the world--specifically, put an end to human trafficking.  The last few posts should make this rather clear: men are particularly good at tuning in to exploiting little girls in other countries and then shutting off the computer to go off to their "normal" lives without ever thinking about what they just did; we laugh at or condemn pornographic actors without ever thinking about how we are jealous, envious, lustful, degraded ourselves.  So, pulling together our two halves is, I think, of the utmost importance.  And yes, one can reconcile oneself without religion if that person has a great passion for human equality, freedom, and dignity, and at the same time recognizes their own humanness.  Yet I do think that religion gives us the proper tools for this task.  At the very least, religion gives us the language for the task of acknowledging who we are and how we might end slavery.

With that said, let me share with you the "Sexual Abuse" and "Sexual Harassment" sections of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church Social Principles.  I'll write the "Sexual Harassment" section first, though it is listed second.  Notice in both of these principles how sexual misconduct, according to the UMC, is related to power, as I have argued long and hard in my book.  Notice also, particularly in the "Sexual Abuse" principle, that personal sexual behaviors, that we might otherwise overlook as personal, are directly linked to and escalate quickly into the worst form of sexual behavior: the use of sex slavery.  As I have said again and again, our attitudes can lead to bigger and more dangerous behaviors, and while we may think that we would never watch pornography or never use sex slaves, we shouldn't be so sure.  Our second half may have a small beginning, but once the separation occurs in our being, the second half can run rampant without our ever chastising it.  The language and theology and philosophy to deal with these problems has always existed, as we see in The Book of Discipline, we just haven't been thinking about it properly or using it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

David Mitchell

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, has quickly catapulted into my top five favorite authors, of any genre.  He rocks.  Anyway, in one of his novels, Number9Dream, one of Mitchell's characters writes a poignant history of her enslavement that I want to share with you.  The novel is set in Japan, but it might as well be set in any so-called civilized country.  I'm going to italicize the part that I think is most important, because I have to remind people of the phenomenon of blissful, hopeful ignorance all the time.  Because we think we have made the world such a better place than fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago, we ignore the realities that our own attitudes and ignorance create, and so we then vehemently reject the truth that there are 27 million slaves in the world today.  I hear so many voices ringing in my head arguing with me, "There can't possibly be that many!  I would know about it.  And in the United States?  No.  At least, no more than a few thousand."  What?  Are you serious?  That's more than ignorance; that's a harmful arrogance.

Without further ado, I will quote Kazue Yamaya's account with no further commentary.

"The doorbell rang.  I answered it, and three men barged in the door and snapped the chain my husband had trained me to use.  They demanded to know where my husband was hiding.  I demanded to know who they were.  One slapped me hard enough to dislodge a tooth.  "Your husband's case officers," he snarled, "and we [not my italics] ask the questions."  He and another searched the house while the third watched me to try to reassure my screaming son.  He threatened to maim my son if I didn't tell him where my husband was.  I called my husband at work and discovered he had phoned in sick that morning.  I called my husband's cell phone and discovered the number had been disconnected.  I called his pager--dead... My son watched with big scared eyes.  The two other thugs returned with a box of my husband's personal effects and all of my jewelry.  Then the bad news really began.  I learned that my husband had run up debts of over fifty million yen with a yakuza-backed credit organization.  Our life insurance policy had been doctored to name this organization as sole beneficiary in the event of his suicide.  The house and contents were their property if my husband defaulted on repayments.  "And that," said the most violent of the three, "includes you."  My son was taken into the next room.  I was told I was now responsible for my husband's debts.  I was then beaten and raped.  Photographs were taken "to guarantee my obedience."  I had to endure this torment in silence, for the sake of my son.  If I failed to obey their orders, the photographs would be sent to every name in my address book.

A month later I was living in a single windowless room in a buraku [not my italics] area of Osaka.  I was indentured to a brothel, and I was not allowed to leave the building or have any contact with the outside world, beyond sex with my customers.  You may doubt that sexual enslavement is practiced in twenty-first-century Japan.  Your ignorance is enviable, but your disbelief is precisely why such enslavement can prosper unchecked.  It happens; it happened to me.  I myself would have doubted "respectable" women could be forced into the sex industry, but the owners are masters of control.  I was dispossessed of every item from my old life that could have reminded me of who I was--except my son.  I was allowed to keep my son--this prevented me from escaping by suicide.  My customers not only knew about my imprisonment, they derived pleasure from it, and would have been implicated in the crime had it become public.  The final wall between me and the real world was perhaps the strongest: a phenomenon psychologists label "hostage syndrome"--the conviction that my fate was deserved and that no "crime" was being perpetrated.  After all, I was a prostitute.  What right did I have to bring shame to my old friends or even to my mother by appealing for help?  Better that they carry on believing I had disappeared overseas with my bankrupt husband.  Six other women, three with babies younger than my son, shared my floor.  The man who raped me was our pimp--it was him we had to beg for food, medicine, even diapers for our children.  He also supplied narcotics, in careful quantities.  He administered them personally to ensure we couldn't overdose... In time our old lives became detached from what we had become."

The account continues, but this is enough to capture, despite its being fiction, the reality of the cruelty that sex slavery is.  And, of course, this story could have easily been about some other form of slavery.  It's all equally unexpected and horrible.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Unknowingly Supporting Trafficking

One of my major arguments in this blog and in my book is that we all unknowingly support human trafficking in some way.  The uniqueness of my argument is that I say it is not only the things that we do that support human trafficking, but the way that we think and talk, too; our very attitudes contribute to slavery, whether we like it or not. 

There are more tangible ways that we contribute to slavery, too, of course.  I don't focus on the tangible so much as I should, though that's partly because I truly believe that if we can change our very beings to be aware and compassionate of the humanness of others then tangible acts would become unnecessary.  In helping think about the tangible, my fiancee pointed out this article to me: Unknowingly Supporting Trafficking.  

If you have been concerned about slavery for awhile now, you may have thought about how buying clothes, chocolate (or coffee and other goods) that's not fair trade, and fruit can contribute to trafficking.  You've probably also given thought to the massage parlor industry, especially considering that this blog and my book have talked a good deal about some of those.  Still, it's worth the reminder that slaves are working in various industries that produce what we consume.  The article is a quick read so I hope you'll read it.  I don't have anything in particular to add to it except that I hope you will think long and hard about how you consume products: just because consuming products does not bring us face-to-face with another human being does not mean that we can stop being aware and compassionate of the humanness of others.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Belle Knox

If you have not heard of Belle Knox, then you can Google her and learn a whole lot very quickly.  Be careful when you do so, though, because she is what most people term a "porn star."  In my book, I did my best to refer to those working in pornography as "pornographic actors," trying to return some of their human dignity back to them.  Pornographic actors are human beings just like you and me, and yet the problem with pornography is that we are able to degrade what we view through a medium--usually a computer or TV screen--to less than human; and once we do that, it's not a far jump to degrading people that we actually encounter in life to less than human.  This is why I talk about pornography in my book and on this blog: the relationship between pornography and slavery is not a thin one.  We like to think that it is so that we can go on viewing pornography whenever we have the urge, or at least accepting its presence in our society; and all the while not confront the reality that we are also contributing to the attitudes that create and sustain slavery.

Belle Knox is an interesting figure.  By now you may have paused to look her up and read some about her, so my telling you who she is might be unnecessary.  But anyway.  She is a young student at Duke University, using pornography to pay her way through school.  If you spent a lot of time looking up Belle Knox, you might have realized that there's a lot of speculative writing about her that's not based in fact.  Worse, there's a lot of negatively biased writing about her, suggesting and implying that she is a scourge.  Worse, she has become a target for hate.  Pornographic actors are victims, through and through; just as slaves are victims.

Look, does anyone really think that Belle Knox is the first or only college student paying her way through school with sex?  And why is she not the only one?  Because pornography pays!  And why does pornography pay?  Because we are a society of hypocrites!  We put up a front to the world saying that we are a good person, trustworthy and an upholder of the universal moral code, and then in private we like to degrade and demonize others in a misguided attempt to feel power, love, and self-worth.  Pornography is a major business because of our hypocrisy. 

And we do not like to admit that we are not the good people that we portray, we do not like to admit that we are insecure, we do not like to admit that we do not love ourselves, we do not like to admit that we struggle to find worth, community, and an outlet for our desire for power, so we blame all of our inner struggles on others: the pornographic actors themselves.  That way, we can degrade them all we want while we take advantage of them through a medium, then turn off the screen and walk away as if nothing happened.  What happens, though, if we ever meet a pornographic actor?  Well, then the crap hits the fan, because then we have to acknowledge that there is a part of ourselves that we do not love, and that is likewise unable to love--the part of ourselves that would rather blame others for our faults--the part of ourselves that would rather laugh at, insult, and attack Belle Knox and her family for her existence, than to ever look inward at our own darkness.  Our negative reaction toward her and her family is indicative of just how desperate we should be to change who we are. 

The reaction to Belle Knox's career choice is not surprising to me in the least, but it is extremely disappointing.  Though Knox is not the first or only female or pornographic actor to be blamed for the sadness, badness, and madness of others, the fact that we still have so much room for improvement in ourselves frustrates me, and should frustrate you.  I applaud Knox's bent toward social justice, but I pray that her motive will go beyond the rights of sex workers and instead focus on changing the hearts and minds of citizens everywhere so that one day there will be no need, no demand for pornographic actors or sex slaves: where there is no demand, there will be no supply.