In the last few years, sex and human trafficking has become an increasingly popular topic in the media. Many celebrities, organizations and even the Church have become much more vocal about the reality of trafficking and the need for change. The desire to end trafficking has rightly become a unifying movement that is gaining traction. While education and awareness are incredibly important, we must be careful to make sure fighting trafficking isn’t simply another trend or another buzz word that eventually loses its meaning over time. In our rhetoric, trafficking can easily become something that happens ‘out there’ in ‘that place’ to ‘those people’, a problem for someone else.
Sex trafficking is a broad term that encompasses a variety of situations, from large scale pimping to small scale familial exploitation. For many, the only association with human trafficking is the movie Taken: faceless victims, violent kidnappings, border crossings and back room auctions. In reality, the things that happen in Taken are merely the very small tip of a very large iceberg, the rest happens in our communities and online, in plain sight. Rarely do we think about the prostitute on the corner or women in the porn industry as victims of trafficking.
I think that many of us have a desire to help in the fight against human trafficking, but what that practically looks like or where to begin is hardly ever clear. When I came to Knoxville to join RAV’s anti-trafficking fellowship, I thought I had a good handle on what it could look like, but I reality has looked so different than what I thought. What I’m learning is that anti-trafficking is much easier to talk about than it is to engage with.
Since joining the fellowship, I get to hang out with prostitutes. And thieves, and junkies, and convicts, and homeless people, and madams, and single moms. Many of whom have been trafficked at some point in their lives, are children of those who were trafficked, or are currently being trafficked. These women are funny and unpredictable, and fill our time together with both chaos and laughter. Some of them are pretty rough around the edges, some of them just want to come in and talk, some are upfront about their lifestyles, others are not. With all of these women, I see the RAV staff live out the high highs, and the low lows of life, and I get to see the value of consistency and love poured out in the name of Jesus over people who have historically been ignored and abused, even by the church.
One women said to a RAV staff member, during a conversation about her lifestyle as a prostitute: “People are going to do this to me anyway, I might as well get paid”. Years of mistreatment and out right abuse have twisted her view of her self-worth and identity, and honestly, it’s hard to argue with that line of thinking when it’s backed by a lifetime of experience, without showing love and dedication for the long haul. Trust is not earned overnight, and trust is so important in the process of healing and life change, which is what anti-trafficking work often times looks like.
My understanding of what sex trafficking is, and what it means to be involved in combatting it, has changed so radically. Fighting against sex trafficking is more than just prevention and rescue, it’s a messy process of sitting with someone as they rebuild their life- physically, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually. Trauma takes a toll, many women are not just trapped physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Those kind of entrapments can take years to free yourself from, even after being physically removed from trafficking situations.
One of RAV’s founders said something a few months ago that has stuck with me. She said “my goal is not for these women to become productive members of society, but for them to have a relationship with Jesus and for that to transform their lives.” How do we define success in anti-trafficking work? Is it when the women we work with get a bank account and a real job? Or is it when they begin and continue walking out healing and discover their value and self worth? That’s not something that I thought about before, but gosh, one is so much more valuable than the other.
I am thankful for the opportunity to partner alongside Raising a Voice during my time with the fellowship to come alongside the women of East Knoxville, in their journeys, in whatever those journeys look like, however long those journeys might be. I know that I have only scratched the surface of what it means to be involved in anti-trafficking work, but I am thankful for this time. I am learning so much about the process of healing and how Jesus is the redeemer of every hurt, no matter how deep. How beautiful that He never leaves us where He finds us and that everyone has access to hope in His name.