Selling Sex

There is a sex industry because people are willing to pay for it. There is a sex industry because men (mostly) want to have sex, yes, but also because we want to be aroused by it.

Last night I attended a screening of Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, a Christian documentary about the sex industry. It focuses on the lack of freedom that the women and children have who are servicing the “Johns.”

They are entrapped. They are enslaved. They are held there through physical and psychological coercion.

There were two bright spots in the film, one of them in the progress that Sweden is making in cutting down on its sex industry.

Sweden criminalizes the hiring of a prostitute at the level of what would be a felony in the U.S.

And the prostitutes? They are treated as people who need social services, counseling, protection, and rehabilitation in order to escape the industry, recover their dignity, and reenter society.

The chief enforcement officer of Sweden’s sex industry policies demonstrated what it takes to institute these kinds of laws. Here’s the mentality behind them:

Every act of prostitution is a degradation of a woman.
Every act of prostitution is an exploitation of a woman.
Prostitution is not sex, it is a man masturbating inside of a woman.

Sweden’s laws are undergirded by a cultural shift in understanding of how to think about sex for money.

In America, we are in no place to institute such laws because all of us, all day long, are paying for sex.

Every time we buy our clothes at Abercrombie and Fitch, we are paying for the sexual titillation they have offered us through their hyper sexualized ads.

As Julie Clawson was lamenting earlier this week, NBC won’t even try to sell us Olympic sports where women are large athletes or compete fully clothed or covered.

And we’re not even talking about the $13 billion dollar per year porn industry. (In the U.S., that is.)

There is a sex trade industry because there is a market for it, a market that does not contain solid borders from which those of us who have never paid a sex worker are hermetically sealed. It is a market whose black fades to grey in the everyday purchasing of sex that drives our marketing- and consumer-dollar economy.

Men want sex. A lot. And we pay for it in various ways, even when sexual intercourse is not the actual product we’re buying. (The year that I worked in a restaurant, women servers typically made more money than men; men typically were paying the bill.)

The point in this is that treating women as sex objects, and exploiting that deep seated tendency, is a deeply seated disposition in our hearts and in our culture.

Behind the terrible stories of girls being kidnapped, of mob bosses paying for safe border crossings, of terrified children huddled in out of the way apartments–behind all of this is a market. Men who want sex. Men who will pay for it. Men who are paying for it every day even when we’re not soliciting prostitutes.

As I reflect on my week–watching the Chick-fil-A dust-up, reading Julie’s article on the Olympics, watching a little Olympic coverage here and there, and now screening this film, I’m humbled by a couple of things.

First, most of us are complicit in the selling and buying of sex. And I might say that all of us men are so complicit.

But second, I’m struck afresh by the message that the Church has been sending in the latest wave of our culture wars. We are acting as though the most egregious thing a man can do sexually is to desire and have sex with another man.

While all the time there is this multi-billion dollar sex industry, representing one of the gravest human slavery industries in the modern world, being driven, mostly, by men’s insatiable desire for women.

If only we could redirect our righteous indignation here, against the objectification of women that runs right through the middle of not only the dark alleys but our own living rooms. If only we could agree that the selling of women for sex is degradation and exploitation–and see, also, how we’re all complicit.

29 thoughts on “Selling Sex”

  1. One other point about being a woman in a man’s (sexual) world: men don’t have to live their lives in fear. The fear of traveling alone, the fear of walking to one’s car-even in broad daylight-alone, the fear of being assualted at a man’s whim, the fear of not being able to do the things one really wants to do-like explore the world around us, and on and on…these are all things that women live with on a day-to-day basis, even in a ‘safe’ community. That is something that a man just can’t comprehend, no matter how compassionate they are. Thank you for writing this column!

      1. Violence against women & girls, sexual violence against women & girls, & fundamental discounting of women’s & girls’ worth are closely related. Others may have noted, as I did, how difficult and polarizing the Congressional debate was over renewing VAWA, this year. As a shelter director for battered women & their children, pre-VAWA, and still occasionally involved w/ DV prevention efforts and education, to this day, it’s hard to quantify how much VAWA helped & protected many, many more women, than was possible for us under previous laws. Even so, the toxic psychological affects of men’s violence are so deep that enforcing laws can be undermined by the women’s apparent compliance, which is better understood as loss of person-hood itself.

        There have been & continue to be American men who “import” women to enslave and abuse them, using their immigration status as a guillotine to ensure compliance.

        Thank you for highlighting the grimmest of realities that girls and women face, the world over, Daniel. The power of Christ is strong, graceful, steadfast and courageous enough in us to stand with victims. Yes, Christ with us is strong even to speak truth and righteousness to hardened perpetrators.

    1. Here’s a news report on a documentary just made by a young woman about what it’s like to walk around in downtown Brussels.

      Hopefully, the whole movie will be available online soon…

    2. I was thinking about this just yesterday. Every single man who comes within twenty feet of me becomes a subject of critical evaluation: Should I be afraid? Or more accurately: I am slightly afraid already, do I need to be more so? How can I possibly explain to a man what that is like? How do I not feel shamed when I ask a male friend to accompany me to the gas station after dark and he acts confused?

  2. I wonder what stage it is that “daddy’s little girl” becomes a sex toy. If your premise is right and this industry is driven by the masses caught up in various advertising gimmicks as well as addictions, then these men involved are our neighbors – and ourselves. And our neighbors have families. They have moms and wives and daughters and nieces. When does a beautiful woman stop being your mom, wife or daughter and degrade to a tool?

    My niece became just such a tool. For several years in her early twenty’s while living in Miami and Los Angeles she lost her identity. She will tell you she needed money for drugs and rent. But the sad fact is, she would not have chosen that route to get the money if there hadn’t been a market. Daniel is right. In the USA, the largest capitalistic society of modern times, nothing moves without a market. And this market in particular is driven by men.

  3. There’s some interesting literature out there on this topic. I was honestly first introduced to the subject through a truly horrifying film called Lilya 4-ever, a story about a poor young woman from “somewhere in the former Soviet Union” who is tricked into sexual slavery in Sweden. It is possible that this film is actually behind Sweden’s new law.

    From a Christian point of view, Gary Haugen, of the International Justice Mission, has a book called Terrify No More which tells several stories of IJM’s work in attempting to rescue girls in sex slavery and shut down some of the more notorious brothels. Their work focused particularly on under age girls.

    The most informative work I’ve run across is The Natashas: Inside the Global Sex Trade, by Victor Malarek. The author follows and explores the economics of sexual enslavement. One particularly bothersome aspect of the subject he draws attention to is the explosion of sex slavery in Kosovo, fueled by all of the UN Aid workers there.

    We live in a dark and disturbing world.

    1. Just want to second the Victor Malarek book and plug Diane Langberg’s chapter (ch. 5) in Confronting Kingdom Challenges: A Call to Global Christians to Carry the Burden Together.

      I have worked with adolescent survivors of sexual trauma and maintain friendships with people fighting abuse and its denial of personhood. The need is great. The data on sex trafficking and sexual assault in the U.S. is staggering.

      Lots of resources here: http://dianelangberg.com/work/resources.html

  4. Thanks for the post Daniel. Awareness is one thing, the challenging part is actually formulating a meaningful response/alternative. Praying God gives us all wisdom so we can be “peacemakers” rather than devolving into noisy stone-throwers.

  5. This is a profound post. I never thought of the homosexuality debate juxtaposed with the trafficking issue, but you are right! It’s uncanny to think how many men out there might be fighting homosexuality but hiring prostitutes…or watching porn…or just degrading us women on a daily basis. It’s also interesting to note that one of the key players in the Sweden law (I think it may have been Beatrice Ask but can’t remember 100%) said that passing a law like theirs would be really difficult in the United States because we’re such a patriarchal society. Her words shocked me awake – I knew about the gender debate in the Church, but I’d never labeled our country as patriarchal. Yet I think she’s right and I think patriarchy is a power mentality that rules the sex industry far more than man’s insatiable desire for sex…cause women can be pretty insatiable too. (But that’s a whole other topic about women’s sexuality and how we’re not allowed to have it.)

  6. SPOT ON! thank you. thank you. and sweden’s policies are the way to go. legalization is such a terrible idea, i am so sad to hear people starting to talk in that direction. thank for tying all of this together – and for helping us to see that we are all guilty on some way of contributing to the demand.

  7. Daniel: What action would you propose? Assuming that we can’t change the market (since it is based upon what appears to be a desire for sex that is basic to the majority of men) how do you think we should move forward against this type of injustice in the US?

    1. Is it really about sex, or about power? One study (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/jan/15/why-men-use-prostitutes) would indicate that it’s not actually about sex, it’s about getting to use someone without negative consequences such as losing your spouse or having to answer to police for domestic violence. By their own admission (in the above referenced study) many men sleep with prostitutes so they don’t “have to rape” someone. Rape is not about sex. It’s about power. Hiring prostitutes is not about sex. It’s about power. Otherwise, why would married men and others in sexually active relationships still hire prostitutes?

      So…if it’s not really about sex (because women want sex too) but is about dominance, then the first way to combat it is to change views and stereotypes about women. And about men, too, actually.

      Another really important part of combating it is prevention (preventing kids from being lured into the sex trade in the first place). I hate to shamelessly plug my own blog, but I started an anti-trafficking blog that seeks to focus on prevention (http://usforabolition.blogspot.com/p/prevention.html). I haven’t put much up there in a while, but there are some helpful links on how to get involved in the preventative side of anti-trafficking work if you’re actually interested in getting involved. ALSO, IJM did a study called Project Lantern that had some really encouraging results in fighting trafficking in Cebu, Philippines (http://www.ijm.org/projectlantern). It’s definitely worth reading about.

  8. I’m going to see a screening of it next month. I so wish the church would make this an issue, especially considering how much of this is directly tied to the porn industry, which christians use. Malarek also has a book called The Johns which is an educating, nauseating read.

  9. I read and commented on Julie Clawson’s article, which I thought was overall quite poor. It is not that I believe her contention that the Olympic athletes are sexualized, is incorrect, but rather, that she grossly oversimplifies everything and does not take into account the subtly of the issues she raises, nor does she take into account the sociological factors; she also chooses to see the worst in people which is a move I cannot follow her in.

    Daniel, I appreciate your post but I feel as though it falls victim to the same problems.

    1. “Every time we buy our clothes at Abercrombie and Fitch, we are paying for the sexual titillation they have offered us through their hyper sexualized ads.”

    This is such a large statement to make and one which should be made provisionally. Where is the back up or evidence for a statement like this and, even more so, how are we to know this? Sure the old adage ‘sex sells’ has been shown to at least in certain ways, contexts, times, and places to be true but the ways in which it is true are a complex mixture of sociology, context, psychology, theology, and other disciplines to be sure.

    Also what is your practical advice for how to not be compliant? The fact that a large portion of american society find, in general (and I want to tread lightly here as I am making a very generalized statement and want to be heard correctly), many of the same women to be physically attractive (a societal standard, so to speak) means, a. there are sociological factors in play, b. attractiveness is not completely subjective, and c. it cannot be summarized so simply as: men buy sex all the time (even if that is how we logically or philosophically boil it down).

    2. Also I must disagree that the sex industry can be so simply defined. I agree, as much as anyone, that there are aspects of the sex industry which are absolutely gross, detestable, and horrific: children who are forced into prostitution (any part of the sex industry in which children are involved), and anytime physical force, or manipulation is used, to ‘make’ someone participate.

    Of course it can be argued that ‘all’ people in the sex industry are in some ways manipulated but then that opens up another entire issue of the ethics behind manipulation. And whether or not in fact they are all manipulated, I would argue they are not.

    3. “Last night I attended a screening of Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, a Christian documentary about the sex industry. It focuses on the lack of freedom that the women and children have who are servicing the “Johns.” They are entrapped. They are enslaved. They are held there through physical and psychological coercion.”

    I have seen a number of these documentaries and articles–although not the one you mention here–, and actually at Eastern a woman came to speak on these issues (for the life of me I cannot remember her name, my apologies, but she was the editor for a magazine that dealt with the issues you raise). My problem with these types of documentaries is that, for the most part (I of course cannot speak to the film you saw) these films are very one-sided. Almost as bad as Bill Maher’s “Religulous”, in the sense that these films are not there to tell the truth, well, rather, they are there to tell one side of the truth. The people who make these films normally have a specific agenda they are looking to spread, and, even if we agree with their basic premise, it lacks the empathy, subtly, and understanding that a proper documentary should have. I have spoken to and interviewed a number of porn actresses, and have read thousands upon thousands of words on the sex industry, and there are a legitimately large number of women who chose this (pornography, prostitution, stripping, burlesque, exotic dancing) as their profession. Of course one could say, well they are deluded and don’t know how exploitative and demeaning it is, but that is somewhat unfair.

    “While all the time there is this multi-billion dollar sex industry, representing one of the gravest human slavery industries in the modern world, being driven, mostly, by men’s insatiable desire for women.”

    Maybe these women are “slaves”, maybe. But this feels so hyperbolic, as though a conversation is not even warranted (and yes, in some cases it is not) but for a large portion of the United States Sex industry (pornography and the legal brothels in Nevada, as well as, per your admission, the Abercrombie n’ Fitch, etcetera, marketing campaign) calling it “slavery” is a blanket statement that does not do the complexities of the issue justice.

    4. “Every act of prostitution is a degradation of a woman.
    Every act of prostitution is an exploitation of a woman.
    Prostitution is not sex, it is a man masturbating inside of a woman.”

    It’s a gross oversimplification of complex issues. Once again, especially in regards to the last line: “Prostitution is not sex, it is a man masturbating inside of a woman,” this is blatantly not true, of course I understand the thrust of what he is saying. But it shows little to no empathy toward the women who choose prostitution as a profession. It also lacks the context of the men who hire these women, as well as the women themselves. I understand that some people view these men as gross, disgusting, and pathetic, but that neither progresses conversation and dialogue, nor does it, usually, influence these men to not visit prostitutes.

    In conclusion, the sex industry brings in more money than profession basketball, baseball, and football combined (in the US, I wish I had the source for that but alas) and has grown sizably over the years. It is clear that the way in which people have gone about attempting to deter its growth, stop its pull on society, hasn’t worked, and you highlighted some reasons why that is in your post. I would argue a more subtle and emphatic approach is necessary. The wrong way to go about it is perfectly encapsulated by the mentality of the Swedish sex industry policies.

    Just some preliminary thoughts. I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but, basically the thrust of my comment is: I would like to hear more. Thanks again for the post, I really enjoy your book JHILBP. Keep up the good work!

  10. “all of us men are so complicit”

    feel free to apologize for your own complicity.

    let me me stupid, or wise, blind or gracious, for myself.

    everything else, well said.

    1. I’m not sure, Michael. There’s a corporate complicity in some things, even if a particular person isn’t involved. Should a denomination that was created at the time of the civil war in support of the South apologize for its support of slavery? Is it wrong to do so because nobody standing there has ever advocated the continuance of slavery? Do I get out of apologizing to the world for the Iraq war just because I thought it was a bonehead move? I’m not so sure. I’m a white American guy. There is some guilt by association there. Cf. the prior post, “There is no they”…

  11. The premise that all prostitutes are there against there will is not helpful. It may be the case that *most* are, but I know for a fact that, worldwide, this isn’t the case.

    In Australia, prostitution is legal. Prostitutes are in the phone book. And I feel pretty sure that, because it’s legal, sanctioned, and regulated, any trafficking is not related to that legal prostitution.

    Ending trafficking and forced prostitution, which is IMO what most people really want when they talk about prostitution, is not made easier when one conflates the two.

    While we’re here, it’s also important to note that prostitution isn’t just about sex. A massage with a happy ending provided by a willing masseuse is considered by the U.S. laws to be just as bad as someone forced into it wh is raped dozens of times a day.

    1. Matthew, this is one of the misconceptions that the movie helps debunk.

      They did some investigating in the red light district of Amsterdam. There’s too much money to be made in prostitution for its legality or illegality to be the defining factor in whether it entails slavery.

      The idea that legality undermines slavery is a non sequitur. Slavery itself was legal, but that didn’t make the slaves willing participants in the market. Eating chocolate is legal, but that does not make the enslaved children who work the fields any less slaves.

    2. Matthew, it’s hard to know how to respond with grace to such an objectionable and ignorant opinion. Daniel responded well, imho. As someone who’s worked w/ women who have been & continue to be victimized, I’m grieved to see anyone spread such lies. I recall one man telling me that the women are smiling, so of course they were willing. Do you imagine that you will see the girls & women who do NOT smile? alive? uninjured?

      1. Ann F-R, You have completely characterized what Matthew was saying and missed his point completely. In your defense I would also disagree with his second section, which is basically what Daniel did, and I think Daniel responded well as also. Although I think the rest of Matthew was saying makes a lot of sense and falls in line with much of what I was trying to get across.

        1. Tyler, I don’t think so. I found certain statements by Matthew to be unwarranted, and I can’t imagine where he assembles substantiation for 2, in particular:
          The premise that all prostitutes are there against there will is not helpful. It may be the case that *most* are, but I know for a fact that, worldwide, this isn’t the case.
          My question is how he knows “for a fact that, worldwide, this isn’t the case” that “prostitutes are there against [their] will”. What constitutes a determination that their will isn’t being violated, to him, or to you? Does slavery become not-slavery when it’s hunger, poverty, family or otherwise economically-driven, rather than forcibly entered into by kidnapping, assault, sale, rape, abuse, etc.?

          2) And I feel pretty sure that, because it’s legal, sanctioned, and regulated, any trafficking is not related to that legal prostitution.
          Where’s his substantiation, here? A “massage with a happy ending” necessitates the exchange of money from the customer to masseuse, and more is exchanged when more is demanded/provided. The exceedingly thin intellectual fabric that restricts the evaluation of women’s welfare to her (ostensible) consent and agreed-upon financial arrangements objectifies the woman. This is emblematic of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian view of morality, which is profoundly unscriptural.

          Yes, Tyler, there are complexities galore in both johns and prostitutes, their situations, choices, addictions and entrapments. However, your overall post was to disagree abstractly, without providing any substantive aid to any women in abusive situations. While you work on your “more subtle and emphatic approach“, girls and women are being abused, infected, and are dying/being killed.

          You say that you have spoken to and interviewed a number of porn actresses, and have read thousands upon thousands of words on the sex industry, and there are a legitimately large number of women who chose this (pornography, prostitution, stripping, burlesque, exotic dancing) as their profession.

          Have you done so in areas where they can talk, safely and in private? Have you received training that enables you to elicit honest answers, and are you sensitive to hear when/where such “free” choices were rooted? Do you think that these women would provide honest answers to unknown men? I don’t know your background, and your statement is far too amorphous a foundation for me to change the perspectives gained from working w/ women.

  12. Matthew, I’m wondering if you have ever been in a situation where you had to pretend to be happy in order to survive. I’m guessing not. For many children and women, that is the only way that they dare behave, lest there be a complaint and a follow-up beating. They are NOT in charge of their destiny or they wouldn’t be forced into prostitution. It’s because society has created a demand and a consent through silence that it is somehow OK for men to treat women as objects for them to enjoy at their leisure-for pay, by force or by threat.

    1. 1. “Matthew, I’m wondering if you have ever been in a situation where you had to pretend to be happy in order to survive. I’m guessing not.”

      This is an unfair way to argue, an unfair assumption, not indicative of your conclusions, and mostly irrelevant.

      2. “It’s because society has created a demand and a consent through silence that it is somehow OK for men to treat women as objects for them to enjoy at their leisure-for pay, by force or by threat.”

      My only questions would be, a. who is society? and b. wouldn’t ‘society’ have created the ‘supply’ not the demand?

  13. This a bigger picture than a present day cultural opinion and has more history than any of us remember or many want to examine. I teach at a women’s homeless shelter, have been involed with prison ministry, women’s ministry and am ordained woman minister (the first strike agin me) I have friends and coworkers world wide who are involved in ministering to and rescuing women from worldwide slave trade.

    There may be a few ladies who just like being prostitutes, but I haven’t met them. The women I meet were molested as children or raped and beaten by boyfriends or husbands long before they felt so worthless that they would consider selling themselves on a street corner.

    The girls of our high schools are being seduced and entrapped into into forced prostitution everyday right under your nose here in the good ol USA. Check the stats, do your homework. This may be called the oldest “profession” but check your history books on who gets the money and holds the puppet strings. LLook at the polygamas marriages through the eyes of the wives, fighting for heir husbands love or the slave girls who were not considered more than a bartering tool.

    How did we get here? In our own american history do you remember your mom and dad or preacher whining about the sexy woman standing by the car of gas pump. What old fashioned boobs the media dubed them. Or that vile music we listed too and how those ol fools dubbed it of the devil. I grew up in the 60s and the sleazy stuff was done with inuendo. Certain word and subject were banned from TV and radio. We’ve gone from some amazing love songs to “get down there B___, Get on it B___” Your my B___!” Now practically nothing is banned.

    You can buy a prostitute online and meet her for a Lunch break and your daughter is being encouraged everyday by every outlet of the media as well as her peers to look, walk and think like she is for sale if she wants to get ahead in school, work and relationships.

    Men are not a problem? Why does every major and many minor city have an online “pick your merchandise and set up an appointment” shopping site? No I won’t tell you what it is.

    And you really think we women don’t have a problem? They range the whole gambit from sex slaves, domestic violence, work manipulating and favoring & pay inequity, to fashion and practically every commertial. Denial and Ignorance are some of the biggest problem men and yes, women have. Many have bought into it. Here are some interesting sources. These are just a very very few.

    “Off the Streets” A book by Las Vegas Vice Detective, Christopher Baughman, “The 10 Lies Men Believe” Book by Lee Grady who is deeply invested in “rescue” in his Mordecai Project. Search the internet for “Polaris Project, Sextrafficing networks”, “Human trafficing victim dynamics-Rescue and Restore”, “Who is there to Help Us”- ECPAT-USA, Inc.

    Sorry, ya’ll just got me started. Thanks Daniel for addressing this enormous (more than 1/2 the population) issue.

  14. How do we deal with the vicious cycle of men treating women as sex objects partly because women treat themselves as sex objects. Are tight fitting clothes, stuffed bras, butt supporters, plastic surgery on the parts of their bodies that men are attracted to, perfume with seductive names, wet lip makeup, tongue piercings, cleavage exposure, mini skirts, thongs (underwear and bathing suits) necessary for a woman to live a normal life in today’s free societies? When will women quit posing for pornography to get through college and do it the hard way like millions who take jobs in retail or food service industries. Kidnapping and rape (forcing someone to do something against their wills) are crimes and need to be handled as such (especially in free societies)but it might help men to quit objectifying women as sex tools if women rose up and agreed to quit being sex objects, even if it means less dates for a while.

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