What is sex trafficking? Is it different from prostitution? Is it slavery? Who is involved in sex trafficking? Why does it exist? What does it mean for survivor communities to talk about sex trafficking?

While sex trafficking constitutes a relatively small percentage of total estimated human trafficking activity, our collective American preoccupation with sex trafficking seems to be a story unto itself. Evangelical Christians in particular have shown an enthusiastic interest in it, often through anti-trafficking programs focused around the “rescue” of trafficked women. At the same time, many scholars who study trafficking and prevention policies argue that such programs have a destructive influence on overall anti-trafficking efforts. Debates about what causes trafficking, and how best to combat it, are frequent and intense, whether in academia, in policy-making circles, or in churches. This past January, I sat down with Yvonne Zimmerman, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, for a wide-ranging discussion about trafficking, prostitution, theology, and abuse.

Yvonne Zimmerman

Yvonne Zimmerman

Zimmerman is a veteran of the sex trafficking debates. Her book, Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking, examines the influence of conservative Protestant theology on U.S. anti-trafficking policy. Before she ever learned about human trafficking, however, Zimmerman managed the team of volunteers that ran a twenty-four hour crisis hotline for DeKalb Rape Crisis Center in Atlanta. As a PhD student at Iliff School of Theology, Zimmerman took classes at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, home to the Human Trafficking Center. When a fellow graduate student first showed her a study on sex trafficking, Zimmerman’s interest was piqued. “It seems like sex trafficking intersected in certain ways with sexual assault, but on a really different kind of scale.”

One difference Zimmerman noticed between her work in the rape crisis center and the trafficking literature she encountered in her research was the attitude towards victimization and survival. “As soon as someone makes contact [with a rape crisis center], you stop talking about them as a victim and start focusing on recovery. And part of that is to name them as a survivor, so that they understand that now there’s agency.” In other words, part of healing from sexual assault is being taken seriously as a person who is capable of making choices to, and being given enough information to know what those choices are.

OtherDreamsBut in the discourse about sex trafficking, “it was just a story of victimization, trauma, and essentially people who were incapable of making meaningful decisions about their lives,” Zimmerman said. “People who had experienced sex trafficking were framed exclusively in terms of sexual violence and sexual assault, and didn’t ever get to be survivors. It seemed to me that there was something else going on. That was the piece that bothered me, that made me realize that there was intellectual work to be done there.”

In part one, Zimmerman explains the differences between sex trafficking and labor trafficking, the theological reasons why Americans only seem to care about forced labor when it involves sex, and what social conditions create vulnerability to trafficking. Part two, to be published February 25, contains a more in-depth discussion of the question of choice in sex work, and why it’s important to fight the assumption that all prostitution is sex trafficking. In part three, to be published February 26, we discuss the sexualized violence of anti-LGBTQ theology, how it helps put queer youth at particular risk for sex trafficking, and finally, why queer youth cannot be “kittens that we rescue.”

What follows is a three-part transcript of our discussion.


S: When you started doing that intellectual work, what did you find that the “something else” was?

Y: There were a number of things. But the one I decided to focus on, since I was in a religious studies program, was the role of religious discourse and theological ideas in framing the way that people understand human trafficking.

I was doing this work during the Bush Administration, and human trafficking was the cornerstone of its gender policy for many years—this, despite the fact that the federal human trafficking statute defines human trafficking with the criminal categories of force, fraud and coercion. As applies to adults, labor, whether sexual or nonsexual, that is compelled through force, fraud, or coercion is human trafficking. In a lot of the Bush Administration’s rhetoric, including the way it denounced human trafficking, Christian theological categories figured very prominently. In that sense, it became important for me to think about the work that these religious categories were doing. Particularly in the midst of a milieu in which there are a lot of circumscribed religious ideas about good and bad sex that are moral, but not don’t necessarily map onto issues of sexual violence. I needed to think about trafficking as a moral issue, yes. But not a moralistic issue like “naughty sex.” For me, sex trafficking becomes a moral issue not because the people aren’t married or don’t love each other, but because of the presence of violence, coercion, and abuse. That’s what makes human trafficking a moral issue

What did it mean when President Bush called human trafficking “evil,” for instance, rather than, say, “unjust”? It moves your moral compass in different ways. Is the thing that makes human trafficking “evil” the same thing that makes it “unjust”? For me, I think the answer is no.

At the same time, I was thinking about policies that were being passed ostensibly to help survivors of trafficking, that were not doing a whole lot to make people’s lives better. The policies relied on the sort of hypothetical ideal victim who turned out to not really exist in real life.

S: I think a lot of us go back and forth between hearing that sex trafficking is an enormous, growing problem, and hearing that sex trafficking is a Christian moral panic and isn’t that big of a deal. What is actually happening? What is it with these idealized victims?

Y: The narrative is often about young women, maybe girls, who leave home, hoping for a better life, and are woefully unprepared for the real world. They’re too trusting, and they trust the wrong men. Or they’re kidnapped, or taken somehow. Inevitably they’re hoodwinked somehow, by bad men, and are forced into some sort of sex work. They experience violence of all kinds, and wish very much to be rescued from that. When they are rescued, they want nothing more than to be like every nice, middle-class white American.

The problem with this story is not that it’s categorically untrue. These things do happen. But a wide variety of other things also happen. So for example, people might want to leave home because they’re seeking better economic opportunity. Or, they might also be leaving home because they’re fleeing violence and abuse. Home may not be safe. Returning home may not be a solution to their situation. If you’re choosing between abuse you experience at home, and some abuse that might experience away from home, it might actually be preferable to hedge your bets and leave. Those aren’t necessarily great choices, but sometimes those are the choices that people have. So to say that “nobody would ever choose that” is another layer of missing what’s going on in people’s lives.

That’s one thing that the dominant anti-trafficking narrative doesn’t get at. People make choices about their lives. Sometimes they don’t have excellent choices, but the choices that they make still have to be respected, even as, hopefully, those of us who care about justice work for a world where people have more choices. But the way that you get to a world with better choices is not to take away or disrespect the choices that people have made.

One of the misconceptions about human trafficking and how to solve it is rooted in dichotomous thinking: ‘home’ is safe, and ‘away-from-home’ is dangerous. This way of thinking presumes that violence doesn’t exist in homes and families; that it only exists outside or away, and that it’s perpetrated by bad, bad men. So addressing trafficking gets reduced to efforts to get women and girls back home and away from “bad men.” The logic is ‘Remove them from this situation and they’ll be free and safe’. This overlooks the fact that ‘home’ often is not safe for women and girls and that families are often the first places that people experience violence.

It’s easier to construct that kind of simple narrative than to recognize the complexity of how people get into trafficking relationships. A big reason that people in the U.S. get into trafficking relationships because we live in a country that does not guarantee a living wage. When people are in a situation where they need to make rent, or they need to buy food for their kids, they will agree to risky employment situations. They might agree to sell sex, because that’s a way to make ends meet. They may not think of themselves as a full-time sex worker. They may not think of themselves as a sex worker at all.

The United States has a very long history of an ambivalent relationship with exploited and underpaid work. I don’t like to use the word “slavery” to talk about human trafficking, even though I know that’s very popular. To American ears slavery invokes the legacy of chattel slavery, and to be a slave was a legal status. Slavery is not a legal institution anywhere in the world today, and so I think describing human trafficking as ‘slavery’ obscures more than it clarifies. There are certainly situations in which people have lost control of their lives because other people are exploiting and abusing them, and these situations have something in common with slavery—the way people were held against their will, forced to work, and subjected to all manner of violence. But today, slavery is not a legal status. We’ve gotten rid of the legal status of slavery, but the whole part about paying a living wage? The United States remains really ambivalent about that. In my view, as long as that remains the case, this problem of human trafficking—of people losing control of their lives such that they are paid nothing or next to nothing for the work that they do and being unable to leave their situation without fear of violence–is going to crop up again and again and again. This is especially true for people at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, who need to take jobs that aren’t going to pay enough to live on.

S: You talk in your book about how there’s a lot of interest in sex trafficking, even though sex trafficking is a fairly small subset of the overall problem of human trafficking. And the relationship that Americans have with the idea of manual labor—I don’t know if redemptive is the best word, but the idea that it’s the best thing brown bodies could be doing, regardless of whether or not they’re getting paid. How is that operating in the ways that we define “labor trafficking” and “sex trafficking”?

Y: We have this idea that labor has this intrinsic value. Mennonites, for certain, really think that hard work forms us into moral individuals, in ways that far outstrip whatever wage we’re making. When people aren’t getting paid adequately and fairly for the work they do, as long as that work does not involve sex, we–and I’m thinking of Americans, but also a much smaller “we,” (Mennonites)—we have a hard time taking financial exploitation seriously as an issue of injustice that demands our moral attention and action. We attach a great deal of value the idea that hard work forms us into moral and responsible people,. This is part of the way many of us were raised. We raise our children to do work because it’s good for their character. I was raised on a farm. There’s a work ethic that you get, being raised on a farm. You’re working hard for the sheer joy of it—anyway, that’s what you’re supposed to learn.

And yet notwithstanding this notion of the intrinsic value of work, there are people who, in systemic ways, are not being paid adequately and fairly for the work that they do, such that they don’t have control of their lives anymore. This is surely a moral issue. But Americans have trouble thinking about that for very long, or really caring about it very much. However, if and when exploited labor involves sex, then suddenly people are ready to jump on board with the greatest enthusiasm and most intense moral outrage. We have a box for caring about sexual exploitation. Our box for caring about labor exploitation is much smaller and weaker.

And yet the way that care and concern is expressed often is not framed in terms of objection to violence. Conceptually, at least, it’s framed in moralistic terms: “they’re not married,” for example. We are familiar with how to care about that kind of sexual moral infraction. There may even be a tacit sense that we should be upset about it. Whereas when people are being paid five dollars an hour, we don’t feel as upset about that because at some deep level we think work is intrinsically valuable even when the conditions in which it is performed aren’t entirely just and fair or, sometimes, are downright exploitative and unjust.

The problem tracks in certain ways to the kinds of question that anti-violence advocates have asked—rhetorically, of course—like, “How many put-downs equals a black eye?” as a way of thinking about the effects of emotional abuse as opposed to physical abuse. It’s sort of the same thing with labor and sex trafficking. How many unfair wages—or just completely withheld wages—equals one sexual assault? These are both affronts to human dignity, but they work in different ways. So for Christians, Protestants in particular, who have a long history of getting in touch with morality through sexual morality, it is easier to care about sex trafficking than it is about exploited labor (labor trafficking). Caring about sexual exploitation doesn’t feel as morally and emotionally complicated, because we have a well-established cultural script for how to feel about that. Now, I think that labor trafficking is just as morally complicated, but in terms of how people experience their own reactions to narratives, it’s just easier to get really worked up about sex trafficking then it is about, for example, field workers who are not getting paid fairly, and work in harsh or unsafe conditions.

S: And who may be putting food on your table.

Y: And who may be keeping prices down at the grocery store! Again, Mennonites and Americans are indistinguishable on this score. We love a good bargain, and we feel like it’s a bit of a moral victory when we’ve gotten a good bargain.