They Call Me a Moralist

Archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a philanthropist who advocated for Brazil’s poor in the 1900s, famously quoted:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

I heard this quote at a justice conference I attended on the weekend, in which a common theme seemed to emerge from the sessions: the issue of systemic injustice.

Jay and I are passionate about sex trafficking prevention, but we have experienced significant push back.  A social worker who helps street walkers told us all about the dangers and abuse that the women experience on a daily basis, but was afraid to speak on record about demand because she was paid by a government that had made prostitution fully legal.  We were rejected funding for our film because critically examining the root causes of trafficking is too controversial.

If we focus on rescue and aftercare for victims of commercial sexual exploitation, we are called abolitionists.  When we ask the question of what systems allowed them to be exploited in the first place, we are called moralists.

Apparently we have stumbled on an unfortunate truth: dismantling systems of exploitation is not sexy.  Which is exactly why the documentary we are working on is so necessary.

The systems of injustice connected to sexual exploitation take many forms.  Take capitalism, for one. Profit is the soul of capitalism, and it comes at a high human cost.  As Shane Claiborne shared the the conference, “when we really love our neighbour as ourselves, capitalism won’t be possible and Marxism won’t be necessary.”  Capitalism undermines the ability of the poor and marginalized to have a chance of making a meaningful, sustainable living.  If we are serious about ending trafficking, we must examine the system of capitalism that makes the rich rich and keeps the poor poor.

But to this, we face the back lash arguments of “trickle down economics” and the predictable accusations of being socialist.

A second system we are looking at is a legislative one – the legalization (or full decriminalization) of prostitution.  In the past 5 months we have been to 10 countries to examine prostitution models, and have learned that making this industry fully legal changes cultural attitudes toward women, provides traffickers with a safer environment to blend in, and makes trafficking victims more difficult to find. Complex issue.

To this we experience the arguments that prostitution and sex trafficking must be kept separate, and that people should be able to do what they want.

A third system we have encountered is gender inequality.  In most countries women are at a distinct disadvantage, disproportionately experiencing the negative effects of political and economic decisions. They are seen as objects or burdens, putting them at risk for trafficking, poverty, and rape.

Yet when we address this issue, people are either too disinterested to care, or dismiss us as radical feminists.

So, in order for us to have a popular, noble anti-trafficking campaign, we can’t address capitalism, we should never talk about the legal status of prostitution, we should let boys be boys and not discuss demand, and we should skip over the boring topic of gender inequality.

What does this leave us with?  Oh.  Right.  Prosecution of traffickers and aftercare.  We can talk about those.  Because no one’s profits are in jeopardy.  Corporations are off the hook.  So is the sex industry. By this point, the money has already lined someone’s pockets.

But let’s consider the fact that the money required to rehabilitate one victim can be made by a trafficker in a week.  And the fact that men who pay for sex have increasingly violent and degrading demands. And that traffickers rarely receive a sentence because international crime cases are extremely complex and extremely expensive to carry out successfully.

Prevention, by nature, requires us to look at systems of injustice, and dismantle them.  We must do so with wisdom, patience, discernment, as well as compassion and grace.  Our goal is not to press buttons for the sake of pressing buttons, but to examine the motives holding up these structures that make commercial sexual exploitation possible.

I do not have all the answers, because these issues are big, complicated, and culturally sensitive.  But until we get serious about prevention by asking the tough questions, we must be willing to accept the fact that we will need more and more after care facilities, and more specially trained police – more and more time, and more and more resources.

I propose we creatively and strategically subvert systemic injustice.

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  1. Eleanor says

    You are precisely right in this assessment. Thank you for dedicating yourselves to ending commercial sexual exploitation, which typically = sex trafficking.

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