By Christopher L. Heuertz
It was almost 20 years ago that somebody first tried to sell me sex.
I was on my first visit to Asia. Looking for a cup of coffee one afternoon in Bangkok, I was walking across a pedestrian overpass, far from a red-light area, when someone offered me a young woman. The whole thing was remarkable for how undramatic it was. The solicitation seemed almost ordinary, no one on the crowded street seemed to notice or care.
Since then, I have spent my life fighting for justice on behalf of extremely poor and vulnerable communities. A big part of my work involves supporting projects that helps facilitate freedom for victims of forced prostitution.
Human trafficking, specifically when it enslaves someone in the commercial sex industry, is a concern that is increasingly captivating our moral sensibilities. It’s actually become quite a sexy (forgive the pun) cause to get behind. Hopefully the attention being generated around this cause doesn’t have the typical short-term attention span that social causes seem to cycle through.
In 2010 many are outraged that this form of modern slavery, which estimates indicate may include up to 27 million victims has become such a lucrative global enterprise, nearly $32 billion. People are rightly concerned and want to combat this horrific injustice. But how? How can we intervene without causing further harm? Who are the groups combating this injustice that we can trust? Who will stay and commit to these women through the tedious work of rehabilitation and restoration?
As the holiday season starts winding up mailboxes tend to fill up with an increase in appeals from many of these non-profits. We will also see an increased creativity in how these requests are framed as an attempt to capture donors’ social imaginations while causes compete for charitable giving dollars.
One of the more popular fund-raising approaches currently being utilized involves the sorts of alternative sponsorships that allow your friends or loved ones to make a gift on your behalf, or where you are even able to make a donation in lieu of a gift on behalf of a friend.
Though I’m all for giving, in fact the organization I work for depends on it, I’m also all for doing it with the right kind of motivations to avoid creating new kinds of potentially problematic implications in these benevolent exchanges.
I was recently with some friends who are deeply concerned about issues of poverty. They were telling me about the glossy catalogues of human need that turn things like freedom into formulas as advertising jingles, “for only $35 you can help get a Cambodian woman out of a brothel.”
But when we step back and evaluate these kinds of giving opportunities I’m not so sure they aren’t creating new forms of exploitation and new kinds of commodification. It’s tragic enough that a person’s sexuality has been reduced to something that can be bought and sold, and now to turn their freedom into a commodity as well seems to further diminish their humanity.
Truth be told, freedom costs substantially more than a mere $35 contribution and the illusion that money will solve these problems is a false scaffolding that always falls. Real freedom is something that can’t be purchased, at least in the long run. For persons who have experienced prolonged sexual abuse and trauma recovery will take a lifetime. The cost of healing can never be calculated, let alone wrapped up with a sticker-price.
What costs more is learning how to honor and protect human dignity, identity and sexuality. This will take an enormous amount of creativity, likely forcing a dismantling of our assumptions about the perceived power and powerlessness of vulnerable persons. But until how we relate to suffering is transformed, how people suffer will only get worse, and our attempts to help may only complicate matters negatively–in fact, we may end up contributing to a new kind of prostitution, the reduction of human need as a commodity we can purchase.
As we enter into a season of generosity and giving, may we consider how to offer our gifts in ways that don’t do violence to victims who’ve already suffered enough, but contribute to a more robust sense of affirming human dignity and lasting hope.
Christopher L. Heuertz is the International Executive Co-Director of Word Made Flesh, a community called and committed to serving Christ among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. He’s also the author of Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World (IVP, 2008) and Friendship at the Margins: Discovery Mutuality in Service and Mission (IVP, 2010) with Christine Pohl. Follow him on Twitter @chrisheuertz.)