There’s an interesting demographic involved in the sex trafficking industry, who make up the third party of the equation. The first party is the pimps, the sellers. The second party is the girls, boys, and women: the merchandise. The third party is the johns: the buyers. Every economic transaction has these three parts to it. What’s interesting about sex trafficking is who the johns are, because unlike other criminal industries, the average buyer is a middle-class or upper-middle-class male with a wife and kids and a steady job—in fact, someone you would meet who lives down the street or works in the next cubicle.
There are of course many people who work to help the survivors: the women and children who are rescued. Those who help them are there to get them out, get them to a safe home, and take care of them, showing them that they are worth something and that love is real. There are people who help the pimps, too, by befriending them and loving them, condemning what they do and believing better of them, being the person who sees a person not a pimp. Pimps don’t have people who love them, so when someone cares about them as an individual, it can have a big impact and start to set things straight in their very messy lives.
But helping the johns is harder. How can we know who is buying sex and who isn’t? How can we approach them in a way that isn’t full of condemnation? What is the real root of the problem?
A man doesn’t just wake up one day wanting to buy a little child. People don’t suddenly decide to have violent intentions towards women. Rather, the desire for this violent kind of sex comes from the stifling of other, healthy desires for the right kind of sex. Desires that were meant to bring spouses together can transform into something else slowly over time, so that a man who perpetrates a sex crime doesn’t realize what it is he’s doing—he’s been building up justifications for it for so long.
There is so much unnecessary harassment and denigration of men because of the differences in how men and women desire sex that it can be hard to be a man. This is no excuse, but it explains why so many western men are losing themselves down paths of violent/child pornography and pay-by-the-hour sexual favors.
In one of the many documentaries I have seen on modern slavery, one of the interviewees was a reformed john who used to buy sex. He was a pastor. One Saturday night, on his way to church to pray and prepare for the evening sermon, he passed a girl dressed as a call girl by the side of the road. Thinking of himself as a good Samaritan, he offered her a ride to wherever she wanted to go. But when he dropped her off, she offered to pay him, and he accepted sexual services as payment.
He then got back in his car, drove to church, stood up in front of his wife and congregation, and preached a sermon as though nothing had happened. But something had happened. He said that that night changed things for him. After that, he found he could buy girls without his conscience getting as upset. He had crossed a threshold in something that had only been a nagging mental problem before, and it was many years before he sought help to get himself out of that dark place.
He’s a good representation of the average john: middle-class, married, upstanding citizen, 2.3 children, goes to church on Sunday morning. He’s one of many men who spent years trying to say no to “bad stuff” and found himself one day saying yes to an underage girl who elicited sex because if she doesn’t bring in a certain amount of money, she will be beaten the next day. Your average middle-class man is not evil. He’s not looking for a way to justify buying sex from girls who have been forced into prostitution. But he lives in a culture that assumes married couples stop having sex as soon as the knot is tied and where sex is too dirty to talk about with your spouse.
He lives in a culture where all the places that sexual problems in marriage can be resolved have been closed to him, and where it’s shameful to ask your wife for sex. We live in a culture that doesn’t teach men or women how to talk about sexual desires with their spouses in a way that doesn’t make the wife feel objectified and the husband feel dirty. We live in a culture where women are constantly being objectified, making sex a very touchy topic, and no one really knows how to overcome all that baggage.
So many healthy things have had the door slammed against them, and eventually the unhealthy, twisted, or violent roads are the ones with their doors wide open as pimps take advantage of this confusion of desires and offer “bigger, better, more exciting! No one has to know!”
I read today a quote from the apostle Paul: “Why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, ‘Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!’? These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Colossians 2:20-23).
He’s right. You can be the most pious of people, denying yourself anything that might tempt you to do evil or to worship pleasure. But in denying yourself the healthy pleasures we are supposed to enjoy, your desires will run wild and find something else to feed on. The more you try to keep from doing bad things, the more impossible you will find it to be; you turn from one thing, and find another as seemingly your only option. When you eradicate one bad habit, another takes its place.
So how, then, do we do good things and avoid doing bad things? Paul gave an answer to this impossible question when he addressed stealing in Ephesians 4. “You were taught,” he says, “to put off the old self…and put on the new self.” He continues, “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.”
This is a three part process. Saying no is the first part, but it doesn’t stop there, because he knows that no one has the strength to say no forever. Stop doing evil and replace it with something else. If you’ve been stealing, you can’t just stop, because stealing is your livelihood and it’s also your thrill. The reason you steal isn’t just because you need to eat; it’s the excitement of risk and the joy of the hunt. You need to find not only a new livelihood, but a new thrill to live for.
And what is Paul’s suggestion? Work hard. Find what you’re good at and do it. That will provide satisfying work and a livelihood. And for your thrill: give to others. You don’t have to do it in the boring, white-collar way, either, tossing a check in the offering every month. No, you can be risky and daring and adventurous: give money anonymously, slip it into the pocket of someone in need, travel to a place where the people are at risk and help save lives. Give more money than you can technically afford. Walk up to someone you’ve never met and strike up a conversation. Giving our time and money can be a very risky, exciting business if done correctly.
There’s a john who did just that. He used to flirt with all the ladies and was really good at getting them into bed, and of course he could always call to pay for the same service. But on a trip to another country, he called up for a girl. A teenager arrived, dressed up and blank-eyed. Something about this one clicked: he didn’t see a sex toy but a real human being. Someone who was trapped. He saw a girl who had a name and who needed to be rescued.
So he changed his life around. He went back home and got himself a camera and saved up some money and went back and started filming and uncovering this dark underground economy of human flesh. He got connected with law enforcement and started facing down the trafficking rings and helping girls escape. His old thrill was pay-by-the-hour sex, but his new thrill is rescuing girls whose hearts and lives are in danger. It’s equally risky. The payoffs are bigger, and the consequences too. Gone are the bored, lonely nights when sex was intractably on the mind and calling a girl seemed the only option. He’s not lonely, but surrounded by his fellow fighters; his relationships are rich, full, and satisfying; and none of his energy is wasted on boredom because it’s all used up in the work of rescue and restoration.
He’s rescued so many girls in several countries, and it’s crazy to see photos of him with some of his girls. He’s their hero. The thrill of his life is having “something to give to those in need.”
The answer to how to do good and avoid doing bad doesn’t exist in saying no. You can’t say no forever. You’ll give in at some point. You’ll slip. Your energy has to go somewhere. Sexual energy is one of the most powerful energies we possess. The energy to connect and build a relationship—that’s what it is. If it’s not being used for the right things—building deep friendships that matter, helping people by knowing them, building strong marriages, putting relational energy to a good purpose*—it’ll come out some other way. We have to decide in advance how we’re going to channel our energies, because we can’t get rid of them and we can’t pretend we’re impotent. It’s a question of, in what way will you be a potent, connective force? What kind of bridges will you build with your sexual energy?
When my husband and I were dating and engaged, we chose to say no to sex before marriage. We believe sex isn’t just a pleasure, it’s the glue that is supposed to help hold two people together forever. But we knew saying no wasn’t enough. When you love someone, it’s really hard to say no to something that you know is the deepest way you can love them. So we said no to sex and then we replaced it with actions that we said yes to: holding hands, kissing, hugging, or sitting snuggled up next to each other. We said yes to hanging out with friends and deepening our relationships with other people instead of, as a lot of couples do, isolating ourselves. We said yes to building our relationship through long car trips, hikes, exploring together. We poured our energy into other relationally-satisfying pursuits.
We also said yes to Jesus. We said yes to having Jesus in our relationship and our marriage, because we knew we probably couldn’t do it on our own, but Jesus could: Jesus had the strength to help us save sex for marriage and the strength in marriage to keep love and romance alive for the rest of our lives. He knows what relationships and connections we need to put our energies to, and how to do it well.
Instead of just saying no, we need to start saying yes to the right things. I think that our society has so much of a stigma against even talking about sex that westerners tried to shut up all our desires and say no to everything. In reaction to a lie that could not hold, that sexual energy eventually burst forth in a new culture of sexual empowerment, where all self-control was broken and sexual energy ran rampant and took us places we didn’t know we could get to.
As a result, people today both inside the church and out of it don’t know what’s healthy and good and allowed. And maybe that’s why there’s so much adultery and child abuse and rape and pornography and sex trafficking that goes on—everything kind of experimentation, down to the darkest pieces. We haven’t learned to say a hearty “yes!” to the good things, and so all our noes end up twisted and confused, and we end up saying yes to something we never wanted to do originally. When you’ve gone so far down that path, it’s so hard to turn back.
I hope that with our words and with our actions we can teach the next generation to say yes to the right things so that saying no to the bad things will be a lot easier. It’ll mean talking about sex, and about what’s good and why it’s good, and about how hard temptation can be, and about how we can channel our desire for one thing into doing good in another area. I don’t know if my generation is up to the task; no one ever spoke about sex to us, and we’re pretty clueless. But I hope and pray that God empowers us to speak up anyway.
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do... I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”