What I have found since looking into some research and spending time in San Jose, Costa Rica, is that though much of the church seems to be a lost cause when it comes to the sex trade industry, there are still many churches and Christian organizations trying to help out. The process of helping those in the industry escape is one that takes a lot of initiative and requires lots of psychological and social support once they get out. Mark Crawford, one of the many who are working through this process with a number of women, says that “the miracle occurs when exploited women realize their inherent dignity and need for God. He estimates a transition time of three to five years from life in prostitution to stable work elsewhere, while women grow in Christ and serve in a local church.” 25
Another woman who counsels women once caught up in prostitution says that “it is very difficult for those engaged in prostitution to change their behavior overnight. In an odd and heartbreaking twist,” she says, “some women don’t want to be rescued. They become conditioned to the degradation. Like battered women (who remain in abusive relationships with a partner who batters her, and often defends his actions), women in prostitution often deny their abuse if provided with no meaningful alternatives.” 26
But again, there are people trying to help, to find ways around the hole Nouwen talks about in “the Hidden Slavery,” as mentioned above. One example of a positive force in this industry, a couple that I have already alluded to, is the Crawfords, a couple working in the sex trade industry in Thailand. Because few Christian organizations were reaching these women, the Crawfords pioneered their own outreach, Just Food Inc., representing “Justice and Food.” 27
To piggyback on the popularity of western-style cafes among the locals, the Crawfords designed a menu of California cuisines at their restaurant and then trained former prostitutes and those at-risk of entering the trade, to make the food, serve customers, and run the kitchen. They were also able to launch a new venture that combined counseling and a vocational training program called Garden of Hope.28
The Crawfords anticipate that training for legitimate jobs in restaurants and hotels will fit with the women’s gifts. “These women are [already] in the service industry,” says Christa. “We need to redeem their skills.” With prostitution, “you’re pretending you want to be with. You have to present a false image of yourself,” Mark says. The couple believe offering multiple training options will help the women and girls discover how God has gifted them and regain a sense of self.” 29
Another advocate for these women in prostitution is Kerry Hilton, a man who, after being stopped in his tracks at the sight of 6,000 women and girls in Kolkata, India prostituting themselves, moved his wife and three kids to those very streets to minister amongst the women. Not knowing where to begin, Hilton decided that business was one way to help provide a way out for the women. “If business could get them into the sex industry,” he thought, “why can’t business get them out – and help them find Jesus at the same time?” Soon after, a friend helped Hilton draw up a business plan.30
Hilton says that he’s not simply rescuing women; the women are also transforming the community. “They pray daily and meet in prayer cells each Wednesday. Local pastors frequently lead devotions. The women return home to the same place they used to serve customers.” Hilton says that they are seeking a business takeover and that they want markets, not donations from churches and organizations. They’re seeking a freedom business takeover of the sex business, providing an alternative that frees the women from the bondage they’re in.31 These forms of micro-enterprise are one way in which missionaries and ministry organizations are finding success in addressing the problems of prostitution.
Mats Tunehag, a senior associate for Business as Mission (BAM) says that “a business approach to ministry requires market analysis – examining the local market and beyond, identifying competitors, and allocating capital – which requires involving people with business experience.” Tunehag defines BAM as “business with a kingdom perspective, where God transforms people and their communities spiritually, socially, and economically.” “Business is not just about getting people a job and income,” he says. “It’s a vital instrument in the transformation process.” 32
Tunehag wants to supplement the charity model. “We’re thinking that if we’re going to do something, we must raise money and give it away, by providing medical help or working in a shelter or something.” But preventing trafficking and prostitution depends on sustainable jobs and income, so business opportunities are key.33
“If God has called you to business, where should you do it?” Tunehag says “Ask [yourself] ‘Where could I have the most impact for the kingdom, especially for the least, the lost, and the lowliest?” 34
Media and Academia
Another approach to ministering to the women and girls in the sex trade industry has come in the way of exposing the issue to those who try and ignore it. Lisa Thompson, who leads the Salvation Army’s Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking, works with over 30 ministries, social agencies, denominational groups, and mission organizations that attack the problem. Together, she has provoked these organizations to write letters to legislatures, at conferences, and universities to try and create trouble for those who feed or abet this scourge.35
Thompson says that media attention on sex trafficking has “captured people’s hearts and [their] desire to help those perceived as poor, ‘innocent’ victims – those trapped in brothels, held at gunpoint, or locked in somebody’s basement.” 36
Some also work in the academy to raise awareness of the issue. One such person is Donna Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island. Through articles in academic journals, television appearances, and opeds she rallies Christians and women’s groups to unite in this moral battle. What motivates Hughes to fight is the global movement to legalize prostitution, to “clean it up,” she says. “Prostitution, so goes the line of thought, “empowers the women who “choose” the vocation.” 37 In the Netherlands, Germany, and Austrailia prostitution is already legal, and other nations are considering whether or not to follow suit. “Advocates argue that even prostitutes can possess dignity, but Hughes counters that dignity cannot arise from an industry that misuses and molests women.” 38
Hughes believes that “cleaning up” prostitution and removing legal constraints actually “propels the sex trafficking industry.” 39 The Netherlands is case in point.
“The sex industry there is a billion-dollar business that accounts for 5 percent of the economy, an increase of 25 percent in 10 years. Women in the industry come from 32 different countries, signaling a “predatory dependence on foreign women to meet the demand for flesh in Dutch brothels,” to quote from a letter to Pope John Paul II, which Hughes signed. The government has a vested interest “in maintaining the transnational flow of women and children for commercial sexual exploitation” because the financial stakes are so high.” 40
Though it seems like a losing battle, a senior advisor on trafficking in The Office of Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State claims there has been more progress in the last three years than the last twenty. Because of those working at combating complacency in the academic and public spheres, laws are changing and governments are getting more involved. One such law is the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act, which became law in October 2000 in the United States. The law “gives organizations and law enforcement tools to go after traffickers,” and targets not just pimps but the entire sex trafficking network: recruiters, buyers, sellers, harborers, guards, and transporters of women and children. “They can and will be charged, prosecuted, and convicted under this new law. It sends a strong message to traffickers. The law is the model for all other laws around the world.41
Work in Costa Rica
The Crawfords, Hilton, Tunehag, Thompson, and Hughes are only a few of the humble saints working at redeeming the sex trade industry. During my trip to Costa Rica last year, I spent a few days with two others, Gary and Mylinda Baits, who are working with ministries in their country who are involved in this type of Kingdom work. They, like those mentioned above, are among a growing number of Christians worldwide working to live out the love of Jesus by reaching out to sexually exploited people.
Listen as Mylinda describes some of the work she has been involved with in Costa Rica:
“A week after Pam left Costa Rica, I joined with 90 other leaders from all over Latin America to learn, listen and create new ways to reach out in ministry to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking at the ICAP Conference focused on Making Connections in order to Break the Chains of Human Slavery. 10 of those leaders came from the Baptist churches of Costa Rica, women in ministry that I've been privileged to mentor, encourage and learn from over the last eight years of serving as an IM missionary. My friend and IM colleague, Lauran Bethell, who began paying attention to these issues years ago, was one of the keynote speakers. Though the issues of exploitation have been affecting Costa Rican life for many years, some churches are just now starting to pay attention to the needs of those victimized by them. The road is long and we often do not know where it will take us, but we do know that God is moving and if we pay attention, we'll see God working in amazing and life-giving ways in our churches and communities.” 42
When I visited the Baits, as I described in more detail in the journal entry at the beginning of this paper, I had the chance to see with my own eyes the sex industry in action. I also had the chance to talk with the Baits about how they have been addressing the issue along with others in Costa Rica. Again, these thoughts and more were in that first journal entry.
While the trip made me more aware of the sex trade industry in Costa Rica, as well as the industry on a world scale, it also made me raise questions about the industries presence here in the United States. Mylinda describes this line of thought of connecting the industry in Costa Rica with ours here in the US with the following newsletter entry to her supporters in the US.
“Real life in Costa Rica includes many of the same challenges present in the US: unemployment, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, illegal immigration, labor exploitation, and racial intolerance to name just a few. Though many aren't proud of it, sexual tourism, commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking are also part of the Costa Rican reality. But before we get too smug, we need to admit that they are a very real part of the US reality as well. Reality hit home when we saw so many of the sexual tourists in the upscale red-light district known as "Gringo Gulch" who looked as if they could be one's cousin, brother or spouse. It is often when we travel a distance that we learn the most about what is closest to us.
For many on the trip, growth happened once they left their comfort zones and survived. They were stretched to go to places they'd only heard of or read about before. Though many red-light districts and "seedy" areas exist in US cities and towns, these good church folk don't often frequent them. Together with a group of good Costa Rican church folk, they braved this uncharted territory together, hands held by those with whom they couldn't even hold a conversation. Growth happened in the intense grieving of innocence lost and God-given dignity defiled as we witnessed slavery in the form of entertainment. Growth happened as well when we shared life and lunch at the Rahab Foundation with 15 women, many of whom are still active in the sex trade. We learned their names, heard their stories and began to see them not as "prostitutes" but as people precious and loved, daughters of God.
Whether you live in Latin America, Asia, Africa or Montana, God is moving in your midst, you'll see it if you pay attention. Thank you for paying attention to God's call on your life to live generously and thoughtfully. We are encouraged and built up because of you.” 43
My experience in Costa Rica touched me in a way that I couldn’t have been had I just read about the sex trade industry in a book or an article. In more ways than one it brought the articles and books to life. It has also made me more aware of the sex tourism and trafficking industry here in Chicago. One friend of mine mentioned the other day that he is trying to work for CAASE (Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation), a chicago based organization working at curbing sexual exploitation on a local and state wide level. Through creating laws and creatve solutions, they believe changes can happen.