HOUSTON—The United States has a voracious appetite for illicit sex, judging by sex trafficking estimates. One study says America is second only to Italy in the number of people brought here for sex trafficking—somewhere between 100,000-300,000 people, mainly women. The numbers are hard to quantify because of the veiled nature of the sex trade.
As the scourge of human trafficking—particularly sex trafficking—comes to light, a new group of abolitionists led by Christians are responding, even here in Texas. And more are needed, activists say.
Julie Waters, director of Free the Captives in Houston, said she is encouraged by the increasing number of churches working to end human trafficking in her city. The non-profit, Christ-centered organization she founded equips those efforts and ministers to women seeking sanctuary.
“There is currently a great deal of momentum. It is exciting to see the body of Christ coming together to eradicate the evil tragedy of human trafficking,” said Waters, an attorney and master’s degree student at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Almost 500 people, representing churches, ministries, government agencies, and law enforcement, attended the third annual Free the Captives conference at Houston’s Second Baptist Church on March 1-2. The conference equips attenders with vital information about the nature of the local sex trade and the most effective means of combatting it.
The U.S. government defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act.” Activists add one caveat—most of the women involved in sex trafficking are not willing participants. They are forced or manipulated into selling themselves.
In his address to the conference, Dennis Mark, executive director of Redeemed Ministries, warned involvement in the fight against sex trafficking puts Christians in the midst of a dark spiritual battle.
Noting the juxtaposition of his faith and the sex trade, Mark told the audience, “I’m the one in the church community who seems to know where all the brothels are. They are pretty much everywhere.”
He knows the Houston locations because ministry volunteers seek out sex workers to inform them of available resources for those desiring freedom from their circumstances.
Rescuing such woman is arduous. Mark said he genuinely tries to dissuade people from volunteering. If they persist, he said he assumes they have the faith and resilience to withstand the spiritual and emotional assaults they will endure.
It is not without reason that the work is called “combating” human trafficking, he said.
“This fight takes a lot of energy. These women are waiting for us to quit on them like everyone else has,” Mark said. “They will push you and hurt you.”
From a very young age most of the women have endured a cycle of abuse, giving them a perverted sense of love and security within their dire circumstances. They can’t comprehend what freedom from their situation looks like, experts said.
The physical, sexual, and substance abuse began early for most victims trapped in the sex trade. Fostered in abusive relationships, they were forced into the sex industry as early as 12 to 14 years old usually by someone they trusted. Waters told of a woman she recently counseled who was 5 when her mother’s boyfriend began 10 years of sexual abuse. The girl’s mother knew.
Those pivotal developmental years spent selling sexual favors mar the soul in ways professionals are just beginning to understand.
Treating the psychological damage associated with years of abuse and enslavement has challenged mental health experts in recent years, said Mindy May, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Ph.D. student. When May addressed the American Association of Christian Counselors conference in September 2011, she said few of her peers were familiar with the unique trauma associated with victimization related to sex slavery.
Mental health therapies are in their infancy. May hopes to create a standard curriculum that safe house operators can use in helping the women transition to lives free from danger, abuse, and shame.
The incorporation of the gospel into any treatment is paramount, said May, who volunteers as a counselor with the Fort Worth-based rescue ministry Traffick911. The girls she sees need to understand who God is and that he has not abandoned them but loves them.
Even those who believe in God have a skewed perspective of his character. May said they view God as a cosmic “Santa Claus,” bestowing kindness to good girls and unleashing his wrath against the bad. So they seek his favor just as they learn to manipulate the favor of others in order to avoid painful consequences.
May and Mark said well-meaning Christians must understand extensive psychological healing is required for women who find refuge in a Christian ministry. Though ultimate healing is found in a relationship with Christ, believers must not discount the need for healing from the invisible scars, they said.
“They don’t get it when you say ‘Jesus loves you’ because their abusive father ‘loved’ them too,” Mark explained.
May admits being a little frustrated with the shortsightedness of some Christian efforts.
“We can’t just save them, give them a safe place and a trip to McDonald’s and think we’ve done our part—that they’ll be OK,” she said.
The women who come out of the sex trade and into faith-based safe houses are angry, combative, manipulative, and addicted to sex and drugs, May said. Many have been forced to abort the babies conceived in their work. Overwhelming grief looms large.
“That’s all they know,” she added.
May and Waters said helping the young girls and women understand they are worthy of a better life is tough. But there are success stories. Through Christians investing in the lives of modern slaves, God has brought hope and healing.
“Even though we accept no government funding, because of God’s provision through the body of Christ we are able to provide a large number of services to the victims, including jobs, housing assistance, educational services, groceries, furniture, financial coaching, and legal representation,” Waters said.
In 2012, Free the Captives Houston assisted 55 teenage victims of sex trafficking and girls at risk. Three months into 2013, the ministry had assisted 36 girls. Waters said the ministry, as with others across the state, is always needing volunteers and funding in their efforts to rescue trafficking victims.