WASHINGTON – Human trafficking, or sex slavery, is not just a problem for developing countries, but for the United States as well. Two activists, Hon. Linda Smith, founder and president of Shared Hope International, and Mark Blackwell, founder and president of Justice Ministries, brought attention to this issue and talked about how the church can help at a Wednesday Family Research Council symposium in Washington, D.C.
Smith began working on the sex trafficking issue when she was a congresswoman in the 1990s. After that, she used her business expertise to research sex trafficking and produce reports for the U.S. government. At first, her research was focused outside the United States. At international conferences, she recalled, people would ask her, "what about the United States?" So, she decided to produce a report on domestic sex trafficking and was astonished at what she found.
There are at least 100,000 American juveniles, at an average age of 13, who become victims of sex trafficking each year in the United States. Further, 77 percent of the women who are prostitutes today first entered the sex trade as a sex slave when they were a minor.
Smith was also shocked to find that the victims, rather than the perpetrators of the crime, were being arrested. Law enforcement officials often found that the only way to get a sex trafficking victim away from her "owner," would be to arrest her for prostitution. Under the law, though, protective services would be unable to provide assistance because she was arrested.
Shared Hope International has been working to get these laws changed. On its website, you can view report cards for each state to see how effective your state is at responding to human trafficking. Smith encouraged concerned citizens to use that information and write to their state legislators.
The way that traffickers often gain their victims, Smith explained, is to first gain the friendship of their target. Sometimes they will pretend to be their boyfriend. After capturing them, they will videotape them getting raped. Then, they may threaten to post the video on the internet, or may threaten to harm their family if they do not cooperate.
The men who pay to have sex with these victims of sex trafficking, Smith said, are often just ordinary men; men that you could be sitting next to in church, at the office or on the subway. These men are "95 percent wonderful men and five percent that has started down this path that is driving this market."
Shared Hope has developed a video, "Chosen," which will be available to churches and other service organizations, that explains how sex traffickers operate. The organization hopes that greater awareness will allow citizens to identify potential sex trafficking crimes before more young women become victims.
Blackwell first learned about the issue of sex slavery at the 2010 Passion Conference in Atlanta.
He "became awakened to this issue," Blackwell said, and "the Lord told me to go to the victims and serve that population."
Blackwell discovered there was a lack of services for the victims of human trafficking that had been rescued. There are only about 600 bed spaces actively available today. So he founded Justice Ministries just after graduating from college to help fill that void.
"I just finished college, hardly pay taxes myself, what do I know about starting a 501c3? But the Lord opened doors," Blackwell praised.
Justice Ministries plays only a small role in a large problem. The United States would need 10,000 organizations like Justice Ministries to meet the need, Blackwell explained. This is why he encourages churches to get involved in this issue.
"At the end of the day, we're all just rescued people that the Lord can use to rescue people," Blackwell said.
Blackwell used to imagine himself a hero-like figure for the work that he does. Sometime last year, though, God taught him what his work should really be about: "in humility and vulnerability, be willing to trade places with the oppressed for their freedom and for God's glory."
The example of that standard, Blackwell explained, is Jesus: "He came down, he traded places with you and I for our freedom and God's glory."
While acknowledging that he does not yet meet that standard, Blackwell said he prays that he will continue to grow in that direction where he is able to "love that radically."
"If we carry His name, we should love the world like that," Blackwell explained.
A video of Smith and Blackwell's presentation can be viewed here on the Family Research Council website.