Sex-trafficking, colonialism, and miscommunication

I found a direct application that fleshes out a little better what I stumbled through writing last night about critique and dismissal. The latest hot blogosphere topic was triggered by an interview on the Patheos Religion Now blog with Christian ethics professor Yvonne Zimmerman in which she claims that there are colonial dimensions to the anti-trafficking movement. Unsurprisingly, this presented the blogosphere with some low-hanging feminist/academic fruit to be swatted first by Timothy Dalrymple and John Mark Reynolds on Philosophical Fragments and then examined in a more measured way by my friend Derek Rishmawy at Christ and Pop Culture. I’m interested in looking at how this exchange illustrates the interaction and sometimes conflation of critique and dismissal in blogosphere conversation. When critique and dismissal are conflated, then nothing can be criticized about any aspect of the implementation of a noble enough cause, which has some clear potential danger.

According to Religion Now, Dr. Zimmerman has just released a book called Other Dreams of Freedom which argues that “the theoretical basis of US government anti-trafficking efforts” in conservative evangelical conceptions of sexuality and gender has caused these efforts to “end up limiting the freedom of trafficked people.” I didn’t get enough of a sense from the interview of how this plays out in actual and not just theoretical terms. As part of her opening, Zimmerman says the following:

One of things that I learned early on, working at a rape crisis center with survivors of sexual assault, is that it is always really important to listen and cultivate responses for what they want and need, and be aware that they are not all going to want and need the same thing.

What I hear Zimmerman saying is that there needs to be more empowerment given to trafficking victims in determining how organizations conduct their rescues. I have no idea how these things work, so I admittedly have a very abstract, simple visualization of sex trafficking in my head: a pimp owns a brothel of usually under-aged girls or boys who are forced to perform sexual acts involuntarily. My solution to the problem is the hero fantasy that I have had in my head ever since I first learned that one of my friends had been raped in college: storm the brothel, kick the pimp’s !@#$%^&* in a very satisfying blood-spattering way, and liberate the kids to take them… where? That’s where the abstract image breaks down. What if their family sold them into slavery? Obviously they can’t simply be released into the same streets where they were working. Where are they taken?

It seems like the question of placement is one where there would definitely be legitimate questions raised about colonialism. Do they get placed in an evangelical Christian orphanage where they have to go to chapel every morning and take classes in Bible? What if they were practicing a different faith before they got rescued? Do they get rescued from their other faith also? What if there are cultural prejudices at play between the culture of the liberated trafficking victim and the culture of the native partner organization on the ground (as there are often are)? What if the rescued trafficking victims are getting smacked with rulers for not reciting Bible verses correctly and the person who does it says to the missionary, “You just don’t understand our culture”? I imagine that all anti-trafficking organizations are cognizant of these concerns and have different answers and safeguards for addressing potential cross-cultural difficulties.

So here’s the question that prompted the fury of John Mark Reynolds at Philosophical Fragments. What if a native Christian organization wants to shut down a local “commercial sex venue” for (entirely legitimate) moralistic reasons and they tell the missionaries (not entirely truthfully) that the people who work there are trafficking victims? The analogy would be to “rescue” employees of a strip club or porn film stars here in our country involuntarily under the presumption that they have been manipulated and entrapped into doing what they’re doing (which isn’t necessarily false). This is what Zimmerman says:

Part of what needs to be kept in consideration is that many times when there are recommendations to shut down commercial sex venues – and I don’t want to speak as an expert in Indian culture – but to take these women away and say, we’re going to give you a new life, I don’t think is adequately respectful of the lives they might already have. You can’t assume that they automatically want to do something different. Certainly they may want to do something different, and to the extent that they do, that should be supported. But removing them without their consent is horrifying to me. That smacks of colonialism, in another form.

This paragraph is most of what the Philosophical Fragments blog seemed to engage (to the degree that Zimmerman was engaged directly; there’s a long excursus about the anti-abolitionists in the Civil War who were exactly like these feminist academics today). Reynolds lays out his polemical agenda in response to Zimmerman pretty plainly in his opening: “Proving the dictum that no Evangelical deed goes uncriticized in academic circles, the leadership of people like Louie Giglio in the modern abolition movement is worrying people who are in no danger of being slaves.”

So in other words, by this logic, Zimmerman did her research over however many years and wrote her book because she knew that Louie Giglio was going to get uninvited from the inauguration prayer for being anti-gay and she wanted to land some blows to discredit his movement further. The (left-wing/secular humanist) academic conspiracy against evangelicals continues. Tim Dalrymple gets in his licks on academia too: “To call this ‘colonialism’ in another form may make for a passing dissertation but honestly it’s the kind of nonsense I fled academia to escape” (bitter ex-Ph.D. student?).

I can understand Reynolds’ visceral emotional reaction; I have often done entirely analogous things. In the blogosphere, it always feels like the “other side” is engaged in a conspiracy to discredit your side mercilessly and unreasonably. To be fair, Tim Dalrymple (for whom Reynolds is providing guest-commentary) does respond directly to Zimmerman’s concerns in a preamble to his piece:

While I do think that the free will of those who have been abducted should be respected, for obvious reasons, (1) I would ask the young ladies more because they should understand the risks… involved in a rescue, not because they might be perfectly fine with their lifestyle, (2) sometimes their free will has been so stomped upon… that they’re neither able nor willing to make a mature and well informed decision, and (3) sometimes the practical circumstances may not allow for a calm conversation about the pros and cons while the slavers and pimps bring some mint tea and join the chat.

I hate to say it,but Dalrumple’s language here is a good illustration of what Zimmerman is talking about. When he says “young ladies,” he’s making presumptions about the age and gender of the victim that aren’t necessarily true, which play into the “damsel in distress” motif that does shape how men think (er, at least how I think) about victims of sexual exploitation and may have problematic implications if decisions are made in an anti-trafficking organization in order to serve the emotional needs of a “knight in shining armor” who is in charge.

To notice this isn’t to say Dalrumple is a mysognist or that anti-sex-trafficking organizations need to cease and desist because there might be some problematic motives mixed in that entirely discredit and dismiss everything good that is going on. But if I were on a board of an anti-trafficking organization and a male executive director was talking about the “young ladies” he was determined to rescue, I would be interested in looking at how policy decisions were being shaped by his ethos.

Dalrumple’s use of the word “lifestyle” to describe sex slavery is pretty chilling to read; it seems to suggest that a moralistic judgment is being made of the victim. If you’re really rescuing somebody who has no choice in what they’re doing, you don’t call what they’re doing a “lifestyle.” It makes the whole rescue operation sound like a stern father banging on the door of a wild high school sex orgy to demand that his daughter get in the car immediately.

I realize that I’m a literary theory nerd, which may cause me to overanalyze Tim’s words, but I see a lot of heroism and masculine decisiveness in his word choice. There seems to be an assumption that packaging how a trafficking rescue occurs according to the insights of victims of sexual violence is somehow a covert “moral relativism” in which the simple, cut-and-dry issue at hand is being muddied up with political correctness (“What do you mean I can’t ride a stallion through the gates of the brothel and sweep the young ladies into my arms as I ride through?!!! You want to talk to them discreetly in the marketplace first? And let them say no to you if they’re not ready??? Don’t you realize they’re in grave danger?”).

This whole exchange offers an important illustration in how we mishear each other in blogosphere discourse. What if Zimmerman’s objective isn’t to stick it to Louie Giglio and his friends in the anti-trafficking movement? What if it’s not to dismiss but to say “Yes and…”? To what degree can we take Zimmerman at her own word?

In a situation in which we’re taking religious freedom seriously, and in a multi-religious public, Protestants can be one voice, but they’re not the only, defining, or dominant voice. I want to open the space for alternatives – to make the case for those who have been dominating the conversation to do more listening.

To a certain mindset, this paragraph is peppered with eye-rolling “celebrate diversity” buzz-words: alternatives, listening, etc. It sounds like the language that Brian McLaren and all those emergent hippies use. But I’m not sure these considerations should be written off so easily because of a need to say, ” !@#$%^&*! I’m tired of all these morally relativistic people not calling a spade a spade. This issue is black and white if there ever was an issue that was!”

For the last two years, we have had our church mission teams read an excellent book called Cross-Cultural Servanthood by Duane Elmer. Elmer is very much an evangelical. He wants the people he serves to know Jesus and he takes great pains to assert against potential conservative critics that “listening” and studying the culture and local circumstances of people whom we serve in mission is not a call to embrace religious pluralism. But his point which I very much agree with is that the best evangelism starts with listening. What if the insights of trafficking victims can provide useful changes to the policies of anti-trafficking organization? It doesn’t seem very Christlike for a blogger to say, “How dare you?” to this suggestion because of his own polemical axe to grind with feminist academia.

My friend Derek talked about how dismissing others’ important, legitimate ministry for the sake of your own polemical agenda is “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit,” which fits with Jesus’ use of this term in response to the Pharisees who were dismissing his exorcism of demons by saying he was possessed by Beelzebul (Mark 3:22). What if academic analysis of the anti-trafficking movement is legitimate ministry that can be appropriated for constructive improvements within that movement? I think that Tim Dalrumple and John Mark Reynolds ought to take a serious look at Derek’s piece substituting their own writing for Zimmerman’s to see if their “puckish charm” is in fact what Jesus called “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.”

Usually when I read scripture, it’s most helpful to see myself as the one being called out by it. That said, I’m no saint. You have seen the evidence! I go off on over the top, uncharitable rants all the time. As much as I grimace at what feels like inauthenticity in adopting a more measured and irenic tone in writing (I’d much rather howl like Allen Ginsberg), I am hoping to evolve in that direction. I hope to be part of cultivating an online Christian discourse that includes constructive and charitable critique that isn’t dismissive and isn’t received dismissively. I would be interested in hearing what Tim and John have to say about the constructive suggestions that Yvonne Zimmerman has to offer the anti-trafficking movement after they read her book.

25 thoughts on “Sex-trafficking, colonialism, and miscommunication

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  8. Thanks for the mention, Yvonne. I *have* been talking about colonialism and imperialism in US anti-trafficking crusades since 1998. The full title of my book is Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry ( – and that last phrase is crucial. My research was not about ‘disadvantaged migrant women’ or ‘sad prostitutes’ or ‘poor people’ at all; it focused on those who believe they Know Best how everyone else in the world should live, both within and without their own cultures. I’ve been blogging on this subject for 5 years, have academic articles and also publish on other media sites. One piece relevant to this conversation is called The Soft Side of Imperialism:
    I also critiqued the research claiming everyone is now a ‘slave’:
    To the community I’m part of the understanding that the US is yet again acting out of imperialist and colonialist impulses is widespread. I was glad to see the concept brought up in a different community’s context – the Christian one. Few Christian commentators have engaged with the Rescue Industry’s riding roughshod over so many people’s lives in the world.
    Laura Agustín

    • It doesn’t surprise or offend me to hear this referred to as a “rescue industry.” I have seen a tendency in bourgeois Jesus-land to manufacture causes for American middle class consumption (Save Tibet, Free Darfur, Stop Kony, etc). What I have carried with me from my first job at a little NGO in DC called the Nicaragua Network is that any kind of real support we offer to people in disadvantaged situations anywhere must always have its terms dictated to us by the people we’re supposedly helping. We called it the solidarity model. In Christianese, I would call it “servanthood” rather than “service.”

      It’s great that young evangelicals are interested in social justice, but it seems like the way it’s often packaged makes it more like a form of tourism than anything else. I’m interested in reading more. Thanks for the resource.

  9. Morgan, Thank you for your thoughtful read of and response to my interview. I feel grateful that you’ve engaged the ideas I expressed rather than only whatever emotional reaction (whether positive, negative or both) you had to them. I always try to stess to my students that having an emotional reaction *to* an issue is not the same thing as a thorough, thoughtful and critical analysis *of* an issue. Was it not H. Richard Niebuhr who drove home so eloquently in his classic, The Responsible Self, the crucial importance of really engaing and investigating the question, ‘What is going on?’?

    I want to add that the idea of Christian anti-trafficking efforts as colonialist is not a major theme of the book. In fact, I don’t think I use that term at all. (For a really excellent and provacative book that *does* make this argument, about Christian and many secular anti-trafficking efforts, Laura Agustin’s book Sex at the Margins is unparalled and I recommend it highly). My project in Other Dreams of Freedom is to trace how Protestant theological sensibilities about sex, morality and freedom undergird, shape and inform U.S. anti-trafficking policies and to push people to think about the unintended consequences of this. There’s actually a good deal of theology in the book. I do think human trafficking is real (even if don’t think that all prostitution is trafficking, and i will maintain that human trafficking is more accurately understood as exploited labor than it is as strictly exploited sex), and I want to participate in world in which exploitation and abuse are less common AND in which we (whoever the “we’s” may be) can respect and learn from and support one another even when what we believe and what we think and what is different–even, that is, when we disagree. Thank you again so much for your response.

    • Dr. Zimmerman, thanks so much for reading. For a long time, I have been very interested in how Neo-Victorian (?) sexuality shapes the American evangelical ethos. I found that what Foucault had to say in History of Sexuality really fits the suburban church, that we justify our identity with sexual purity which functions as our substitute for the bloodline of the aristocracy. I’ve also gained a lot from Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were. Hearing you talk about it, I may need to get a copy of your book too. I’ve been spending too much money on books lately though so I may have to wait till it hits the Wesley seminary library.

  10. Wait. So we all need to actually listen to one another? And be willing to assume that people unlike “us” actually have helpful insights that can bring a clearer and fuller understanding of the truth? Really? That sounds so mature, adult, faithful, and undramatic. How will we drive blog traffic?

    • So again, this is about trying to hear different views and respectfully have mature dialogue, taking best insights from various voices and participants (activists, trafficked, those involved as “victims” and others.) Yeah, this is, as you say, approvingly, mature and faithful. But then you make this snarky insinuation that folks don’t do this because it won’t drive blog traffic? Do you know anybody working in rescues? Do you really think they care about blog traffic? As one activist said to a friend of mine, “I don’t have time for this.” Why make mean-spirited accusations about the motives of people, in a thread about fair-minded discussions, no less? Perhaps I am naive, but I know a lot of third world activists and justice advocates and I can’t imagine any of them failing to adopt best practices because of “blog traffic?” Who are you accusing?

      • Bloggers (LIKE ME) who are opportunistic arm-chair slactivists that seize upon low-hanging fruit ripe for dismissive cynical evaluation from whichever “other side” we define ourselves against in order to draw traffic. I’ve done it. I’m not proud of it. I’m trying to unlearn it. It is a very real temptation that we have to name and fight against.

  11. Thanks Morgan… probably the best response to Zimmerman and Dalrymple I’ve read thus far. I’m an “abolitionist” up in Canada, and found D’s response condescending. Sex trafficking notwithstanding, his remarks about labour trafficking sounded ill-informed, distorted and put the rest of the piece off for me. Yes sex trafficking exists, but having researched human trafficking for a number of years now, engaged with organizations standing against it, etc., we cannot always untangle one form of slavery for another. The bad taste in my mouth came when evangelicals once again brought the attention back to sex, even in in “good faith”, while leaving out exploitation of other forms sitting out in plain sight.

    Furthermore, he failed in my perception to recognize one of the realities Zimmerman was trying to make: in performing a rescue, the chances of ALL sex trade workers (men, women and children) being held as slaves is slim. Some are there as paid workers, whether they affirm their liking of the sex trade or not. Shut down a venue, and there will be some people losing out on sole sources of income. To us, the thought of people having to resort to prostitution is heinous but this is the way it is. We have stood out against slavery and loved the trafficked. How now will we show love to the many others in the trade present due to different circumstances? Will we?

    We need to.

  12. Thanks, thanks, thanks. What a fine example of wanting to hear with respect various sides of discussions. And thanks for caring about the anti-trafficking movement, not refusing to critique but also obviously affirming most of what they do. So, thanks for the lesson in good dialogue. BUT, you should know better: even though surely written in a witty off-handed way, your caricature of Brian McLaren was an example of the sort of thing that ought not be done. One needn’t agree with everything he writes to want him, too, to be treated without caricature. Brian a hippy? All hippies as relativists? Cut me a break.

    • Good point. In that particular moment, I was naming what I suspect the conservative evangelical sees in words like “alternative” and “listening,” not expressing my own beliefs. But it is a good example of how you can throw other people under the bus in trying to prove your cred to a particular audience. Thanks for calling it out.

  13. I read Zimmerman’s piece as well. Sometimes these articles by academics tend to be filled with over-the-top political correctness, but she was very thoughtful and insightful.
    I’ve been a bit wary on how some in the church have dealt with this issue. It’s a lot more complex than we think.

    • Yeah I really didn’t know how it was going to pan out when I actually looked at what she wrote but it wasn’t the stereotypical PC garbage. It was just saying they should be talking to the victims more.

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