The moment my former landlord told me not to worry about him withholding my rental deposit because he was a Christian, I knew I wouldn’t see a dime of it back. When someone goes out of their way to tell me they’re a good person, I’m immediately suspicious. In his case, he was exploiting the fact that many people believe that “Christian” is synonymous with “good people.”
While that experience was mildly annoying, it didn’t cause me any real harm. But in the case of religious anti-trafficking groups, the assumption of Christian goodness causes a lot of harm—often to people who have already been victimized.
As a stripper, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of meeting many victims of abuse. Outside of the sex industry, sexual abuse and domestic violence are prevalent and underreported. But there is a certain sisterhood that I experienced as an exotic dancer that made otherwise shameful or embarrassing conversations easy to have. Many women feel more comfortable discussing their experiences in an environment where sex shaming either doesn’t exist or is negligible. Good portions of the stories of abuse I’ve heard were never told to any authorities, usually because it involved a trusted person or family member, or the victim feared being blamed or dismissed.
Stripping for many of these women was a way to take back their own sexuality. Many of those profiled in my “Tales from the Strip Club” series describe finding empowerment on stage. It is sexual objectification, but on their own terms. It’s their choice. It restores their autonomy. Many find peace and security in the knowledge that they are in control. Choosing to be objectified on stage is empowering. It is refusing to be shamed for expressing their sexuality. And I can personally say that it feels wonderful.
But sex work is not all glitter and dollar bills. There is a major dark side. People in the industry find naïve women, establish trust, and manipulate them into situations they are unable to get out of. Predators lure their victims into bad situations by establishing trust and the illusion of safety, a process known as grooming. This term is now grossly misused, diluting its meaning and doing a huge disservice to real victims of sexual abuse. And once someone has been used and exploited, the best way to keep them quiet is shame.
Christian anti-trafficking organizations know these tactics very well. They use the assumption of Christian goodness to lure in victims, and then go on to exploit them to push their own agendas. They use shame, guilt, and clandestine victim-blaming to subjugate vulnerable women into furthering their mostly political causes. These women become “examples” of why all porn and sex work should be illegal. They ignore victims of sex abuse in their own ranks and push the false narrative that no sex work is consensual.
Christian nationalists disguised as heroes
In the Christian nationalist agenda, sex shaming as a means of control is nothing new. Sex is for most people a powerful natural urge. Sex is healthy. Sexuality and its expressions are a part of the human experience. That natural and wonderful part of life is easily exploited by those who seek unfettered power and tax-free wealth.
The fundamental Christian ideology insists that all human beings are born with the stain of sin. We are all born rotten, goes the message, and the only way to avoid being punished by God is to repent. By putting a nefarious spin on our very humanity, Christian outreach and anti-trafficking groups use the victim’s own shame against them. The very nature of the blood sacrifice of Jesus implies that somehow they are to blame for their own abuse. The cure of salvation only reinforces their own supposed culpability.
It is a grotesque manipulation, and they know exactly what they are doing.
These groups don’t open with that message, of course. They start from a posture of benevolence. They offer help and hope to traumatized and vulnerable people. They assure them of their goodness (see paragraph 1) and their genuine concern. They tell them that they will be loved, respected, and saved.
But the care and hope they offer come with strings. The victims must admit to their own responsibility for their abuse and exploitation. Because after all, you were born to sin. And this horrible experience was all part of some plan to lead you to the light of God and salvation. So although you were exploited and abused, you must admit your own sin to be saved.
Many who have been trafficked through the sex industry already feel some responsibility for choosing to be a part of it in the first place. That’s why many don’t come forward when they have been violated. Sex workers who have been abused are primed to be victimized again. It’s the same type of bait-and-switch con used to exploit them in the first place, except that when these manipulations are done in the name of Jesus, they are praised. The larger political and financial agenda is conveniently swept under the rug.
Groups like these encourage the women they claim to help to tell their stories, only to grossly misrepresent them and twist their words. Most sex workers who end up trafficked for illegal sex or violent porn aren’t against porn or other types of sexual entertainment. They believe they are putting themselves and their trauma out there to help change the industry, not to abolish it—only to find they were nothing but pawns to be used as political propaganda.
After a recent article in the New Yorker was published, the sex workers who were interviewed took to Twitter to sound the alarm that they were not represented accurately or fairly.
Consensual sex work is not the problem
Consensual sex work can be a rewarding and liberating career, and most sex workers advocate for the decriminalization of it, as well as the eradication and prosecution of child pornographers and sex traffickers.
But Christian nationalist anti-trafficking organizations don’t even acknowledge that there is such a thing as consensual sex work.
The local group that approached me in a strip club puts the word choice in quotes on their website. No one really chooses to become a sex worker, goes the implication. By painting all strippers, escorts, and porn stars as victims, they make the case for the indiscriminate abolition of all consensual sex work and entertainment.
Advocates and activists know that would only drive the entire industry underground and facilitate more abuse and exploitation. It would leave consensual sex workers nowhere to turn in the event they were trafficked or abused. Abolishment would also disproportionately harm transgendered people and minorities exposing them to even more abuse and make them targets for law enforcement.
Religion by itself doesn’t make people good or bad, but it does provide a convenient façade to hide malice and greed. Faith is often not a virtue but a means for manipulation and exploitation. Just as the sleazy porn agent or pimp works to gain the trust of their targets, these faith-based organizations do the same thing—and in some cases, collect federal funds to do so.
If these organizations really wanted to help women and stop sexual abuse and trafficking, they would start in their own homes. They would start in their churches, where their leaders abuse the faith and authority they cultivate to cause harm to the women and children who trust them.
Cashing in on the new Satanic Panic
The terrible reboot of the Satanic Panic sometimes known as QAnon has allowed these groups to flourish and gain support among far-right extremist groups. Their dog-whistling has the potential to cause real violence as they ratchet up the rhetoric about the dangers of porn and the LGBT community. They have found a whole legion of foot soldiers under the banner of “saving the children,” soldiers who have already proven their willingness to commit acts of violence, as in the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria attack.
By equating sex work and entertainment with Satanic influence and evil, they have tapped into a cesspool of ready and willing adherents to wild conspiracies to do their real dirty work. The followers of QAnon, neo-Nazis, and self-described Incels harass and threaten legal porn sites and women online, often using the rhetoric and talking points of the Christian Anti-trafficking groups as justification for their abuse.
These groups may claim to want to help women and victims, but their actions prove otherwise. The flimsy veil of Christian goodness doesn’t do much to hide their true intentions. Political power, greed, and the use of sex-shaming not only push the abolishment of sexual entertainment and consensual sex work but the rolling back of women’s, transgender, and LGBT rights.
Equating Christianity with morality is a game more dangerous than sex work itself. It gives license to predators who would abuse those who believe they can trust them. It allows grifters and extremists to exploit victims who come to them for help. They take advantage of not only the victim’s trust but also the public who believe they are working toward a common good.
It’s long past time to call their moralistic bluff.