Prevention and Power

By Emily Mills, Founder + Chief Ideation Officer of JSL, Waco, Texas

My heart raced and my mind whirled the first time I walked into a strip club. It was 2004, Good Friday in Waco,Texas. Our car was loaded down with outreach gift bags for dancers, bouncers, managers and DJ’s. This would be the moment that changed the next 20 years of my life. It’s fair to say my Southern Baptist upbringing and all the ministry guidance training at Baylor would come up short on this endeavor. Days leading up to our first outreach were filled with nightmares of being beaten up by women and shot by the mafia. (Hello, bias). I was clearly terrified at both conscious and unconscious levels. The implicit message I carried was that these were women who needed fixing and saving, they were the lost. I, however, had been found and had answers to help them. (Hello, pride). Solutions were black and white in my 26 year old, well intentioned mind and yet, there was something else that stirred in me rather explicitly: my heart longed to know these women. Two weeks prior to the outreach, I learned of a common thread I shared with women in the sex industry: childhood sexual abuse. Upon learning of our commonality, the ears of my heart perked up and a litany of questions began to unfurl. At the top was, “How did she end up there and I end up here?” They say curiosity killed the cat, this is true. A lot in me has had to die. But there is a death that certainly leads to life, and for that I am grateful.

This month, we think about preventing human trafficking in terms of harrowing statistics, policy reformation, and educating the public. All of this is necessary. But what I would like to submit is that in order to prevent a heinous human crime with ancient roots wielding enormous economic arms, we begin to look not only to the stories of trafficking survivors but also the stories of those with power to prevent it. Since 2004, survivors have boldly taken to the mic, to social media, to education and lawmaking, to business leadership, to higher education, and even to leading their own organizations championing justice. These survivors have already paid in their bodies what most of us will never have to; now we’re watching them lead and spearhead the movement. No one can speak to the issue more effectively than survivors, and yet, the cost for their leadership is continued exhaustion. Why? Because they’re having to yell over a sea of people, or coax a church to care and support their efforts while conforming into narrow boxes of partisan politics and doctrinal statements.

The humanity of the issue has become less and less human and more about protecting power and control. 

Trafficking exists because traffickers exist. And why do traffickers traffic? Because it makes them money. There is demand. And why is there demand for humans to be trafficked? Herein lies the ugly human truth that we don’t wish to confront: power. The quest for power-over is evident in economics, in racism, in patriarchy, in religion, and in the cancerous cycle of trauma. Trafficking exists because humans still can’t agree upon how to share power with others. Trafficking exists because we refuse to balance the scales of economics. Trafficking exists because women and children are still the most vulnerable and have the least access to power. Trafficking exists because people of color are still fighting for their freedom and continue to be the least represented in policy making from boardrooms, to city councils, to school boards, to Congress and the Supreme Court. It exists because families are clinging to their religious rhetoric and kicking gay and trans kids out to the streets where within 48 hours they’re approached by a pimp. Trafficking exists because we’d rather make money from prisons than give to restorative initiatives. Trafficking exists because the church has continued to dehumanize women and reduce them to the “ribs” of men, calling adulterous women Jezebel’s and adulterous men broken heroes.

Trafficking exists because we have so brutally dehumanized one another to be commodified and objectified, known for what we do more than who we are.

Trafficking exists because our laws still penalize 15 year old victims who kill their pimp and are sentenced to life rather than restored to it. Trafficking exists because we would rather argue about pro-life and pro-choice that come up with strategic options for quality, life-giving choices. Trafficking exists because we can’t agree on strategic, non-partisan solutions to address hunger insecurity. It exists because trafficking is a global problem but we don’t care about our global neighbors. Trafficking exists because we still don’t believe survivors of sexual abuse and survivors are unlikely to report. Trafficking, both labor and sexual, thrives on the hierarchy of power-over.

Since my first outreach in 2004, the anti-trafficking movement has garnered steady support and even the church has become more apt to discuss the issue at our doorsteps. We know more now about trafficking than we ever have, and yet more people are continuing to be trafficked. Perhaps rather than looking for more information, we look in the mirror. We begin to ask ourselves where we can relinquish some of our own power if it’s harming others. We ask how we can leverage our time, talent, money and influence to benefit those who have less power.

We seek to collaborate rather than compete. To listen rather than argue. 

My life changed in 2004. I am still listening and learning from survivors. My entangled and embodied relationship with powering-over is one I will forever be unlearning. To acknowledge the ways I have been guilty of harm, complicit in injustice and naive to the impact of my power is continually required. I am forever humbled by the chance to remain closely proximate to so many women surviving trafficking and exploitation. Their grace has given me courage to check my power at the door if I’m committed to the work of prevention. 

Emily remains the Founder and Chief Ideation Officer of Jesus Said Love which comprises outreach, education, ACCESS, Lovely Enterprises, Stop Demand School, and Lovely Village (housing for survivors). Lovely Enterprises, a justice enterprise of JSL, is aimed at reducing recidivism into the sex trade through empowerment programs, providing living wage jobs to survivors and launching micro businesses for those impacted by the sex industry. Lovely Enterprises studio storefront is housed within JSL HQ at 1500 Columbus Ave in Waco, Texas.

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