News of mothers selling their pre-adolescent daughters into sex slavery cannot help but raise the ire of concerned people around the world. The stories out of Svay Pak, Cambodia are heartbreaking, with a large percentage of 8-12 year olds being farmed out to “sex tourists” and young virgins being rented out for the weekend to the highest rapist bidder.
Many may glance at this news story and decide its too disturbing to read, others will empathize with these victims and wonder what they can do, and some will decide to donate to a charitable organization that helps rehabilitate these victims, some as young as age four. Yet, for most of us, Cambodia is very far away and it is easy to peg sex trafficking as a foreign problem. Sadly, this horrific crime is also in your backyard.
Only recently did I become more fully aware of the sex trafficking occurring in my own state of Virginia. In the last two years, 57 defendants have been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia for sex trafficking. Of course, this number does not reflect the massive number of cases that go unprosecuted; the victims who are never rescued. Just this month, a couple was convicted for running a teenage prostitution ring in Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia. The couple would rent out hotel rooms to use for these sex acts and advertise online for pedophiles or “customers.” This is not an unusual case: the FBI reports that 293,000 youths are currently at risk for becoming victims of child prostitution.
While outrage is abundant in these articles and the subsequent comments, what is sorely lacking is an understanding that the sexual trafficking of children is not an abhorrent crime that came from nowhere. Child sexual abuse and trafficking is part of a much larger rejection by society of the value of each human person and the God-intended meaning of our sexuality. Clearly, I am not claiming that anyone who distorts the meaning of human sexuality is a pedophile, but rather that it is one of many ways in which a person’s desire for sex, money, and power is prioritized over another person’s dignity.
The Catechism teaches that “The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason—selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian—lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity” (no. 2414). When we approach the question of what sexual acts dignify a human being, the response should not be calculated by how much we can get away with, but how we can most fully embrace the dignity of each human person.
The Catholic Church has long taught that marriage between a man and a woman is the only place for sex; a place wherein sex can be free, faithful, fruitful and reflective of the love of God. In any other setting, the “self-gift” which Blessed John Paul II espoused in his Theology of the Body becomes muted or destroyed, only to be replaced by the fleeting pleasures of sexual satisfaction, possession, eroticism, and a selfishness that places our own urges over the need to give to others.
Perhaps the closest association with sexual trafficking that Americans see in their daily life is the rampant production and use of pornography. Surely, the 70% of men between the ages of 18-34 who admit at least monthly use of pornography mostly think they are not harming anyone. Anyone can see that pornography use isn’t an expression of self-gift, but few think of the number of “actresses and actors” that are actually victims of sexual trafficking. The Adult Entertainment Industry reports raking in over 13.3 billion annually and you can bet not all of those people are performing of their own volition. Almost as devastating are the number of young people who are not being trafficked, but reject their own dignity by willingly taping themselves on webcams, posting their bodies for the world to see and use.
Lest you think that even pornography is a distant problem that doesn’t affect you, consider the following. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reports that 56 percent of divorce cases involve “an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.” The Internet Filter Review reports that the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11 years old. And this exposure is not limited to a specific socio-economic group. The abundance of computers and smartphones (even if your child doesn’t have one, their friend probably does) means that images and videos of sexually exploited adults and youths are readily available to be permanently burned into impressionable young brains. The stability of marriages and the innocence of youth, are realities that affect every one of us in some way. If sexual trafficking and pornography use are issues you’ve been content to leave to other people to fight, it is not too late to work to protect your children and the vulnerable around the world and next-door.
We cannot raise a public outcry about sexual trafficking and ignore the proliferation of pornography, the over-sexualization of youth in our culture, and the undervaluing of marriage. The lives of children can be forever ruined by sexual trafficking, abuse, and child pornography. This is not just Cambodia’s problem; it is a challenge to each one of us, particularly to us as Catholics who see the larger picture. Without the recognition that God created sex as gift of unity and fecundity between spouses, how can we truly combat the many practices that attack human dignity?