When someone mentions human trafficking, what comes to mind? Perhaps numbers (30 million slaves) or industries (cocoa, cotton), but probably at some point you think of a story. In fact, for most of us, a story is probably the difference between just hearing numbers and being overwhelmed to the point of inaction … and resolving to take some kind of action in response.
So whose stories have you heard?
If you’re like my friend Laura Davis, most of them probably reflect the perspective of the victims. But the action Davis felt called to take was to write a novel about human trafficking (especially sex trafficking) that would help others understand the world in which such things happen. And because that world is both as far away as the Southeast Asian setting of her novel and as near, perhaps, as the man in the apartment next door, Davis knew the research for her novel had to include the johns or customers paying for sex.
“I put it off as long as I could,” she says. “It was the part of my research I was dreading the most.”
But after several months in the Philippines, where a Fulbright had paid for her to do a year of research with non-governmental organizations and other sources, Davis could put it off no longer. So one weekend, when a photographer friend from the States came to visit, she and her husband drove him to a sex-tourism hub about 90 minutes outside Manila, which had been a destination for men since at least the days of the former U.S. military base there.
While their friend took shots for a photo story about the Philippine sex industry, Davis began a series of interviews set up by a former sex tourist she knew through her NGO research.
What she learned in those interviews—and through other, secondhand accounts from her husband and their photographer friend—was that johns ran the gamut from old and unlikely to get female attention back home, to young and “surprised by the situations they find themselves in.”
“Most of the guys that I talked to were younger guys,” Davis says. They were men in their 20s and 30s, who were frequently aware of sex trafficking. “They thought it was real,” she says, yet were “absolutely positive they were not contributing to it in any way”—even in cases where Davis knew for a fact that the women they’d just slept with had been trafficked.
“They weren’t all dirtbags,” she says. Some men were “otherwise pretty upstanding citizens.” In fact, most of us probably know men who’ve paid for sex—either here or abroad. In a recent study of men who buy sex, Dr. Melissa Farley, a research and clinical psychologist, found that johns came from all sorts of jobs and all across the economic spectrum.
“Praying for men’s hearts to change is very important.” —Amanda Hightower
Knowing that I probably know men who have paid for sex has haunted me in recent months. For nearly four years, I’ve been part of a growing group of people across the country and around the world who fast and pray about marriage and singleness each Monday. In one sense, the group’s hope and prayer is very specific: that God would “change us, strengthen men and give the gift of marriage.”
But in a larger sense, it’s also about asking God to heal the relational brokenness between men and women. That brokenness manifests in numerous ways, but sex trafficking and the demand for prostitution is certainly part of it.
What can we do about that? In some ways, very little. Sweden is the only country to date that has criminalized buying sex—which has successfully brought a dramatic reduction in sex trafficking and prostitution. But changing behavior through altered consequences doesn’t necessarily fix the underlying problem of what’s in men’s hearts.
“The only one we can count on to change their hearts is God,” says Amanda Hightower. The executive director of Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST), Hightower directs a Seattle nonprofit that reaches out to women in all aspects of the sex industry. Begun as a ministry of Mars Hill Church, the organization has retained its spiritual approach since spinning off as a 501(c)(3).
“If men stopped desiring [to buy sex], then this wouldn’t be a problem,” Hightower says. “Praying for men’s hearts to change is very important.”
In fact, she says the REST team considers prayer so important that serving on the organization’s prayer team is now a prerequisite to joining any of the outreach teams that work directly with women. There was even a point, she says, when “God called us to stop doing outreach and pray for three months.”
Some might see that as a time of inaction, but Hightower says the team emerged from their season of prayer “more prepared to face the issue.” Those prayers also showed them that “God is the one doing this, not us.”
In that sense, praying about human trafficking is not a “small” thing but tremendously important. Important … but, as many of us can probably attest, easier to affirm than actually do—especially if the aim is vaguely defined. So why not commit to something small and concrete—like praying for the johns on one day, whether that be for two minutes, five minutes or your lunch break?
That’s the idea behind Pray for the Johns Day, which I’m organizing in conjunction with Valentine’s Day. Individuals and small groups are praying on Tuesday, Feb. 14 and churches are praying on Sunday, Feb. 12. My hope is that God will use this to launch a movement of prayer on behalf of the men who buy sex, and through that, begin to change hearts and heal lives and relationships. It’s a big dream, I know, but if transformation isn’t God’s thing, I don’t know whose it is. Will you pray with me this Valentine’s Day?
Anna Broadway is a writer and editor living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she is a regular contributor to the Her.meneutics blog and has also written for Books and Culture, Radiant and Beliefnet.