Human Trafficking

I had a disturbing conversation last week. It was with a man who told me, rather shamelessly, that he travels to southeast Asia to visit brothels. Let that sink in. He’s an American man, a fairly typical middle-aged guy, who travels across the country to buy sex from children enslaved in brothels.  He could be someone you passed on the street today.

What sort of person would do that? More than you might think. I told this man that the girls he visited in these brothels were most likely slaves, kept there against their will.  I explained that I’ve actually visited villages in northern Thailand where these slaves come from: their families are told the children will work a good job in the city and send money home, then the children are never heard from again.  They become the forced prostitutes that this man uses. To all this news he responded with a defensive self-pity, “I’m lonely.”  What sort of person would do that? A desperately lonely person.

But that loneliness doesn’t instantly translate into the heinous acts this man was engaged in. There’s a pattern that goes on for a while before that behavior goes to such extremes. As this article by Benjamin Nolot says, “What kind of culture is producing so many men who are eager to buy women and children for sex, contributing to a $32 billion per year human trafficking industry? I believe the answer is the kind of culture that produces and perpetuates a $100 billion per year pornography industry.” According to Philip Zimbardo’s Ted Talk,  the porn industry is the fastest growing industry in America:  For every 400 movies made in Hollywood, there are 11,000 pornographic films. The more that men consume this material, the more they develop an “arousal addiction” which actually re-wires their brains.  And this has social implications: This arousal addiction actually damages the work and social skills men would otherwise be developing.

In other words, pornography use reinforces poor social skills. Loneliness begets loneliness.  Who’s consuming this material? Mostly lonely men. Who’s traveling across the globe for sex tourism? Mostly lonely men who’ve learned to feed their loneliness with the false-intimacy of explicit images.

I believe that dedication to truth is a spiritual discipline which can transform our lives. Here’s a case where it can transform the world. If men who struggle with the temptation to use porn reminded themselves of these facts, they’d find the temptation easier to resist. If all such men recognized the total falsehood of any “intimacy” they receive from either porn or prostitutes, the sex industry might just  collapse. That’s a lot to ask, but it’s not too much to pray for.

I want to tell that lonely man more of the truth about pornography and human trafficking. I want to tell him that his loneliness points to a real need for intimacy that can’t be met in any of the places he’s looked for it. I want to tell him that the real way out of his loneliness is to give up his perversions and seek real relationships. I want to tell that man he needs to repent. I was too angry to say it when the conversation took place last week, but today I would tell him that if he repents he can be forgiven for those sins. And I want to tell that lonely man that there is a community of other forgiven sinners out there who would welcome him, show him the love he truly needs, and help him free the slaves he used to abuse. Lord have mercy.

Invisible Children LogoOn Sunday, September 11th, Upper Room will be hosting a team from Invisible Children, sharing their new documentary “Tony”. As the world remembers the tenth anniversary of the September 11th disasters, this documentary will show us yet another facet of terrorism. The film follows the story of Tony, one of the invisible children from Uganda, as he comes to the US to raise awareness about child soldiers, but returns home to face terrorist attacks in Kampala, Uganda. Watch the trailer to learn more.

Upper Room’s screening will be at 7:00pm on Sunday, September 11th, at 5828 Forward Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15218. Email us at if you have any questions.

tour_hiding_badge_btnOn Thursday, March 3, Upper Room will be partnering with Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) to host a screening of Hiding. The film will provide a glimpse into the perils oppressed North Koreans face as they escape to China in search of freedom. As LiNK says,

“While the world focuses on North Korea’s security issue, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans continue to be enslaved in prison camps today. Up to 300,000 have also escaped to China – seeking food, medicine, work, or freedom from political and religious oppression. Among the 300,000, 70 to 90 percent of North Korean women are trafficked and sold into the sex trade, and more and more refugees are fleeing to Southeast Asia to escape imprisonment upon repatriation by China. Through LiNK’s networks, these refugees can be helped and given new lives. ‘Hiding’ is a film about a group of North Korean refugees hiding in China today, and their attempt to escape.”

The screening will take place at 7pm at 5828 Forward Ave. in Squirrel Hill. For more details, check out the Facebook event page. Questions? Email

 We’re having another concert at Upper Room tomorrow night: PW Gopal.  PW is an amazingly gifted musician, and we’re lucky to have him playing here.  In addition to his sharing his music with us, he’ll be serving as an artist representative for Not For Sale, raising awareness about human trafficking.  The show is at 8pm at 5828 Forward Ave. in Squirrel Hill, next to PD’s Pub.  If you need more information, send us an email or visit the Facebook event page.

I recently came across this article about human trafficking after massive disasters.  As perverse and evil as it may sound, people actually prey upon young children and vulnerable women in the days and weeks following major natural disasters.  Rather than led to shelter and provision, they are lured into domestic, agricultural, and sexual slavery.  Pray that children would be protected, law-enforcement and security personnel (to the extent that they’re present) would be vigilant, and that traffickers would not prey upon the victims of this disaster.

Human trafficking may seem undefeatable, but there is reason to have hope.  This Friday, January 29th, at 7:30pm Upper Room will be hosting a screening of the documentary At The End of Slavery.  The film, produced by IJM (where the author of the article linked-above previously worked), exposes the reality of human trafficking, but also the hope of shutting down the trafficking business.  If you’re in Pittsburgh, especially around Squirrel Hill, come join us.

KaraYesterday I finished reading Siddharth Kara’s book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.  There are about 28 million people in slavery across the world today, only a fraction of whom are sex slaves.  But Kara’s book gives a horrifying glimpse into the very real evil of sex trafficking.  He spent years travelling to hotspots for this form of slavery, such as Falkland Road in Mumbai and the Salaria in Rome.  In each place he spent time interviewing victims of human trafficking, often doing his own detective work in finding the brothels that housed slaves and interviewing them secretly inside the brothel.  The stories are harrowing: young girls beaten, starved, drugged, and forced to serve customers 20 times a day.

Kara blames the rise of sex trafficking on several factors.  First is economic globalization, including IMF policies that crippled the economies of former Soviet republics and some southeast Asian countries in the 1990s.  This led to poverty than in many such places created a desperation for jobs which allowed people to be tricked into believing that traffickers offering legitimate jobs in the cities, only to discover too late that they were becoming slaves.    Second is gender bias against women in many cultures, especially in India, Nepal, Albania, and parts of southeast Asia.  Third are poorly implemented governmental strategies to oppose trafficking, including a lack of extradition agreements between certain countries, policies which focus only on the transport of slaves, and corrupt and easily bribed judges, prosecutors, police forces, and border-guards.

Given this analysis of the situation, Kara gives a detailed proposal for a way to fight human trafficking in general and human trafficking in particular.  Included are suggestions for more just economic policies and improved techniques for governmental opposition to slavery.  The goal of these policies, for Kara, is to increase the cost of doing business for slave-owners to the point that slavery is not an economically sustainable business model.  Current fines imposed on convicted traffickers are surprisingly small, and the rates of conviction are so low that human trafficking is (bizarrely) a low-risk venture.  If fines and prison sentences (and of course prosecution and conviction rates) were raised to the levels he suggests, Kara believes that slave-owners would no longer think the money they generate from slaves is worth the risk and the business side of human trafficking would crumble. 

So, writing as a pastor, I’m wondering what can the Church do to fight against this manifestation of evil?  Certainly we can give. Numerous times in the book Kara relates how non-profits and NGOs that work against trafficking or provide shelter for victims are underfunded and poorly supported. Kara gave part of the proceeds from the book to Free the Slaves . At a conference a year ago I met Mark Wexler, of Not For Sale.  Their I am page has ideas of ways to help presented in such a way that its accessible to anyone.  For people of faith, they have the Underground Church Network.

Yet even beyond the scope of these practical human attempts, I wonder is there more the Church can do?  Some stories in the book seemed to reveal the blatantly demonic.  Nigerian Edo women, frequently trafficked to Italy, undergo a ritual that gives their captors and owners a “spiritual” power over them, preventing them from even testifying against the traffickers.  Kara writes that when forced to testify, “Some suffered epileptic fits or entered catatonic trances rather than break their juju vows” (p. 16; see also pages 89-92).  Thinking of Ephesians 6:12 where Paul says “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but . . . against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” I wonder what this means for evils such as slavery and human trafficking.   On another level, how much of the problem really lies in the human heart?  What if “customers” who purchase prostitutes repented of lust?  What difference would it make if the Church were serious in its discipleship and proclamation about promoting gender-equality (Galatians 3:28)?  Or if we really confronted the sin of greed that drives the capitalist imperialism that Kara says created the economic conditions that allow slavery to flourish?