Fighting sex trafficking with Jesus: How the religious right’s “healing” hurts

New campaigns claim to fight sex trafficking with "love and the power of Christ." And their influence is growing

Topics: Sex trafficking, anti-trafficking, crisis pregnancy centers, faith-based, jerry peyton, Editor's Picks,

Fighting sex trafficking with Jesus: How the religious right's "healing" hurts (Credit: Stocksnapper via Shutterstock)

Soon after the Super Bowl was deemed a “sex trafficking magnet” by Rep. Chris Smith, another tourist amusement emerged to threaten its title: the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. “It has nothing to do with the gems and minerals,” a local activist named Jerry Peyton told a reporter. “It is a big event. I hate to say it, but when thousands of men are away from home they think they can be anonymous and buy sex from girls.”

To counter this influx of anonymous sex buyers posing as mineral enthusiasts, Peyton and his organization Sold No More created a kind of protest tableau vivant, at once righteous and disturbing: a life-size doll box containing a life-size doll, meant to represent a victim of sex trafficking, erected at the gem show.

“You know when you go to a store to buy a doll, she’s in a beautiful box,” Peyton explained. “We think nothing of buying the dolls for our kids or grandkids.  I think most of us are shocked to find out that people are actually buying girls, little girls.  They’re renting them, paying for these girls who are then dressed up.  They dress them up to sell them.”

On Sold No More’s Facebook page, you can find the human-size box holding a possibly human girl between social justice-sounding quotes from Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman and Elie Weisel and a fundraising request for a bridal shop that will sell “gently used wedding dresses” to raise additional funds for their cause. Sold No More is also recruiting volunteers to teach what they call “sex trafficking prevention” classes to middle and high school students.  Aside from a few links to events at churches, not much on their Facebook page telegraphs that Sold No More is a faith-based organization, or one that’s run by an antiabortion and anti-sex ed activist.

Sold No More began as Streetlight Tucson, a ministry of the Crisis Pregnancy Centers of Tucson. Jerry Peyton actually founded both Streetlight and the Crisis Pregnancy Centers of Tucson. (Crisis pregnancy centers are typically designed to attract those seeking an abortion and instead offer faith-based counseling meant to deter them.) Peyton changed Streetlight’s name to Sold No More in early 2013. Before his work with Streetlight, Peyton was the founding chairman of Tucson Sex Respect, which aimed to promote abstinence-only sex education curricula in public schools.

With Sold No More, Peyton is back in classrooms again, but with a new issue: commercial sex. “The girls were ignorant,” he told a local reporter about a recent class. “They didn’t even know when guys were targeting them either through the Internet, on Facebook, at the mall.” Their program is called Deceptions, and it was developed by the faith-based AWARE Inc. In addition to teaching girls tips on how to not be trafficked, the program also instructs boys not to contribute to trafficking – by not purchasing sex or looking at porn. According to these programs, trafficking is something that could happen to any child, anywhere.

Peyton, now presenting himself as a sex trafficking expert, formed the Southern Arizona Anti Trafficking Task Force, which, according to Sold No More’s annual report, includes a core team with representatives from the Tucson Police Department, ICE and the FBI. Part of what Sold No More wants – like the anti-sex trafficking organizations they partner with – is for law enforcement to produce more arrests, for trafficking and for child prostitution.

This approach – tough-on-crime undergirded by Christ-like compassion – is borrowed from the national movement of faith-based anti-trafficking organizations led by Shared Hope International. Shared Hope lobbies aggressively for tougher federal and state laws against trafficking and commercial sex and is a fixture on the Hill, due in part to their founder Linda Smith and her résumé. Smith is a former congresswoman from Washington state, who served at the height of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” during which she was awarded a 100 percent approval rating from the Christian Coalition. At the time, Roll Call deemed her the farthest right of all House conservatives. Shortly before she left Congress, Smith launched Shared Hope International, after an encounter with a woman in a Mumbai brothel. “It was as if God whispered in my ear, ‘Touch her for Me,’” she told World News.

Through Shared Hope, Smith has a vehicle for her anti-sex trafficking mission that speaks to policymakers, law enforcement and the growing movement of Christians – like Peyton – who understand “fighting trafficking” as a spiritual concern.

Shared Hope’s director of programs Eliza Reock tells Salon the group was funded by both the State Department and the Department of Justice to produce reports on trafficking. Smith also speaks widely on the issue of trafficking, including to audiences at the Family Research Council and the Values Voters Summit.

Sold No More invited Linda Smith to join their Task Force meetings, and Shared Hope International confirmed that they had met with Sold No More as part of a research project.

Shared Hope partners in the U.S. and abroad with local faith-based organizations similar to Sold No More, who offer what they call “restoration” to victims of trafficking. These include women in their teens referred to these organizations through arrest or other involvement with the juvenile justice system. Participation in these programs can be considered a condition of their release. One of Shared Hope’s fully funded partners is a North Carolina program called Hope House, operated by On Eagles Wings Ministries. “The atmosphere of our house includes prayer, bible study, and Christian music,” Hope House’s website proclaims. “It is our hope that our residents will choose to participate, but we will not force them to — nor will they receive any judgment or reprimand if they choose not to.”

Sold No More describes its approach to providing services to trafficked youth similarly: “We believe that the love and power of Christ are the keys to combating sexual exploitation and to transforming victims.” This also applies to those who operate their programs. Founder Jerry Peyton, in a statement to Salon, writes, “As we tell those who come to our volunteer orientations, ‘We are a Christian ministry, which means that our motivation and hope come from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  If you aren’t comfortable working with people who believe in God and give him the credit, then you won’t be comfortable working here. On the other hand, if you aren’t comfortable working with people of other religions or atheists who don’t believe in God, you won’t be comfortable working here either.’”

Matters of belief aside, Sold No More’s organizational description states, “We require everyone who works with Sold No More, volunteers and paid staff, to commit to a lifestyle of sexual purity, which includes abstaining from sexually immoral acts as well as avoiding all forms of pornography.” When asked what a “sexually immoral act” was, Peyton replied, “As a biblically based organization, we let God define ‘sexual [sic] immoral acts,’ which in a nutshell is sex outside of marriage.”

When Shared Hope International’s representatives engage in lobbying, they don’t foreground the messages of spiritual and sexual purity that some of their partners do. In her testimony at one of Rep. Chris Smith’s hearings on sex trafficking, Shared Hope’s Linda Smith appealed for funding for safe housing for survivors and for more collaboration between the State Department and what she called the “anti-trafficking community.” When she did speak to religion, it was to praise “new networks being developed around the world of faith-based groups willing and ready to engage in the work of rehabilitation.”

This is the impact of the faith-based anti-trafficking community: not just the human doll publicity stunts in Tucson, but real influence on policy and policing. In nearby Phoenix, police now participate in twice-annual stings, arresting hundreds of women presumed to be doing sex work, in partnership with a local anti-trafficking program called Project ROSE. Police and program staff say they are offering the women social services in lieu of a criminal record. Instead, the arrested women are sent to another program operated by the Catholic Charities of Arizona, called DIGNITY. Faith-based groups appeal to police to fight trafficking; police oblige by providing them with participants in their “diversion” and “rehabilitation” programs.

As Linda Smith and Shared Hope lobby for federal funding for “restoration” programs, Sold No More is planning to open its own. As they describe it, their safe house for young women will offer spiritual healing, “moving from anger and distrust of God to embracing his love, recognizing his purpose for their lives and his offer of unconditional forgiveness and transformation into a new creation with a new identity, holy and blameless in Christ.” Sold No More has faced some difficulties in raising funds, but a Phoenix shelter called StreetlightUSA says it has raised $2.5 million from “more than 70 places of worship from across the nation.”

Peyton, along with dozens of other newly minted Christian sex trafficking experts like him nationwide, have found a new outlet for their missions. Like his crisis pregnancy center, his anti-trafficking approach wears the mantle of “helping women,” yet it approaches women as injured victims in need of his guidance and healing. As Peyton ended his statement, “Thank you for your concern for these girls and the need to protect them and restore them to wholeness.” That young women might not be seeking his brand of wholeness is not part of the program.

Melissa Gira Grant a writer and freelance journalist covering sex, tech, and politics, in the streets and everywhere else. Her latest book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014) challenges the myths about selling sex and those who perpetuate them.

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