The Common Good

Combating a Culture of Exploitation

Eight years ago I left my dorm room, humming the hook to “Till I Collapse” on my walk to the bathroom. When I returned a new song was playing on my laptop. Ludacris’ “P-Poppin’” pierced through the thin walls and echoed down the hallway. I bobbed my head along and then sat down to finish my homework. I looked at the screen, and I thought I saw my sister.

Sex trafficking illustration, ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com
Sex trafficking illustration, ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

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One of the women on the screen in the strip club swinging around a pole trying to seduce Ludacris looked like Jennifer – my older sister.

And something began to shift.

The first time I saw pornography I was 9 years old. So for 10 years I lived my life seeing women as products for my consumption. MTV and BET reinforced my mindset, hip-hop gave me a vocabulary, and the media validated my misogyny with movies and games like American PieVan Wilder, and Grand Theft Auto. Porn was easy to come by in less than 10 seconds via the Internet, relatives’ cable packages late at night, and soon my laptop and cell phone. 

For years, I did not go to sleep without masturbating. That’s 10 years of images and videos with at most only a week between sessions of unchecked self-gratification. And it wasn’t until I was 19 that I saw one of these women as a person.

No one told me that the average age of entry into forced prostitution in the U.S. is 13 years old.

No one told me that these girls lived an average of 5 years in that life.

No one told me that 97 percent of the women I was watching online had a history of rape, sexual assault, and abuse.

And no one told me that these videos I was watching are used to train child sex slaves in Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico, and more.

So, no one had to tell me that I had masturbated to pain and rape of someone’s daughter, mother, or sister. 

I was disgusted with myself because I saw my own hypocrisy, brokenness, and inability to change. There was a chasm between what I said in front of people and what I did when no one was watching. I was the whitewashed tomb condemned by Jesus’ words in Matthew 23. That day, I wrote, “I’m Sorry Anna Nicole,” my own Psalm 51 and Jesus met me. Since that day, I have carried around the weight of that dead man inside of me.

I wish I could tell you that I never looked at pornography again. I wish that I could say that magazine covers on the subway don’t catch my eye. I desire nothing more than to say that when an attractive woman walks by me that I have no desire to crane my neck. But I can’t. Instead I am committed to radical honesty and reliance on the freedom that Christ has promised through the cross. I recognize that I am a participant in the exploitation of people, especially women and girls, and ask God to transform me into a person worthy of participating in setting the captives free since I find my freedom in God.

That was the message I shared with my InterVarsity Chapter at Columbia and every audience since — saying that we can’t testify to a freedom that we don’t know anything about. Therefore, unless we are willing to acknowledge that we are participants in the exploitation of people and the planet, then we can’t be abolitionists for spiritual and physical freedom.

The world, and especially its young people, need a heavy dose of vulnerability. It needs individuals willing to say, “I’m part of the problem and desperately want to be part of the solution.” And I believe that’s where my advocacy began and where it must remain. I am sinful and God’s response to my sin and all sin is radical love demonstrated by the grace of God’s son on the cross. It is this grace that makes me just. For I have been saved by grace through faith and justified in Christ.

Now, as InterVarsity’s New York City Urban Project Director, it’s my job every day to think through how we can develop leaders with the character and capacity to change the world; only because I by God’s grace have been changed is this possible!

The power of the Gospel was evident this past summer in Princy Prasad’s life as she wrote “Dear Daddy” while working with children vulnerable to sex trafficking in the South Bronx. She ran into the wall of her past trying to preach a Kingdom-focused future to these young girls. Only when she embraced Psalm 139 for her herself did breakthrough happen, and I believe it will continue for every young girl she encounters.

We must create spaces for students to confess addictions, abuse, and violence. Like Jacqueline* who fought off memories of abuse with alcohol and promiscuity and Nicholas* whose father groomed him to become a pimp. We must construct safe places for people like Luke* who no one listened to when he said he was abused or Sandra* who knows her younger sister is suffering in silence.

We must do this because when we develop boys into good, godly men they won’t rape and abuse women. And when we raise good, godly women, they invest in the next generation of girls, are less susceptible to exploitation, and won’t inflict the pain and violence placed upon them. And it’s my prayer that when all of these Samaritan men and women go back to their towns and testify that they met a Savior who saw everything that they ever did and all that happened to them and were loved and accepted by him, that many more would be set free in the name of Jesus.

And I thank God that at least one of these prayers was answered as Princy penned these words:

“So I want to CREATE a place where girls become women,
but not out of makeup and false face.
Through grace and the fearlessness that comes from
being a true princess to a real king.
Taking every b/r/o/k/e/n body and letting that story,
become an artistic performance to my college community.
Each photo and poem, each story and smile,
I want to define the daughter of Christ that makes
all of humankind sublime.
Where men realize that
their b\r\o\k\e\n\n\e\s\s is not in their
bodies but in their minds.
And women realize that =cat= calls are for
animals and they are greater than that.
When a father realizes a father ismore than donor but a lover.
And mother is not just another
word to describe caretaker.
Where, as a great man once said,
(In a broken paraphrase, I claim:)
If just enough people realize that people are
not just people but to be just people,
people have to bring justice to all people."

This post was featured in Sojourner’s monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.

Jonathan Walton is Intervarsity Christian Fellowship's Director of the New York City Urban Project.

Image: Sex trafficking illustration, ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

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