It’s amazing how many opportunities to discuss and reflect upon issues concerning women come your way once you’re attuned and express your interest. This summer my brother passed along the news to me about a benefit concert being held to raise money for Child Rescue, an NGO dedicated to fighting against the sexual exploitation of children in North America. Based in Canada, part of this organization’s goal is to create awareness about the injustices committed predominantly against girls but also against boys on our continent and not just in distant countries. In fact, they emphasized the point several times that an estimated 300,000 children in the United States and Canada were at risk for sex trafficking. And the number one destination for American citizens seeking sex with a child? The United States. The concert was directed largely toward a college-age audience and featured numerous educational presentations in addition to several performances by a variety of bands and artists. Personally, I found this to be a creative way to attract a large crowd to contemplate an issue which many people find overwhelming or may even refuse to discuss because they feel helpless to make a difference. Throughout the course of the day, I had several opportunities to reflect upon what we as individuals can do when faced with dark and overwhelming subjects such as sex trafficking and exploitation and myriad other issues of social injustice such as poverty, hunger, etc.
A recurring theme throughout the day was that information is the first step to change. We are powerless to make a meaningful difference if we choose to remain ignorant or keep critical knowledge to ourselves for fear of offending others. This is not to say that information about these issues should not be conveyed sensitively; however, delicacy is only useful insofar as it does not dampen our understanding of the issues. This theme of communicating information about the sexual exploitation of children (usually girls) was emphasized not only in the educational presentations and exhortations that we discuss the issue with friends, but it was also artistically highlighted in songs that two of the performers composed for the event. In the theme song for the event the artist expressed the sentiment in these words:
It’s about time, time that this ends
For people to know and not just pretend
That everything’s fine, because they need to know
How this really is
I found it particularly instructive that he made the point that change cannot come when people pretend that everything is fine. While it is tempting when a particular injustice or atrocity becomes overwhelming to retreat from our feelings of inadequacy and not worry about it, one thing we are able to do is to resist that impulse. Pretending that everything is okay not only fails to fix the problem, but can often perpetuate it. The second song written particularly for this event also expressed this theme of gaining and spreading information as well as acknowledging the frustration and sense of helplessness that we can feel when confronted with these dark issues. Entitled “What Can I Do?” the song is based upon the artist’s conversation with a friend’s wife who works with the International Justice Mission on trafficking issues. Close to the beginning of the song, he acknowledged a common feeling that people experience when they hear about great injustices through the words, “how can I do anything but run from the will to fight a fight for which I feel so inequipped?”. He continues, however, and finds hope in a narrative in which one man educates another before he uses violence against women and expresses his hope in the power of creating change through interpersonal relationships through this beautiful phrase: “let them be a poison to the darkness as they bring it to light.” His vision of creating change one step at a time through our interpersonal relationships is something that we can all do. Additionally, I believe that there is deep significance to his observation that merely bringing these invisible issues into the open damages the ability of injustice to continue as the status quo.
Through becoming informed ourselves and educating others about these issues we also gain the perspective needed to change attitudes and break stereotypes. A brave young woman who had been rescued from prostitution was willing to share some of her experiences at the event. Like many young girls who are intimidated into prostitution, she was bounced around through numerous foster care families until she finally ran away as a very young teenager when she began to be abused by the father of the family she was with. She was taken in by a pimp who promptly began abusing her and coercing her into sex with first himself, then his friends, and finally with random strangers for money. He, of course, pocketed most of the money she was forced to earn. Her plea and purpose in relating her experience was to break down the misconception that prostitutes are “whores” or “sluts” who choose a deviant lifestyle. Rather many of her “sisters” as she called them came from backgrounds similar to her own and were children as well (most girls she was with were younger than 18). The few lucky ones like her were rescued from their situation. Some died at the hands of their pimps. Still others became so discouraged that it was no longer necessary to force them to stay; they had nowhere else to go. The point is that though there may be the occasional sex worker who deliberately chose her occupation, there are several more who are coerced through physical force and emotional or economic desperation. Understanding that they are victims rather than criminals is crucial to addressing the challenges they face and helping to solve their problems. The same goes for deconstructing other stereotypes associated with the mistreatment of women.
It also became evident to me through many of the presentations at the concert that information facilitates and motivates action. A documentary that was shown between musical performances told the story of a woman who was educated about sexual exploitation issues and had also learned about a hotline that accepts tips from those who suspect that sexual exploitation is taking place (National Human Trafficking Resource Center 1-888-3737). After observing that only men ever entered a nail salon in her town, she called the hotline to report her suspicion. Thanks to her tip, the men operating a child pornography studio inside of the fake nail salon were caught and sent to prison. Another example came from the founder of Child Rescue himself. He related that he was highly committed to stopping trafficking early in his life but that his initial plan was to build his career in business first so that he would have more resources. After listening to his mother-in-law, the product of two generations of sexual exploitation, relate some of her experiences as the child of a sex worker, however, he concluded that this problem needed his attention now rather than in twenty or thirty years. He therefore founded Child Rescue with the purpose of eliminating child trafficking in North America. This is not to say that we must all change our life course to make a meaningful contribution; rather, it is to emphasize that it is through conscious awareness of these issues that we are driven to take action that makes sense for our circumstances. Particularly in our interpersonal relationships, we can all make a difference by speaking and acting to promote correct attitudes and behavior towards women and anyone who may be treated unjustly.
While it is sometimes easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged by issues that seem so dark or pervasive that we can’t possibly make a difference, it’s important to remember that there is an answer to the question “What can I do?”. Becoming educated ourselves and then spreading our knowledge will help to expose injustices for what they really are. As we make visible the invisible wrongs committed against so many in the world, we can help break down stereotypes and change attitudes which will make some of these problems easier to solve. Additionally, information will motivate each of us to the course of action that works for us. For me, working on the WomanStats project is what I can do to track down information about the world’s women and make their struggles and challenges visible and information about them easily accessible. It is my hope that this project can be a powerful poison to the darkness as we bring it to light.
To listen to either of the songs referenced:
John Allred – Light in the Dark
Relient K – What Can I Do?