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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Professor analyzes Christianity and sex slavery


On Thursday, Dr. Mary Doak, associate professor of theology at the University of San Diego, gave a lecture titled "Consuming Women: Sex Trafficking and the Body of Christ in a Market Dominated World" as the final installment in Saint Mary's Center for Spirituality's fall lecture series.

To begin the lecture, Doak introduced the context of a "market dominated world."

"We've entered the 21st century with global systems of communication and trade that are binding the world's populations together more thoroughly than perhaps at any other time in history," Doak said. "This global interconnectedness has the potential to advance the human community and to facilitate the Church's mission."

She said this global trade, while being able to improve economies worldwide and offer new opportunities to those in resource-deficient areas, also facilitates the globalization of the sex industry. In this industry, she said human beings are transformed into instruments of revenue, where they are valued solely for their physical worth to others.

"The markets demand for profit has clearly triumphed over human dignity and communion," Doak said. "These sex slaves are not subjects in the market exchanges but rather are treated as objects in the market, exchanged by and for the consumption of others."

Doak said victims of human trafficking experience a reality of "non-personhood," where they are objectified to the point of losing all relation to humanity in the eyes of their sellers. 

Doak cited the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as labeling the sex industry as the third largest criminal business in the world, and the fastest growing. U.S. journalists reported an increase in criminal gang activity in the trafficking business, she said, purely for the profit.

"Criminal gangs in the United States are turning to prostitution, because it is more profitable than selling drugs," she said. "After all, female bodies can be sold repeatedly in the same night, unlike guns and drugs ... and at relatively little risk to the trafficker."

The rate at which human trafficking occurs rises with demand, Doak said. The demand is fed by sex tourists, those who travel to different areas specifically for that area's availability of sex slaves. 

"Many sex tourists are Americans and Europeans," Doak said. "It is also unfortunately the case that girls and young women are trafficked into as well as within the United States and Europe."

Due to the criminal nature of the proceedings, she said there are no exact statistics on trafficking in the United States. However, it is estimated women are forced into the sex industry at the rate of one every 60 seconds.

Another major factor in the success of trafficking is the very young age of many of the victims. Doak said girls are often taken between the ages of 12 and 14, when they are easily manipulated through violence and the withholding of food, clothing and shelter.

The Christian tradition has also contributed to the dehumanization of those in the sex industry, she said, by manipulating the truth about lifestyles of sex workers and representing them as women with insatiable lusts and greed for money or luxury," Doak said. 

"Consider, for example, the Christian tradition depicting Mary Magdalene as a deeply repentant prostitute who must be ... forgiven much," Doak said. "[This] has functioned to create a powerful virgin-whore binary in which women are defined by their sexuality."

She said this dichotomy has created a Christian culture in which it is expected that women choose to save their virtue over their lives - a choice women forced into the sex industry are faced with every day. It is behind the notion of the "fallen woman," she said, which has been applied even to raped women who have lost their virginity against their wills. 

Doak said this attitude prevents Christians from viewing sex workers as the victims they truly are.

"Having been formed by a tradition filled with moralizing tales that condemn prostituted women for their wantonness," she said. "It's easy to overlook the reality of these women's lives."

Daok said as Christians, we are called upon to look past these unfounded biases and open our hearts to those who need our love and assistance the most.

"A Church that values social respectability, that seeks a facade of social harmony without offering serious opposition to injustice is a Church that offers more of the same of what we find in society," she said. "When the Church's mission is thus obscured ... fewer feel their need for the mutual support that empowers us as a Church to live ... more fully."

Responding to the world's injustices to the best of our individual abilities will help to influence our communities and, overall, the world, Doak said.

"It may be that the sex industry can never be totally eradicated," she said, "[But] one of our greatest resources now is our global connectedness."

In addition to political, economic and activist campaigns against sex trafficking, she said more effort should be put into ministry campaigns to provide the women damaged in the sex industry spiritual support and acceptance.

Sister Ann Oestreich, congregation justice coordinator for the Sisters of the Holy Cross shared the Sisters' involvement in the global campaign against sex trafficking.

She said Sisters around the world are working to promote education about the sex industry, and how to combat it.

The Sisters launched part of their local initiative a few years ago, intending to decrease the spike in sex trafficking associated with the Super Bowl, Oestreich said.

"We really got involved in 2011 when we found out that the Super Bowl was going to be held in Indianapolis," Oestrich said.

She said the Sisters contacted more than 200 hotels in the area, offering informational pamphlets and free training for employees, to teach them how to recognize signs of sex trafficking, as well as who to contact to report and safely record such an incident.

Although only 52 hotels accepted the employee training and 100 requested informational materials, Oestrich said it is a step toward the prevention and diminishment of sex trafficking. 

The Sisters have been using their financial investments in hotel chains to hold dialogues with leaders to increase awareness, and get more hotels to sign the Hospitality Industry's Code of Conduct to end child prostitution and trafficking. 

Oestrich said the Inn at Saint Mary's has recently signed this Code, making the public commitment against child exploitation in the sex industry.

"We are proud, and we hope you are too, that both of the hotels on our campus have made this commitment," she said, "and we are now reaching out to hotels on other college and university campuses and inviting them to follow the example of the Inn at Saint Mary's."

Oestrich said the Sisters have also been working with Indiana's state attorney general's office to educate, spread awareness and prevent sex trafficking. She said they have been in contact with the South Bend Police Department as well.

"All of South Bend's policemen and women will receive training this November," she said, "In addition, special victims officers from ... other jurisdictions ... will receive extensive training on how to deal with victims of sex trafficking."

Oestrich encourages students with an interest in trafficking prevention to contact her at the Congregation Justice Office by calling 574-284-5991 to find out how to become involved. She said Sisters of the Holy Cross are lobbying for stronger federal laws to prevent trafficking, and student involvement would strengthen the campaign. 

"We need to work together to see that each person is free and able to realize, experience and own their dignity as a human being," Oestrich said.

Contact Tabitha Ricketts at