The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
“Being raped for money several times a day is not safe, no matter where it happens”, says expert Kathy Bryan of Elevate Academy. She mentors women who want to leave prostitution.
Kathy Bryan mentors and supports people (mainly women) who have gone through the world of prostitution and seek for help.
The Elevate Academy she leads (a project of the Rebecca Bender Initiative) has helped more than 350 people to work through their past, seek for healing and plan their future.
“In the culture that I grew up in, we are told that girl on the corner or that young lady putting herself through college by stripping… That they chose that”, Kathy Bryan told Evangelical Focus. But the reality is that 87% of the women in prostitution are trafficked in some way or another.
Some of the students Kathy has mentored were sold through Backpage, one of the large prostitution websites in the United States that has been shut down by the FBI last week, thanks to new anti-trafficking legislations.
Kathy explains what she and other Christian activists do to serve victims right where they are.
Question. Two weeks ago, Donald Trump signed the FOSTA law that will help states and victims to better fight online sex trafficking. What implications will it have in practice?
Answer. I am not a legislator, but in the United States we have, since the early 90s, the Communications Decency Act (CDA). That was at the onset of the internet, which made a way for internet hosts (the owner of a website) not to be prosecuted for something someone else posted on their site. So, I could not come onto Evangelical Focus and post something illegal and then you would be held accountable, which makes really good sense.
That protection is still there, with an exception. Until FOSTA was past, there were websites like Backpage, Eros, and others, where you could post the sale of humans. If it‘s an adult posting themselves fine, but the problem was that you had children being sold online. So, websites like Backpage would not be held accountable if they were not directly involved in this, but they actually were highly involved, and that CDA law was protecting them.
We had to find some kind of amendment that would hold them accountable if they were negligible. In this case, they were, there are scads and scads of evidence that shows that they were for all intents and purposes trafficking people.
Q. Backpage and other huge prostitution websites have been blocked by the FBI in the last weeks. How is the landscape changing now?
A. What happened with SESTA and FOSTA was incredibly needed and very good. At the same time, it is another hurdle for people who are choosing to stay in prostitution. Trafficking victims, because of the brainwashing and the abuse, they feel they have chosen this lifestyle.
So, you still have lots of people who are being trafficked but are under the illusion of choice. And then you have a small proportion of ‘sex workers’ who have chosen it, and this laws makes it more difficult for them. That was an unintentional harm brought by SESTA/FOSTA, but you cannot allow a corporation to profit, we are talking about of hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the end of the day, whether you are on the street or in a hotel room, prostitution is not safe. There was an argument that said it was safer to be a prostitute having website like Backpage. But being raped for money several times a day is not safe no matter where it happens.
Q. Some say these laws restrict the freedoms of internet users or the freedom of women who freely choose to prostitute themselves.
Q. The truth is trafficking is incredibly dangerous whether you have procured your buyer from an online source, through an escort service, or from a street corner. The buyer is still the same, only the way he is finding out about you is different.
So, the law makes it much more difficult. Many people who are in this ‘work’ right now, weren’t doing it before there was internet, they don’t know how it was before there was internet. They’re having to revamp and roll with the punches, so to speak.
Unfortunately, trafficking and prostitution have been around for centuries. The passage of SESTA/FOSTA is not going to end trafficking. If you assume that a trafficker has only one victim, and won 1,000 dollars a day, then he is making 365,000 dollars a year. We would be foolish to think that traffickers would not quickly find another way to keep that income flowing!
So, these laws are not about ending trafficking, but about holding people accountable that should be held accountable.
Now, not every site was closed down by the FBI. Other sites like Craigslist, they shuttered themselves, but other sites are still up.
Q. How are you and your team working with the administration and the police?
A. Actually, in the last week I had two workers calling and saying: I don’t know what to do now. Personally, what I did, was to take an assessment of their needs and find out where they are in life. What’s going on with you? Do you want to stay in this line of work? Do you not want to stay? And then, help them figure out what the next steps are.
If somebody contacts me and they want to stay where they are right now (though, a lot of times they do not realise that they are being trafficked), then I just make suggestions to them. This may sound odd, but I would tell them something like: “reach out to your regulars, or find a strip club or an escort service…” I just give them suggestions. To me it’s no different than providing a condom to somebody, because I am more worried about their safety.
My life’s theme: “Love always wins”. If you meet somebody where they are, and you’re loving and kind to them, if this persons is victimised, if I’m loving her now where she is at and helping her (not helping to harm herself, but helping her get through her day), then when she finally realises she wants out, guess who she is going to call – me. And then I will be able to help her exit, which is what we want.
We want to help people get out of this, and they are not going out of this if we are shaming them. They’re going to reach back out because they will remember that that person met me where I was and loved me where I was.
There is not an easy answer unfortunately.
Q. How do you help women who want to leave and start a new life?
A. It’s going to depend on where they are. I would make that first connection with them, let them know about our online programme. Then, do an assessment of where are you living and what are your needs now. Some people don’t necessarily need a residential programme. So, just finding where they’re at.
A lot of times we can help them connect to resources in their community where they actually live. With this being an online academy, I’m actually working with survivors of all across the United States, and some from Canada and from other countries. As long as they speak English, they can go through our academy.
We are there for support, mentoring, we hook them up with professional life coaches. It is very empowering to have other people come around you while you’re choosing to take your life in another direction.
The whole goal of Elevate is to help them understand that there is one life and that they can make it whatever they want, that they don’t have to live under somebody else’s control. We teach them to dream again, encourage them to find what makes their heart sing, and go after it.
Q. What are some of the stereotypes that are helping to perpetuate prostitution as something acceptable in the United States?
A. In the culture that I grew up in, we are told that that girl on the corner or that young lady putting herself through college by stripping… That they chose that. That is what they wanted. The truth is that higher than 87% did not, they’re trafficking victims. There is a very small percentage of people who wanted to be there and chose it. I don’t know what the statistic would be for Europe.
What little goes like: “Hmm, I was thinking about being a nurse, but I think I will just sell my body 10-12 times a night”. No, that’s nobody’s dream! It’s not like you see it on TV, it’s not like “Pretty Woman”, it’s a very traumatic lifestyle. Even if you have a buyer who literally just wants to have sex like he would with his wife, it’s still something that you don’t want to do. If I wanted to have sex with you, you wouldn’t have to pay me, think about it!
We have to change the mindset of our culture. People have to realise the truth that that person doesn’t want to be there – and the even greater truth that they are controlled and forced to be there.
The brainwashing that happens with the trafficker adds to this. Sometimes the victim is under this false belief that they chose this, that somehow, it’s their own fault. If you track back to their story and you find that they have been trafficked since the age of thirteen, they’re hanging blame all on this one decision they feel was a bad decision to date that person back then. They are thirteen, they shouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with, it’s the manipulator’s fault.
Q. In Spain, for instance, about 90% of the prostituted women are trafficked from other countries like Romania or Nigeria. Do you think men who buy sex are aware of this reality? If not, how can we help to make change their perception?
A. I think some of them do know, and others just don’t really care. Pornography plays a lot into this. After someone has consumed pornography for a certain period of time, they want to start act out what they have seen. I don’t know how much you know about pornography but it has become incredibly violent. These men want to act out something they have seen, and their partner won’t do it, so they would find a prostitute. They think: “She is a prostitute, she is willing, she must like this”. So, there is pornography feeding prostitution.
A lot in our culture celebrates the objectification of people. You have ideas such as: “Oh, he is 18, let’s get him to a strip club”, or “He’s getting married, let’s get a stripper for his bachelor party”.
As a society we have to stop viewing each other as objects. It is very selfish and indulgent. Only if people’s hearts change towards others, the situation will change. This has to do with education, and even men standing up and saying: “Dude, that’s just not right, do you know what you’re doing?” And holding each other accountable.
f haven’t yet met a man that wishes that life for his daughter, but that same man would very likely have a prostitute for the night.
Q. What role do you think faith plays in changing perceptions and help victims to leave this world?
A. Elevate is a faith-based programme, and we manage it in a way that everybody is welcome to it, they do not have to be a Christian. Even though it’s faith-based, we will never expect them to believe what we believe. We don’t ask them to pray, and I can’t make them have a relationship with Jesus. We just want to show them what worked for Rebecca [Bender], what worked for me in our healing.
I personally believe faith it’s the only way you can get the most healing you can on this side of heaven. I personally believe that Jesus is the answer to all the problems in the world. We’ve been trying to fix the world since it broke, but the only answer to all our problems is Jesus. The church is the answer, and by church I mean not the building but the people who are actually Christ-followers. We are the church, Jesus in us is the church, and we are the answer to this issue.
We just have to stand up and love like Jesus loves. Jesus didn’t came to give us more rules, he came to love us, and that is what we have to give to each other, that’s why I say ‘Love Wins’. I’ve seen it over and over.
I’ve had women come through the academy who were trafficked since they were teens. They came as Buddhists or Atheists, but by the time they come out at the other side of the academy, not only have they found healing and experienced unconditional love (sometimes for the first time) but they have also either given their life to Christ, or at least are considering it. Their view of who God is has changed.
A lot of people victimised by trafficking have varying stories. You have satanic ritual abuse involved, and some of them have been abused by pastors. We had one person that was trafficked by the pastor’s wife. So that puts another element of “I don’t want Jesus, because look at how the church, people who were supposed to love Jesus, have hurt me”. But He truly is the answer.
P. How, then, can churches better engage in this fight and serve women who have been victimised?
A. I think the first step would be: stop being scared to talk about sex. It’s such a taboo subject, but it’s God who invented sex. Instead of throwing down more rules and looking down at people who seemingly are less than them, Christians should welcome them as Jesus did. He never shunned anybody, and we shouldn’t either.
Shame is the number one thing that the enemy uses to keep people enslaved, whether they’ve been trafficked or been abused. Shame is one of his tools. And then, too often comes along and adds to that shame. We need to be looking at ways to make people feel welcome. To make them feel loved, no matter how they come, they will not be shunned.
Churches are made up by broken people, that’s why they’re coming to Jesus. So, anybody that comes should remember that all these people sitting around you in church, are there for their own personal reasons, and they’re not perfect either.
The only thing that divides the church from the world is a deep love for Jesus and a desire to follow his ways. There are so many broken, but love wins.
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