Commercially Sexually Exploited Children

Conservative estimates are that about 293,000 teenage prostitutes in the United States are being repeatedly raped by perverted predators who pay to have sex. Up to 17,500 children start working as child prostitutes each year in the United States. These kids, some as young as 5 or 6 years old, are forced into prostitution by ruthless men and women out to cash in on the lucrative pedophile market.

Many drug runners are discovering a new way of life in prison. In the prison libraries they read about pimping. Instead of selling drugs, which are always in short supply, and often lead to stiff jail times if the dealer is caught, they learn the life of a pimp, selling underage children with the knowledge that they will rarely go to jail if caught. Prostituting underage girls, generally between the ages of 12-14, is a very high demand business.

Until the United States government started prosecuting human trafficking about 5 years ago, is was a virtual cake walk for these monsters.

On April 9, 2013 I attended a training conducted by F.B.I. agents, a victim’s advocate, a former victim of human trafficking, and a therapist experienced in counseling children who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation. I knew that sex tourism was present in the greater Memphis area. I just didn’t realize how pervasive child prostitution in our region was and how pervasive it is throughout the United States.

Probably the best way to communicate the depth of the problem is to tell a story. There are a thousand variations of this story occurring in every metropolitan area of the United States every day.

Kayla was about 9 years old when, Tyrone, one of her mother’s boyfriends, started molesting her. Her father had walked out of their lives when she was a toddler. Since then her mother had a string of live-in boyfriends who came and went. She has three younger siblings fathered by three different men. Tyrone started messing around with Kayla when her mother was pregnant with Tyrone’s child.

The sexual abuse was rare but the emotional abuse at the hands of her mother wasn’t. Her mother was always full of rage. She went from man to man trying to find a stable home and blamed the inevitable tension on her children. The men she was with would start out nice to the kids but almost always ended up either totally neglecting them or taking out his own rage and anger on them.

After Tyrone left the house, Kayla developed a relationship with her 17 year old boyfriend Walter. She was 11 at the time. It didn’t take too long for Kayla to realize that Walter was just using her for sex. He had no real interest in having a relationship with her. Her life was already on a course to paralleling her mother’s.

The schools had just passed Kayla along. Her grades were just high enough to get passed on from grade to grade. But academically she was where most middle class kids are at in the third grade despite being in the sixth grade. When she started middle school the demands were increasingly beyond her academic ability. She started displaying a lot of behavioral and emotional struggles.

The school counselor in her school had seen it a hundred times. Kayla had been in five different school districts since kindergarten. Her hygiene was poor and she didn’t have many clothes. She was underperforming academically. She also showed signs of living in an abusive home. The counselor’s duty was to refer Kayla to an already over-worked department of children’s services.

The social worker saw the signs of abuse almost immediately. In fact, her office had hundreds of cases like Kayla’s. The danger wasn’t immediate so she didn’t pull Kayla just then. But Kayla knew what was coming – foster care or a group home. So she ran away.

Kayla was now 12 years old. She was a runaway making her way through the streets of Memphis. At first she didn’t know where to go so she made her way to the mall.

While at the mall she met a man in his late 20’s. He was wearing nice clothes and was very friendly. He started telling Kayla how pretty she was. She felt relaxed around him and she started telling him about her horrible family life. He seemed so sympathetic and bought her some McDonald’s and a new outfit from the clearance rack at a clothing store.

He told her he had an extra bedroom in his apartment and offered to let her stay with him. Kayla didn’t have anywhere to go so she went with Smiley. Over the next several weeks she fell in love with Smiley. Like the other men she knew he was very interested in having sex with her. But in exchange for the sex Kayla was given food, shelter and life necessities. She was also subjected to beatings when she got out of line. But Kayla soon learned that as long as she did what Smiley wanted there wouldn’t be any beatings.

About six weeks after moving in with Smiley he announced to Kayla that she needed to do more to help the family financially. She wasn’t pulling her weight. Smiley told her that he knew of other men who would love to pay to have sex with her. He would set her up on “dates” so she could earn some money to help the “family.” Smiley told her that he was her “daddy” and that he would take very good care of her unless she betrayed him. If she did betray him he would hunt down her younger brothers and sister and would kill them. He knew exactly where they lived too.

Kayla was 12 years old when she started prostituting herself. Jasmine, another member of the family who was 19, took Kayla out on the street to show her the ropes. Soon Kayla was expected to have sex at least 3 times a night and bring home at least $500. She would take multiple showers a day and become obsessed with personal hygiene in order to make herself as attractive as possible to “customers”. If she ever hid any money from Smiley or failed to meet her quota she would be severely beaten. For Kayla every night was like being repeatedly raped. She learned to fly to a distant place in her mind.

Smiley provided Kayla with drugs. The drugs seemed to make what she endured bearable. But he controlled her life, including her drug supply. She was totally dependent upon him for everything.

Kayla was now 13 years old and a veteran of the streets. The thought of leaving “the Life” didn’t even cross her mind. It was just what it was. If she made enough money to make Smiley happy he would provide her with drugs and gifts that made her life bearable, at least in her mind. She had developed a strange attachment to her “daddy” and his “family” (his “family” being other prostitutes who work for him).

Most professionals would see this as an example of Stockholm syndrome, where, in the midst of severe trauma, the victims form a strong emotional attachment to their abusers as a means of coping with their emotional distress.

When Kayla is finally arrested she is charged with prostitution. Smiley bails her out of jail. She is brutally beaten for getting caught and starts having her work in a new precinct so the same police officers don’t see her continuing to work the streets.

Smiley has a good business going for himself. The three underage girls who work for him and his “bottom bitch”, Jasmine, the 19 year old girl who keeps the other girls in line, gross about $500,000 a year for him. After expenses he can afford a very nice lifestyle. It is a minimal risk lifestyle.

There is no public outrage over prostituting kids like Kayla as there is over dealing drugs. Dealing kids just isn’t at the top of anyone’s outrage list except for a few noisy child advocates here and there.

What would take a bite out of Smiley’s “business”? Instead of arresting Kayla for prostitution and putting her in jail, get her treatment for all the abuse she has endured. Arrest the guy she was with and charge him with statutory rape. Most men caught with underage prostitutes receive a slap on the wrist, if anything. Arrest Smiley and charge him with human trafficking. Put him in prison for a long time. Make the men who have exploited Kayla pay dearly for what they have done to her.

For some of you reading this, it’s a outrageous story that rarely happens here in the United States. What I learned from the F.B.I. agents is that this kind of story is very, very common. This is happening right under our middle class noses.

In fact, it is a lot of middle class men who provide business for Smiley while they are away from home on business. In fact, Smiley and his crowd love it when major conventions come to town. It provides a spike in business. Sadly, I discovered that a few men attending evangelical religious conventions have a taste for underage girls.

The seminar would have been totally depressing had I not heard the other part of the story. Treating girls rescued from this lifestyle. There was a common element to the healing of these girls that even the secular presenters had to acknowledge. The powerful transformational and healing power of Jesus Christ. That’s right, coming to Jesus is a predictor of successfully exiting the prostitution lifestyle for these girls.

Should we be surprised? Jesus had a soft spot in his heart for prostitutes and seemed to always be bringing healing into their lives and giving them hope when he walked the earth. Are we surprised that he is doing the same thing now through His Spirit as He reigns from heaven?

Neo-Liberalism in Evangelicalism

I wrote this article about 15 years ago when I noticed a lot of similarities in the philosophical approach to ministry between classic Protestant liberalism of the early 20th century and the Evangelical church growth movement of the late 20th century.

or this link to a PDF file

Repenting of Racism

The following letter from church elders to their congregation is a model to me of confessing and repenting of public sin. Racism is a horrendous evil. This letter brought tears to my eyes.

Click to access May13Sessionwords.pdf

The link below is a very short historical background that sheds light on the necessity of the above letter.

Undoing the Damage of Sunday Morning Segregation

Survival Sex

If you are a woman in desperate need of food, clothing, shelter but had no viable means to earn an income, what do you do? If you live in poverty, and want you and your children to have a few nice things, how do you get them if you don’t have money?

The following story is a much more normative experience than many of us in the middle class bubble would like to admit. There are many variations but the story is basically the same. A woman feels trapped and trades the necessities of life for sex.

Jessie grew up in a single parent home. Her father had taken off when she was 4 years old. Her mother had two other children by different men than Jessie’s father. Her mom lived on welfare. They lived in a dirty apartment in a section 8 housing development. By the time Jessie was a sophomore in high school her mom had been married twice and had lived with six other men outside of wedlock.

School was hard for Jessie. She was hopelessly behind. As she started her junior year in high school she was testing at the elementary school level for English and math. Jessie wanted to appear middle class but deep down inside she believed they viewed her as “white trash.”

She was longing to be loved. She wanted to be special to someone. She kept pursuing relationships but they always ended badly.

Jessie had lost her virginity at a party her freshman year. She discovered if she gave her body up for sex she would be popular with the middle class boys. They all went to parties hoping to “get lucky” and Jessie obliged them. Each boy she hoped would take her out of the generational poverty she had been raised in. But they all ended up using her for sex and casting her aside.

Jessie dropped out of high school about halfway through her junior year. She met Sam, a 20 year old high school dropout, at a party at Christmas. Sam got her drunk and had sex with her. He liked the sex so much that her brought 16 year old Jessie back to the old mobile home he was renting to stay with him.

Jessie basked in Sam’s attention and began to fantasize about having children and a real family. She couldn’t understand why Sam was so angry when she got pregnant. He worked as a construction helper making $9 an hour and they had plenty of money to party with. They could party a little less and have a family instead.

Sam came around and seemed to embrace his future family. All that changed when the realities of having a newborn living with them set in. Jessie was in no way prepared to be a mother. Sam couldn’t deal with the change in his lifestyle. Sam and Jessie started fighting. It wasn’t long until Sam was telling Jessie that is “just isn’t going to work out.” He kept threatening to kick her out during their fights.

Jessie talked to her mom about moving back in with her. Her mom wanted nothing to do with Jessie and her infant child. She had a new boyfriend that had an eye for Jessie. Mama wasn’t going to have a rival living in her house. Nor was she going to deal with crying babies and sleepless nights.

Jessie was very scared about her future. Sam was threatening to kick her with the baby out of his trailer. Her mother didn’t want her back. She had no job and her prospects were slim to none. How would she survive? With that pressing question on her mind she got into a conversation with an acquaintance, Ricky, at a party.

Ricky had his own place and a job as a part-time mechanic at a quick oil change place. He showed up at a lot of the same parties that Sam and Jessie attended but seemed to be more mature and mellow than most of the guys there. Jessie was now at the ripe old age of 18. Ricky was 27 years old. He wasn’t as ruggedly built as Sam but he seemed to have a stability about him. Jessie began some serious flirting.

The flirting paid off when, during one of their fights, Sam stormed out of the house. Jessie called Ricky. She gave him a big sob story and he came and brought Jessie and her daughter Misty home with him. Jessie rewarded Ricky with a great night of sex. Jessie was very good in bed and Ricky felt more like a man having a girlfriend living with him. He could put up with a baby as long as Jessie kept putting out for him.

About fourteen months later Ricky Junior was born. Ricky was a proud father and seemed to have embraced Misty as his daughter. Things seemed to be looking up for Jessie except for a big problem. Ricky was older and not as handsome as some of the other guys she had been with. She would go to parties with Ricky and feel herself being attracted to other guys. She couldn’t see how Ricky was burning with jealousy.

Things turned for the worse when the owner of the oil change place where Ricky worked announced he was shutting down the business. Suddenly Ricky was without a job. He was barely getting by as it was. Now with three extra mouths to feed he was stressed out. Fatherhood wasn’t all it was cut out to be and he was concerned that Jessie was going to leave him anyway. So after a few months of constant fighting he kicked her and the kids out.

Jessie was determined to set roots down somewhere. That was when she discovered that the government would give her an apartment to live in. She was already getting food stamps. She had been listing Ricky’s apartment as her address and telling the government workers that she was living alone there. Nobody bothered to verify the facts.
But now she had food stamps and an apartment compliments of the government.

It wasn’t long before she found that guys would be very sweet on her. They would romance her and giver her all sorts of stuff. All they wanted was sex. For the next ten years a string of boyfriends moved in and out of Jessie’s life. She let them stay with her and she gave them the sex they wanted as long as they gave her stuff she wanted. When they couldn’t take care of her she kicked them to the curb. She got her car, her flat screen television, her iPhone, her furniture, and extra perks for the kids that way. The government sure wasn’t going to buy them for her. She had no ability to produce an income that would enable her to purchase those things for herself.

She is now nearly 30 years old but looks like she is 40. She is overweight and in poor health. Alcohol and drug use have clouded her mind. Years of offering her body up to the highest bidder has turned her into a very cold and callous woman.

Most of the time Jesus Christ is a curse word. But when she needs extra help Jesus becomes her Savior and she hits up the various church deacon’s funds. They want to share Jesus with her but she isn’t quite interested. The church people don’t understand that a middle class lifestyle is beyond her comprehension. Even the poorest church, if it is financially self-sufficient, is middle class in her mind. She just doesn’t belong in that world. Besides, that world doesn’t want her anyway. They judge her harshly when they have never walked in her shoes.

She’s right. We do judge her harshly. She dropped out of high school when everyone knows the ticket out of poverty is to get an education. She started having sex way too young. She should have saved herself for marriage. She isn’t much of a mother to her kids. The kids have been neglected and abused. Time and time again they have experienced abandonment by father figures. So what kind of example does that set for them?

Jessie’s clothes are “slutty” and out in public she sees the looks of contempt. Middle class women scoff at her attempts to make herself look younger and more attractive. Jessie thinks they all live the life of Desperate Housewives. You know, sex with handsome men who give them really nice things like houses and cars that she can only dream about.

(Over the years, as I’ve worked with men in the church, I’ve found that most husbands of these middle class Christian wives are more sex-starved than sex-saturated. This is a reality that most poor women don’t recognize that because their perceptions of middle class families come from television and movies not personal relationships.)

So what can break through to Jessie and hundreds of thousands of women like her? I think a good choice is to take a page from the playbook of Jesus. Notice in the Gospels as he is confronted with people like Jessie he is moved with compassion towards them. His approach is gentle and kind. He offers them salvation and the hope of a new life. I think about the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Jesus knew she had been married 5 times and was living with a man outside of wedlock. Yet he chose to offer her “living water” (i.e., salvation) and the hope of something greater in life than she had been experiencing thus far.

Jesus moved toward broken women with redemptive words and actions that flowed from a compassionate heart. Jesus didn’t lecture the Samaritan woman on the theology of marriage. He didn’t rail against a culture that would permit such immorality. Instead he pointed her toward salvation knowing that the new life he had to offer would lead to real life change for her. God doesn’t save us to leave us where we are at. I have yet to find a passage in the Bible where God just leaves those he saves where they are at. No, he lifts us out of misery and showers abundant blessings upon us.

There are times now when I drive through the poor parts of Memphis and Desoto County, Mississippi and I find tears flowing. I see the brokenness all around me. Jesus has captured my heart and truly opening my eyes to see. When you look at the world with compassionate eyes and a heart full of mercy, it kind of changes how you think about those people around you.

Serving Widows & Orphans

I preached this sermon on June 24, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church in Water Valley, Mississippi.

The text was James 1:17-27 with a particular focus on verse 27. The message reflected on what it means to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.