Suspicion circulates around the human trafficking intervention field, or the "rescue industry" as it is sometimes called, about the intentions of anti-trafficking NGOs. Many of these organizations are staunchly religious, and those religious views can have damaging effects on both trafficking survivors and the people who have joined the sex industry of their own volition.
Billie McIntire, a psychotherapist and educator at the Colorado School for Family Therapy, as well as a former sex worker and survivor of trafficking herself, says that the anti-trafficking movement has been intentionally co-opted by religious institutions, who police prostitution and infringe on the rights of sex workers, using anti-trafficking rhetoric as a ploy to gain sympathy, more members, more money and more ammunition against consensual commercial erotic services such as prostitution.
"I think this has been a very cleverly designed campaign to end the commercial sex industry, and it spreads like wildfire," she says. " ... People believe that they should be the conveyors of righteousness, and those sorts of messages, and how people should live their lives."
McIntire blasts anti-trafficking organizations that have joined up with movements like Fight the New Drug (an anti-pornography initiative), and have lobbied against national bills to decriminalize prostitution. She draws attention to the damaging consequences of SESTA-FOSTA — The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act — that were widely lauded as wins for anti-traffickers. "Women feed their families through those websites," McIntire says of Backpage and Craigslist. "And when they can't do that now in the name of saving kids, we're seeing people not being able to afford their rent, and people are hitting the streets already."
In a sad twist of irony, the inability to screen clients ahead of time, and the exposure of working on the streets, makes consensual sex workers more vulnerable to traffickers who might take advantage of their situation.
Religion, McIntire says, doesn't just negatively impact consensual sex workers. It also does far more damage to survivors than it does good. "My restoration didn't include me going to Jesus," she says. "Jesus wasn't going to cure my life. ... What I needed was to adjust familiar violence, to address trauma. I've been sober 15 years, so I needed to quit drinking. I needed a place to live and I needed a job."
Intervention-based organizations, by their nature, seldom provide these resources, or even ensure they're in place. Of those that do arrange for aftercare, many force survivors to accept these resources from Christian organizations.
Domina Elle, a board member of the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project, also believes that the anti-trafficking movement has intentionally conflated prostitution with sex trafficking in order to push a religious agenda. In a recent blog post, she says: "The anti-trafficking lobby is comprised of a nonprofit industrial complex consisting of many NGOs (vastly 'faith based') and is extremely well funded and organized, and they have been marching towards this for well over a decade."
She cites the beginning of this push around the early 2000s, when the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was introduced, and says that the opposition to adult services has worked up to a "fever pitch" in the last five years, in part thanks to this narrative that prostitution and sex trafficking are one and the same.
"There has to be a boogeyman here, for this narrative," she says, and the entire sex industry has become the boogeyman.
She goes on to say that the vast majority of forced labor occurs in other industries, such as agriculture and domestic work, which is true according to the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery. "None of those industries need to be criminalized in order to address the trafficking that goes on in them," she says. "There are no task forces [for these industries], or nothing compared to what there is in regard to sex trafficking, but I think this has been a boon for people. There are some people who have gotten rich off this, to the tune of millions. They're paying themselves pretty nice salaries in their executive board member positions."
Elle and McIntire both assert that the easiest way to end sex trafficking is to support decriminalizing prostitution. "Erotic service providers do not want forced sex labor in our industry," Elle writes. "We are the best first responders." By allowing sex workers to operate on their own terms and with transparency under decriminalization, she says, traffickers operating in these areas will be easier to find, and fewer consensual sex workers will be caught in the crossfire of the anti-trafficking movement.
Research — often ignored by anti-trafficking NGOs, Elle says — points to low numbers of minors being trafficked. She cites the FBI's Operation Cross Country raids (nationwide efforts in areas of suspected human trafficking that last between a few days and a week each year). Between 2011 and 2016, only 652 exploited minors were found by the FBI during these raids. "It took nearly 18,000 agents and law enforcement partners and more than half a billion in funding to find those [652,]" she says.
Of note, even minors who willingly engage in survival sex (turning to prostitution to pay their bills) are considered trafficked by the United Nations, whether or not they work alone. Laws like this can skew statistics, often making sex trafficking involving minors seem to be a larger problem than it is.
Despite vocal support from the consensual sex work industry, decriminalizing prostitution in order to root out traffickers is the last thing on the minds of most anti-trafficking organizations, as the vast majority of them do have a religious angle.
While the legality of prostitution is somewhat different overseas, varying by country, many of the same controversies follow international anti-trafficking organizations such as The Exodus Road.
Exodus Road claims they are among those who don't address prostitution in their work. "That's a very important delineation for us," CEO/co-founder Matt Parker says. "There are groups that kind of lump prostitution and trafficking together ... I feel like that's a little careless. It's important that if you're a surgeon and you're going to do brain surgery, you know the different parts of the brain."
The focus of Exodus Road's work, he says, is on the United Nations' definition of human trafficking, which defines the practice through three elements: The act (what is done, which is usually recruitment, harboring or transfer of people), the means (how it is done, through threat, coercion, fraud or other abuse of power), and the purpose (why it is done, for exploitation).
However, Exodus Road would not go so far as to say that they support decriminalization of prostitution. "We really don't take a stand either way on the issue of prostitution," co-founder Laura Parker says, "because I really feel like we're fighting something different, and we don't want to muddy the waters."
They deny allegations of religious affiliation, too, and apparently run into the misunderstanding that they're a religious organization quite frequently. The religious connotations of their name, Matt says, are meant to evoke a path out of slavery rather than any particular Christian alignment. Matt admits he was raised Southern Baptist, but says with a telling laugh that he certainly doesn't consider himself one now, though faith is a very important part of his and Laura's personal lives.
When the Parkers lived in Thailand, they discovered factions in the nonprofit community, many of them based on religion, and wanted to separate themselves from that. "We want to set a dinner table and invite everyone, no matter their creed or race or religion or any of those things," Matt says, "anyone who believes that slavery's not OK — they have a place here with us."
McIntire claims that denial of religious affiliation shouldn't necessarily be trusted. "They may not say it outwardly, but we always find out what they're up to," she says.
The Human Trafficking Center at the University of Denver offers a code of conduct for religious organizations and religious people fighting trafficking, which essentially states that religion should never be forced on survivors. Pamela Encinas, the HTC's community outreach coordinator, explains: "It's okay to be religious, and there's nothing wrong with having a religious institution, or the leaders being of some sort of faith background, but the importance is not to confuse that with the actual practices in the field."
Making care conditional upon religious affiliation, or even appearing to be overtly religious, may discourage survivors from accessing potentially life-saving resources.
Exodus Road claims they don't expect the people they rescue to adhere to their religion, and that the same is true for their relationships with law enforcement. Christianity is not the dominant religion in most areas where Exodus Road works, so their promise to not convert any of their operatives or any of their law enforcement connections has apparently set them apart from other organizations. "I think when you keep it like that it's easier to build unity," Laura says.