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Speaker examines human trafficking injustice

By RENEE WEBB, Globe reporter
(Email Renee)

A recent speaker at Briar Cliff University looked at how Christian groups perceive the moral injustice of human trafficking and what some prospects may be for overcoming it.

Yvonne C. Zimmerman, Ph.D., associate professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, delivered “Practicing Values: Progressive Christianity and the Movement to End Human Trafficking” on Sept. 22 as part of the Sister Ruth Agnes Ahlers Lecture Series.

She posed this question: Does progressive Christianity have anything distinct theologically or unique ethically and morally to bring to the issue of human trafficking or to anti-trafficking activism and advocacy?

“Now, this may not strike you at first as an interesting or particularly important question. After all, to many people who care about the issue of human trafficking, it is so bad and so wrong that anything, literally anything we do to resist or end it is a good thing,” said Zimmerman, author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex and Human Trafficking.

The speaker delved into society’s trend towards sexualizing human trafficking – equating it mainly with sold sex.

“An inclusive movement to end human trafficking needs the moral and theological insights from all perspectives,” said Zimmerman, who has been studying this issue for more than a decade.

The speaker, who identified herself as a progressive Christian, acknowledged that those in the audience may self-identify as theologically conservative, moderate or other.

“Building an inclusive movement to end human trafficking is a project that requires all hands on deck,” Zimmerman said. “It needs the best insights and analyses from every theological, political and social perspective.”

How moral issues, such as human trafficking are presented and framed, the speaker insisted, matters because it directly shapes the remedies that advocates will support.


In a nutshell, Zimmerman said, human trafficking refers to the processes by which individuals become enslaved.

“By enslaved, I mean two things. First, the inability to leave a situation without fear of violence and secondly, being paid nothing or next to nothing for any duration of time,” she explained.

Commonly, the speaker noted, the image of someone in the sex industry comes to mind rather than a worker at a meat packing plant in Iowa, a person who picks tomatoes in the fields of North Carolina or factory worker.

Various factors have led to this narrow definition of human trafficking. For instance, by the late 1990s, she said, some lawmakers argued that “low-wage sweatshop issues and other issues of labor exploitation must not cloud the issue of human trafficking, which they insisted was essentially about the sexual exploitation of women and girls.”

In the end, the speaker said the human trafficking legislation that did pass – The Trafficking Victims Protection Act – included, but was not limited to, sex trafficking. Any labor or services compelled by fraud, force or coercion were considered human trafficking.

Despite the broad definition of the act, Zimmerman said implementation of the federal law has focused mainly on sex trafficking. At the grassroots level, images of women and children in sexual bondage persist as the primary imagery for understanding trafficking.

“There is something gratifying about standing with firm, moral clarity against sex trafficking that gets us at a deep emotional level,” Zimmerman said.

At the same time, partly driven by the mindset that hard work is good and is an American value, she said, culturally Americans are ambivalent about undercompensated work.

Zimmerman said human trafficking is wrong not because in some cases it is tied to sex, but rather it is wrong “because it involves economic exploitation and violence, the inability to leave a situation out of fear of harm to oneself or others.” She also noted, however, that not all work in the sex trade is trafficking. It depends on compensation and fear factors.

Moral values

She listed three moral values that can help Christians combat human trafficking: 1) accountability, 2) mutuality and respect, and 3) the common good.

“Accountability requires listening and speaking across differences,” said Zimmerman. “In particular, it requires that people who have more access to social power and whose lives are more saturated with privilege must listen to the perspectives of those who have less social power – and take their perspective seriously.”

She said accountability requires humility and the willingness to acknowledge the limitation of one’s perspectives and to revise actions and strategies accordingly.

In relation to mutuality, Zimmerman said it is important for those working to put an end to trafficking work “together with” not “for” the victims. She suggested that people listen to what those who have experienced exploitation say about what will make their lives better. From there, advocates can connect these individuals with services or programs they may need.

“Mutuality is closely linked to the value of respect. Respect can easily be mistaken for sympathy for another person – for someone who has been a victim of human trafficking. That is feeling sorry for him or her,” she said. “However, respect is far more profound than sympathy. Respect is the acknowledgement of the equality, dignity and independence of others.”

Zimmerman said her third value related to the common good is central to Catholic social teaching. The common good, she explained, means having the social structures on which all depend, work to benefit everyone.

Money is the No. 1 motivator for people to start selling sex or take up any risky work opportunity that makes them vulnerable to trafficking.

“A person with money is a person with options,” Zimmerman stressed. “The moral significance of poverty, therefore, is not simply the fact of lacking money. The moral significance of poverty is that people who lack money are deprived of options.”

She cited the importance of having affordable and safe housing, health care, public safety, access to healthy food and more.

“Each of these discreet components of the common good has direct connections to human trafficking, whether at the local, national or global levels,” Zimmerman said. “It is because of the lack of justice in our society, because of the unfair distribution of wealth and influence, because we live in a socio-political situation that values an uncommon good pattern of exclusion that causes people to become vulnerable to human trafficking.”

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