On Saturday morning I joined about 50 others to walk 2.5 miles down 82nd Avenue along a strip, one of many, used for sex trafficking. It is also the same blocks that many numbers of high schoolers and younger children walk before and after school every day encountering prostitutes and pimps, and passing many strip joints along the way.
This was the walk to support EPIK an organization founded in 2012 to help stop sex trafficking. Many wore t-shirts with the line “My friends are not for sale.”
To date, their tactics have disrupted 122,000 attempts. Some of the calls they have disrupted have resulted in conversations that have lasted as long as an hour or longer as one of the men working for EPIK has dispelled the myths surrounding the caller’s agenda. Some of these calls have led to repentance and others to arrests. One man when responding to an ad refused to give up, even when told his number was captured and believed there was a girl there for him. In that texting conversation, he wanted to come anyway to meet up with her. In that instance, the calls were being captured at one of our local police stations, and the officer in the conversation gave the caller the precinct address. And this man, blinded by lust, walked right into the police station and when he said what he was there for, was arrested. True story. Truth is stranger than fiction.
The 200 plus men volunteering with EPIK in 11 cities across the nation are making a difference.
I got to meet Tom Perez, founder of EPIK over coffee a few weeks back. He did a video interview with me then about a week after that. In this video, he explained more about what it means to disrupt a call. Watch it here.
What EPIK does is place fake ads and then as callers respond, the call is received by one of the guys working with EPIK. The volunteer answering will say something along the lines of after giving the name of the girl listed in the fake ad, “She’s not available right now. But I want you to know, what you are doing is illegal, and your number has been captured and may be given to law enforcement.”
There is shock value in this. As you can imagine this immediately opens the door for the possibility of a conversation. Some callers get really angry, yell, and threaten the volunteer. But the bottom line is that for the caller he knows that what he felt was anonymous, secret, and unseen had been exposed. Tom says that that is the first myth that has to be exposed, the idea that no one sees.
On Saturday’s walk, we had our eyes open. Two of the women who had escaped trafficking joined us. Along the way, we stopped multiple times, hearing from each of these women, and then from others, even law enforcement, in a panel presentation at our destination stop.
That was easily the longest 2.5 miles I have ever walked. To experience close up what is being done to women especially in our city, was heartwrenching. It also brought me face to face with the fact that as the EPIK website states, “Men create demand. Better men can end it.” I want to be a man who helps end such demand.
One of the survivors, Andrea, was trafficked locally by a guy who manipulated and controlled her by what he had told her. She really believed his lies, and that she would only have to keep “doing this” until they had saved up enough and could get that house, settle down and have kids. He took all the money she made, saying it was to keep her safe, so no one would steal from her. When things went south with a client, her trafficker would weep with her, deceiving her that he was sad that she had to endure this, lying, “Only a little longer.”
These lies were so pounded into her own heart, she believed wholeheartedly even when he was arrested, that he had been telling her the truth. This all the while he was already married with six kids whom he didn’t want to support. Such pervasive lies.
Andrea spent literally day upon day in one hotel room, having food brought to her, even by the clients. The hotels would get wind of what she was doing and wouldn’t allow her to return, so they’d move to another place down the block.
Andrea said her clients were anywhere from 18 to 82, and always told her their excuse for why they were buying her services for the hour. She said, “For some reason, they always wanted to talk and tell me this as if to rationalize what they were doing.”
Unlike some women who are also threatened, beaten, bound and tortured, her trafficker’s verbal chains were connected to the loss of the dream. And he would repeat the dream again and again while pushing her beyond exhaustion. She was his and was controlled by him.
Even after his arrest, she was not free, for the loss of value, of worth, of identity was so powerful, she kept prostituting herself. “I’m not worth anything but this,” she would tell herself.
Robin, the second witness to trafficking, invited us on this cold day to remove our coats, hats, gloves, and sweaters and feel the cold, as she had felt it wearing much less than that, when she had worked the street. We did so. The cold cut in as we passed a place called the Pussycat Club and another small building advertising “Totally Nude girls” open 24 hours.
Hearing these stories sickened my heart for they exemplified the bondage some guys are in with lust and sex. There are guys around us, men, who are bound, following animal-like instincts, locked into desire, following only one prompt, and willing to pay and do anything to find that release. This pursuit is supported by the false view of a toxic masculinity promoted in our culture over against women — that men deserve this, need this, and can and may do anything to get it.
I walked and spoke with a 16-year-old high school student who volunteers with his dad. Luke has his head on straight and speaks to his friends about trafficking and the need to stop it. He has had many opportunities to challenge his friends to stop joking about sex, stop sexting, stop the dehumanizing view and language of girls and women. He is making waves at his school. One of his friends is interested in volunteering.
Another woman, a high school teacher, discovered that one of her girls from one of her classes was being trafficked while in school, and it didn’t come out until the girl was arrested because she shot her pimp. She was not willing to do what he wanted. This exposed what he was doing as well, and he was arrested instead. But the teacher was dismayed at the prevalence of it.
EPIK is challenging the kind of “man story” we are currently telling in our culture. Once when Tom was speaking on NPR in Boston, he had his partner place an ad that posted 15 minutes before the 2 pm radio spot. They kept a phone in the studio and during the hour-long interview, calls rang in again and again. Tom did this to just illustrate how high the demand is for sex and how it does not matter what time of day it might be. Andrea shared this as well — guys are looking for sex on coffee breaks, lunch breaks, first thing in the morning or in the middle of the night. This reminds me of the passage from 2 Peter:
They brag about themselves with empty, foolish boasting. With an appeal to twisted sexual desires, they lure back into sin those who have barely escaped from a lifestyle of deception. They promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of sin and corruption. For you are a slave to whatever controls you. They prove the truth of this proverb: “A dog returns to its vomit.” And another says, “A washed pig returns to the mud” (2 Peter 2: 18-20, 22).
We need a new man story.
In October EPIK did a conference for men they had trained to look at what that “man story” might look at. The weekend together involved hearing some difficult stories of trafficking and participating in gut-wrenching conversations that exposed the biases and “toxic masculinity” that is prevalent in our culture and in the lives of the guys there. One friend present came away drained! The small groups were facilitated by some strong, wonderful, dynamic women from the local community who wouldn’t let these guys off the hook. The conversations, therefore, were real and, in the end, fruitful.
EPIK is doing cutting-edged work to make that story happen. Let’s all do what we can to stop trafficking. And that begins with my own thinking about sex. We need a new man story.