Chink in the Evangelical wall: Sex trafficking, colonialism and Christian ethics

In Are Evangelicals Monopolizing, Misleading US Anti-Trafficking Efforts? Yvonne Zimmerman, author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking, is asked if US anti-trafficking crusades could be called colonialist. She replies, ‘It’s an argument waiting to be made’. Since I’ve been making it for ten years, I had to write to her. It’s certainly true that the critique of colonialism is not often heard, despite the term Rescue Industry‘s spread.

Evangelical bloggers did not like hearing the word. John Mark Reynolds reacted scathingly in Surprise! Evangelical Efforts Against Sex-Trafficking are ‘Colonialist’! followed by Derek Rishmawy in Sex-Trafficking, Evangelical ‘Colonialism’ and the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. He gets prize for the most ignorant sarcastic crack: If that’s ‘colonialism’, then it’s the holy colonialism of God at work through his people. Welcome to the White Man’s Burden, shamelessly justified all over again, where the idea of colonialism is treated like a joke – or ‘joke’.

To make things worse, Reynolds used a flagrantly racist image to bias his own piece, showing a dark-skinned and/or dirty man handling an innocent white child. The shot is one of several someone created for campaigning purposes – whether they understood the inherent racism I don’t know.

I asked Yvonne to tell me what Other Dreams of Freedom is about and why she wrote it.

It is very popular for American Christians to be involved in anti-trafficking activism. Although some American Christians are interested in a broad understanding of trafficking that includes exploitative labor, usually they mean sex trafficking. And usually by sex trafficking they mean commercial sex – any exchange of sex or sexual services for money. They think that if people no longer sell sexual services they will be free from trafficking, so they favor programs that ‘fight trafficking’ by trying to get people to leave the sex industry. Means to this end vary from educational scholarships to job-training programs to brothel raids. In terms of law and policy, many American Christians support the abolitionist agenda to criminalize all sex-money exchanges.

I am a scholar of religious studies and ethics. I wrote Other Dreams of Freedom to examine why this anti-trafficking perspective feels so appealing and ‘right’ to many American Christians. When I was doing the research between 2005 and 2008, George W. Bush was president and his administration was constructing an international anti-trafficking agenda, often referring to God, God’s intent for human life and Good and Evil. I focused on anti-trafficking legislation (TVPA), the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, public policy statements and press releases. These were not trying to be religious, but I saw how they expressed a very particular religious and moral sensibility.

But Other Dreams of Freedom is about more than Bush. The understanding of human trafficking that his administration endorsed is wildly popular in the US; Americans who identify with a wide variety of other religious traditions defend this view. My book shows how Christian theology rooted in Reformed Protestantism infuses and shapes much American culture and moral sensibility, including the connections between sex, freedom and morality. My analysis of the theological sources clarifies why Americans are so quick to see commercial sex to be inherently degrading and immoral. The book discusses the unintended consequences of using a single religious perspective to build foreign policy in a multi-religious world.

Morgan Guyton at Mercy not Sacrifice also wrote about the original interview, and Yvonne left a comment that mentioned me, so I left something, too. Guyton replied:

What I have carried with me from my first job at a little NGO in DC called the Nicaragua Network is that any kind of real support we offer to people in disadvantaged situations anywhere must always have its terms dictated to us by the people we’re supposedly helping. We called it the solidarity model. In Christianese, I would call it ‘servanthood’ rather than ‘service’. It’ s great that young evangelicals are interested in social justice, but it seems like the way it’s often packaged makes it more like a form of tourism than anything else. I’m interested in reading more.

Yvonne Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Note that Christian Evangelism exists outside the US and behaves similarly when it comes to trafficking: here is a recent note about CARE in the UK.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

13 thoughts on “Chink in the Evangelical wall: Sex trafficking, colonialism and Christian ethics

  1. Pingback: Chink in the Evangelical wall: Sex trafficking, colonialism and … - Christian IBD

  2. Frank

    Excellent post, as usual Laura. It is refreshing to hear someone from the evangelical community being honest about this issue (I may even buy her book). The deceit around the issue is disgusting. They can’t argue the sex work issue straight up, so they hide behind the word “trafficking”.

    Regarding the colonial issue, imposing their values on peoples from other countries and cultures around the world is so second nature them, I doubt that they give it much thought. After all, they think it’s “God’s will”. Just like in centuries past, they are “civilizing the world”.

    Unfortunately their “civilizing mission” meshes perfectly with a US foreign policy that believes that everyone around the world has the same “universal values” (read: American values), and those that aren’t following the program just need a little coercion (military force, media propaganda (see: MTV EXIT), economic sanctions, etc,.).

  3. Emily Kennedy

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I must pick up Zimmerman’s book. In discussions about my in-progress dissertation with advisers and peers I frequently encounter surprise when I assert that many Christians who support the anti-trafficking movement are partially motivated by a desire to limit, control, and criminalize sex workers.

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  5. Morgan Guyton

    Thanks for the HT. Dr. Zimmerman has shipped me a copy of your book and her book. I plan to engage both of them on my blog. I’m not sure why, but I feel like I can smell the farce pretty quickly with some of these middle-class-packaged causes like the anti-trafficking movement. I probably have different views on sexuality than you do, but I’m absolutely committed to the solidarity model of activism. In church work, you see a whole lot of tailor made mission safaris where white people go to countries where brown people live in order to have cathartic heart-wrenching encounters. I’m done with the pageantry. I want to be a part of something that takes on the real monster of global capitalism.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      Thank you for engaging with these ideas.

      Tourism has been a subject of my critique for a long time, so take a look at

      Tourism is a side-effect of the more structural problem, which is what the idea of Rescue Industry refers to. There’s a tag in the cloud to the right for that concept.

  6. Susie Bright

    Whew, that was really good, but reading all those Evangelical bloggers gave me heart palpitations. (I’m so sheltered). I’m so glad you discovered Yvonne’s work, wrote and inspired her, and shared it with us!

    I’m on a course of Prednisone for acute bronchitis, and I think I can only read Winnie the Pooh until the inflamed-emotions-side-effects wear off… I just made this one exception!

    1. Laura Agustín

      I like these chinks that reduce sheltering, myself – though the line about holy colonialism makes me want to throttle the guy who said it.


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  8. Ricky

    Thanks. I am always pleasantly surprised by the information and the insight that engages deeper levels of structural power masked.

    Be well,

  9. Pingback: A Code of Conduct for Anti-Trafficking Efforts

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