Backpage, Commercial Sex and Women's Rights

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April was a big month in the sex industry. Backpage WAS an online site (like Craigslist) that was largely used to sell sex (an online sex marketplace). The New York Times reported that by 2014, Backpage brought in $135 million in revenue with affiliates spanning the globe. In 2016, Texas and California authorities raided the company’s Dallas headquarters and arrested chief executive Carl Ferrer and other former company executives on pimping-related charges. The judge in the case ruled the website was protected by the First Amendment, and it was not liable for the speech of third parties. In 2017, three young women brought a lawsuit against the company accusing Backpage of facilitating their forced prostitution.  But, on April 6, 2018 U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies shut down Backpage.com after many years of complaints and finally an all out investigation where criminal charges of human trafficking brought the house down.  “California's attorney general, Kamala Harris, says that Backpage was ‘purposefully and unlawfully designed’ as an online brothel. Her office alleges that the ‘vast majority’ of Backpage's profits come from fees paid by users posting ads in the "adult" section.”

Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, an anti-slavery group that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline said, “Shutting down the largest online U.S. marketplace for sex trafficking will dramatically reduce the profitability of forcing people into the commercial sex trade, at least in the short term”. 

You could practically hear abolitionists rejoicing everywhere on April 6th. Anti-trafficking orgs, social justice ministries, and concerned individuals shared and reposted the exciting news of Backpage’s shutdown. But the next day, another voice rose up, and it came from women, mainly the voice of feminist, politically left, white women. I’m talking about The Women’s March.

On April 7, 2018, the day after Backpage was seized,  The Women’s March, tweeted: “The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Sex workers rights are women’s rights. Follow @SafeSpacesDC @melissagira @swopusa @KateDAdamo @supporthosechi @anaorsomething for more info.”  

Five days after this Backpage endorsement, CEO of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, pled guilty to money laundering, facilitating prostitution in Texas, and human trafficking.

But many pro-sex work advocates are saying that the human trafficking narrative and abolitionist movement is a conservative sham that harms women. For 20 years, Laura Agustin, an author who studies the field of sex work and trafficking, told The Motherboard, an online media magazine,  “There's no federal prostitution law, but US authorities can use trafficking law to hunt people down,” meaning investigations can be done under federal human trafficking laws, while the actual charges are brought under state prostitution laws. “However, trafficking offences are hard to prosecute. Facilitating prostitution is easy. Thus the charges are made in states where prostitution is illegal.” Trafficking is often used as a “social justice facade,” she said.

There is no doubt that women in the commercial sex industry have rights, and indeed they are human rights because all humans have rights now matter what they “do”. And yes, some workers we know through the ministry of JSL, have told us, they used Backpage (along with many other online apps) to sell sex and contact clients safely.  So for the women who are choosing to engage in prostitution through Backpage, its shutdown created a bind. 

However, the crisis isn’t that Backpage shut down, the crisis isn’t even that Backpage was a platform for prostitution AND human trafficking. The crisis is that we are living in a culture where both women and men can sell their bodies for cash, and that many are calling it “okay”. 

There is absolutely a difference between prostitution and human sex trafficking. Is there a correlation? Certainly. Is it difficult, especially in an adult victim who’s been in the “life” for years, to know how to define “force, fraud or coercion” into the sex industry? Absolutely.  Are there women who call themselves strippers, prostitutes, and adult escorts who are also trafficking victims? Yes. Are there women who were pimped out at a young age, broke away from their pimp and chose to “work for themselves” by becoming a prostitute, stripper, escort, or pimp themselves? Indeed. But, there are also women who claim to like being purchased for sex and enjoy what they do. For these women, the shutting down of Backpage has imposed a problem. 

I received a message from one woman who told me, “Emily, now that Backpage has shut down I have no choice, I have no hope, I will be broke and have no money. Guess I’ll have to go find a pimp and work the streets. That is my only option.”

I reminded her that she had a choice and that we were here to help. That selling her body for sex is, in fact, an illegal act in our state and she didn’t “have” to do it. But what are her options? I will tell you. Last year she tried to leave prostitution and when she was released from jail, getting sober, and ready for life change she had a slew of hurdles to jump. She had been involved with some really violent people, she was also violent herself and racked up an assault charge and a charge of a terroristic threat. All forms of her identification had been stolen. She needed a job so we helped her to find one (talk about pulling strings), but she was severely overweight and could not handle being on her feet all day long. She found a willing friend to live with because she didn’t qualify for many shelters or recovery homes due to her violent charges, and she had zero documentation to apply for housing. She was also smoking weed daily which booted her out of the one place she could have applied to live. She didn’t want to go to rehab. She broke down to me, “I’m used to doing my make-up and lying in a bed all day long, I’m not made for this kind of work. This sucks. I don’t want to do it. Adulting is too hard. Plus, this minimum wage job is shit, I am used to making $200 an hour.” So, she quit her legal job. She didn’t want a back brace, new shoes, or a new bra that would give her back support. She didn’t want to lose weight, she wanted to return to the life: smoke and sell sex all day from a hotel room. And she did. Now that Backpage has shut down, she is back at square one.

I learned that she was orphaned at an early age and her adoptive family never “got” her. She rebelled early on but said that she had a hunger for spiritual things. Her family was conservative, church going, but eventually cut her off because of her choice to use drugs. The sex industry was appealing because she could make quick money to fund her habit. It doesn’t take long for the line between who you are and what you’re doing become blurred, it can for anyone in any job. But the implications of identifying yourself as a human commodity does something different on the psyche, the soul.  

1978, the year I was born, the term “sex worker” was coined by Carol Leigh, a.k.a The Scarlot Harlot and author of “Unrepentant Whore”. Coining the term sex work was a pro-sex work movement to help legitimize the industry. It argues that using the term “sex worker” rather than “prostitute” shows ownership over the individual’s career choice. That sex work is different than sexual exploitation, whereby a person is coerced into committing sex acts. 

Some people use the term sex worker to avoid invoking the stigma associated with the word prostitute. Using the term sex worker also encompasses a variety of occupations rather than deeming all people in the sex industry prostitutes. In addition, it is argued that choosing to use the term sex worker rather than prostitute shows agency in the career choice. This movement to legitimize the sex industry is pushing to legalize prostitution, claiming to make it safer for women. 

But here’s my issue with legalizing sex work or prostitution: even if we deem it an acceptable choice, regulate it, and destigmatize it, in the end, prostitution still harms women, and therefore all of us. Why? We have tried this. Prostitution, from ancient to modern times, has been legalized then criminalized, stigmatized and even spiritualized through temple prostitution - all to serve the lopsided system of patriarchy. Name one society that has thrived by legalizing prostitution. Tell me how girls’ education and sexual assault stats are doing in that country, city, and community. Tell me how STD’s, infertility, and reproductive cancers are going. Tell me how mental health issues related to women are faring. Talk to me about poverty and who is at the bottom. Tell me about drug addiction and drug crimes. Talk to me about California and the porn industry and the nightmare they are currently in as they are attempting to regulate it (not to mention STD rates among girls 15-25). Or let’s take a look at modern city who legalized brothels and is now in a societal collapse: Amsterdam. “The Dutch legalised their brothel industry in the year 2000. The government promised that this would result in safety for the women and put an end to trafficking. It claimed that everything would be above board, safe, and clean. The opposite happened. Sex tourism is now a major industry, with British men being one group of Europeans visiting the city to pay for sex. A number of punters I have interviewed told me that they wouldn’t have dreamt of using prostituted women back home, but that being in Holland gave them permission to do it.” 

I think about my daughters, their generation already culturally conditioned to believe that their body is an object for sex. What if I told them that while an education is of some value, the way they’ll make the most money in the future has everything to do with their anatomy?  What if this entire time that I have been telling them not compare themselves to Kim Kardashian, not to worry about their thigh gap, make-up, hair, social media; but instead to focus on her mind and heart?  What if a decent living in their future relies on sex work?  What if all the women who have grown their brains, earned degrees, run companies, created businesses, fought in court and in pulpits, or pounded the pavement of their communities to serve in public office were told by our culture: “Actually, you’ll make more selling your body.” 

Who does this serve? Men, but only the short site, not in the long run. It would be a regressive step for women and all of humanity, not progressive. Our eyes need to be watching The Netherlands (Amsterdam), Dominican Republic, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Spain. These countries have some form of legalized prostitution and are top sex tourism spots, their economic structures are largely influenced by the sex industry. What is the condition of women in these countries? Do they have political agency? 

As long as sex is for sale, there will be women in need of services, and Jesus Said Love will be about meeting those needs as best we can. We don’t judge a woman for “why” she “chose” this line of work - we look at the context of those choices to see more clearly. When a woman wants out, we want to provide a path and help undo what’s usually been done to her over and over again. I know this to be true, of all the women we work with and learn from, none of them believe that sex work is their best life. All of them believed or still believe, it’s just what they have to do to make ends meet. Where is the power in this choice? 

As we look to the future for JSL and our women, we will continue to stand for women in the industry but against the sale of our bodies as commodities. After 15 years of walking with women in the industry, we still aren’t convinced sex for sale is beneficial to anyone in the long run. 

Read more on the Backpage case at this article by The Washington Post and this article from Texas Attorney General's office.  

Emily Mills
JSL Founder and CIO

Wild Torch 2018

Have you ever watched a fire burn, mesmerized by the flames, rightfully fearful of its power? Have you seen a small flame light up the night, or the tiniest spark begin a raging forest fire? Fire can bring both massive destruction as well as health and life to a community. Fire is primal and ancient, a symbol of the Divine, Holy Spirit...life to humanity. Fire molds, transforms, destroys, and heals. 

And such has been the journey of Jesus Said Love, carrying and holding a hot and holy vision that has burned us through and through, leaving us with a blessing. My husband, Brett, and I began reaching women within the commercial sex industry about 15 years ago after our first daughter was born. We had no clue we would be consumed with a love like we had never known. Before hitting the clubs we were singing contemporary Christian/worship music to an audience that largely spoke our same language. It became familiar, lackluster, and cliche. After our first outreach to strip clubs in Waco, Texas, we began to hold stories of women whose lives were impacted by severe forms of abandonment, neglect, and loss. Then, a spark was lit that would soon burn our “ordinary” lives to dust. The outreaches took on the name Jesus Said Love and a movement across Texas to “awaken hope and empower change” began. 

We launched teams in Dallas, Bryan/College Station, Killeen, San Antonio, Houston, and eventually Tyler. We held the love of Christ out like a hot meal to be consumed right then and there, and it was gobbled up. We began advocating for women whose lives were wrecked and hope waned. Homelessness, addiction, mental illness, attempted suicide, financial instability, transportation issues, single motherhood, dental problems, health issues, lack of education, legal problems, and even human trafficking were all now landing in our laps. These issues were wicked problems and how do you fix problems, but not people?  We couldn’t twist love into control and domination, we couldn’t manipulate and call it empowerment. We had to trust in the truth of Love at all costs. We are still learning. 

Today, Jesus Said Love has grown deeper with its headquarters at 1500 Columbus Avenue in Waco. We have current outreach teams in Waco, Dallas, Houston, Tyler, and Killeen….these outreaches are the deep roots that ground our fruitful tree. Programs at JSL HQ include:

  • ACCESS: an 8 week holistic paid internship program for women leaving the sex industry including job training, leadership, parenting, mental health, nutrition, financial literacy, and Bible classes.
  • Counseling via The Advocacy Center Crimes Against Women and Children on location.
  • Fight Club: an all female AA Recovery group open to the Waco Community.
  • Stop Demand School: a sex buyers intervention course for those arrested for buying sex (not located at our building).
  • Prayer and Worship on Outreach nights.
  • Lovely Enterprises: a social enterprise of JSL aimed at reducing recidivism into the sex trade by providing living wage jobs and launching micro businesses.


There’s a lot of sense in discerning the times we are living in, not merely plugging through life unaware of what is stirring, transforming, and shifting in our culture. We are living in a time where the light is shining on the issue of exploitation and objectification of women and we are learning how this affects our communities. This year at Wild Torch, our annual gala experience, we will voice a clarion call for hope and change and share the beautiful stories of transformation in our midst! Wild Torch uses the visual and performing arts to share these stories at the Waco Hippodrome!  

Incredible food pairings by Chef Jason Rolf (of the Grape) and Chef Corey McEntyre (of Milo Provisions) will light up your taste buds, your eyes will feast on visuals from the collaborative effort of Sidekick Agency and Matt Davidson Creative and the live fine art auction will include the talented Ty Clark of Waco and a custom oil painting by Samuel Shelton among others! Brett and Emily Mills along with their band including The Union Revival will take the stage and debut their new song, “Gold”. It’s an event like none other and one that is sure to leave you fired up!

Come “carry fire” with us.
April 23
Waco Hippodrome

Stop Demand School

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At Jesus Said Love, we are committed to awakening hope and empowering change in the lives of people connected to and affected by the commercial sex industry.

In light of the recent massage parlor arrests in the Waco area, it is imperative to understand the buyer of sex is not a victim; he or she is, in fact, the offender. Numerous comments have been made stating that these illicit encounters were between two consenting adults and should be no one else’s business. However, the unfortunate reality is human trafficking is a real problem, even here in Central Texas. When an individual is brought to our country from another, doesn’t speak the language, and is ordered to perform sexual favors for money, this is not consensual. And, it is imperative that we, as a community, educate ourselves on these issues.

One way Jesus Said Love is working to stop the demand and be part of the solution is through our program, Stop Demand School. Many of the Johns arrested in these stings will be required to take our course as part of their obligations for their crime. Our aim with SDS is to educate using restorative justice principles; the curriculum educates offenders on STDs, addiction, pornography, and the issue of human trafficking as linked to the commercial sex industry. While most individuals taking the class have never encountered a “real” human victim, this does not change nor lessen the intent. 

If you are wanting to educate yourself on these issues, I personally invite you to register and attend one of our Stop Demand School classes. It is a full day of content that will change your perspective on these issues. Visit StopDemandSchool.com for class dates and registration.

We are committed to awakening hope and empowering change in our community. Our women are worth it. Our men are worth it. And our children are worth it. 
 

- Brett Mills, CEO of Jesus Said Love

Recovery Work

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I was a fan of recovery work long before I took a seat at the anonymous circle. I could look at lives being transformed, see God working in the most incredible ways in the lives of addicts. Heck, I had taken many an addict to recovery homes, rehabs, and even AA meetings.  But I didn’t need “that” kind of work. I was in church, on the worship team, and running a ministry of my own. Recovery work was for those people. My how hard the mighty must fall, and how loving a God to tenderly place me there. 

I have been in a recovery group now for a year and five months. I wound up at that meeting after a long series of battles surrounding alcohol and pills began affecting me and my kids. I had done counseling, ranted to trusted friends, prayed, been slain in the spirit (not kidding), listened to many prophecies over my life, forgiven over and over as best I knew how and NOTHING worked. Late one night I took the matter to The Google and my search included “How do I FIX an alcoholic” (any Enneagram 1’s out there?),  “How do I know my person is a REAL alcoholic?”, and “HELP with an alcoholic.”  Al-Anon continued to pop up. After a five minute video that basically told me I was the one needing help, care, and love, I thought “Well, what the hell? I’ll give this a try”. I was desperate and the issue was affecting my children directly. I wasn’t so sure what kind of “help” I needed so desperately, but I was willing to go. Brett agreed to attend with me. 

“Hi, I’m Emily.”
“Hi Emily.”

And so it began. Readings on loving detachment, boundaries, humility, forgiveness, resentment, manipulation, denial, hope, peace, and joy ensued. Each member shared an experience or thought from the reading and one by one strangers became sages. There was even laughter. “These people laugh?”, I thought. I was certain this group would be about licking each others wounds and co-miserating.  Wasn’t this a group for victims fallen prey to the evils of alcoholism and addiction?  I listened to the story of a woman whose husband was a total ass. He was emotionally and verbally abusive when he got drunk, she tried hiding his keys, limiting his drinks, all the usual tricks. But, he just left her, cheated on her, and then returned home in a stupor. Apparently this was his pattern. After she shared, I thought, “Ok, now here’s where we’re going to give her some good solid advice as well as a divorce lawyer so she can get rid of this sorry sack of *&^%.” But the group just listened and said in unison, “Thanks for sharing.” 

“WHAT!? Where is the justice here? Where’s the action plan and strategy for how to leave him?”

Then another lady shared that her son had returned from jail to live with her only to relapse again. She had continued to give him money and shelter. She was older and had the most gentle demeanor. She shared:

“I’ve learned in here that I don’t have to provide for his needs. He is an adult and got himself into this mess. But I’m having trouble watching him suffer as his mother. I’m sure we’ve failed him in so many ways but now he has to learn to move on. This program teaches me to lovingly detach and so I’ve decided to let him know tomorrow that he will begin paying rent or have to find another place to live.” 

“Is this where we fist bump and applause and cheer for her?” 

“Thanks for sharing.” the group again repeated. 

A year and five months I’ve been listening and learning from this program and the brave warriors who make up our group. I had no idea how desperate and broken I truly was. When I strong arm pain, I refuse freedom. I gridlocked grief and everyone around me was suffering. I cauterized joy by focusing so much on others problems. The twelve steps in Al-Anon have taught me how to love and care for myself in a way that seems counterintuitive to my “Jesus first. Others second. You third.”  evangelical acrostic theology. When you’re surrounded by addicts, it’s easy to believe your problems are not real problems. Someone always has it worse, has it harder, your pain is not THAT bad. You learn to minimize. Addicts especially are master manipulators (they’ve had to be to survive.) So, in close relationship to an addict, it’s easy to yo-yo between codependency (zero boundaries) and rejection. If you’ve got the Al-Anon disease, like me, you’ve probably done both. You also begin to believe that you’re crazy - your mind reels, you repeat conversations in your head, you self-justify your bad behavior because they have the problem. You can’t take ownership of what’s yours because the line between what’s yours and theirs is so blurred. You don’t know where you start and they begin. 

Pride seeps in and warps your love into duty, obligation, work - the curse of the ground. You become overly responsible for others. And let me tell you, ministry is a minefield loaded with grenades, and most of them are ministers. Step Seven: “Humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.” With step work, and particularly with a good sponsor, this is no vague and pious plea. This is pen to paper work complete with reading and questions to help you see very clearly.  It requires gut level humility and humility means “We can accept ourselves as we are. We do not have to beg or demand things from God, we simply ask.” (Pathways to Recovery, pg. 72). Humility, as Jesus teaches us, means that “we live in a circle of belonging, not rings on a ladder” (Courage to Change, pg. 33). Humility isn’t degrading. It is not humiliating nor does it bring shame. Humility means I must take my rightful place in the world, as a child of God. It means that to love my neighbor as myself, then I had better love myself to begin with. Humility means, I work the exact same steps, with the same tenacity, that I would pray my addict would work themselves. Humility means my ego gets the boot every time I watch it flare up as control, manipulation, codependency, or pride. I don’t have to control, fix, and manage in order to feel purposeful and alive. I don’t need to be revered, acknowledged, or affirmed in ministry by anyone other than the One whose approval I didn’t even earn in the first place. I can learn from Jesus when He spoke about the Pharisees:

“The Scribes and Pharisees love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in public flattery, receiving degrees like “Doctor” and “Reverend”. DON’T LET PEOPLE DO THAT TO YOU, PUT YOU ON A PEDESTAL LIKE THAT. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God. Let Him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title as “Father”; you have only one Father. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them! There is only one life leader for you and them - Christ! DO YOU WANT TO STAND OUT? THEN STEP DOWN. BE A SERVANT.” - Matthew 23, The Message

If you or someone you know is in need of help with addiction, Jesus Said Love offers “Fight Club” on Wednesday nights at 5:30 p.m. for females only in the Waco area. 

If you live with or love an alcoholic (or someone’s drinking or any addiction bothers you a lot), you can visit www.al-anon.org 

If you’re struggling as an addict and want help, visit www.aa.org


 

Wild Torch: April 23, 2018

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Art communicates the soul of man. All forms showcase His glory through the story of humanity: God’s masterpiece.                    
                        
Wild Torch celebrates this fusion of art and story as we view conceptual art alongside the very literal journey of women affected by the commercial sex industry. The average age of entry into this industry is 12 years old. This is not a choice, but buying her is. Adults in strip clubs, women working online, or prostituting on the streets all have a reason for being there, and many of those reasons were not a matter of choice. But Jesus Said Love is about restoring power, awakening hope, and empowering change.
                        
With every bite you eat, sound you hear, movement you watch, and piece of art you touch, we invite you to join us in restoring our community. Watch and experience beauty rising from the ashes and see real women who have overcome insurmountable pain and used it to carry fire! In this decadent goodness, we pray that your soul is filled with the magnificent reality that you were made to carry fire.   

Tables and tickets go on sale this Thursday, February 1st. The past two years have been sellouts so we’re encouraging those who want to come to reserve tables and tickets sooner rather than later. 
 

NEW EXPERIENCES THIS YEAR
 

Last year, VIP Torch Bearer guests enjoyed a private dining experience at the Palladium prior to the event at the Hippodrome. This year they will enjoy a new culinary experience featuring an accomplished local chef.

Flame Thrower guests will enjoy a lively private pre-event party at Cultivate 712 complete with heavy hors d'oeuvres and beverages. In addition, you will be seated at ROUND tables at the Hippodrome! No more long rectangle tables. 

Sparkler guests will also enjoy an intimate pre-event gathering at the Hippodrome.

If single tickets are more your style, we are offering single VIP Torch Bearer, Flame Thrower and General Admission levels. These are very limited in number.
 

You can get all the details including sponsorship details by visiting WildTorch.com. Can’t make the date, but still want to be a part? Sponsor a table and we’ll fill it. Or purchase tickets on behalf of someone else. We’ll make sure those seats get filled. 

We want to personally invite you to join us April 23 for Wild Torch at the Hippodrome Theatre in Waco. It will be an joyfully explosive night!

We hope you’ll carry fire with us,

Brett & Emily Mills