Home » Narrative » Christian Engagement in US Anti-trafficking Activism: Precedents and Contexts (Part 2)

Christian Engagement in US Anti-trafficking Activism: Precedents and Contexts (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part post adapted from Letitia M. Campbell and Yvonne C. Zimmerman, “Christian Ethics and Human Trafficking Activism: Progressive Christianity and Social Critique,” Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics 34:1 (2014). While Part 1 examines briefly the history and impact of Christian activism on anti-trafficking initiatives in the United States, this post focuses on feminism, evangelicalism and anti-trafficking. 

Yvonne is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio near Columbus, OH and Letitia is a Ph.D. candidate and Woodruff Scholar in religion, ethics and society at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Since 2012 they have been collaborating on developing analyses of and response to human trafficking from a progressive Christian perspective that includes queer, feminist and antiracist commitments.

Political analysts and commentators frequently express surprise at the alliance between feminists and evangelical Christians in the fight against sex trafficking. However surprising to casual observers, this collaboration follows the pattern set by an earlier alliance between feminists and religious conservatives in the anti-pornography movement of the 1970s and 80s. Historian Carolyn Bronstein describes the origins of the feminist anti-pornography movement in grassroots feminist campaigns against images of sexual violence in the mainstream media. She charts the development of feminist alliances with social conservatives in the late 1970s and 1980s, showing how these diverse coalitions worked across pronounced political differences to advance anti-pornography agendas at local, state and national levels. The alliance between secular feminists and conservative Christians on the issue of pornography came to define the anti-pornography movement, and it has had an enduring impact on both the women’s movement and evangelical Christianity.

Within the women’s movement, the coalition between feminists and social conservatives led to a bitter split between anti-pornography feminists, who understood pornography as violence against women, and sex-positive feminists, who saw efforts to ban and regulate pornography as part of broader conservative efforts to reinforce repressive sexual norms that were, in their view, incompatible with feminism’s commitment to authentic sexual liberation. These two branches of the women’s movement did not clash on pornography alone; they were also bitterly divided in their understandings of homosexuality, sex work, and the politics of S/M, among other issues.

At the same time, this anti-pornography alliance exerted significant influence on the sexual and gender politics of social and religious conservatives. As the members of the alliance worked together to combat pornography, some Christian groups began to incorporate the rhetoric secular feminists were using to articulate their anti-pornography positions — though they did not always incorporate up the underlying feminist analysis. In this way, the rhetoric of pornography as “degrading” to women and concerns about violence against women became what Carole Vance calls “crossover terms,” central to both groups’ public arguments against pornography, but used to suggest rather different kinds of harm. Quite apart from the intent of conservative religious leaders, these terms and concepts spread rapidly within their religious networks. Soon rank and file members of religiously conservative groups were rehearsing arguments about the degradation of women, violence against women, and even women’s inequality.

In crucial ways then, the feminist-evangelical anti-pornography alliance was instrumental in setting the stage for the contemporary movement to end human trafficking. The anti-trafficking movement has inherited not only some of the same rhetoric and leaders, but many of the tensions of the earlier anti-pornography alliance Bronstein describes. For instance, the rhetoric of “sexual slavery,” which circulates widely in anti-trafficking networks, appears much earlier (and with different meaning) in radical feminist critiques of the sexual dimensions of women’s oppression. Similarly, concerns about the media’s sexualization of ever-younger girls, a prominent feature of anti-pornography activism in the late 1980s, remain a staple of the contemporary anti-trafficking movement.

In fact, not only is the current anti-trafficking movement dominated by many of the same set of images and concerns that fueled the earlier movements to combat pornography and violence against women, it is also organized around some of the same feminist leaders and networks. Dorchen Leidholt and Laura Lederer are two of the leaders from the feminist anti-pornography movement who were influential in launching the anti-trafficking movement. Leidholdt, a veteran of both the feminist anti-pornography movement and the violence against women/domestic violence movement, served as a lead organizer for the first global conference on trafficking in women and girls, and went on to co-found The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) with Kathleen Barry. Lederer, a coordinator for Women Against Violence in Pornography and the Media (WAVPM) in the late 1970s and editor of Take Back The Night: Women on Pornography (1980), in 1994 founded The Protection Project, a legal research institute dedicated to combatting human trafficking based at Johns Hopkins University. She also worked on the first Human Rights Report on Trafficking in Persons for the US government and helped to set up the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in the US State Department under George W. Bush, where she served as a Senior Advisor on Human Trafficking. She now heads an NGO that describes its work as “fighting modern slavery by focusing on demand” and provides leadership to the Triple S Network (“Stop Sex Slavery”).

The trajectories of earlier splits in the feminist movement likewise shape the internal politics of the contemporary anti-trafficking movement, with some of the groups that expressed concern about policies championed in the name of ending violence against women in the 1970s and 1980s today expressing concern that policies advanced under the banner of anti-trafficking initiatives exacerbate the marginalization and oppression of already-stigmatized groups. (See, for example the claims of some LGBT organizations that anti-trafficking initiatives that stigmatize and criminalize sex work harm LGBT youth and transgender people, or the response of sex workers’ organizations globally to the requirement that all groups receiving US funding explicitly reject policies that would decriminalize prostitution.) As was the case in the earlier movement to end violence against women, there is no single, unified “feminist” anti-trafficking strategy. The different ways of framing the issue of trafficking and its solutions clarify the wide variety of cross-cutting political interests, ideologies, and policy positions that reflect the internal diversity of contemporary feminism.

The impact of US evangelical Christians’ anti-trafficking activism has been enormously influential, even if it is not particularly well understood. The emphasis evangelicals placed on women and women’s rights in the religious freedom movement and later in the anti-trafficking movement found elective affinity with the US feminist establishment’s longstanding commitment to promoting women’s rights — this, despite the fact that the two movements had starkly different roots and were at odds on so many other issues. The framing of human trafficking as a women’s issue, especially through the trope of the sexual exploitation of women and girls, facilitated the issue’s meteoric rise in both the popular public consciousness and in the legal-politico apparatus. Understanding the prominence of evangelicals and other religious actors in this process, and their influence on anti-trafficking activism and policy, will require close attention to the images, ideas, and affective resources that they bring to discussions of trafficking. All of these dynamics can be understood more richly against the backdrop of longer histories of social, religious and political movements, and against the backdrop of the global political and economic shifts that have altered the role and capacity of the nation-state since the 1990s.


  1. […] Yvonne Zimmerman & Letitia Campbell on “sex trafficking” mythology’s roots in the evangelical/neofeminist alliance: […]

  2. […] the anti-sex forces had not only taken over feminism, but had sought ought and once again joined their old allies, evangelical Christians, in another loathsome attempt to impose a puritanical anti-sex regime on all of society.  Almost […]

  3. […] Engagement in US Anti-trafficking Activism: Precedents and Contexts (Part 1, and Part 2). Letitia M. Campbell and Yvonne C. Zimmerman, Adapted from “Christian Ethics and Human […]

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