Lest we forget…
This fall media mourned the death of Hugh Heffner by memorializing his social and corporate accomplishments—the normalization of pornography. In a haze of nostalgia women’s rights, “healthy” sexuality, racial equality, and freedom were all attributed to this man and his magazine. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether it is creating the victim, the purchaser, or the pimp, the one common thread woven through every phase of the cycle of sex slavery includes pornography.
“Slave porn” makes up the vast majority of pornography available today. As the name suggests, the people in the images were not free when they were made. Even on sets of “respectable” pornography companies and music videos, force, fraud, and coercion have been used to get models to do things they did not previously agree to. That is important because those are some of the qualifiers for human trafficking. One former porn star pointed out that the only difference between illegal prostitution and legal pornography is a camera.
Pedophiles and traffickers use porn to groom and lure victims. They visit all the kid-friendly sites and searches. Apps marketed to youth and children have access to the gps information and can turn on video and camera remotely. That is how close a predator is to any child. Add social media, and kids are encouraged to add strangers so they can get more positive feedback for their posts and pictures—pics that are suggestive and location-identifying.
Today the age when a US child is first exposed to pornography is 11, regardless of gender. In the earlier years of Hefner’s magazine, it featured centerfolds of children as young as 10 (including a young Brooke Shields) and articles by Psychiatrists that encouraged pedophilia as natural and healthy. It even showed parents how to sexualize their children and infants. The only reason Hefner stopped is because we changed our laws.
Our dependency on technology has increased child exposure. Cell phones and devices have become the X-rated theaters and porn magazine stands of the new millennium. Devices we hoped would protect our children have become an invasive tool used by malevolent actors. Not all parents are aware of the danger, so that leaves some children completely exposed. Parents who are aware of the problem scramble to find the latest and best tools to control content. These tools are often easy to bypass for parents, let alone their tech-savvy children.
Adding to the equation is the growing mandated use of school devices in and out of school in elementary, middle, and high schools. These devices have filters managed by the schools. Some have been so inadequate that they allowed pornography to be viewed while in school. When the devices are required to be taken home for homework, only the location WiFi settings can be used as a filter. Parents cannot activate the school filters at home because they are not the owners. That means that even if the parental controls on family devices are adequate, they cannot be applied to school-owned devices. This leaves every child required to use a school device vulnerable.
Tech companies have a monetary incentive to create weak filters, or defeat existing filters. The current system creates ongoing supply and demand. A current bipartisan bill that has been introduced in many states and as a federal legislation addresses this issue. Instead of requiring parents and schools (who are not tech experts) to come up with resources to filter predatory porn, the Child Exploitation Prevention Act rolls the burden onto tech companies by requiring filters to come standard on their products. It also requires tech companies to update the filters. Similar to the masking required on adult magazine racks, this bill would require the individual to show proof of age to get the filters removed. Not only is this approach a bipartisan great solution, but tech companies like this solution.
Why does this matter for our society?
In recent years, pornography has been recognized as an addiction that is being classified as a public health crisis in some states. Like any good drug dealer knows, giving free hits can hook a customer for life. Addiction is a kind of enslavement that creates an insatiable hunger, driving individuals to more dangerous behaviors, leading to self-destruction and the harm of others. That drives up the demand for images and encounters. There is no bottom to this depravity barrel.
Pornography trains the brain to objectify humans. Dr. Fiske of Princeton University led a scientific study that proved the literal objectification of people by the human brain when they were shown images of people with little to no clothing. Actor Terry Crews shared about his personal battle to overcome porn addiction in a series of YouTube videos he shared on social media. He described how the porn-perspective followed him into the real world, “I saw people as parts to be used instead of people to be loved.” New neuroscience has shown that viewing pornography changes thought patterns within the brain, creating new thought-paths that don’t disappear when the images aren’t in view, but take time and intention to correct. Those thought patterns become the new perception towards live humans.
It is no coincidence that the one commonality between violent offenders in the prison system today is the desire for and use of pornography. Porn is not only produced by some traffickers, but it is instrumental in developing the mentality of a trafficker, murder, and rapist. In the last few hours of Ted Bundy’s life, he explained this connection in an interview with Dr. James Dobson, “There are lots of other kids playing in the streets around this country today who are going to be dead tomorrow…because other young people are reading the kinds of things and seeing the kinds of things that are available in the media today.” He was 11 when he first encountered pornography. While not everyone who views porn will become a violent offender, our society needs to ask how many more children are we willing to put at risk?
In every form of human trafficking, the only way to truly end it is to end the demand. How do we do that? Part of that answer is a deep, hard, introspective look at us. It's not just happening overseas, it's happening right here in New Jersey.
Are we part of the problem?
Do we shame and blame victims instead of perpetrators (traffickers and johns)? A recent Philadelphia installation of “What Were You Wearing?” displayed the actual outfits victims wore when they were raped. Jeans-and-t-shirts and running clothes lined the walls. It dispelled the myth that victims “were asking for it” by their choice of attire. Such an assumption betrays a dangerous mindset that both blames the victim and justifies the perpetrator. Is there anything someone could wear or do that would merit rape or enslavement?
Do we tolerate, partake in, or laugh at cultural norms we should question? Do we think it’s cute when a little girl acts, dances, or dresses in a sexual way? Consider “Pimp Culture” in our entertainment, gaming, music, and clothing. Three years in a row “Baby Pimp” was the biggest selling Halloween costume in NJ. “Pimp and Ho” roll play isn’t just for Halloween costumes anymore. It has become a behavioral expectation of young people. It has moved from places like the screens of Grand Theft Auto (where participants get more points by raping, robbing, and killing a prostitute) into our schools and homes. Whether it is elementary school “rainbow parties,” middle and high school dances where intercourse happens on the dance floor (hidden from chaperones), or “Pimp and Ho” frat parties--girls are expected to behave as prostitutes and boys are expected to use girls like pimps and johns. As parents, community, and Church, we must define what Biblical masculinity means and train boys to be men of honor that protect and defend women and children. Likewise, we need to build up girls to recognize what real empowerment is. Hefner’s masculinity and feminism is and was enslavement and objectification.
Rev. Mandy Bristol-Leverett is the Founder and Executive Director of CAN, Executive Director of the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, NJ Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force Advisor, and Co-chair of NJ SOAP.
The Center For Garden State Families is the lead organization promoting the Human Trafficking And Child Exploitation Act.