Two of my biggest pet peeves are complacency and apathy. If the only word people have to describe me when I die is passionate, then I believe I will have lived my life correctly. The YAGM experience is very much the antithesis of complacent and apathetic. Every program in every country that YAGM serves has gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, nausea-inducing questions attached to every individual experience. In Mexico, these questions revolve heavily around immigration, migration and relationships between nations. In Jerusalem/West Bank, they center around government oppression, racism, religious nationalism, movement and freedom. Here in Madagascar, each volunteer experiences these questions differently because our sites, our cities, our host families, and subsequently our experiences, differ greatly. Yet, in one of the poorest countries on earth, and the poorest that YAGM serves in, all of these questions and problems circle back to poverty and inequality. We see these two things in nearly every facet of culture. In fact, you cannot go a single day in Madagascar without thinking about them because they absolutely refuse to remove themselves from your sightline. This reality is so blatant and in your face, that there few moments when you are not being overtly confronted with it. The irony of the situation is that Madagascar has the propensity to be one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Precious gemstones, rosewood and oil are abundant and in high demand in other corners of the world, yet predictably, the payout of these resources goes to the highest bidder—usually a French or Chinese corporation—and the price of subsequent environment degradation from these “international business ventures” is felt by the Malagasy people, nearly a million of which faced starvation at the end of the winter months of 2016 due to man-made, industrialized nation-produced climate change.
Indeed, the reality of life in Madagascar is one of colonization, and in many places, like my community of Antsiranana (or it’s colonized name, Diego Suarez), the colonizers never left.
As I write this, I sit in an internet cafe in my upscale neighborhood of Place Kabary, an area known for it’s large houses hidden behind gates, panoramic sea views and vazah—foreigner—owned businesses and restaurants. I have been sitting in my same spot for approximately three hours, in which time six French men over the age of 55 have come in to check emails and Facebook accounts. Four of the six are accompanied by young Malagasy women likely betweenthe ages of 16 and 25, clad in crop tops, mini-skirts and short shorts, many carry the most expensive model of cellphone one can buy at the most expensive telephone carrier in Madagascar as they sit on the laps of their much older companions. This is the culture of my colonized (or colonizing—the present progressive tense, it’s still actively happening) town of Diego Suarez, a place once “discovered” and “claimed” by two white dudes who decided to name it after themselves, still on an active path of colonized “claiming” perpetuated by white men.
The name of this phenomenon is sex tourism—and it is the bread and butter of the tourism industry in Northern Malagasy towns like Nosy Be, Mahajanga and Diego. Plane-fulls of men from places like France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland arrive on the daily, seeking above all, cheap, legal sex that they couldn’t obtain through the same legal means at home. The industry’s questionable legality lies in the fact that prostitution, and sex with what most western countries consider “minors,” is legal in Madagascar. With an age of consent of 14 and absolutely no government oversight (money is the key to all, the Malagasy government always has a price, and white men have money), the trafficking of minors is both frequent and normal, if not encouraged by some families that offer their children in the hopes of landing a wealthy, white husband, a sign of status and success. A greater cultural idea surely circulated and facilitated by, well—honestly, guess who?
My personal estimate would be that close to 85% of the tourists that I see regularly in my community are men over the age of 55. This does, by no means mean that all men over 55 in my city are sex tourists, but in terms of personal experiences where I’ve flown between Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and Diego, I can personally account for seeing nearly half of the men on my flights again with Malagasy women 30 to 50 years their junior. Cafes are perhaps the best spots to see sex tourism in action, as most prostitutes will walk main road in Diego throughout the day and into the night looking for sex partners, which serve as a means for men to sit and admire “products” without having to actively seek them out. And, as I learned one day when I sat down to eat lunch at one of these cafes, they also serve as a means for other necessary products to come to them. I was a mix of surprised, and yet simultaneously not surprised at all, as I sat down to eat my chicken salad one Monday morning to see a young Malagasy man approach a crowd of sex tourists carrying a backpack full of condoms, cigarettes, beer and Viagra to sell. He made 40,000 Ariary (nearly half a month’s salary for the average Malagasy family) at a table of three men.
Prostitution scenarios vary from your basic “a night of sex in a hotel” to a full-on “fake girlfriend” experience, where sex tourists spend the entire day with women, treating them to meals at the most expensive restaurants in town (which, mind you, are not that expensive for foreigners), going for walks along main street while holding hands, swimming in the pool at the largest hotel in town, kissing in the grocery store or riding rentable four wheelers along the beach. The “girlfriend experience" has dual functionality in it’s purpose, as it both allows men to disassociate from the fact that they are paying for sex in a country where there are few alternative options for young women to work, and it manipulates women into thinking that what they are experiencing with these men is real, and keeps them coming back for more in hopes that they will ultimately land a wealthy husband.
Every week it is largely the same. The men that were sex tourists last week are replaced by the more the next week, leaving the impression that sex tourism in the north has likely attracted hundreds of thousands, if not millions, over the years. One cannot simply walk down the street without being barraged with images of men ogling, staring and groping young women at any hour of the day, sending a very clear message that these men believe anyone is for sale for the right price. It sends the message that the only things of value in Madagascar are for the taking—your gems, your oils, your wood, your women—but only for cheap, of course. There is no other assigned value to your country.
It’s important to mention that there are adults working in the sex industry here, not just children, and the vast majority likely see prostitution as an effective way to make money in a place where there are, sadly, very few effective ways to make money. The goal of this post is not to point fingers at women who engage in the sex industry, as that does nothing except continue an already existing cycle of colonialist violence (it’s your fault, not the the men paying for you), but rather, address the issues that accompany sex tourism in the frame of power, money and privilege.
In the shortest, least human, but arguably most real and appropriate terms, there would be no supply if there were no demand. The issue with prostitution, especially in a country where the levels of money, power and privilege differ so drastically between partners, is the demand for it, because it is rooted in the ideas that:
- Women and children are commodities or products
- Women and children hold less power and autonomy than men, especially when money is involved
- Women and children are only valuable when they are obedient or subservient to men
- Women and children are only valuable when they are giving pleasure to men
- Women and children are people that can be owned
These ideas are also the basis of something called toxic masculinity—a socially-constructed attitude that pushes the idea that men must be emotionless, disengaged, violent and sexually aggressive with women to prove themselves as men to their culture. By engaging in sex tourism and human trafficking, these men are effectively trying to prove their masculinity through whatever extreme means necessary, an effort that is especially dangerous for the women in which they are having sex because unfortunately, no one is going to believe a prostitute from a developing nation with little to no money, over a wealthy white man from the West, should their “transaction” end with rape, physical violence or death.
To truly try and stop an industry that is built on the back of the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people, we must first call sex tourism out for what it is. Sex tourism is, in fact, sexual slavery. The act of paying for a person is the act of owning another person, and doing so while simultaneously out-matching class, status and privilege is furthermore stripping them of power, autonomy and human dignity. it is a violation of respect in viewing a person as an actual person as opposed to an “object” or “plaything.” It is ranking money and pleasure as a higher priority than personhood. It is implying one person’s life is more important than another.
I cannot stress enough that one of the most truly screwed up parts of this situation is that this isn’t weird or strange or some sort of on the fringe kink. This. Is. Normal. This is a reality in nearly every single corner of the world, including our country. Especially our country. At the airport, in shopping malls, in parks and zoos and big events like the Super Bowl, sex trafficking and sex tourism exist widely. Anywhere from 700,000 to two million women and children are trafficked across national borders each year for prostitution. Among these are 50,000 trafficked into the United States annually, including 17,000 youth. Globally, two million girls and boys are forced or lured by broken promises into prostitution every year. 300,000 youth and children are thought to be in prostitution in the United States. It’s not just the French, the Italians, the Swiss—it’s Americans too. Americans that are people of faith. And Americans that are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This is convicting. And it should be. It is our responsibility as people of faith to address the suffering of our neighbors and act. We are to repent our own complicity in the sex system of prostitution, slavery and trafficking, whether that complicity be through active involvement, denial, neglect of its causes, or our failure to act. We are called to expose the destructive dynamics of the ways in which it abuses women and children for the sake of money and power. We are called to shake up every facet of our society: the church, our families, our relationships and friendships, our culture, our policy, our economy, our social service and advocacy, with the understanding that the right thing and the legal thing are not always inherently the same.
The ELCA adopted a statement on Commercial Sexual Exploitation in 2001, and it provides an exceptional basis for which congregations can understand trafficking, sex tourism and slavery as well as other contributors to the greater sex system. I recommend reading this document on the ELCA’s website, as well as checking out some of these ways in which your congregation can act.
Note: As the program I am serving through in Madagascar is one of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the majority of my blog’s readers are ELCA congregants, these are specifically geared towards them. However, these are steps all people can actively take to make a meaningful change, regardless of your organization, your community, your faith or lack thereof.
Do your research. Explore local, state and federal laws regarding trafficking, sex slavery and sex tourism. Understand the ways in which the sex system functions and operates. Understand who stands to gain and who stands to lose. Know your numbers, see who they affect the most. Get in contact with local law enforcement and discuss the ways in which these issues play a role in your community. Contact organizations that fight for the rights of those involved in prostitution and trafficking. Invite them to speak to your congregation. Share all of this information with your church.
Prevent youth from becoming captives of the sex system. Address the issues of the sex system with your congregants. Support, love and encourage your youth in their endeavors. Push them to pursue their passions. Fervently push furthering education. Be a community that they feel comfortable turning to in times of crisis. Talk about power dynamics within relationshipsand what is defined as a safe, healthy relationship. Educate them on safe and consensual sex. Encourage youth to live their lives free of what society deems societal gender norms and to be themselves, people who God lovingly made, as they are. Restrict judgment regarding sexuality and instead address it as a gift from God. Be role models for what healthy friendships, relationships and marriages look like.
Address the demand for what the sex industry offers. Discuss the issues of prostitution, sex slavery, abuse, sexual assault and trafficking with your men’s and women’s clubs. Encourage real and frank discussion, probing into the ways the sex system affects our lives. Do not push uncomfortable conversations under the rug, confront them head on. Support those who may be struggling with curbing their own decision-making regarding these topics. Discuss power dynamics within relationships with young children and encourage mutual respect for bodily autonomy between genders from an early age.
Explore the law’s role. Explore local, state and federal laws regarding trafficking, sex slavery and sex tourism. Support policies designed to dismantle the sex system. Call your representatives and tell them that this issue is important to you. Lobby. Run for office. Advocate for the punishment of traffickers and sex tourists. Advocate for the amnesty for sex workers. Support the vehement enforcement of laws designed to curb sex tourism by local, state and federal authorities. Actively support mental health treatment and resources for those who have participated as sex workers in the sex system.
Support social agencies that work with youth and adults who are in prostitution. Support agencies that address the issues surrounding prostitution financially and with your time. Invite them to hold events at your church or in your community. Take offerings for their continued work. Visit them. Ask what their most immediate needs are and try to address them. Lobby at your state legislature for state funding to address the issues of prostitution and trafficking.
Curb sex trafficking. Do not actively engage in prostitution or trafficking. Understand how you indirectly engage in prostitution or trafficking. Make a change. Develop relationships with your companion synods and ask how you can help address these issues in their communities. Listen. Commit your money and resources. Push for strongly enforced local, state and federal laws regarding those who traffick other people. Support survivors of trafficking and prostitution.
I hope I’ve made my point clear when I say this is something that has affected me deeply. This piece is five months, hundreds of encounters, lots of questions of hopelessness and inadequacy, innumerable prayers and countless nights of sobbing on the floor for my community in the making. It is something I care tremendously about and I hope I have opened your eyes to the reality of what the sex system is and how it functions in Diego. Now I ask you, as people of faith, as people who bear witness the grace and love and forgiveness of our savior Jesus, to go forth in the world and make a radical change. Use the tips above, talk to your congregations and commit yourself to the work of Christ, resting in the comfort that no problem is too great for our God.
Finally, I give a special ask to the groups who have taken such an active role in supporting me in my work in Madagascar.
Zion of Browerville, Immanuel of Wadena, Augustana of Cumberland and the Northwest Minnesota Synod—
Perhaps one of the best ways you can support me in my work here for the last few months of my time in Madagascar is to choose to devote some of your time to having these conversations, because I truly believe through bearing witness to the realities I have witnessed here, that we are playing an active role in God’s work. I was sent here, on a journey I could have never plotted with my own hands, to see these things and to share them with you, so that together we might go forth in our country and throughout the world to make real, radical change. I urge you to explore the tips above and discuss them with your congregations, your synods, the great Church, discerning the ways in which you can be involved in spreading this message.
Thank you for reading.
"I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness." John 12:46
If you have any stories of prostitution and trafficking in your community, tips for making an impact or any great organizations that we should support who are involved in healing the wounds created by it, please leave them in the comments below!