"Sexual exploitation in any situation, either personally or commercially, inside or outside legally contracted marriage, is sinful because it is destructive of God’s good gift [of sexuality] and human integrity." 
Commercial sexual exploitation is an organized form of this sinful behavior. It is especially demonic when it exploits children and youth. Commercial sexual exploitation is widespread throughout the United States and around the world, and it continues to grow. To a large extent, this exploitation remains hidden from public attention and ignored by Church and society. It includes what customers do by:
While customers may think they harm no one but themselves, the truth is that they are swept up in a system of sexual exploitation that degrades all participants, both providers and customers.
With this message, the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America hopes to raise awareness of an industry that sexually exploits vulnerable persons, principally women and girls, but also men and boys. Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are urged to examine how this industry might affect their lives. Further, members, congregations, synods, churchwide units, and affiliated agencies and institutions are encouraged to renew their care and concern for children and youth, recognizing that there are those who prey upon young persons in their dependence and vulnerability. Love born of faith in Jesus Christ calls us all to attend to, discuss, resist, and reject the system of sexual exploitation.
The system of sexual exploitationCommercial sexual exploitation includes the businesses of prostitution, pornography, and stripping. Prostitution, the archetype of these businesses, involves selling and buying sex on the streets, in brothels, massage parlors, saunas, bars, and through escort services. Pornography involves selling and buying demeaning sexual images in movies, videos, magazines, and on the Internet and cable television.  It includes phone sex, which is sometimes accompanied by live images on the seller’s Web site. Stripping involves selling and buying live sexual performance in strip clubs, adult theaters, bars, peep show booths, and at private parties.
These businesses, all built on the exchange of some sexual activity for money (or some other form of remuneration), overlap and interlock, and together form the system of sexual exploitation.  What drives those who operate the system of sexual exploitation is the desire to make money. Its product is sex, deemed to be simply another commodity to sell and buy. Persons who sell and buy the product are a means to provide the profit; their well-being is normally an incidental concern for those who profit from them.
To ensure demand for its product, the system of sexual exploitation strives to make its businesses attractive and accessible to its potential customers, almost entirely men and male youth. It appeals to their conflicted sexual desires with a variety of images of its "commodity": some people paint a picture of glamorous, harmless, uncomplicated fun among consenting equals; others speak to the excitement of crossing forbidden boundaries, to becoming or being "a man," or to sexual addictions and aberrations (such as child pornography, pedophilia, bestiality, sadomasochism, or orgies). It offers a hierarchy of providers for different budgets. It provides videos for hotel rooms and "call girls" for the traveler, establishes its businesses near military bases, entices customers to exotic places for "sex tourism," and offers "mail-order brides" who often end up in prostitution or as personal sex slaves.  The system of sexual exploitation makes its products known through ads in city and community newspapers, telephone directories, sex guides, flyers, and by word of mouth, and has found in the Internet an effective new tool for advertising. In a sex-saturated culture where the media celebrate casual sex, featuring increasingly explicit sex scenes, and advertisements sell products through the allure of sexuality, the system of sexual exploitation thrives and flourishes.
Prostitution, pornography, and stripping are huge and profitable businesses. People in the United States spend more on pornography, for example, than on movie tickets or on all the performing arts combined. The conservative estimate of $10 billion paid for pornography annually makes it a bigger business than professional football, basketball, and baseball combined.  Prostitution in the United States is estimated to be a $14 billion industry with 1.5 million customers a week. 
To fulfill the demand for commercial sex, the system of sexual exploitation has elaborate means to recruit and maintain providers for its businesses. Poverty and homelessness are its allies. Predators ("pimps," "boyfriends," and others) actively recruit vulnerable persons for prostitution by manipulating them through apparent kindness, deceit, threats, and cruelty. They especially target alienated or troubled young persons, who often are barely surviving after being thrown out of or having left their homes. Pimps maintain control over their (usually) women and girls by keeping them, often through violence, in an isolated social world of degrading dependency, moving them from city to city. Strip clubs often function as another entrance point into pornography and prostitution.  Television talk shows serve the recruiting process by featuring women in the system of sexual exploitation who claim their stripping or "sex work" is attractive, profitable, and temporary employment.
Global sex trafficking is the largest source of recruits for the system of sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking involves recruiting, harboring, buying, selling, and transporting persons into or within a country by force, deception, and inducement, in order to exploit them for commercial sexual purposes. Women and girls are almost exclusively the targets of this lucrative and fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the global economy. Between 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. 
Commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth is pervasive.  Globally, two million girls and boys are forced or lured by false promises into prostitution every year. About 300,000 children and youth are thought to be in prostitution in the United States. Nine- and ten-year-old children are stolen from or sold by impoverished families into sex trafficking in numerous countries, and street children often turn to prostitution for survival. Many youth in the United States who trade sex for money begin when they are 14 years old or younger. Child pornography is sold on thousands of "hidden" Web sites originating in this and numerous other countries. 
A Tangled WebThe system of sexual exploitation manifests social sin, reflecting a structure of evil that shapes and snares persons, and to which personal attitudes, decisions, and acts contribute. In its tangled web, we see the dynamics of sin at work. We ought not gloss over, trivialize, or accommodate the evil of the system of sexual exploitation.
Sin is the proper term for speaking of what has gone profoundly wrong in God’s good creation. Sin intrudes into creation, resisting and distorting God’s intention for human community. Sin is both personal and social. It dwells deep in the human heart, turning us in upon ourselves and away from God and others, and takes on a life of its own in our social structures.
Persons become objects to be used for the benefit of others. The system of sexual exploitation denies the human dignity bestowed by God upon all people. This denial is most blatant in sex trafficking, a form of slavery driven by greed in which captured persons become property, a mere extension of the will of the owner. Yet using persons as objects characterizes all parts of the system. For predators, owners, and managers of the system, "their" children and adults are instruments for generating income. For sellers, "johns" or buyers are means for gaining money or favor with their pimps; and for customers, sellers are objects to satisfy their every want.
Sex turns into a commodity. The system of sexual exploitation corrupts God’s wonderful gift of sexuality by reducing it to a marketable item. It separates sex from mutual relationships of trust, love, and equality intended by God. Those who sell sex use their bodies for sex they do not want, seeking only the money, gifts, drugs, or shelter they receive in payment. To survive they dissociate their business transactions from the rest of their identity. As their sexuality becomes a separate reality from who they are as persons, many face the threat of personal disintegration and its life-long effects.
Lust plays its role. Sexual desire and appreciation for the beauty of the human body, part of the goodness of creation, bring joy and delight to human life. Sexual desire becomes lust when it is separated from our relationship with God and longs for fulfillment in the false god of sexual pleasure. Lust—an insatiable, unlimited desire to possess, to indulge, to take pleasure—enslaves and contributes to compulsive, addictive behavior.  The system of sexual exploitation creates the illusion of endless sexual opportunity. This system depends upon the power of lust to entice customers to purchase its products. It stimulates and manipulates this disordered desire, which is often bound up with emotional and relational problems.
Persons dominate women and youth. The system of sexual exploitation uses women and girls, young men and boys, to pleasure chiefly men. Strip clubs, organized according to unequal gender power dynamics, elicit and require expressions of male domination and control of women, expressions which society often encourages of men.  Pimps and customers, even at times those responsible for protection, abuse, assault, and threaten women, girls, and boys in prostitution and take advantage of their vulnerabilities to subject them to domination. Those who pay for sex usually dictate what sexual acts their provider must perform. Much of the system of sexual exploitation arises from and reinforces culture’s deeply ingrained attitudes and power patterns that assume that women and children are not fully or equally human, and are meant to be subservient to others. The system of sexual exploitation actualizes a world of exploiters and the exploited, often incorporating racial and socio-economic oppression. Prostitution is said to be the world’s oldest form of oppressing women. The same dynamic of oppression is at work when adults make young men and boys their hired sexual objects.
Deceit reigns. The system of sexual exploitation from beginning to end is built upon deceit. God gives humans the ability to communicate in order to speak the truth and form community, but the system of sexual exploitation prevents such communication in order to beguile and deceive. Predators, including sex traffickers, make false promises to, and create illusory futures for, their prospective women; women deceive their consumers by claims of pleasure; and customers hide or lie about their behavior. Strippers dupe their viewers with illusions of enjoyment, and actors in pornographic scenes feign sexual pleasure. Escort services claim to offer only non-sexual companionship, and illicit massage parlors claim to be health services.
Misery abounds. The system of sexual exploitation depends upon and magnifies human misery and social injustice. Sex traffickers buy or abduct women and children from impoverished families with limited options, and pimps find likely prospects in girls who have been abused as children by their fathers or other relatives. The need to support drug or alcohol addictions leads many into prostitution; others become addicted to drugs and alcohol to cope with the emptiness of constantly selling themselves. Disease—sexually transmitted and other physical, psychological, and spiritual ones—takes its toll; early death—sometimes by murder, sometimes by suicide—is common among those forced into prostitution. Aging prostitutes are discarded by the system of sexual exploitation, left to fend for themselves without a pension or job skills and often hampered by a criminal record.
Families and loved ones of persons in the system of sexual exploitation experience untold suffering, and children of prostitutes suffer consequences from their mothers’ involvement in this tangled web, often becoming part of the system of sexual exploitation themselves. Men with emotional or relational problems who are drawn into the system of sexual exploitation often find that their false and momentary pleasure deepens their problems, pushes them further away from their families, and compounds their pain. The system of sexual exploitation is not "victimless."
Evil masquerades as good. To do its evil, the system of sexual exploitation strives to look good. It tells itself and the world that it is only providing goods and services that consumers want. It is only promoting business transactions between consenting adults. It may admit that abuses occur, but they are marginal to the industry as a whole. Apologists try to make the case that such enterprises are "normal mainstream" businesses, insisting that all are entitled "to do their own thing." In such ways the system of sexual exploitation weaves the threads of self-deception and self-justification into its twisted trap of sin and evil.
Young persons and children cry out. All youth and children are gifts of God, dependent upon parents and family for care and nurture and upon society for protection as they grow into adulthood. Nevertheless, the system of sexual exploitation irresistibly entraps children and youth, both girls and boys, taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. Driven in part by the false belief that younger persons are less likely to have sexually transmittable diseases, it seeks out ever younger victims. The sexual exploitation of children for profit reveals the demonic depth of the system of sexual exploitation.
Arenas for ActionEven as we recognize the destructive power of this human system, we yet sing with joy, "This is the feast of victory for our God.... For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia."  The victorious love of a suffering God has overcome the "powers of this present darkness" (Ephesians 6:12). In our time, before God’s victory is fully manifest, our faith combats our indifference and cynicism and gives us hope and courage to act. We are summoned to repent of our complicity in this tangled web, whether that complicity be through active involvement in the system of sexual exploitation, lack of love for young people, denial of the existence of the system of sexual exploitation, neglect of its causes, or failure to act. We are called to expose the destructive dynamics of the system of sexual exploitation, tell of the forgiveness, hope, dignity, and new life in Christ to all caught up in the system of sexual exploitation, and to join with others to combat its evils.
This calling embraces all dimensions of life in society: personal character, family life, cultural patterns, commerce, public policy, law and its enforcement, and social service and advocacy organizations. The system of sexual exploitation itself varies from place to place; some of its activities are illegal, and others are legal (which does not mean they are benign or morally acceptable). People in diverse places of responsibility bring distinct gifts to fight it. Equally committed people may disagree on what laws should be in place or what are the best measures to address prostitution, pornography, and stripping. In light of the scope and complexity of the action required, a multitude of creative and courageous responses are needed.
The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America calls upon members, congregations, synods, churchwide units, and affiliated agencies and institutions to give serious consideration to what they should and can do. The following identifies some arenas to encourage reflection, discussion, and action.
Equip the Saints. Our action is to grow out of our faith as well as be informed by a comprehensive awareness of social evil. We esteem children and youth as God’s precious gifts to us, knowing that not only is this the right thing to do but also that it is the best way to keep them safe from the manipulative deceit of predators. We celebrate human sexuality as a gift from God, "created good for the purposes of expressing love and generating life, for mutual companionship and pleasure."  On the basis of this positive vision of sexuality, we teach the difference between loving sexuality and sexual violence and exploitation. We teach a mutuality and respect between men and women that reject social dynamics of domination and submission. We attend to those who are exploited by caring for and empowering them, not by condemning and shunning them. We recognize increasingly how commercial sexual exploitation feeds upon global and domestic poverty, war, political and social turmoil, homelessness, child abuse and neglect, gender inequality and violence against women, racism, and related social injustices against which this church has called for action. We seek to join with others to curb these ills. 
Find out what is happening in your community. Learn about the system of sexual exploitation—locally, nationally, and globally. Read, consult studies available on the Internet, and invite police and other knowledgeable persons to talk in your congregation. Request persons who work with youth in prostitution to speak about the youths’ life on the streets and in escort services. Discover how young persons are enticed into prostitution, whether in shopping malls or at places where homeless youth hang out. Ask about the contributing factors that lead young persons into the tangled web of the system of sexual exploitation. Bring to light the evil that too often is hidden.
Prevent youth from becoming captives of the system of sexual exploitation. Members need to be aware that children in their churches and communities could be manipulated into the system of sexual exploitation. Prevention begins with a caring family and a nurturing congregation. It includes protecting children from abuse in their families and providing them safe and stable homes. Prevention involves teaching young persons about their marvelous bodies and how to set boundaries that others should not cross. Congregations have a role in assisting parents in talking with their children about sex. Our church’s social ministry organizations  may be a source for parental training and counseling with families and children, or provide help in addressing problems of compulsive sexual behavior. Parents, congregations, and day schools have a responsibility to make young persons aware in appropriate ways of the dangers posed by those who seek to entice them into the system of sexual exploitation. Young people need to be taught how to be as "wise as serpents" (Matthew 10:16). The work of individuals, congregations, and groups for prevention is strategic for addressing the danger. 
Address the demand for what the system of sexual exploitation offers. One way for congregations to address the demand stimulated by the sex industry is to provide safe settings for men, women, and youth to talk about their attitudes toward and struggles with prostitution, pornography, stripping, and appropriate uses of the Internet. In such settings they could explore together what makes them vulnerable to the lure of these activities, the false euphoria of a "sex high," and the significance of loving and enduring relationships. Uncommon as such conversations may be in congregations, they are vital if the baptized are going to find support in the Church to resist our culture’s ready acceptance of these practices. The Church Council urges congregations and men’s, women’s, and youth organizations to be pioneers in creating possibilities for this discussion to occur. 
Explore the law’s role. Government has a God-given function to protect all persons from criminal acts through just laws. Strong and fairly enforced laws intended to punish those who sexually exploit youth for commercial reasons are valuable instruments to hold these exploiters accountable and to ensure that there are consequences for their activity. Federal and state laws against child prostitution, child pornography, pimping, sex tourism, and sex trafficking need to be vigorously enforced. Local ordinances can be an effective way to regulate "adult entertainment" establishments. State and city laws related to the system of sexual exploitation vary and often are difficult to enforce. Inquire about the legal situation in your locale, consider joining with advocacy organizations that address the issue, and support law enforcement agencies when they constitutionally pursue and prosecute predators. Investigate whether laws that target customers of prostitution and publicize their names in newspapers or post their pictures on the Web deter prostitution. Study whether the law provides for treatment programs for prostitutes and their clients in place of punishment, and ask about the effectiveness of such programs. This church’s state public policy offices are important resources for members in their efforts to make laws instruments to protect vulnerable persons. 
Examine spending and investments. Major corporations may profit from cable television pornographic networks, the availability of pornographic videos in hotel chains, and other products of the sex industry. After study of the relevant data, members may find themselves compelled to boycott or to divest from corporations whose earnings come from making, selling, or promoting these products.
Support social agencies that work with youth and adults who are in prostitution. Some agencies work with homeless youth to keep them from becoming trapped in the system of sexual exploitation; some offer a shower and a friendly hug to youth and women who sell sex to say that someone cares for them as persons; some provide support and a program for those who want to leave prostitution; and some advocate for shelter, health care, child care, and job training so that women and youth who live in poverty may have new opportunities for a different future. Congregations are encouraged to discover what social agencies offer in their communities and learn from and support them. Lutheran social ministry organizations are helpful resources for this search.
Curb sex trafficking. Because the grim realities of sex trafficking in distant lands and hidden places are all too easy for us to forget, the media have an indispensable, long-term duty to keep this contemporary form of slavery before us. The Church Council encourages synods and congregations to shed light on sex trafficking by learning from churches with whom they have a companion synod relationship or from ELCA missionaries serving in areas in which sex trafficking is active. This church supports international agreements and national laws to stop sex trafficking and calls for the will and the resources to enforce them. Because women and children who have been trafficked into the United States are victims of human rights violations, they should be given legal protection when they are discovered by authorities, rather than deported or detained.  This church supports Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Lutheran World Relief in their efforts to assist these victims in the United States and other parts of the world. 
We tell of our new life in Christ when our congregations welcome in worship and befriend all whom Jesus defended when he said, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). We do so when we offer hope in Christ to persons who have no hope, forgiveness to those who only know judgment. We do so when we pray for those who suffer because they are exploited, and, yes, for those who exploit others. We do so when God’s love sustains us when the task seems overwhelming. We make Christ known when we proclaim that the powers of this age ultimately have been defeated because "the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia."
Copyright © 2001 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Produced by the Department for Studies of the Division for Church in Society, 8765 West Higgins Road, Chicago, Illinois, 60631-4190. Permission is granted to reproduce this document as needed providing each copy displays the copyright as printed above. Scriptural quotations from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible are copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America and are used by permission. ISBN 6-0001-6286-3