Minding the gap: understanding the inequality of consumerism and sex trafficking

My husband Jay and I are currently in Europe making a documentary about legalization of prostitution, its connection to human trafficking, and preventative models that reduce sexual exploitation. Last week we were on the subway in Vienna. At every stop they would announce the location, along with other information in German. One brief English announcement was uttered at the very end as passengers prepared to debark:

“Mind the gap.”

This of course referred to the gap between the subway car and the platform, a looming dark abyss I was horrified by as a child. If I am to be honest, it still sends a slight chill down my spine. What if I trip and my foot gets caught? What if I drop something important? What if I get hurt?  Or left behind?

Mind the gap.

Here in Europe, as everywhere else, there is gross income inequality between regions. Borders become virtually non-existent as countries join the European Union. We have travelled between many countries and have never been checked at a border. Commerce and travel can happen more easily. So can the trafficking of humans, a flow from poor to wealthy areas. The bigger the gap between the rich and the poor, the more opportunities there are for exploitation.

One night we visited the Prater, an area of Vienna where many sex trafficking victims end up. The women are scattered along the street, categorized by country. The Hungarian girls have one section, the Romanians another, followed by the Nigerians. Their pimps can be seen on the other side of the street, sitting in warm cars to keep an eye on their “property.” We arrived quite early in the night and saw streams of girls being dropped off by their pimps and walking to their spot on the road. There was a parking garage in the middle of the area, where men pull into once an agreement has been made. One block over there was a line of guys at an ATM machine. Business increases when conferences come to town, as the big convention centre is right next to this area. It’s sickening.

As Brian McConaghy from Ratanak International once told us, when you have money, de facto you have power. This principle rings true in Canada just as it does in Europe. Most of the time, the way we spend our money speaks louder than our words. The trafficking industry would not be lucrative if men were not spending their money to rent human flesh.

But the rest of us are not off the hook either. We all contribute to the vulnerability or empowerment of others. The way we live our lives either promotes or undermines income equality, which has implications for those around us. For example, in some circles in Canada it is normal for one person to own several houses. This raises the cost of houses left on the market, making it more difficult for other families to afford a house. This also puts less people in control of the rental market, making it more difficult for lower income families to afford rent. Do you own more than one house? If so, is your primary motive profit, or are you using it to intentionally bless others?  In countries where individualism trumps all, we seldom think about how our seemingly insignificant actions affect society as a whole.

Here we’ve learned that exported consumerism can be lethal.  Marketing firms and companies are masters at manufacturing need, making people feel that something lacks in their life if they do not purchase a certain product. The message of consumerism is reaching the televisions and newspapers of small remote towns in impoverished countries, where young people fall for it in a similar fashion as the rest of us do. In those rare cases where life happens to be manageable in these rural areas, the lure of “more stuff” entices young women to take opportunities that are risky, dangerous, and potentially fatal. Yet in the West we celebrate consumerism, worship it even. As Christ-followers, we must consider the impact our consumer habits have on others. I often ask myself whether someone would consider me “salt” and “light” if they could only look at what I had spent my money on that month.

Do our actions promote equality, or suppress it? Are we increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, or are we taking steps to provide more opportunities to others? Our answer to these questions is a litmus test of how serious we are about ending exploitation.

At the subway station, it is extremely rare for someone to get stuck in the gap between the metro and the platform. My fear of falling in is quite silly, really. But outside the station, real lives hang in the balance of both the individual and collective decisions we make. Let’s get proactive about thinking about the well-being of others.

Let’s mind the gap.

Michelle and her husband Jay run a not-for-profit organization called Hope for the Sold that aims to educate and fight against sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. They are currently traveling in Europe to shoot their second documentary on the subject, and you can watch their first documentary ENSLAVED AND EXPLOITED: The Story of Sex Trafficking in Canada here.

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