What is your favorite memory of the trip?
One of the most powerful moments was the Men Standing Against Trafficking Vigil. The first reason it stood out was because of those gathered. The men who came together on Friday nights were ordinary members of the community who wanted to raise awareness. During the week, we met representatives of both governmental organizations and NGOs. I appreciated the ‘grassroots’ feel of this activity because it reinforced the idea that anyone with passion can make a difference.
What shook me the most, however, were the conversations that we had during the vigil. We stood on the corner of a track (an area or street known for prostitution activity). As we walked down the street to set up, members of the organization suggested that we stay away from a particular corner, since that was where the pimps ‘hung out’. We arrived at an intersection and held various posters that proclaimed “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” or “End Human Trafficking.” A handful of us were approached by men from the neighborhood.
The first time this happened, I was terrified. Two men walked towards the corner where I was standing with a friend and two members of the organization. One of them was particularly interested in the signs we were holding and stumbled over to us. His speech was slurred and his breath smelled heavily of liquor. He occasionally reached into his pocket which immediately put me on the defensive. I was on edge, trying my best to act cool but stay vigilant. As his conversation with my peer progressed, however, I felt more inclined to listen and to try to understand his perspective. He viewed sex trafficking as a business interaction, where women wanted to perform sex acts in order to buy nice things. In terms of pimps, he viewed them as inferior because anyone who had to “beat a bitch was a pussy.” This was interesting to me because, when presented positively in popular culture, pimps are seen as ultra-masculine in their ability to work and domesticate many women. For this man, however, the opposite was true. ‘Pimping’ was an act of cowardice and impotence.
The second person we talked to seemed warm and engaging. I learned later that he was a pimp. Looking back on the interaction, however, I can see how I might have misjudged the situation. He approached me and a member of the organization, asking us basic questions such as, What is this vigil for? He asked us how long we were going to be around for and if we would be protesting the same trade. He left by telling us that we were “doing a good thing.” I read the entire interaction as pleasant but noticed that the man I was standing with was tense. His reading: “He was sizing us up, seeing if we are going to stay on his turf”.
The last conversation we had might have been one of the most meaningful. We started talking to a young man, possibly homeless, who disagreed with our methods. When discussing sex trafficking, we learned that he also viewed it not as a crime, but as a business: “They’re doing a good thing, making these guys happy.” When we got deeper into it, however, we learned about his perspective on volunteer work. He saw charities and churches as unstable and unreliable, never keeping their commitments. He saw volunteers as working to be seen rather than to make an enduring difference in neighborhoods marked by stubborn problems like unemployment, racism, the drug trade, and lack of affordable housing. He also saw our vigil as dehumanizing. He didn’t see compassionate faces. Instead, he saw strangers that had never been in the life, privileged outsiders judging others’ means of survival. And he wasn’t alone. Girls that drove by us, clearly in the life, honked and cussed at us. And why wouldn’t they? When we asked what we could do better, the young man urged us to be caring: “Ask, ‘hey, how are you? What can I do?’ Just talk to people”.
This experience was the most meaningful to me because it was real. It was dissonant and instructive and humbling. Throughout the week, we met with officials and representatives of organizations who shared our opinions. Our conversations were filled with intellectual jargon which didn’t fully convey the experiences of real people struggling to get by. Hearing opposing views, although sometimes jarring, was important to me. These were the kinds of conversations that steer us towards learning to work with people as they struggle rather than to impose our own ideas about how they should live their lives.