How was The Defenders USA started, and who runs it?
In the spring of 2006 a handful of men were attending a series of meetings on human trafficking. The group was led by Vern Smith, husband of Shared Hope International founder, Linda Smith. These men had spent the day listening to numerous presentations by undercover officers, FBI, Homeland Security and others. Shared Hope had been commissioned to co-host the U.S. Mid-Term Review on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) in America. The data presented on the subject was staggering, but the tipping point for the men was witnessing via hidden camera the actual sale of a 15 -year old girl for $400…and it wasn’t in some exotic foreign land. It was in Atlanta! This experience was the genesis for The Defenders USA. These men looked at each other and determined that it was imperative to impede demand by defending and protecting all men’s daughters. The Defenders USA is a national project run by Shared Hope International. As of this May, I’ve taken over as the National Coordinator for the Defender Project.
What is the concept behind the Defenders?
The concept behind the Defenders is relatively simple: since men create the demand for prostituted children, better men have to stop it. Practically speaking, this means mobilizing men across the country that are committed to personal integrity. This is manifested in a refusal to patronize the commercial sex industry (in any of its forms) because this is the primary force driving demand. Being a Defender also means being informed about the many factors surrounding this issue. And finally, it means being purposefully engaged in the fight to protect innocence on the local, state and national levels. Currently we have just over 1000 members across the nation.
What is the Truck Stop Campaign and in your mind, has it been effective?
Truck Stop Campaigns are simple, respectful demonstrations designed to draw the public’s attention to one of the most common trafficking markets. Research has shown that the interstate highway systems are the conduit for the flow of trafficked kids. Truck stops are among the easiest and most profitable places for pimps to do business. The campaigns have done a great job of drawing the public’s attention to this reality. And I think it's also given the truck stop owners and trucking companies that oppose trafficking a voice too.
What is The Defenders Ride?
The Defenders Ride is a new concept. Like the Truck Stop Campaign, our goal is to make noise and draw attention. But unlike the truck stops, this is a moving protest that follows known trafficking routes. Our first ride is July 10. We’ll travel Interstate 5 from Portland to Seattle. Our hope is to have a couple hundred riders from all walks of life. A local Harley Davidson dealership and a couple local businesses have partnered with us and we’ve also been given a semi truck to serve as our lead vehicle; a 50 foot rolling billboard that will carry a simple sign: “Kids are NOT for sale!”
Are there other Defenders activities that men can get involved in?
The short answer to this question is “yes.” Over the course of this summer, the Defenders USA will be rolling out a tool box of activities and initiatives that can be scaled and tailored to specific regions and cities. This will include the resources already available for the truck stop campaign as well as Defenders Rides, sponsoring events like triathlons and 10k runs and even materials and directions for hosting tailgate parties at sporting events. In addition to public awareness activities, we’re developing a mobile web and social media strategy that will further support and enhance communication and provide an efficient way to keep men current on what’s happening locally, and nationally.
Why do you think that sex trafficking is as prevalent as it is?
My answer is simple but not easy; I think the prevalence of sex trafficking is due to an inherent moral weakness common to every man combined with what one research study calls a “pornified culture.” It's a perfect storm of variables that’s creating and sustaining this problem; in America we now have generations of men (all of whom are flawed and vulnerable) that have been raised in a society that has seen an ever-increasing toleration for unrestrained sexual expression in the name of “freedom.” The sick irony is that the pursuit of that freedom for some is leading to the enslavement of others…at least 100,000 children each year according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
What do you think are the biggest problems facing the anti-human trafficking movement?
One problem is ignorance. So many men I talk to have no idea how big and how close this problem is. We tend to think the problem exists in far away, exotic places like Thailand. It does happen there and that’s tragic enough, but so many of the men I’m talking to have no idea its happening in their own cities. Linda Smith’s book “Renting Lacy,” opened my eyes to this reality.
Another problem is indifference. Sad to say, a lot of people don’t care. And the current cultural language surrounding this issue perpetuates the indifference. The word “prostitute” conveys the idea of willing participation in an immoral act. And even when you call someone a “child-prostitute,” the stigma remains. If you followed the recent arrest of NFL Hall of Fame player Lawrence Taylor you’ll see what I mean. Calling anyone a prostitute criminalizes that person, but how can you call a 12 year old girl, who is forcibly raped and beaten by her pimp and then turned out on the street to sell her body for sex, a “criminal?” She’s a victim and we have to change our understanding and language in order for things to change. The best term I’ve heard to describe these kids is “prostituted child.” It puts the blame where it belongs; on the buyer and seller and preserves the dignity of the victim.
I also think the prevalence of trafficking is due to the commercial sex industry. Globally, porn is a 97 billion dollar annual business that respects no border and is largely unregulated in any sense. And it's just a click away 24 hours a day.
What can men do within their own communities to fight sex trafficking?
Seriously, I would say join us! Join the Defenders USA movement. Be a man who is committed, informed and engaged. There are dozens if not hundreds of great organizations around the country that are working on the rescue and restoration of women and children, but few are focused (as we are) on the demand side of the equation. I mentioned earlier that at least 100,000 kids are caught up in this mess each year. Our goal is to mobilize at least 100,000 men between now and the end of 2012; that’s one Defender for every child. I don’t think we will have solved the problem by then, but 100,000 committed, informed and engaged men could probably do some serious damage…to the pimping business that is.