Christian Conservatives Seek to “Restore” Women

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Christian Conservatives Seek to “Restore” Women

Kathryn Joyce

A leading figure in the Christian right anti-trafficking establishment, Linda Smith embodies the tensions between feminists and religious right activists working on this issue.

A recent issue of Focus on the Family’s Citizen
magazine highlights the anti-sex trafficking work of Linda Smith, who
says she has "spent 10 years of [her] life restoring little girls and
young women who have been in the commercial sex industry." If Smith’s
terminology, "restore," gives you the willies considering the subject
matter — evoking not just new "virginal restoration" services being bought everywhere from Hollywood to Muslim communities in Europe,
but also the more general sense of the word, as repairing a broken or
used object, applied to women — there’s more to be find suspect in Focus
on the Family’s praise for Smith, a leading figure in the Christian
right anti-trafficking establishment who embodies a lot of the tensions
in the alliance between feminists and religious right activists working on the issue.

Linda Smith,
a two-term Congressional representative from Washington state, who
broke into the House on a grassroots, Christian, write-in campaign, had
a 100% positive rating from the Christian Coalition
for her staunchly conservative anti-abortion politics, and was profiled
in 1995 under the title "Invasion of the Church Ladies" by Hanna Rosin
for The New Republic, as part of a class of female
representatives-Smith’s opponents dubbed her the "Hazel Dell
Housewife"-going to war in D.C. for traditional values. After a failed
Senate bid in 1998, Smith retired from political life-in a way-to begin
work on an anti-sex trafficking organization she founded, Shared Hope International, and which she considers her Christian "ministry," though she’s cagily told supporters, "If I ever advertised as a Christian, I can’t do the work I do."

Smith hasn’t quite left Washington though, appearing in congressional hearings in 2002 to testify
about her newfound convictions on sex trafficking, and continuing to
lead national campaigns on the issue, along with three other groups,
including two other religious groups, that make up the War Against Trafficking Alliance,
an advocacy organization that provides trainings for governments and
NGOs with support from the Depts. of Justice and State. In Smith’s own
SHI, she works to "restore" women who have been removed from
prostitution in a series of Christian-oriented and staffed "Houses of
Hope" that combine shelter from sex traffickers and pimps and a halfway
house work model: having the women work in bakeries and other small
businesses. In interviews with the Seattle Times
several years ago, Smith was vague about the houses’ locations,
occupancy rates and business opportunities, preferring to linger on
details of the financial aid she and her husband bestowed on individual
rescued-and-restored women. Several "Houses of Hope" are now listed on
SHI’s website.

Smith’s focus, which is shared by a number of colleagues on the
religious right, who have made the issue a favored evangelical cause in
recent years, is criticized by groups with a broader trafficking focus, who charge that the focus on "sex slavery" erases the less sexy issue of plain labor trafficking and slavery,
with workers forced into indentured servitude-like situations in
factories and fields, as well as by sex-worker advocacy groups who
complain that the sweeping targets of anti-sex trafficking work
includes women who choose sex work willingly and prioritizes
criminalizing all sex work-and demanding that NGOs that help sex
workers condemn those sex workers in exchange for aid money-over helping ensure better working conditions for the women who engage in it.

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This much seems clear from Smith’s testimony to Congress in 2002, where
she argued the absolutist position that countries with legalized or
tolerated prostitution provide "cover for the traffickers," and should
be considered part of the problem. "I encourage the administration to
consider countries with legalized or tolerated prostitution as having
laws that are insufficient to eliminate trafficking," she told the
congressional subcommittee, seeming to argue for an ever-murkier line
between any sex work and slavery. In this, Smith seems to agree with
feminist anti-prostitution purists who argue that there’s no
substantive difference between prostitution and "sex slave"
trafficking: a rare instance of orthodox feminist theory making it into
the mainstream, albeit on the shoulders of the Christian right.

It’s a tricky divide, as Smith’s newest campaign, an investigation on "domestic minor sex trafficking,"
aims to expand the definition of sex trafficking for good purpose:
relabeling the prostitution of U.S. children as domestic sex
trafficking so that the children will be eligible for the same
protections that foreign-born tracking victims are (brought to social
services instead of being arrested as prostitutes). It’s an admirable
goal to enact a commonsense fix, but, as for Smith’s broader goals, as
with other strange bedfellows coalitions, it’s worth remembering that
Christian right muscle doesn’t come without an orthodox price.

Linda Smith appears on the Christian women’s television talk show, Everyday Woman, to offer her take on anti-trafficking work.

This piece first appeared on Religion Dispatches.

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