Exploitation is a broad term that can take on many forms. We see it every day, whether it be in the blatant form of child and adult prostitution that we discuss as a part of the anti human-trafficking campaign, or manifested in emotional manipulation that takes place among human beings. Exploitation of others is a part of our lives, through and through.
It is so ubiquitous that we may not even notice when we come across it. We may not even be able to identify it.
I recently came across almost-nude photos of a well-known and well-celebrated celebrity. This woman was pictured posing for a magazine marketed to men. The photos, I noticed, were focused almost entirely on the elements of her body and her lingerie. Very little creative license was taken with her hair and makeup. It was almost as if the photographer had assumed that nobody would be looking at her face. Perhaps he or she was right, for the majority. However, I was looking at her face, and I felt deeply sad.
I remember a similar feeling when I was in the red light district of Bangkok, Thailand. I remember talking to a woman in particular. For the sake of this entry, her name is Hollywood because that was the name of the bar she was keeping.
I remember talking to Hollywood about her life. She spoke in extremely broken English but she was excited to practice with me. She told me about all of her experiences traveling with her ‘boyfriend.’ She told me about how he sends her money and she buys things. She told me about how she travels with him. What she didn’t have to tell me is what I already knew. I knew that her boyfriend was a Westerner that came into town only periodically and paid her for sex and took her on vacation. I knew that he bought her gifts and made her feel special, and sent her money that she in turn sent back to her family in the rural province. I knew that she called herself ‘girlfriend’ but in reality she was a paid employee. I knew this because I had heard other stories like hers.
Hollywood’s face was beautiful. She was delicate and smiling and effusive. However, when she thought I wasn’t looking her eyes became shifty and the smile faltered. I could see that the smile did not reach her eyes.
I could see the same look in the eyes of the celebrity posing naked for all the world to see. The exploitation that pays millions of dollars in American pop culture is the same haunting exploitation that causes girls like Hollywood to try to smile through desperate circumstances.
Society tempts us to use a very narrow definition of exploitation — we assume it only exists in the context of those who have been kidnapped or forced into performing sex acts. In my experience, the heart of it in America lies within the people who feel like they are so worthless that their body can be traded for a few dollars. For a few compliments. For a few photographs. These are the throwaway children. The lost and forgotten teenagers. The brokenhearted twenty-somethings. Yes, even the troubled celebrities.
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
It is imperative to remember, as we continue in the fight against slavery and exploitation, that the least of these does refer only to those who are in need of food and shelter. The heart of God calls out to those who are hurting. Hurt manifests in all kinds of ways and affects all kinds of people – from the exploited child to the affluent celebrity.
When the heart of God calls out to those who are hurting, who will be there to answer?
Might it be you?
Brooke M. Birkey
www.aoneeight.org – A Mission is a Movement