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How Exodus Cry reinvented the white slavery moral panic for a modern age
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Benjamin Nolot is a hero valiantly fighting against moral rot—at least according to Benjamin Nolot. The founder of Exodus Cry believes that pornography is corrupting our values, eroding male and female virtue, and putting young people in danger. In 2020, Exodus Cry launched Traffickinghub, a campaign to shut down Pornhub based on the claim that the website facilitates sex trafficking
Nolot is wrong though. The real danger is not from pornography, but from Nolot and evangelical Christians like him. Nolot is using Traffickinghub to impose his ideology on men, women, queer people, and sex workers. His lurid fantasies of sin, salvation, and punishment do more damage than consensual pornography, however kinky, ever could.
Nolot Finds Truth in a Brothel
Every heroic savior has an origin story these days, and Nolot is no different. At the SHIFT Freedom “Broken to Life” Conference Nolot claimed he learned about sex trafficking by touring brothels in the Philippines. There, Nolot saw a white man try to “buy a child for sex.” Nolot chased the man down, presumably with scenes from the TV show 24 flashing through his head. He caught him, and told him never to come back.
Then Nolot says he started wondering, “What kind of society is producing so many men willing to buy a woman or child for sex?”
His conclusion: “The kind of society that is producing so many men willing to buy a woman or child for sex is a pornographic culture.”
“Here’s what I mean when I say a pornographic culture,” Nolot says. “I’m talking about a culture that casts men as sexual predators. That casts women as sexual objects. And that casts sex as a meaningless, recreational act.”
But pornography doesn’t cast men as sexual predators, women as sexual objects, or sex as a meaningless, recreational act. It’s evangelical Christianity that has pushed the narrative that men are sexual predators and women are sexual objects. And it’s evangelical Christianity that frames sex as dangerous, sinful, and disempowering.
Nolot traces what he sees as the dangerous pornification of culture back to Hugh Hefner and Playboy. With his smoking jacket and harem of women, Hefner according to Nolot, “ presented a new way of being a man in the world. One that is entitled to women.”
Evangelicals have an entitlement problem
There’s some truth to the criticism of Hefner. But Nolot fails to acknowledge that evangelical Christians too believe men are entitled to women, and often in more violent ways than anything Hefnger advocated. In 1961, for example, pop star Pat Boone spoke at an evangelical conference and declared “I would rather see my four girls shot and die as little girls who have faith in God than leave them to die some years later as godless, faithless, soulless Communists.” If Hefner thought he was entitled to sex from women, Boone thought he was entitled to murder them if they rejected his religious beliefs.
Nolot also blames Hugh Hefner for objectifying women and selling sexuality. Hefner, according to Nolot, “developed a business model that proved to be very successful at generating money by using the objectified female body.” Ignoring the long history of pornography before the 1960s, Nolot credits Hefner with creating the idea that “to have value as a woman is to objectify your sexuality and to gain sex appeal.”
Evangelicals Have a Sex Problem
While Playboy might have overstated the liberatory power of posing nude, evangelicism doesn’t even hint at female liberation. Instead, purity culture teaches that men should control women’s sexual behavior. Being viewed nude might or might not involve objectification. But having your sexuality policed and controlled certainly does.
Evangelicals, for example, tell girls that being a virgin when you marry will make your life, your wedding, and your marriage worse.
“In one particularly pernicious ritual, youth pastors would show Christian teenagers two pennies, one brand new and others that had been in circulation,” Conservative writer David French writes. “The brand new penny was ‘pure.’ The dirty pennies were ‘handled,’ and the more they were ‘handled,’ the dirtier they became.” Other churches use roses without petals, cups of water that have been spat in, or chewed gum. Girls are literally encouraged to think of themselves not as people, but as spoiled objects or things.
Purity culture also involves “purity balls” where pre-pubescent girls sign pledges to their fathers promising to abstain from sex until marriage. They wear purity rings to symbolize girls’ commitment to abstain from sex until marriage.
Purity culture saddles women and young girls with responsibility for gatekeeping sexual purity and protecting men from lustful thoughts and temptation. What it means to be a woman in purity culture is to say no to men and conform to constantly-changing, inherently subjective, strict “modesty” in dress.
Evangelicals invent a moral panic
The majority of Americans don’t see pornography as an existential danger. So to push legislators to regulate and restrict depictions of nudity and sexuality frowned on by evangelical churches, Nolot has had to improvise. Through Exodus Cry and organizations like it, Nolot and other evangelicals have argued that porn is leading to a surge of human trafficking.
The first problem with this claim is that it’s not true.
Nolot greatly exaggerates the prevalence of and demand for sex trafficking. He claims that sex trafficking is a $150b industry. But $150b is the ILO estimate of the worth of human trafficking as a whole, not sex trafficking. And only 19% of human trafficking victims are trafficked for sex; the rest are laboring in industries like farming, fishing, and domestic labor.
Traffickinghub figurehead Laila Mickelwait claims porn is a root cause of sex trafficking. In reality, as the availability of online porn has skyrocketed, both violence against women and the purchase of sex has fallen. Rape dropped 55% between 1994 and 2014. Only around 12% of American men have ever paid for sex and that number is dropping.
Nolot, Micklewait, and Traffickinghub claim that pornography is driving a boom in commercial sex trafficking. But there’s no credible evidence of a boom in commercial sex trafficking in the United States or to suggest more American men are going abroad to partake in commercial sex trafficking. For instance, the Polaris Project’s claims for an increase in trafficking are based on unverified calls to a trafficking hotline.
In fact, studies show watching porn is actually associated with greater arousal for and sexual interest in an existing partner. While you can find problematic material on Pornhub, the vast majority of mainstream porn isn’t violent or aggressive. Rather than creating a public health crisis, the profileration of online pornography has coincided with a massive decrease in sexual violence against women and teen pregnancy rates.
Evangelicals need to look in the mirror
If there’s a real sex abuse emergency, it’s not in porn, but in the American Evangelical movement. Evangelical purity culture and cultures where sexual abuse is common have many troubling overlaps, including gender essentialism, rigid gender hiearchies, and rigidly enforced gender roles. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that new sex abuse scandals involving evangelical leaders come to light with frightening regularity. For example, reporters recently revealed that leaders of one of America’s largest Christian camps knew parents had accused a prominent spokesman of raping multiple children but covered up the abuse rather than fire him. Dozens of children claim Bill Gothard, head of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, sexually assaulted them. Time and again evangelical leaders respond to sexual abuse allegations with denials and cover-ups.
If Hugh Hefner taught that sex is a meaningless, recreational act, evangelism did one better by teaching that rape is a meaningless, recreational act, not worth acknowledging or investigating, much less punishing.
It’s time for evangelicals to stop inventing a moral panic so they can smear pornography. If the actual goal is preventing sexual abuse of women then they need to move away from misogynistic, narrow-minded ideas about sex and gender and to actually hold their leaders accountable for their behavior.