AMERICAN BROTHEL: A Male Perspective on Toxic Masculinity and The Sex Trade
By Daniel V / Founder of The Priceless MVMT
This is not a law enforcement issue. This is a social problem.
These words are from an individual I’ve never met, yet strike me to my core. This powerful truth, delivered by Bjorn Sellstrom, head of the INTERPOL Crimes Against Children unit in Lyon, France, speaks to the global reach of the underlying ideologies that fuel the global sex trade (Swarens, 2018).
Let that one word resonate: global. Human trafficking, and specifically sex-trafficking, is not a only a Third World issue; it is not only limited to the impoverished, the slums. It lives beyond the more well-known influences of crime syndicates and underground organizations, or the recruiters who target hotels and resorts where young tourists frequent. It is far more hidden and camouflaged than the broad daylight abductions and gritty, cinematic rescues glamorized in films. There are not always obvious villains; nor relentless heroes. The roots of trafficking slumber deep within a realm that is often overlooked; not because it is well-hidden, but quite the contrary; because it is so very blatant, and therefore maintains a powerful and deadly element: normalization.
“We live in a society in which sexual violence towards women has been normalized. As with other types of sexual violence, conversations surrounding sex trafficking also tend to focus on the culpability of the victims” (Swarens, 2018).
The film accompanying this blog contains the haunting song, “Fall In Line”, while blatantly entering in audio from a human trafficking news report and stunning shots of some of the most notable locations of Los Angeles. As a Movement, we seek to be clear about two challenging truths; first, sex-trafficking exists in the U.S., with Los Angeles being one of the ten worst locations for child sex-trafficking in the U.S., along with San Diego and San Francisco (Lillie, 2013). Second, it exists in part due to the ideologies and belief systems surrounding men and women in U.S. culture. One might find it odd that the dancers in the film are clearly being portrayed as exotic or stage dancers in a brothel setting, but are not chaperoned by goons or visibly forced in any way. We sought this effect to capture the foremost element of exploitation itself; which is the truth that, above all, this slavery is a mental slavery. Even traffickers will admit, even boast, that they target the mental breakdown of a victim (Fonrouge, 2018).
It would be safe to hide behind statistics that will shock and awe you; anger you at the cruel injustice; ignite you to reponse. Truthfully enough, I have delivered talks and produced awareness content that has yielded these exact responses--and while not to negate the importance of them, I am a firm believer that nothing speaks of change and the required foundations to create it like first-hand experience. The accounts, stories, and heart-wrenching, brave breaking of the silence of victims of exploitation is pinnacle to the understanding of, and response to, this monstrous issue. Yet, there is another side that is often unseen; and that is the story of the victimizer.
I have heard them called monsters, abusers; and I have always stood at a divide, my heart torn in two as I have been friends with, worked alongside, and shared life with men who spoke of, approached, and related to women in the most hateful and toxic of ways. I used to judge them. I’d sit and watch their disgusting sneer and their putrid laugh as they made abhorrent remarks about the waitress delivering our drinks; or recalled, in the most grotesque form, a sexual encounter from the night before. I grew to hate these men; their language; their actions. As I grew older, though, I saw myself beginning to transform into one of these “monsters.” The reason it happens? Fear of women, and a silent, lethal shame that emerges from the ideology that, if we do not meet certain (and notably, very toxic) standards of being a “man”, we will wilt away as mere nothings; overlooked, undesirable, and detested by the women of the world.
I began to learn, in my mid-to-late teens and early 20s, the lessons of becoming a “man.” You needed to have sex, and lots of it. “Nice guys finish last,” and women wanted a “bad boy.” The basic rule: Send mixed signals and capture her emotions and you can easily get sex from her. It’s also fully permissible to have a “side” or “alternate” girl, because let’s be honest; you pushing her, or any of them, away will only make them want you more. Repeat this on a number of girls ready to succumb to you on a whim, toss in the ever-potent influence of money and high-end possessions (capitalizing on the dehumanizing idea that women are simply “gold diggers” who are solely interested in monetary gain) and you have mastered the art of “pimping” (the incongruity being that this is not actual “pimping” at all, which is a truthfully a practice rooted in crime, violence, exploitation, and the actual monetary sale and purchase of human beings for sex).
Necessary precautions: Emotions, long term commitment, and chivalry are not tools that put you ahead in the “race” of masculinity. Don’t get “friend-zoned,” because friends go on shopping trips at the mall, buddy, not to the bedroom. I mean, honestly, neither of you are here to really admit you actually care for one another, right? She, quite likely, because she fears her vulnerability will scare you off--and rightfully so, because you’re a “man,” correct? You can’t actually have her liking you in any long-term fashion, because that would dismantle your “game.” So keep it friends, or toss some “benefits” in there to make it more interesting. However you handle it, rest assured of this: You’ve both been extremely successful in perpetuating the same ideologies and lifestyles that are feeding the survival of a lack of gender communication and expression, and therefore, are offering toxic masculinity a rather comfortable breeding ground.
Oh well, “bro.” You don’t care. You don’t feel, right? WE don’t feel, correct? We aren’t catching feelings over the small dramas (like the exchange of emotions, or sex, between an individual of the opposite sex, which only involves elements of our most fundamental genetic and spiritual design. Clearly not an issue to make a scene about.) All of this feeds a centralized idea that in any regard of life, the pinnacle creed of a “man” is to maintain that “manly” image. We find the toxicity of it all present in the language and narratives of our modern media, politics, religions, social standards, and beyond. We, as “men”, must prioritize this image over anything at any cost, and should we fail to, then we fail to fulfill our identity as a “man.”
As a certain saying so disturbingly, but effectively, does service to capturing the mindset, it returns me to the context in which it was used. “Bros over hoes!” we’d shout, mixed with a night of partying, alcohol, one night stands, and no apologies. What we were truly saying was “pride over emotion,” “peer acceptance over human respect,” “me over you.” Such are base level ideologies that could be traced as foundations of some of the most cruel, unjust, and inhumane periods in human history. Yet we’re just “boys being boys”; living it up--and laughing it up.
Yet I remember it distinctly; I wasn’t laughing. Inside, this culture and its pressure were digging a deep blade into my soul. I didn’t want to be part of it at heart level, but reasoned that I must at a mind level. The number of times I slept with women in one night stand encounters could be counted on one hand. Honestly, even now, part of me still feels pressure to be ashamed of that, as though I’ve “underperformed.” I never had the “guts” to really even approach women; and sleeping with them randomly just never set well with me. I often found myself consoling the girl whose boyfriend had left her at the party, or who was in an abusive relationship. I often found myself the “friend,” not the “wild lover.” I felt many things, but never once “like a man.”
I felt displaced; alone; and most of all, weak. What could I be if the one role I was supposed to fulfill was one that I simply couldn't measure up to? I remember names I was called by my so-called “friends,” and their taunts when I didn’t want to go to the strip club, or take advantage of a inebriated girl at a party. I don’t need to repeat those names to assure you that many of the scars of them still live on my heart. I remember sleepless nights of anxiety, fear of abandonment, damaged and ended relationships at the hands of my perceived failure to reach the demands of the toxic culture that required me to take part in actions and choices I simply did not believe in.
I was raised by a beautiful woman who taught me that sex is sacred, women are worthy of love and respect, and that commitment is a beautiful choice. Yet, more and more, I was surrounded by a world full of cultural messages, driven by media and peer influence, that made these truths seem more and more illegitimate. The illegitimacy of these beliefs and the shame of thinking myself different took its toll; and for a number of years, I wore a convincing mask of stoic pride and control while self-loathing and doubt lingered beneath the surface. The darkest of those years saw me playing the role; in time, I compromised, and soon I was out with “the boys” at the strip clubs; frequenting the parties to find hook-ups; using expletives to refer to women, viewing pornography, laboring to surround myself with the prettiest girls, letting them serve as trophies to the social illusion that I was-- finally-- “one of the real men.” I spent many years of my life thinking, “This is who I have to be; how I have to behave if I want to be valued and desired by women; I have to be a man; this is just the way the world works.” What’s the true enslavement? You don’t talk about it; you don't question it; you promptly learn to shut the hell up and accept; to “fall in line” with the twisted, patriarchal methodologies of toxic masculinity. For what else would you do? God forbid you resist this towering paradigm and receive the barrage of shame, the hatred, the verbal, and potentially even physical, abuse that may come with challenging these demigods of human culture. The joint tragedy is that while you are bound as a man, the women you interact with are as well. They also “fall in line” to your toxic behaviors, which violently tears into their own confidence, self-worth, and development. It is not incorrect to say we were different shackles, yet, for many men and women, I have come to believe we are trapped in similar prisons. Prisons of a cultural Hierarchy that few dare to even define, let alone challenge. Toxic masculinity is only one of the perverted offspring of this Hierarchy, and thus, we all are at risk of falling victim to it.
I watched my anger toward and hatred for women who I felt still did not accept me begin to become overbearing. My disgust for men that demanded expectations of me began to build higher. My loathing for myself started to boil over. I watched as my glass castle of pride and pretending fell, and hitting rock bottom became a blessing; which led me to turn from the fast, party life. My late 20’s brought changes in my life. I found trust for the first time in my life, or it found me--and I located different communities to be part of. I was able to be distanced from much of the toxicity that had once permeated my daily life. Nevertheless, while always struggling with a deep-seated inferiority in myself, I also never felt a resolution for all of the men, and women, I had known who had been a part of that toxicity. Faith--the trust I have just mentioned--and the healing of strong, moral male figures who opened up about their pasts and pain, led me to ask “are there others like me?”
I began to wonder if it were possible. Were there other guys at those parties who also felt torn apart in their identities? When I judged you, were you also judging me, the truth being that we were both hiding in the same place, silenced by this toxic “bro-code” that we were expected to adhere to?
Many have asked how I came to anti-human trafficking and advocacy work, and there are many elements that led me. However, the greatest of these was a burning desire to reach and help the kind of women my campaign of “male pride” had hurt, scarred, and damaged - and deep down, I still wanted to believe I could reach and help the men hurting them; men like me.
Beginning this kind of work changed the entire narrative for me; and even then, I knew the hours of truly facing the pain and fears I’d buried were to come. The past few years have offered me intensely painful, yet beautiful opportunities for accountability and remorse; both for the women toxic masculinity has damaged, as well as the men--and even myself.
Each story was different. Some spoke through tears; others hardened like stone; for some, it was clear they had learned to emotionally detach from the memory. Yet, a majority of the stories I’ve heard from the incredible women I’ve been blessed to work alongside contained one consistent element--the damage of their own image at the hands of men. To be fair, while I know there are real stories of women hurting women, abusive mothers, etc., the women that I most often end up connecting professionally and cross my path are those who hold truly heartbreaking stories of men you would have expected to help them, take care of them, yet ultimately hurt them. Husbands, fathers, pastors, etc. Many of their stories paint the picture of a an oppressive figure, sometimes even a villain, full of pride, anger, insecurity, doubt, pressure; a villain who seemed to have no other recourse than to victimize a young girl, even a child (many women share stories of abuse that happened to them in their childhoods).
My heart was again torn in two, bleeding for these women because of all the pain they had succumb to at the hands of men. My heart also bled for the men when they told their stories, because in hearing of their anger, their insecurities, their pride, I heard myself crying out for help--begging for anyone to let me say “I’m not strong enough to do this alone. I can’t always be strong. I want to feel, and have permission to do so. I don’t want to be your version of a “man.” I want to be me.” Answered by the cold silence of patriarchy, you lash out; you revolt; you push anyone who sees the insecurity. Many times in my life, that was the women closest to me. These men they spoke of; their angry outbursts; their cruel words; their oppressive nature; their clear insecurities--it all matched mine as these poisons had developed in my own private war with myself. I wondered about these men; what were their stories? Were they villains, bent on chaos and destruction? Or were they, too, victims of the unacknowledged slavery we call “toxic masculinity”?
Case by case, without the experience of a professional specializing in human development and/or psychology attending to and reporting on each individual, I could not say nor be certain. Yet, as my work grew in this field, I understood one truth more and more, and became certain of it; healing and rescuing women goes far beyond legislation, rescue teams, and aftercare. All of these are vital and important; yet, at the same time, a truth exists. If we want to heal our women, we must work to heal our men. We must come to terms with a painful and brutal reality: toxic masculinity is victimizing women and men, and if we will not unite to stand against it, then we will fall divided to it.
In a world where the North American consumers account for a quarter of all child sex tourism globally (Bacon, 2007); in a culture in which young girls can actually begin to "turn tricks” and enter into the realms of trafficking because they were “inspired” by the toxic example of modern media (Gonen, Cohen, Fonrouge, Brown, 2018); in a society where men are glorified, praised, and rewarded for their blatant and lude attitudes towards rape, sex, and communication with women; in this emotional and social war zone, Is it it truly possible to believe that we can create enough laws, build enough safe homes, or develop enough programming to stop exploitation and set captives free? I truly believe not, because at its deepest level, exploitation is not a legal, religious, or demographical issue; it is a heart issue. Toxic masculinity, and the trauma it has rendered to both our men and women, is real; and the effects of that trauma ranges vastly. No more than we can expect an abused, trafficked woman to cry out for help and risk her life, should we expect a broken, damaged man to cry out for help and risk his pride, when he has been taught that this pride IS his life. A harsh contrast to make, indeed, but I find myself less concerned with the crassness of the contrast and the reality that this collective acceptance of silence is costing lives. If we will not work to heal the hearts of those at-risk to exploitation, as well as those who threaten to exploit them, then we will see the emotional casualties remain. It is such a larger issue than shutting down brothels and handing out prison sentences to exploiters. There will always exist men who can find more girls to purchase for sex; there will always exist young women will always believe their value is bound up in male approval; unless, that is, we directly, intentionally, and intensely, target the hearts and mindsets of these individuals, and the cultures that influence them, with love, compassion, grace, and a firm conviction to truth; even when it is not popular; when it is not comfortable; when it risks our very lives.
It doesn’t require slums and impoverished communities to feed the beasts that are exploitation and sex-trafficking; and it doesn't require physical chains and warehouses to make the U.S. a brothel. It only requires a mindset, and the people living by this mindset will continue to recycle the same narrative, over and over again. Yet, it only requires a shift in that mindset to inspire a different response in the people. Such are the embers of a change to come.
My heart and sincerest love and gratitude goes out to the legislators; the rescuers; the organizations, advocates, law enforcement officers, and countless others who put their hearts, and very lives, on the line to rise up against the exploitation of the human race and bring liberation. Thank you. I am humbled and honored by your service; and reminded that as you have your role, we have ours. That is truth. It is ours to speak the words that humble and hold our world, and ourselves, to account; it is ours to set down the weapons of judgement and division, and ask the hard questions about why people choose to exploit and are exploited; it is ours to forgive those responsible for it; It is ours to never pre-suppose the dynamics or the personal war raging in any woman or man; It is ours to love when hate seems natural; it is ours to discover the men and women we believe in becoming, rather than those that culture has told us to be.
I am still daily learning what it means to be a man, and it is not a journey devoid of pain. Nonetheless, I have come to believe in, and feel most like a man when I understand, the true intrinsic and sacred value of every woman, created in the image of Love. I admit, even now, that I still battle the thought that the depravity of exploitation is “just how the world works.” Yet, I have learned to speak with authority and triumph back to those thoughts.
“If it is so; then we will change the world.”
- Daniel V
Daniel V is Founder/Lead Conceptualist of The Priceless Movement. With a B.A. in Media and Public Communication and a specialization in Film/Media Production, Daniel founded the Media Advocacy/Awareness Organization, The Priceless Movement, in 2013. Daniel and the organization’s leads focus on team development, social partnerships, and organization/company collaborations, seeking to develop media and programs that deliver healing narratives and opportunities for both recovering and at-risk individuals.
Bacon, B. (2007, July 17). Stolen Innocence: Inside the Shady World of Child Sex Tourism. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=3385318&page=1
Fonrouge, G. (2018, April 17). The six tactics sex traffickers use to find victims.. New York Post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2018/04/17/how-sex-traffickers-hunt-for-victims-and-brainwash-them/
Gonen, Y., Cohen, S., Fonrouge, G., & Brown, R. (2018, April 16). Inside New York’s silent sex trafficking epidemic. New York Post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2018/04/16/inside-new-yorks-silent-sex-trafficking-epidemic/
Lillie, M. (2013). Top 3 States for Human Trafficking. Human Trafficking Search. Retrieved from http://humantraffickingsearch.org/top-3-states-for-human-trafficking/
Swarens, T. (2018, February 20). Where Sex Trafficking and Toxic Masculinity Collide. IndyStar. Retrieved from https://www.indystar.com/story/opinion/columnists/tim-swarens/2018/02/20/where-sex-trafficking-and-toxic-masculinity-collide/949998001/