The Drug That Fuels Human Trafficking

How One City Is Challenging the Porn-Trafficking Axis

On the surface, Spokane, Washington, seems like any other big city in the Pacific Northwest. Yet it is a city in the grip of a public health crisis. On February 23, 2019, a nationally assembled team of doctors, academics, sociologists, psychologists, and law enforcement officers met at Spokane's Gonzaga University to examine the city's crisis and to educate citizens how to mount an effective response.

The crisis in question concerns the pervasive use of pornography in the city.

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In many respects, Spokane is a cameo of America as a whole, where the widespread use of the smartphone has enabled the sex industry to begin realizing its goal of making porn affordable, anonymous, accessible, and addictive.

It is this last point—the addictive nature of porn—that was a key focus at the Gonzaga conference. The conference was also set up to expose the links between porn addiction and human trafficking.

Big Porn & the Degradation of Women

Two days before the conference, I had a phone conversation with Dr. Alfonso Oliva, a Spokane surgeon who helped put on the symposium.

"The entire sex industry is interwoven," Dr. Oliva said. "One really has to understand this. We're talking about an industry that is at least $13 billion in the U.S. and $100 billion worldwide. It's an incredibly powerful business."

Dr. Oliva went on to explain how the underground trafficking industry is being propped up by Big Porn. "Many porn addicts want to try out for themselves the type of sexual exploitation they see in pornographic videos. Men see women being degraded and then start to think this is normal."

"Moreover," he continued, "as the porn industry has encouraged the gratification of oneself at the cost of another, it has created the social and psychological infrastructure for trafficking. In fact, there is a powerful trafficking trade right here in Spokane and the surrounding areas."

A Wide Spectrum of Trafficking Activities

I wondered if Dr. Oliva was exaggerating about the trafficking problem in the area. After all, I had lived on the outskirts of Spokane for over twelve years and never heard anything about trafficking. So I began searching the archives of Washington newspapers to find out how widespread sexual exploitation actually is in this region.

I was struck by a 2008 report in the Seattle Times warning that Spokane was the site of "a wide spectrum of trafficking activities that include sex slavery, forced prostitution, forced panhandling, farm labor, janitorial work and domestic servitude." In the eleven years since the report, the problem of trafficking has continued to spiral out of control in the city. Last year Spokane's local newspaper, The Spokesman Review, quoted a Spokane police detective as saying, "Human trafficking is a renewable resource. We've heard stories of pimps making $5,000 to $6,000 in a day. Which means these (victims) are having sex with 10 or more people in a day."

Although the media occasionally reports on the exploitation of children within the Spokane sex industry, they have completely ignored the extent to which this industry is being fueled by porn. The media have also bent over backwards to deny the neurological impact of porn, even though this impact has been established in a large corpus of peer-reviewed studies. It is typical for the media to simply echo the porn industry's propaganda, which dismisses scientific research as stemming from activists. This culture of denial was illustrated the day before the Gonzaga conference when The Spokesman Review ran an article suggesting that the symposium was propagating the controversial claims of religious activists. The paper also quoted "experts" disputing that compulsive porn use works like an addiction to alter the brain.

Pornography: The New Drug

When I arrived at the Gonzaga symposium on February 23, I met the neurosurgeon and Salvo author Dr. Donald Hilton. Dr. Hilton drew on his medical background to explain how pornography disrupts proper brain function in the exact same way that drug addiction does. Viewing porn leads to an over-release of the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes the midbrain (the part that is concerned with desire and instinct) to become disconnected from the judgment centers in the front of the brain. As the brain is restructured over time, more intense types of stimuli are required to attain the same levels of excitement.

Dr. Hilton, who has published a range of scholarly articles in the field of neuroscience, explained that the media have been trying to keep porn at the level of religion and morality, even though science justifies treating the porn epidemic as a public health crisis.

A Generation Fully Groomed

Next we heard from Dr. Gail Dines, a feminist sociologist and author who has done extensive research on porn, including the links between pornography and trafficking.

Dr. Dines explained that the erotic saturation in our culture—ranging from the use of "soft porn" in advertising, to the romanticizing of prostitution in Hollywood movies, to the prevalence of sexualized selfies among girls—is grooming our children to be hyper-sexualized and traffic-ready. Girls are being socialized to believe it's hot to be sexually vulnerable, while boys are socialized to think that sexual aggression is normal.

Commodifying Other People

Clay Olsen, who runs the non-profit Fight the New Drug, gave a dynamic presentation on how porn strikes at the heart of happiness by undermining relationships.

Olsen explained that the connection between porn and violence (88 percent of most popular porn films depict violent aggression against women) has a neuro-physiological basis. By commodifying human beings and treating them as mere objects, porn initiates neuroplastic changes in how porn viewers perceive themselves and other people. As viewers respond to violence with pleasure, their neural pathways for intimacy and violence become fused, altering what they desire and expect from others.

Training in Sexual Exploitation

Patrick J. Trueman, president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation in Washington, D.C., drew on his experience as a former leader at the Department of Justice to show how porn motivates men to purchase victims.

The training in sexual exploitation begins even before our youth become aware of porn sites, Trueman explained. As children see immodest advertisements on the internet, play video games in which the female characters are dressed in sexy garb, or watch sex scenes in movies available through services like Netflix and HBO, boys are being trained to be predators and girls to be victims.

Trueman wasn't the only person with a law enforcement background at the conference. The Department of Homeland Security had a display table, manned by two local agents who have been working the Spokane region.

In The Middle of a Trafficking Belt

Next to take the podium was Aaron Tilbury, founder of the Jonah Project, a Spokane-based non-profit that has been helping trafficking victims since 2014. "We are in a community that is right in the middle of a trafficking belt," Tilbury explained. "They run it like a rodeo."

This trafficking belt runs from Seattle down to the Tri-Cities and up to Spokane, and then along I-90 into Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas. The traffickers who work this circuit prey on the population of 4,000-plus homeless kids in Spokane County.

Healing for the Porn-Damaged Brain

Dr. Stefanie Carnes, a psychologist and sex addiction therapist, presented evidence from fMRI scans showing how viewing porn damages the brain in the same way psychedelic drugs do. She shared numerous heart-rending stories from her work as a sex therapist, but also stories of healing and recovery from addicts who submitted to the therapeutic process.

The conference concluded with a panel discussion at which local professionals offered advice and resources for those in the grip of porn addiction.

From the University to the Street

I came away from the conference with a lot of questions. Was the pornography problem in Spokane really large enough to justify treating it as a public health crisis? And how does the porn-trafficking axis work at street level?

Because I live near Spokane, I was able to spend the weeks following the conference doing fieldwork to investigate these questions. (Space prohibits me from sharing more than a few highlights here, but more details are available at

One afternoon while I was in the city, I spoke to schoolchildren and college students about the issue of trafficking. "This issue is very close to my heart," a college freshman named Calvin told me. "When I was in high school, I had friends who were trafficking victims. This issue affects me personally because these people are like family to me."

I also spoke with high-school senior Mirielle Milne, who for the last three and a half years has been working to raise awareness of human trafficking in the city. On March 9, I attended a student-led rally where she was one of the speakers. Besides urging the city and state to devote more resources to fighting trafficking, Mirielle is helping to raise money so The Jonah Project can build a series of safe-houses where trafficking survivors and at-risk individuals can find protection.

I also spoke with law enforcement personnel and various health professionals who are treating men and women enslaved to pornography. And I met for coffee with Pastor Aaron Tilbury, eager to find out more about his work with The Jonah Project.

"No One Is Worth Giving Up On"

Pastor Tilbury isn't your typical clergyman but comes across more like a combination sports coach, counselor, and private investigator. He has devoted his life to reaching trafficking victims with the love of Jesus, believing that no one is worth giving up on.

"You typically have to rescue a victim three or four times before she thinks she's worth anything and is willing to begin the healing process," he explained to me when we met for coffee. "When a victim relapses, she thinks she's burned her bridges with us. We have to overcome the noise in her head that tells her she's not worth it. And that means being willing to rescue the same person over and over again."

Aaron told me of the time one of his parishioners had been tied to a water heater for a week in the basement of a house in Airway Heights, a town west of Spokane. "During the entire time she was tied up," he said, "she was deprived of food and water. When she was thirsty, her captors gave her alcohol."

"Why?" I asked incredulously, shocked at what I was hearing.

"The thing you have to understand, Robin, is that the traffickers treat their victims like this to break them down. It's as simple as that. Once a victim is broken down, she'll do anything they ask."

Aaron works closely with the local police, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, while using his civilian status to go places law enforcement cannot. For example, he recently risked his life traveling to a foreign country to rescue a friend who was being trafficked. As we sipped our drinks, Aaron showed me an email he had just received from this survivor. Tears welled up in my eyes as I read the message: "Thank you Aaron for going and getting me all the way to a different country when everyone had lost hope in me. Thank you for going back so many times. You came and picked me up when I was in danger. Thank you—I will never forget that."

Big Porn & Human Trafficking

During our conversation, I asked Aaron to elaborate on what we had learned at the Gonzaga conference about the connection between porn and trafficking.

"First," he said, "pornography grooms men to purchase sex. For many young men, the primary form of sex education is graphic porn. As they push the envelope further and further, eventually they think nothing of buying a victim, because porn has educated them to associate pleasure with abuse."

Second, Aaron explained, porn actively grooms men to become pimps. He is not alone in making this observation: when Tim Ballard interviewed human traffickers for the film Operation Toussaint, the criminals candidly admitted that their journey into sex crime began when they were exposed to porn at a young age.

Third, as the porn industry cultivates an insatiable appetite for videos of novel forms of graphic sex, pimps can make a handsome side income by selling videos of their victims. "Pimps can tap into the demand by taking videos of their victims," Aaron said. "These kids are human beings to us, [but] to the traffickers it's simply economics and leverage. That is one of the reasons we will never be able to tackle the problem of trafficking without also addressing the issue of porn."

A fourth point of contact between porn and trafficking is modeling. "Modeling jobs and porn are two mechanisms predators use to suck girls into trafficking," Aaron explained. He continued:

The girl may see an ad for a modeling agency. When she shows up, everything seems very professional. But soon she's being asked to take off her clothes. As this continues, the men gain enormous leverage over the girl, both because her barriers are progressively lowered [and] because of the blackmail potential of the photographs. This doesn't always look like a stranger in a white van with tinted windows, but most often it's a gradual process of grooming.

This type of grooming occurs in many seemingly innocuous context, as sexually explicit materials and books are among the tools traffickers use to break down the barriers of children in preparation for victimizing them.

A fifth point of the porn-trafficking axis concerns the way peer pressure leads to societal grooming. Aaron explained that when all of a girl's friends are dressing immodestly and posting sexualized pictures of themselves on Instagram, she can feel an incredible pressure to conform. We all have a need for acceptance, and no girl wants to be the one that stands out. However, as girls exhibit their sexuality, their natural barriers are lowered. That is how they become easy targets for unscrupulous men. "These men will often lure vulnerable girls—girls whose barriers have already been lowered through the pressure to be hyper-sexualized—by claiming to love them. By the time the girl realizes what is really going on, it's often too late."

To illustrate the last point, Aaron told me about a young woman he was rescuing for the third time. When he drove to pick her up, she approached him with tears in her eyes, saying, "I thought they loved me."

It is this last point that gets to the real tragedy of the porn-trafficking axis. Aaron's observations reminded me of a comment Dr. Oliva made in our phone interview prior to the Gonzaga conference. "One of the saddest things about porn," he said, "is that it separates sexuality from intimacy and love. This is degrading to women because they are reduced to objects to be used and misused. There is no love in porn."

has a Master’s in History from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020) and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023) and co-author with Joshua Pauling of We're All Cyborgs Now (Basilian Media & Publishing, forthcoming). He operates the substack "The Epimethean" and blogs at

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #50, Fall 2019 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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