Ask Lisa Thompson what really makes her angry, and she will say: "Snoop Dogg and Hugh Hefner and Bling Bling Barbie Dolls." When the gangster rapper appeared in an Orbit chewing gum TV commercial, Thompson vowed never to buy the brand. "They're all part of the example of how American culture is accepting the commodification of women and girls," she said.
If Thompson is sensitive about the cheapening of women, it's because she spends working days-and nights-tracking the worldwide spread of the problem. In Sri Lanka, a huge billboard advertises a shop reading simply "Bling." In rural Sierra Leone, Thompson spied a village elder wearing a 50 Cent shirt, what she calls "the almost transcendence and omnipresence of pimp subculture in the world."
And that's just the tame stuff. "People get so shocked that there could be sex trafficking and sex slaves but not bat an eyelash when Snoop Dogg and [former Chrysler chairman] Lee Iacocca do a commercial together," said Thompson, 36, who heads a Salvation Army campaign to abolish sex trafficking.
Eight years ago Thompson hardly knew what sex trafficking was. But the plight of stolen, kidnapped, and abused women grabbed her attention while working for the National Association of Evangelicals; now, the former grant writer, Beijing English teacher, and private-eye office manager says the work is "what I was born to do."
Thompson wants to cauterize a modern slave trade that sells women and girls into forced prostitution. In the faith-based community, Thompson is the face many associate with turning trafficking into a burning social issue.
It's the kind of job where many either "burn out very quickly or go crazy," said retired Major Marilyn White, a longtime colleague of Thompson's. Thompson confesses that the job duties and the travel stretch her into a "human crepe." But the horrors only make her work harder.
The latest State Department report on trafficking estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. About 80 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. The 2006 report, released last June, shows an alarming trend-spurred in part by economic globalization-of trafficking persons for purposes of slave labor, too.
After being immersed in those statistics for over six years now, little shocks Thompson. When something comes along to rattle her, as it did last summer when she first heard of a West African practice called "breast ironing," she is quick to mobilize advocates and speak out against it.
With breast ironing, mothers try to flatten their pubescent daughters' budding breasts so they will seem less attractive to boys and men. One common method is to heat a wooden pestle in the kitchen and roll and hammer a girl's breasts. The pain is agonizing, and a recent survey in Cameroon showed a quarter of girls enduring it there. Sometimes the tissue damage is so extensive, the breasts disappear altogether. Or it haunts a woman in other ways: One woman, the Reuters news service reported, had trouble producing breast milk as a new mother, and her baby almost died as a result.
"Tragically, in far too many parts of the world women's bodies are viewed as bad and the 'source' of immorality," Thompson said. "It never ceases to amaze me how women's bodies are tortured with a view toward either preventing immorality, or on the other hand, stoking desire [or] attraction."
Thompson's passion can spill over into social gatherings, friends say, where she freely discusses sex trade details in mixed company. "When you ask Lisa how work's going, it's not just a matter of how some people say, 'Oh, it's fine,' or 'It's stressful,'" said Megan Lee, a high-school teacher and long-time friend. "I've seen her become very emotional." Earlier this year, Thompson broke down in tears when she saw photographs of Bangladeshi women who were victims of sulfuric or hydrochloric acid attacks. The women, who have horrendously disfigured faces, are often attacked by angry husbands or boyfriends, or become the object of anger in dowry disputes.
Thompson's dedication also has caught the attention of groups on the left. The American Prospect blamed her and other activists for a shift in U.S. policy, where groups lobbying for legalized prostitution no longer could receive federal funding. The magazine said the "most prominent figures include right-wing policy-makers, a Jewish 'moral entrepreneur,' [human rights advocate Michael Horowitz] and evangelical leaders, whom critics call overzealous and moralistic. Together, the 'abolitionists' have formed a potent political force." So potent, the article quoted one official, that for Thompson and others, "Horowitz is the Charlie to their Angels."
Hyperbole aside, Thompson has not only irritated traditional foes but influenced them: feminists who believed faith-based programs did more moralizing than good on prostitution. "When you first meet her, it's easy to underestimate her," said Donna Hughes, a 20-year anti-trafficking warrior. "She's a thin, attractive young woman. Only when you get to know her [do you see] she has a compassionate personality and a will of steel."
Faith and family help an abolitionist cope with the job's strains, and for the single Thompson, that comes from her Wesleyan church and her Kentucky home.
Thompson grew up in a close-knit family, on the same country road as both sets of her grandparents. She remembers their farming days, when she would ride a tractor-pulled hay wagon or hang tobacco leaves to barn-dry. Ask her how she is, and she might still say, "Fine as frog fur."
At Thompson's office at the Salvation Army's National Headquarters in Alexandria, Va., family photos surround her desk. On it is a copy of the Falmouth Outlook, from the closest town to where she grew up in Kentucky, carrying a story about a local beauty queen who had once dated her cousin and now wants to combat sex trafficking. Also on the desk are encouraging cards sent by her grandmother's country church, and Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress, a book fringed with neon-pink stickies for bookmarks.
Artifacts of her work and travel are arrayed on bookcases: a set of four African wooden elephants; a sculpture of Christ with a crown of thorns from Ecuador; a chance picture of her with defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld; a framed invitation to U.S. Ambassador John Miller's swearing-in. Miller is head of the State Department's Trafficking in Persons office.
As part of her work now, Thompson trundles through dozens of sex-trafficking articles a day, then sends the choicest stories to a hundreds-strong e-mail list. She signs off every one with, "Abolition! Lisa." The practice inspired Miller to start speaking of "abolishing" trafficking. Recipients sometimes complain that Thompson's mailings overwhelm them, but she sends only a fraction of what she runs across.
Breast ironing is only one horror Thompson handles almost daily. Other abuses are better known, such as female genital mutilation, or FGM, practiced in parts of eastern and northern Africa. The goal is to reduce a woman's sexual pleasure, and therefore make her less likely to seek illicit sex, by removing part or all of her genitalia. The operations are often done with a blunt instrument and without anesthetic.
Severe FGM can lead to obstetric fistula, where days-long obstructed childbirth causes the soft tissue between the vagina and bladder or rectum to die, creating a hole. Not only does the baby die, but the infant's mother is left incontinent, unable to control leaking urine or feces. Communities often ostracize fistula sufferers, leaving them to fend for themselves.
The list of abuses runs long: genital mutilation, child brides, honor killings, weak rape laws. All, Thompson said, "boil down to violence against women. . . . There's no culture that doesn't have violence."
With all these flashpoints, Thompson knows abolition is a consuming battle. Sometimes she despairs at all the work that needs doing to help abused women. But she falls back on her trust in God: "At the end of the day, it's not my fight, and He loves these people more than I could ever conceive of."