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January 7, 2013

Wheaton College Professor Lends Expertise to the Battle Against Sexual Exploitation

Dr. William Struthers

Wheaton College psychology professor Dr. William Struthers teaches classes like “Behavioral Neuroscience” and “Men and Addictions.” The author of Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (InterVarsity Press, 2009), Struthers’ clinical research on compulsive sexuality and pornography use and his theoretical work on neuroethics have made him an authoritative voice for the movement to curb pornography access and sex-trafficking. His work is the subject of an upcoming documentary being produced for Australian churches.

During recent trips to the U.K. and Thailand, Struthers lent his professional expertise within two dramatically different contexts—the British Parliament and Thailand’s notorious red-light district, Nana Plaza.

In May, Struthers visited London to speak at Youthwork Summit, a one-day youth ministry convention sponsored by Premier Christian Radio, one of the largest Christian stations in the U.K. The radio station is involved in lobbying efforts to support legislation that would require Internet service providers to offer individuals the choice to opt into sexually explicit content when they begin their service.

With a parliamentary inquiry into online child protection underway in the U.K., Struthers was asked to share his research on how pornography exposure affects children. He presented his findings at a public meeting in the House of Commons before members of parliament and interested individuals.

"Right thinking about sexuality is a battle that has to be fought with each generation,” he says. “But this generation is being forced to wage it on a battleground that previous generations never had to, and that is the digital battleground.”

During the meeting, Struthers cited his recent survey of recovering pornography addicts that examines the subjects’ first exposure to pornography, their experience and reaction to that exposure, and measures of distress after the exposure. His research found that pornography accelerates sexual behaviors in children and leads to confusion and distress.

“You have material intended for adult eyes that’s being foisted upon a brain that’s not properly prepared for it,” he says. “What we’re finding in some of the research that I’ve been doing is that children more often than not are stumbling across this material. It’s unwanted, and they don’t know what to do with it.”

According to Struthers’ study, more than 80 percent of children, when exposed to pornography, never talk to anyone about it. “That first exposure is a very difficult, distressing event, and they never process it with anyone.”

With digital media making pornography harder than ever to avoid, Struthers says it is not uncommon for 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds to be exposed to explicit material. Struthers believes that if “opt-in” legislation is passed in the U.K. and in other countries such as Australia, where he will present his research to parliament this spring, children will be less likely to stumble across pornography online.

Struthers’ next journey took him far from the halls of Westminster and into the grimy heart of the sex industry. In Thailand, Struthers and his wife met with Wheaton alumnus Jim Larson ’79 to learn about Servant Works, the ministry Larson founded to help women escape prostitution, drug abuse, and domestic violence. At Servant Works’ Bangkok facility, Struthers met with some of the women, who now make jewelry and garments as their new trade.

“I got to interview some of the women, to hear some of their stories of spiritual formation and stories of deliverance. I also got a chance to help them understand things at a deeper level psychologically,” he says.

The women had questions about the drug yaba, a methamphetamine and caffeine mixture, which has caused many of them to take up smoking as they go through withdrawal and recovery. Women who are dealing with alcoholism also smoke to cope with the recovery process.  As a pharmacologist, Struthers helped them understand how nicotine can act as a stimulant or a depressant, depending on whether it is ingested in short puffs or long drags. “Nicotine is being used in this community as a way for them to deal with consequences of two very different types of drug addiction problems,” says Struthers. “Yaba’s a stimulant, and alcohol’s a depressant. They had never heard anything like that before.”

Struthers observed Servant Works’ ministry to at-risk children in rural communities. Many of these children are the children of sex-workers in Bangkok. The goal of this work is to help the children develop a Christian identity so that they avoid the sex trade. “There is an after-school program teaching them English and other things,” Struthers says. “They are putting together this model to go into the rural communities and not just do evangelism but also do rural community development.”

Bangkok’s red-light district, Nana Plaza, represents the ugliness that threatens to steal these children’s innocence. The three-tiered prostitution plaza is the world’s largest outdoor sex market, drawing men from various nationalities to participate in different forms of sexual exploitation.

Accompanied by staff from the MST (Men in the Sex Trade) Project, a ministry of Youth With a Mission, Struthers went on an outreach prayer walk through Nana Plaza, moving through each level and praying for both the men and the women. The MST Project is specifically about reaching the men who are soliciting sex, a goal that interests Struthers, who has written extensively about men and sexual addiction.

Struthers describes the work of the MST Project, which he hopes to revisit on a future consulting trip: “Some of it is challenging the men, some of it is getting men to understand why they are there and that it’s their brokenness that’s gotten them there. It’s in that space they are able to share Christ with them.”

In his vastly different visits to London and Bangkok, Struthers found a common thread: the same battle is being waged on two ends of a spectrum. “On one end you’ve got this ivory tower scholarship influencing policy,” he says. “Then on the other end you’ve got the dirt-under-the-nails, real-world life of people impacted by sexual exploitation. It’s good for me to see both ends of that spectrum because I tend to live in the middle. Sexual brokenness is a battle ground that’s not going to go away, because it’s a part of nature and a part of the human condition.”

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