By Bryan Lowry

During a speech to pastors in Kansas City in December, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley linked the problem of sex trafficking to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Hawley, the top Republican prospect to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill in November, launched a new unit in the attorney general's office focused on fighting human trafficking a few months into his first year in office.

During a speech at a "Pastors and Pews" event hosted by the Missouri Renewal Project, Hawley tied the issue to the sexual revolution, the cultural shift in the 1960s and 1970s that eliminated the social stigma for premarital sex and contraception that had been commonplace in the United States.

"We have a human trafficking crisis in our state and in this city and in our country because people are willing to purchase women, young women, and treat them like commodities. There is a market for it. Why is there? Because our culture has completely lost its way. The sexual revolution has led to exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined, never have imagined," Hawley told the crowd in audio obtained by The Kansas City Star this week.

"We must ... deliver a message to our culture that the false gospel of 'anything goes' ends in this road of slavery. It ends in the slavery and the exploitation of the most vulnerable among us. It ends in the slavery and exploitation of young women."

McCaskill responded to the controversy over Hawley's comments on Twitter Wednesday evening. She also took a jab at Hawley's background as a graduate from Stanford University and Yale Law School.

"I didn't go to one of those fancy private schools, but the history I learned in public schools & Mizzou taught me that the evidence of trafficking of women for sex goes back to before 2000 BC. It didn't begin with women's rights and the birth control pill," McCaskill said in a tweet.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an expert on human trafficking who has advised law enforcement and testified in criminal cases across the country, said there is "absolutely no empirical evidence or research to suggest there was any uptick in human trafficking in the 1960s or 70s or that that's when it started."

Mehlman-Orozco, who wrote the 2017 book "Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium," said that sex trafficking has been a problem in the United States since the nation's founding and that it gained significant public attention in the years after the Civil War.

"There are quite a few politicians, both Republican and Democrat, who try to use the issue to help themselves get elected without doing much research," Mehlman-Orozco said. "It's a bipartisan issue that most people can come behind. Everybody's against human trafficking."

Hawley's comments came to light after Courtland Sykes, one of his rivals for the GOP nomination, inspired international backlash with a Facebook post about his desire to have daughters who will grow up to be homemakers rather than "career obsessed banshees."

Austin Petersen, a Kansas City man who is also seeking the nomination, criticized Hawley's comments and compared them to former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" that helped sink the Republican's campaign against McCaskill in 2012.

"It would also be great if GOP senate candidates could stop writing Claire's attack ads and fundraising emails for her. These comments do nothing but foster a Todd Akin-style culture war that the GOP will lose to a formidable female incumbent," he said in an email.

The Missouri Renewal Project is an affiliate of the national American Renewal Project, a group that works to politically engage conservative Christians. The national project did not respond for a request for comment.

"You know what I'm talking about, the 1960s, 1970s, it became commonplace in our culture among our cultural elites, Hollywood, and the media, to talk about, to denigrate the biblical truth about husband and wife, man and woman," Hawley said in the speech.

Hawley's campaign spokeswoman, Kelli Ford, said the candidate's comments about the links between trafficking and the sexual revolution do not need clarification.

"Attorney General Hawley has spoken at length about this, so I'm not sure what part was unclear," Ford said in an email.

"We now have a sex trafficking epidemic because too many men view women as objects for their own gratification and control ... Attorney General Hawley regularly challenges audiences to get serious about sex trafficking by getting serious about changing male attitudes toward women, so that all women are treated with respect, equality and dignity."

The campaign published the full audio of Hawley's speech to its YouTube page Wednesday, but disabled the ability for users to leave comments. Ford said that the speech, which received little notice in December, had previously aired on the Bott Radio Network, a chain of Christian radio stations.

(c)2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)