In a recent news post, Filipino women went on a sex-strike in order to bring peace to their rural village. “If you keep fighting,” warned Aninon E. Kamanza, of the Dado Village Sewing Cooperative, “you’ll be cut off.” It seems their cottage business of sewing made delivery of goods impossible due to road closures brought on by the violence. Dado, the small village of 102 families mostly affected, is a town caught in the middle of conflict involving clan feuds and land disputes. The ultimatum worked. Vis-a-vie the threat of no sex, the violence has stopped, the roads are open, the women can transport their goods and the men can breath a sigh of relief. What I find so compelling about this story is the resourcefulness of the women. Understanding the nature of their men, they used the withholding of sex to accomplish their goal of making money in order to care for their families. But what about the reverse? What about women who also use sex to care for their families but as sex workers? Can we applaud their resourcefulness and commitment to family as well?
The pendulum of sex work sweeps from one range to another encompassing a large arc of diversity. Within the profession of sex work there is a hierarchy (perceived by sex workers and others) of skill and acceptability, depending on job description. At one end is the escort, the “Pretty Woman” who accompanies men of wealth and culture, while offering up the best money can buy for sexual pleasures. On the opposite end is the street hooker, the woman (or man) that exchanges in quick sex in remote, sometimes dangerous places, and in some cases, use drugs as a means of numbing the pain of the night. In both cases, the sex workers are usually perceived and judged differently. The former may function more as a companion for the evening, or as the website “Seeking Arrangement” suggests, providing young girls with older men (sugar daddies) in the timeless exchange of sex for money. The founders of this site (with its 900,000 members) reject the similarity between its service and that of prostitution. Instead, what Seeking Arrangements provides is “Relationships that empower individuals.” Of the 900,000 members, 500 are NYU students. The practice of sex work (with its diverse menu of pornography, erotic dancing, stripping, phone sex, and of course internet sex/dating, to name but a few) is used by many students as a means of limiting student debt. The morality of this choice, the exchange of sex in order to pay for tuition, can be highly debated and in my own research, adds a perplexing dilemma to the mix. Even more so are the women (and men) who exchange sex for items that may be viewed as non-essential, luxury goods. While in southern Africa I visited truck stops where children as young as 12 exchange sex with older men for cell phones or rides in luxury cars. The young boys accompany these girls, functioning as go-betweens or pimps in the exchange.
But what of women who must rely upon prostitution out of economic necessity. Not money to purchase designer clothing or to support them while in grad school, but turn to prostitution in order to sustain themselves and their children. When it is the only viable option available to them at that particular time in their life, how different are they from the Filipino women of Dado village who used sex in order to secure their livelihood?
The legitimacy of prostitution as exploitive continues to be debated by feminist. But what should not be debated are the human rights of sex workers. The Sex Worker Project promotes a harm reduction approach via human rights to all who engage in sex work “regardless of whether they do so by choice, circumstance or coercion.” To that end, the decriminalization of prostitution has proven to be the best way to ensure the safety and future of women and men engaged in this practice.
While the turn to human rights as a means of harm reduction is a just starting point, what can be said theologically about those who engage in prostitution and the marginalization they experience? What can the gospels offer to those who are shunned by society, carrying a shame so great they feel access to God is beyond their reach? In my own research in Cape Town, South Africa, I visited SWEAT an NGO that seeks to engage the whole person and all the components of what it takes to exit sex work. What was missing, we discovered (by SWEAT and myself), was a spirituality that informs the women of their imago Dei, their full humanity before God, regardless of profession. Many of the women carry deep wounds from the rhetoric of a religiosity that judges instead of making whole. For these women, to hear of another voice that finds them loved by God is almost too much to conceive. It is our job, theologically speaking, to move those caught on the margins to the center, and here is the sticking point, even if they choose to remain in prostitution. To do anything less would be to diminish their full imago Dei.