Sex as a Weapon of Sustenance By Cynthia Garrity-Bond

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.



Categories: Activism, Human Rights, Sex Work

Tags: , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Cynthie,

    I absolutely agree with you about our theological obligation to affirm the full humanity of women before God and before everyone else. Religious rhetoric that judges the marginalized instead of lifting them up must definitely be called out and opposed. Those of us who participate in religious traditions absolutely have the responsibility to do so. Thank you for that reminder.

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  2. Thanks Cynthie for raising this important issue. I agree with you that judging sex workers by so-called moral standards does not do any good for anyone, expecially when those who hire them usually get off with no judgment at all.

    Here is a perspective you do not mention. Living in Greece the issue of trafficking in women is massive. Greek men and boys apparently use prostitutes with great frequency. It is well-known that many if not most of the women who dance in strip-clubs and perform sex acts after hours are lured to Greece from poorer countries with promises of work in a bar that did not involve sex acts. When they get here, their passports are taken from them and they are repeatedly raped until they are ready to be sold. CNN recently has sponsored a series of documentaries on present day slavery of which sex slavery is the most widespread. Children who are sold to traffickers by their own families may sometimes be able to send some money home, but for the most part, all the families get is the “fee” for the sale. Neither of these situations have any relationship to making a free choice to do sex work to support yourself or your family.

    While I am not interested in judging the women at NYU as being immoral (I would rather reserve my judgment for those who work in the hedge fund industry), I do worry that they have allowed society (or men) to commodify their bodies and wonder what long-term traumas they may be inflicting on themselves. If “our bodies are ourselves” can we really say that we can separate our bodies from our selves. Even those of us who thought sex was “free” in the 60s and 70s have found that what we did with our bodies in the name of freedom was not always good for our “selves.”

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  3. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have started the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” initiative. As they say “demand is the motor that drives this industry.”

    Not sure if the link works but you can find their Youtube statement through a search.

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    • What is a real man? Extremely harmful campaign brought about by 2 people who are more interested in themselves than the issue, which is evidenced by their website, the campaign and every ad they have ever run. They are the focal point. #fail

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  4. Dear Cynthie
    Your post really brings up so many important and complicated issues. I remember having this conversation with a friend of mine, who at that time was very interested in working for this co-op erotic dance place up in San Francisco. She recommended I read the book, “Some of My Best Friends are Naked” by Tim Keefe– it interviews 7 erotic dances and lets them tell their story while engaging the way they’ve been typed by society. I hate to say, I have still haven’t gotten a chance to read it all… but your article reminds me that this is an important issue and to pick this up again.
    I agree that celebrating a woman’s full humanity, or the way in which she shares god/dess’ image is extremely important– affirming that all of us are ourselves and a part of god/dess and loved. And I agree that we still need to do this even when we see a woman “choose to remain in prostitution,” …. however, I am still conflicted as to what this means. … particularly because as Carol points out, choice isn’t always a part of this.
    Some sex work is definitely abusive and hurtful, as you point out. I may work to affirm the wholeness or god/dess self of a man or woman who “chooses” to remain in an abusive relationship, but that does not mean supporting the relationship. …
    For every person who finds their sex work empowering, how many find it damaging?… I do not know. This of course, as you point out, is further complicated by “sugar daddy” type relationships…
    I have to admit, the story you reported about the Dado Village Sewing Cooperative made me a bit sad, because any time sex is used and/or abused in terms of controlling someone else it makes me uncomfortable… but this “weapon,” prevented other terrible violence, which I think is good…. But overall, I wasn’t sure what to think about it; which then, made me think, well its not about what I think of this situation anyway ;) — in many ways, it was about these women taking control of their own bodies towards their own goals. Their sexual act seems a very in-between one: it overlapped many deep human issues and was about their own agency and their community’s relationship to violence.
    On the other hand, I feel a deep need to stand against blatant acts of sexually based abuse like the sex slavery Carol talks about… those abuses damage our shared human community.
    Anyways,
    That’s all to say, I think you brought up a really important issue. Thank you,
    -Sara

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  5. Dear Cynthie:

    I read your posting with interest, and I fully agree with you that we should completely support women in such a damaging field as prostitution. However, I strongly feel The Sex Worker Project does damage to women and men when it suggests legalization of prostitution as an acceptable and humanizing “harm reduction approach.” If anything, the international “market” conclusively demonstrates that prostitution teaches the “purchasing” men to ignore and deny the human rights of sex workers.

    I would offer the following multi-page article for consideration of how the horrific conditions Carol Christ mentions in the comments are quite real and present today in the US as well: Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door. The article is a painful read, but there are several points which I found shocking and surprising, and which I think are worth calling out in relation to this discussion:

    The girls are often pushed into the arms of abusive pimps by their families,
    The ages of the girls involved are getting lower and lower — 13 year old prostitutes are common,
    The “johns” are often as blindly cruel and indifferent as the abusive pimps, and
    There is a way to stop this horrible cycle — and it isn’t through the legalization of prostitution, which frequently leads to yet further abuses against women.

    There are two quotes from the article which I have included here. One is on how johns view the prostitutes, which tells me these men are being damaged by this industry, in that they are taught to regard women as less than human:

    Most of the johns were startled to learn that the girls were not acting of their own free will–75 to 80 percent of prostitutes don’t. The men believed the ads, and the legend of the Happy Hooker. Each of them also assumed they were the one exception to the rule of the repulsive customer. Says Karen Stauss, the former staff attorney for Polaris Project, a D.C.-based not-for-profit anti-slavery-and-human-trafficking organization, “Johns don’t understand what they’re contributing to. It never occurs to them that the woman who is smiling is being abused. They really don’t know what’s going on–and they don’t care.” (italics mine)

    The other quote is possibly one of the most hopeful statements on prostitution that I have ever read, and I am not sure why it is not more commonly known:

    “If no one’s buying girls, then the pimps can’t make money” … is exactly the theory behind the Sex Purchase Law in Sweden. As of 1999, johns are punished by up to six months’ imprisonment, traffickers are locked up for 2-to-10-year hits, and prostitutes are offered medical care, education, and housing. As a result, prostitution has been reduced by 50 percent in Sweden, and the purchase of sex, which is understood to be a human-rights abuse, has decreased by 75 percent. In contrast, Europol studies show, nations such as Holland and Australia, where prostitution has been legalized, have become lucrative, low-risk magnets for international sex-slave drivers and organized crime.

    If we truly wish to recognize the human rights of sex workers, I believe this is the best and healthiest way to do so.

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  6. Dear cfpdx,
    The stream of comments above should have been responded to by me, but I let them slip away to other demands instead.

    First, I continue to stand by my initial posts regarding sex workers. You are correct (very correct) in your assertion of the necessity to first listen to the sex workers before anti-prostitution activates–who better to inform the multiple layers of prostitution than the women and men in practice.

    Additionally, the continued sidelining of the rights and needs of prostitutes becomes absorbed in the sex-trafficking campaign. Again, let me restate my understanding–the two are not the same, if fact it is the prostitute who is best able to locate and identify those women/girls who have been trafficked. Which is not to say prostitutes are not vulnerable to trafficking, but that is not the issue at hand.

    Exploitation occurs in many professions and trades. I have focused my work on keeping those men and women who find themselves in its grip out of harms way. The New Zealand decrim law of 2003 crafted an exit policy within its legislation–meaning its understood that by-and-large many women and men might prefer a different means of support. Until that day is fully realized, it is the responsibility of society and church to safeguard their choices.

    In response to Demi Moore and Aston Kucher, I have not viewed the video. In part because my own position on sex workers became collapsed with the anti-prostitution/sex trafficking campaign, which is not the point of my post.

    Thank you for your comments and what I consider wisdom.

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