Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Liberal Christianity and "Sex Work"

Inara from Firefly?
She is not real.
Years ago, I found myself in Amsterdam.  It was the stopover point on a trip to west Africa, and I spent just about twenty four hours in the town, flying in one day, and flying out the next.

In the evening of that first day, I wandered the town, noshing on some forgettable Chinese in some dive restaurant, and then drifting about the streets taking in the sights.

One of the places my wanderings took me was the red light district.  I was in Amsterdam, and I was twenty, and I was curious.  What was this place like?  

Oh, I'd seen plenty of prostitutes before.  As in "seen with my eyes," and not "frequented."  Sorry, kids.  There's no Jimmy Swaggart salaciousness I can share on that front.

My home church, the place I was baptized and where my parents were married?  It's located on 14th street, which was smack in the middle of DC's flesh industry in the 1970s and 1980s.  You couldn't leave church after an evening event without getting propositioned for either sex or narcotics. 

It was not a safe place, meaning, it was exactly where a church needed to be.

But prostitution in Amsterdam was different. This was state-sanctioned. Safe. Respectable.

It was also, as I discovered in my walk through that neighborhood, really depressing.  There they were, in their makeup and lingerie.  Bored young women, sitting out in store windows, looking as sexual as a side of beef at Fuddruckers.  I thought about the women I knew, and saw my friends in those empty faces.  It was dismal.

There is almost nothing positive about sex work, something that was highlighted in an interesting recent piece in
This is real. She is 14 and homeless.
the Christian Century.  The author of that piece interviewed a sex-work advocate, who talked about the "business."  According to that advocate, individuals who work in that trade do so for two primary reasons.  

Reason one: they have been forced into it.  They are being trafficked, meaning they are either in debt-slavery or under physical coercion by an individual or group that is profiting from the sale of their bodies.  This is abusive, predatory, and monstrous.  It is also the primary face of sex work globally.

Reason two: they have been forced into it.  Wait, you say.  That was the first one!  Well, it's the second reason, too, only with a difference.  This coercion has to do with macroeconomics.  Meaning, individuals "choose" to become sex workers because they have no other economic choices.  They can't find work enough to sustain their lives and their families, and so they "choose" to fall back on what they perceive as their only remaining option.  It is a choice made of desperation, and reflective of the brokenness of the world around them.  It's like working endless, backbreaking hours on the line of a Foxconn factory.  Or an Amazon fulfillment center.  It is work of last resort.

Reason three: They're a member of a respected order of consorts, who roam the universe in a tastefully appointed shuttle, dishing out tea and sage advice to a carefully selected clientele.  Yeah, I'm sure in some universe that happens.  But in this one?  Not so much.

Given this reality, what confuses me, frankly, is the response of many of my liberal Christian brethren and sistren to "sex work."  There's much talk of supporting sex workers, of valuing them, of destigmatizing them.  This is all well and good.  Jesus doesn't ask us to take up stones, particularly against those who are powerless.  The way our culture penalizes and imprisons those who find themselves in that "business" is also absurd, given that it is almost never a chosen path.

But the elephant in the room, the one that many leftist Jesus folk seem unwilling to articulate clearly, is that sex work is fundamentally antithetical to a healthy, progressive, and faithful understanding of human sexuality.

It marketizes and commodifies human intimacy.  If we have a problem with the transactional character of our culture, and we value authentic human relationships, then this industry is one that is inherently problematic.  Wealth is a social proxy for power, and introducing it into sexuality fundamentally changes the character of what should be a God-given blessing.

It radically objectivizes other human beings, and does violence to their integrity as persons.  The same folks who defend sex work as legitimate have lately been describing oppressive and aggressively depersonalizing actions as "rapey."  Ever done that?  Then I'd challenge you now to go to Google Images, turn off Safesearch, and google the word "rape."  The people you will see are part of the sex "industry."  Once you've recovered from that horror, tell me that what you saw was a positive addition to human dignity and God's love for all God's children.

It relies on labor that is, outlier anecdotes aside, either physically or economically coerced.  As such, the best support for a "sex worker" is to provide either refuge or options to get out of the "business."

And then there's the whole Jesus thing.  If you believe that a commodified, depersonalized, coerced sexuality is a part of the Reign of God Jesus declared, tell me why.  Because no reading of any text or narrative tradition I am familiar with justifies such a belief as having integrity within the path Jesus taught.

Alright, fine, maybe Pope Alexander VI wrote favorably of it, but if that's where you're going, consider the company you're keeping.

Ultimately, the challenge for faithful Christians is not to demonize or condemn individuals who find themselves trapped in patterns of life that both depersonalize and are not chosen.  But neither is our job to affirm every path.