This is not an essay 1) advocating sex work or 2) denying the need for repentance. This is an essay asking us to reconsider how we treat sex workers.
If there is one thing that even the most theologically illiterate can accurately remember about the life of Christ, it is that he hung around with a questionable crowd: tax collectors, zealots (the ideological equivalent of fundamentalist terrorists in 1st-century Palestine), prostitutes. This was no small thing for a pious Jewish man in 1st-century Palestine. Pious Jewish men did not spend any social time with sinners. It was among the first things that roused the Pharisees suspicions: “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them that “it is not the healthy who need a physician.” God does not come to the holy when they are ready, as most supposed in the ancient world. He comes to those who need Him wherever they are, in whatever state. It was a radical, revolutionary idea then and it still is now.
This total reconfiguration of social norms and religious expectations that was at the center of Christ’s life and earthly ministry has always been a difficult reality for Christians and the Church, particularly since the Church left the catacombs for the glow of the imperial courts and the cliquish comfort of suburban barbecues. The Gospel of Morality and Respectability has replaced the Gospel of the Risen Christ. There has been plenty of discussion in recent years about many on the margins of society and the Church (though arguably not enough productive change). The isolation of LGBT people. The mistreatment of women. The persecution of ethnic and racial minorities. The exclusion of the disabled. These are, and should continue to be, important issues in our communal life. And yet, even then, we haven’t even begun to step out into the reality of Christ’s reign.
Take, for example, sex workers—a group whose members and former members are disproportionately represented in the gospels. Sex workers (and I use the term here in the broadest sense) are a group easy to dismiss with parochial moralizing and, consequently, to shun. Respectable people, nice Christian people, do not hang out with prostitutes. Consequently, those who do sex work are marked as untouchable forever. Even when sex workers do what we seemingly want them to do and leave the profession, they are frequently stigmatized. Jesus let a former prostitute wash his feet, and we will not let her teach school in New York State.
Now, in the case of sex workers, fortunately (or not), we actually have a real opportunity to repent, because sex workers and sex work are in the news. The FOSTA-SESTA bill was signed into law by the president on April 11th. The bill, commonly known as the “anti-trafficking” bill, creates criminal penalties for websites where sex work is discussed, advertised, or bought and sold. And nearly every expert agrees, it is the absolute wrong approach for addressing the blight of human trafficking. Instead by shutting down the online forums where consensual sex workers find their clients, FOSTA-SESTA puts these women and men at greater risk. Because internet forums have become a way for sex workers to screen their clients and organize with one another for safety and support, helping to make just a little safer what is, inevitably, an incredibly dangerous line of work. For example, a 2017 study by economists Scott Cunningham (Baylor University), Gregory DeAngelo (West Virginia University) and John Tripp (Baylor University) found a causal link between that the appearance of Craigslists “erotic section” and a 17.5% drop in the female homicide rate in cases where the perpetrator was a stranger to the victim, a demographic in which sex workers are disproportionately represented. Traffickers do not care about the safety of their victims and so will soon find other, probably less safe, ways to advertise. But consensual sex workers, sex workers working for themselves, they do care. They know that there are risks involved and they have come to rely on the internet as a way to mitigate some of those risks. FOSTA-SESTA does not fight human trafficking. It simply forces sex workers back into much more dangerous work on the streets, work often controlled by pimps, while giving us a sense of (false) moral satisfaction that we have done something to stop trafficking.
The impact of FOSTA-SESTA is already being felt. Craigslist.com has shut down its “Personals” section, and Microsoft has changed its “Terms of Service” to eliminate the exchange of pornography across its platforms. Backpage, a popular forum for the advertisement of sexual services, has been seized by the Department of Justice. The easy ethics of suburban Christianity might suggest this is something to celebrate, but the deeper moral universe of a life lived in the often messy light of the Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen Christ offers something else. These actions help corporations avoid liability under FOSTA-SESTA and make good PR fodder for corporations and government bodies alike, but do nothing to stop human trafficking. Rather these new policies endanger sex workers by making it more difficult for them to screen clients and engage with support networks. We know this, because that is what sex workers are telling us and it is what the data shows.
This is the Gospel of Respectability. It says that the sickness of sin can be removed by law, by more rules, by more silence, by more shame. That is not what we see in the life of Christ, where sin is eradicated not by making up more rules that push the rule-breakers further to the edge. Instead sin and even death are destroyed through encounter with the Divine, by the calling of everyone into community. It is a strange message to forget in the same season in which we sing the Hymn of Kassiani. Judas, the Betrayer of Christ, accused the repentant woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears. Judas wanted only the money that the sale of her ointment would garner, and he knew exactly how to get it. The man, of whom Scripture tells us it “would have been better for that man if he had not been born,” counted in part on the fact that nothing and no one is lower than a whore. Behind that prejudice, he could hide his theft, his avarice, his deicide. But Jesus, he wasn’t going to allow that. He defended her. He told Judas to leave her alone, to leave her alone to worship Christ. He knew that what would heal her, what would safeguard her ability to “go and sin no more” was not more shame, not more rules, but an encounter with Him.
Moreover, it is clear that Judas could not slut-shame away someone’s essential right to be heard, to be seen, to be safe. You cannot slut-shame away God’s love for his creation. If someone does try to pretend that being that particular kind of sinful makes someone less worthy in the eyes of God, well, check the money box.
If there is any way in which the message of the Gospel, in which the life of Jesus Christ, departs entirely from the message of the world, from the life we live in this fallen state, it is here. Before anyone freaks out at me on Facebook, let me assure you: I am not interested in the Assembly of Bishops issuing someone sort of anti-FOSTA-SESTA encyclical. Even I know better than that. Instead, I am merely asking all of us to reflect and repent. That we stop choosing the Gospel of Respectability over the Paschal proclamation.
So, here are some questions we should be asking:
- What are the nature of our thoughts and words around sex workers and sex work?
- Do we support policies which punish or endanger sex workers?
- How do we legitimize such support?
- What are we doing as individuals and parishes to assure that the woman who washed the feet of Jesus would feel welcomed to hear the hymn written about her?
- How can we has individuals and communities reach out to sex workers, who in the light of FOSTA-SESTA, are facing a frightening time?
If we can ask and answer these questions, we will be better for it. If we can act on those answers, we will be closer to the Kingdom. Next up: drug addicts.
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