Sex Work and the Church’s Job
Sex has been an economized commodity since early human history, and in many parts of the world sex work remains thriving business.
How should Christians respond to sex workers?
One religious response to sex workers has been to see such people as worthless because of the immorality involved (e.g., the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-39). Yet Jesus modeled a better way. While never affirming sinful acts, Jesus regularly brought healing and grace to people who were suffering. And sex work is often a path of great suffering.
It’s not news that sex workers—who perform sex acts for money, whether through pornography, exotic dancing, prostitution, etc.—are often horribly abused and ostracized.
I reached out to two Christians with experience ministering to sex workers to help me understand the issues, as well as to give advice on how the Church can be Jesus to them. First was Candy Carter, an expert on care for victims of human trafficking. Second was Hilarie Maynard, a social worker with experience ministering to prostitutes in XiaMen, China.
Sex work is often linked to issues such as
- abuse – Research shows that a high percentage of prostitutes have been sexually abused as children, whether before or after their entrance into prostitution. Two thirds are abused by male relatives, and over ninety percent feel they have no control over the abusive situation. “Furthermore, in response to the question inquiring about the effect of the abuse on the victims’ decision to become a prostitute, 70 percent reported that the exploitation affected their decision” (286).
- addiction – Sex work and drugs seem to go hand in hand. This article details the prevalence of a “work-score-use” pattern in sex work, where sex workers “are trapped in a cycle of selling sex and buying and using drugs.” And this article explains that “Drug-dependent sex workers typically work on the street, experiencing the greatest risks to health compared with the general population.”
- organized crime – Hilarie mentioned the Hei Shou Dang, or the Black Mafia, and their close ties to sex work in China. Candy also talked about this: “Many of the Asian workers will shut down and not speak because they know it will cost their family back home. This is common with Hispanics as well; if the Mexican mafia is involved, they know other lives are at stake.” Pimps are often associated with the mafia and use this leverage as a way to maintain the use of their sex workers long-term.
- poverty – Trafficking is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world, and it is often an unfortunate answer to poverty. Many parents around the world sell themselves or their children for basic needs—an act called “survival sex.”
- trauma – According to a study in Vancouver, over seventy percent of prostitutes meet DSM-IV qualifications for PTSD, and the results were consistent in South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, the USA, and Zambia (255). In a talk on trauma as a pre-condition to prostitution, Ingeborg Kraus discusses the importance of dissociation—a major aspect of trauma—for sex work: “Women aren’t in a position to defend themselves. They make their bodies available and suffer extreme violence. These women become more and more traumatized.”
The statistics on sex work in the United States are hard to clearly define for several reasons, but most numbers indicate 1-2 million Americans are working as prostitutes alone.
According to the Scelles Foundation, 90% of prostitutes around the world work for a pimp. And just in the US, an estimated 18-20 thousand people are entered into trafficking every year. The United States is actually in the top three for worst countries for trafficking. Part of this could be, as Geoff Rogers, cofounder of the US Institute Against Human Trafficking, put it, “The United States is the number one consumer of sex worldwide. So we are driving the demand as a society.”
So how can we do God’s work in such brokenness?
Hilarie said it succinctly: “Prostitution is the antithesis of the gospel. It’s taking pleasure from people who are disadvantaged. It’s everything Jesus is not.” Caring for sex workers means building their trust, their self-worth, and their hope.
Candy said, “Healing comes when hope is restored. Hope is restored when Christ is recognized.” Jesus was a servant who taught self-sacrifice to help the disadvantaged, so to help sex workers recognize Jesus and themselves as part of His plan, we need to “be of the same mind,” as Paul said in Philippians 2. John 13:35 says people will know our allegiance to Christ by love.
So how do we start to show love to these people?
“Meet them face to face, where they are,” Candy said. “Find out what they need most (tangibly). Usually, it’s basic resources (food, shelter, etc.). Provide resources to them, but actually walk it out with them.”
Hilarie added about the importance of prayer, especially as protection for both the sex workers and those reaching out when entering such spiritual warfare: “There are dark strongholds that, when you start praying to tear those down, the evil stuff that’s been untouched begins to fight back.” Candy echoed this and emphasized the heavy price required: “It will require sacrifice itself on your part if you really care and choose to help. Most of our society has learned to throw money or objects at a problem but are not willing to aid in the inner healing. . . . Everything else is temporary solutions to a permanent problem.”
I also searched the Bible for direction and remembered many mentions of sex work.
Delilah was paid by the Philistines to seduce Samson and learn his weakness (Judges 16). Herodias’s daughter came and danced promiscuously for Herod’s birthday (Matthew 14:6-8, Mark 6:22). Jepthah’s prostitute mother, even though she was not even mentioned by name, caused him to be ostracized (Judges 11:1-11). Two prostitutes came before Solomon about the boy they both claimed to be their son (1 Kings 3:16-28).
In both the ancient world and today, yes, sex workers are devalued—but not by God.
God sees beyond the surface to the hurt inside. He cares tremendously for these people, as is clear when looking back at the instances from the Scriptures. God listened to the prayer of Hagar, a slave used for sex by Abram and Sarai in their efforts to control God’s plan for their conception (Genesis 16, 21). Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho, for example, heard what God did in Egypt and helped the spies who came to scout Canaan. She confessed her belief in God and pleaded for salvation in the destruction of Jericho. Her family was spared, she was included in the lineage of Jesus, and she’s in the “hall of faith” (Joshua 2, 6:22-25, Matthew 1:5, Hebrews 11:31). Tamar, mistaken for a prostitute and used by her own father-in-law, was also included in the bloodline of Jesus (Genesis 38, Matthew 1:3).
The Pharisees spoke against “the woman of the city” and focused solely on her sin, but Jesus used her as an example as someone whose “many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown” when she washed his feet with her tears and hair (Luke 7: 36-50).
Jesus said prostitutes would be entering heaven before the religious leaders. He said this to show the Pharisees how they ignored John the Baptist and continued in their self-righteousness, thus blind to the gospel of Jesus. But the prostitutes believed and were therefore rewarded (Matthew 21:31-32).
No one ever falls so far down society’s ladder that Jesus does not meet them there and extend His amazing grace.