Prostitution is not a career choice

You would think that all women would be united in seeing prostitution as exploitation – it is wrong for women to sell their bodies to strangers for sex.

But somehow in the 90s in the rush to support prostitutes rather than condemn them, some feminists and sex workers claimed that women could choose sex work and that it could be empowering: if women wanted to make money selling their bodies to pay for their degree course or the rent, that was a legitimate choice.

This scenario of the high class call girl making her own way in the world was an early storyline in The West Wing. Sam, a speechwriter for the new President, discovers that an attractive woman he met at a party and had sex with, is actually a call girl. Laurie is paying her way through law school and does not want to be ‘rescued’ by the well-meaning Sam. Over a number of episodes, he learns to accept her choice and by implication, the audience is asked to accept her decision too.

The trouble is that the storyline about Laurie is NOT the experience of 99% of women in the sex industry. But it creates the idea prostitution is an acceptable line of business and nowadays you can be criticised for thinking girls need to escape from its clutches.

When I was in Amsterdam a week ago to plan for a meeting (ironically) about empowering global women leaders, we met in the YWAM office right in the heart of the bar and sex district. I was struck by the groups wandering through the red-light district with their tour guides, who were being invited to gawp at women on display in windows as if sordid sex with strangers is just another part of the fun in the city. On a walking tour, you can meet ex-prostitutes and ask them “any question you like”. You can see the world’s first condom shop and prostitutes in the red & blue-lit window brothels. This is all marketed as part of vibrant Dutch ‘culture’.

The Netherlands is a source, destination, and transit country for women, men and children for sex trafficking. Dutch girls are enticed by young “loverboys,” who prey on vulnerable girls intimidating them into sexual exploitation; unaccompanied children seeking asylum are targeted outside asylum centres; and young women are brought in from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, lured by sham job promises.

This is a picture repeated in many places across the world, as the horrifying story of the girls in Rochdale UK testifies. But in the Netherlands where the sex industry is legal, the emphasis is on a liberated approach to sex and not on the suffering.

What is going on here? Sex work is overwhelmingly a miserable experience for women and girls (and young men too). Along with the slavery of trafficking are the drugs, diseases, violence and money laundering.

 

Sex is not about sniggering at women in red-lit windows, or legitimising prostitution as girls mothering poor men who have a lonely life – it is an industry of power and exploitation.

MajoorThat is why I was so pleased to come across the bronze statue of Majoor Alida Bosshardt in the centre of Amsterdam. In the same district where semi-naked women are paraded in glass booths, Major Bosshardt sits in her prim Salvation Army uniform. In her 30s, she rented a house to offer help to the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes.

For over 50 years (from the 1940s), she dedicated herself to restoring dignity to the most vulnerable, and rescuing any who wanted to take the leap into a fresh life. She was well-known on television as well as the streets of the city.

She said, “To serve God means to serve people and to serve people is to serve God”.

In 2009, two years after her death, the Majoor (as she was always known), was voted the Greatest Amsterdammer of All Time.

Yet I did not see the tour groups stopping before her statue.

In her attitude to the women she helped, the Majoor never pretended that the work of a prostitute was empowering. And if you asked girls on the street they may not want our pity but they do want recognition of their exploitation.

You can’t dress it up as anything else.

 

Digging deeper As with most issues, there are complexities to the issue of prostitution.

Should prostitution be decriminalised? For more information on actions taken by governments to tackle prostitution, eg the pros and cons of the Swedish model, see: http://time.com/3005687/what-the-swedish-model-gets-wrong-about-prostitution/?#

Can we ever say that prostitution is a valid career choice? Read more here: http://theihti.org/swedens-model-uncovered/

What about the men who use prostitutes?  You can read a depressing article about research on men who use prostitutes here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/jan/15/why-men-use-prostitutes

PRAY for and support Christian groups like the Salvation Army, A21 and IJM that reach out to prostitutes who are the victims of trafficking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Side by Side – a parable for 2015

Side by side on the front page of the weekend edition of the New York Times[1] I saw an article about trafficked children who end up in detention in Libya treated as criminals; and one about the record auction price paid for a Picasso – US$179 million.

ny timesMy heart churns at this spectacular juxtaposition of distressing exploitation and unbridled consumerism.

The children in the article on trafficking, a few as young as eight, are some of the thousands of under-18s who travel alone from North Africa, trying to get to Italy through Libya. 13,000 made it to Italy in 2014.

Children are the most vulnerable segment of the 200,000 who tried to get to Europe by boat last year. They are lured by a promise of asylum in Europe but the dream quickly turns to debt and threats. Smugglers demand more than US$3000 from desperately poor parents back home. No payment? The kids are abandoned to detention in Libya. Even for those who get on a boat, the situation is fraught – fifty children drowned with over 650 adults when a boat capsized in April in the Mediterranean. How many more go missing in less noticeable boats?

Most of the children coming from North Africa are from Eritrea (though the roll call of countries includes all the poorest and most fragile nations). The UK, USA and Australia all advise against travel to Eritrea – it is a place of lawless danger. There are very few schools, no jobs and boys want to escape from military service which is akin to slave labour. Of course they have no idea about the lies and cruelty of the smugglers who hunt for prey along the routes to Europe.

This story of exploitation and modern slavery is repeated in the UK where around 3,000 Vietnamese children are in forced labour. Or on the seas off Indonesia where Rohingya refuges crowded on boats are pushed away, unwanted by Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. Australia, my home nation refused to assist 700 Rohingya on a sinking boat. The Rohingya, one of the most persecuted groups in the world, are falling victim to trafficking into Malaysia and Thailand, countries with a poor record of human rights.

How can we respond to desperate need with such callous lack of charity?

The response of some politicians is that rescuing people in the Med or off Indonesia only encourages more people to come.

It’s true, we do need to address the causes of need in Eritrea, Sudan, Vietnam and Burma, which means generous aid and access to economic growth, not cutting the aid budget as Australia has done last month. But we must also give immediate aid to the victims of exploitation because God demands that we do so (or basic human rights if you don’t want to bring God into it). And we need to support those on the front line in Italy or Indonesia so they don’t have the whole burden of providing care.

I am not a liberal lovey or a naïve idealist – I just know that we need to respond.

So once again, talk, chat, argue about these issues to overcome fear and prejudice.

Please write to your Foreign Minister (and send a copy to your local political representative) about this. I have included a sample letter about the Rohingya that you could adapt)

If we do not speak out, politicians will think there is no mandate for compassion.

PS. As for the sale of the Picasso, I do not need to tell you the details – suffice to say that the NY Times estimates that the top 1% of wealthy people in the world have their own hierarchy of ‘inequality’ and that someone who can afford $179 million for a single painting must be in the top 0.0001% of wealthy people. Madness!

PPS. Please pray for local people in Italy, Lebanon, Jordan, Indonesia and other places facing an influx of refugees. Pray that they will be open-hearted and pray that other nations in Europe and Asia and North America will not harden their hearts.

Sample Letter about the Rohingya (my thanks to Oddny Gumaer from Partners Relief and Development for drafting this letter)

Dear

I am deeply concerned about the continuing humanitarian crisis we see unfolding in the Andaman Sea, where thousands of Rohingya refugees are trapped in unseaworthy vessels trying to escape persecution in Myanmar/Burma.

I am sure you are aware of the recent crisis involving over 700 people stranded for several weeks. They had no food or water, and many needed urgent medical care. About 1/3 of the refugees were children.

The Rohingya are the most persecuted people group in Myanmar. In 1982, a new Citizenship Law removed their citizenship and rendered them stateless. The law has a very serious impact on the one million Rohingya who cannot move freely, and are denied basic services. In recent years more than 140,000 Rohingya have been forced into camps that many refer to as concentration camps. As life has become more intolerable for the Rohingya, thousands have made the decision to flee by sea.

Malaysian and Thai authorities have said that they will push back boats and deport migrants and refugees, to prevent further arrivals, in contravention of international law.

I want to urge you, to take action on behalf of the Rohingya refugees. Please put pressure on the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments to allow Rohingya boats to land on their shores and urge the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to work towards a humane and just solution to the refugee crisis, including measures to rescue those at sea.

I also ask that you speak up for the rights of Rohingya in Burma, Bangladesh and Malaysia. An urgent response is needed as this vulnerable group is also falling victim to trafficking.

Yours sincerely,

[1] It was the international edition for Sunday May 24