And While We’re On The Subject . . .

I do tend to have strong feelings about prostitution. To be certain, I have strong feelings about pretty much everything — Jell-o, New Age flute music, and Frye boots, for example. But my time in Odessa, Texas, back in the early 1980s, when, just out of college, I worked as a police reporter, just as Odessa was enjoying the distinction of having the highest murder rate in the nation for cities its size, opened my eyes. At 22, I began a year during which I saw a number of dead bodies, reported from way too many shootings, rushed to more car wrecks, plane crashes, and gas-line explosions than I ever thought statistically possible in a 14-month period. Mine was the crime/vice/disaster beat, and while I grew up in a fairly violent area of Tucson and had seen a lot of tragedy — by 16, I had had some half a dozen friends who’d been shot — it was a life-altering experience, and one for the better. While doing a feature on prostitution in Odessa, I befriended two women I’ve written about before, T.J. and Casey, who were lovers, sex workers, heroin addicts and dear friends of mine. I knew I’d marry Jeff when, on a visit to Odessa, he asked to meet some of my friends. I gulped, and then told him about Casey and T.J.; when he responded with, “OK, where do you think they’d want to go eat? Western Sizzlin’ or Denny’s?,” I knew I had a keeper. Casey and I lost touch, but T.J. and I corresponded well into the early years of my marriage, and it was only after her release from prison on drug charges that she dropped off the radar. I’ve spent hours trying to find her online, but I’m not even sure she’s alive. The early ’80s were a bad time to be sharing needles in a drug hangout motel, and my guess is that she didn’t make it. I hope I’m wrong. The life that T.J. and Casey lived was fraught with danger, and most of us wonder how anyone could decide not only to sell their bodies for the sexual pleasures and perversities of men, much less do so in an environment of poverty, violence, degradation, and drugs. I’ve argued that women who choose to be prostitutes don’t so much “choose” their situation as much as they’re conditioned to believe that they have no other value other than as sexual repositories, no other options other than to be used in the way women have been used for centuries, and no other options but to believe that poverty is their lot — because they’re poor, because they’re alone, because they’re abusing and being abused, and because they’re women. Men will pay for pussy; that “sure thing” sometimes looks like a lifeline. We can thank patriarchy for most of this; like a “touch of cancer” or a “little bit of AIDS,” patriarchy even in its mildest form usually results in something far more pernicious than it promises. We Christians, and those who think that the U.S. is a Christian nation, recognize that the using of another for sex, and doing so for money, is a sin. We see that offering oneself up for paid sex is a sin. We’re clear, then, that prostitutes are engaged in sin, although precious little outrage is expressed over the sinful conditions that might have forced them into prostitution, the violence and abuse they usually suffer in pursuing it, and the role of men — often good, respectable Christian men — in enabling and participating in it. So we demand that prostitution be made illegal — we have criminal penalties for the sex worker and for the solicitor, and we believe that we’ve found an appropriate answer to our problem and a “Christian” response to the sin it represents. We acknowledge the existence of high-class, high-paid call girls who work in relative safety — safety that corresponds to the safety they’ve experienced before deciding to become escorts to the rich and powerful — and yet we find their behavior to be something different. Illegal, immoral, but not, somehow, as offensive. The “high-class call girls” of the movies, or on K Street in D.C., aren’t dirty, ugly, unkept and desperate, with the facial scarring that hails meth usage and the diseases that accompany work on the streets, or publicly plying their wares in hideous costumes that enhance their role as Easy Sex Commodities. These women are visible, and they make us uncomfortable. And so we aim our law enforcement at the women, and the few young boys, on the street. But, as is the case with most attempts to legislate volitional moral behaviors that, in their purest, textbook form are seen as victimless, the law doesn’t work. Many prostitute-john encounters go well, at least as far as the participants are concerned; one pays for a service, the other performs it, and they part ways. It’s no less sinful, but at least these instances leave both parties satisfied that services were, in fact, rendered for services paid. Unfortunately, there are numerous times that it doesn’t “go well” for the prostitute — encounters during which she’s raped, beaten, not paid, stolen from, or, as those of us who follow crime reports know, abducted, killed, and dumped. The “mutually beneficial” encounter, which isn’t beneficial to anyone and which reinforces the woman’s status as paid-for pussy, might possibly be the majority of prostitution encounters — that is, before the woman has to fork over her day’s wages to a pimp who may or may not beat the hell out of her, rape her, or send her out for more perverse and therefore more lucrative outings. I’ve seen Casey after a john beat her, and I’ve seen T.J. mainline heroin in an angry, destructive response to having a john rip her off. But the laws we’ve enacted in our moral outrage make it hard for them to do what you or I would do if someone beat us up or stole from us. Sex workers can’t go to the police because in doing so, they reveal their status as prostitutes and risk being arrested, or, if not, dismissed in their pain and also focused on in their crime. They lack the protections, legal and moral, that we enjoy, and lack them precisely because, in our misguided attempt to “get it right” by making sure that sinful behavior is legally punished, we’ve left them more vulnerable. We’ve decided, in effect, that our legitimate concern over sin is more important than the lives of those engaged in the sin, and while our conviction that prostitution is a sin is a cheap, easily-won point, the losers are those condemned women who most need societal protection. Legalizing prostitution would help keep these women safe. It wouldn’t require that we all sign off on the moral legitimacy of prostitution, it wouldn’t result in the downfall of society, it doesn’t pollute the witness of the Gospel, and it wouldn’t make us complicit in their sin. It would, however, keep thousands of women and boys safer by offering them the same access to police help that we enjoy. The problem is, we don’t care. We don’t like these people, and the masculinist, power-legitimizing climate of the day — the climate nurtured and embraced by the powerful and hypocritical elements of what passes for “conservatism” these days and is adopted by the Religious Right as its entry into halls of power and towers of moral righteousness — ensures a victim pool of poor, desperate women who don’t need or benefit from our moral outrage. These are Jesus’ “least of these,” and if our offense were directed toward their suffering and victimization instead of our making sure society knows we disapprove, they could be kept safer — and they could be won for the Kingdom. Further, if we directed our wrath toward the structures that enslave them, society and the Church that claims to influence it could actually demonstrate a Gospel vision that focuses on the needs of people rather than the need to be counted among those who throw stones at them.

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