Church and sex work

Church and Sex Work by Rev. Lia Scholl

Ask any regular churchgoer about sex workers in the Bible, and they’ll jump directly to Mary Magdalene, even though there’s no biblical evidence that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker. The first person to mention it as a possibility was Pope Gregory the Great in 591 CE, more than 500 years after Mary’s life.

Nonetheless, there are sex workers in the Bible. There’s Tamar, who trades sex with her father-in-law, Judah, in order to have children, which would elevate her standing in society. Rahab, the madam who lived on the wall, protected Hebrew spies in Jericho. There’s even Esther, whose uncle Mordecai placed her in an Egyptian king’s harem, where she eventually became queen. Today, we might see Mordecai’s role as a pimp rather than a father figure.

Not only are these sex workers powerful people in the own right, but they were also significant in the continuation of the Hebrew people, and Tamar and Rahab are even featured in the genealogy of Jesus.

Imagine that... strong women, women who exercise their agency, and women who traded sex, all mixed into one! Of course, that’s not a shock to anyone who knows sex workers in real life. But not many church members know sex workers. Or maybe I should say, “Not many church members will admit to knowing sex workers.”

There are three common responses that individuals in churches have about sex work. The first is “I would never do that!” That response comes from a pretty simplistic view of sex work: it’s sin. There’s no nuance in the view. Just sin. And what should we do with sinners? Their model is Judah’s from Genesis 38: “She’s been playing the harlot, so let’s burn her!”

The second response is a bit more nuanced: “It’s sin that’s trying to steal everything from me!” These individuals tend to see sex workers as a threat to their marriage and happiness. That sex workers aren’t seeking their husbands tends not to factor into their reasoning.

The third response sees sex workers as victims: “Oh, their fathers must have abandoned or abused them” or “They must have been coerced into trading sex!” This is the dominant message of the anti-trafficking movement, and because the anti-trafficking movement has dominated the sex work conversation, most individuals in churches tend to believe that sex workers are victims. They also conflate sex work and trafficking, even though reality may be quite different.

Seeing all sex workers as victims may be a response that flows from compassion, but it may be the most dangerous response. When people see sex workers as victims, they begin to suggest ways to “rescue” them. They suggest things like arresting sex workers, arresting individuals who purchase sex, and using legislative and economic pressure to close businesses. Essentially, they believe that removing agency removes opportunity to trade sex.

Quite the opposite, though, happens in real life:

• Arrest leads to a record, and a record leads to limited job options.
• Closing a strip club leads to unemployment, and unemployment leads individuals to trading sex online.
• Arresting individuals who pay for sex changes the demographics of the purchasers, only people who are not afraid of the law purchase sex.
• Increased financial difficulty leads to less firm negotiations around condom use which leads to more STIs and increased HIV/AIDS rates.
• Increased financial difficulty leads to lessened boundaries and clientele screening processes, which can lead to more violence in the transactions.

These tactics remove agency and lack of agency leads to desperation.

In order for people in churches to think differently, it takes education. But there are barriers to that education, not the least of which is the pastor’s own feeling about sex work, and especially about sex. I once worked with a young woman who wanted help exiting the industry, and when I introduced her to a pastor friend, he stared at her chest the whole time. She was much quicker to forgive him, but I was mortified!

Instead of fighting the industry, I suggest to church members that they fight these three things: stigma, isolation, and economic disenfranchisement. Fighting the stigma involves Jesus’ own words, “Judge not, lest you be judged (Matthew 7:1).” Contend with isolation by befriending sex workers. If they visit your church, be kind. If you have family members who are sex workers, stay open. If you have the opportunity to meet sex workers outside of church, be hospitable. Learn to use social media as a way to get to know people. Listen, rather than fix.

Finally, fight the economic disenfranchisement that so many are facing... convince your congregation to make a real difference in the economic standing of women. Open a childcare center and offer it for free for individuals looking for work. Provide skill-building classes to train and retrain workers. Encourage your congregants to hire individuals seeking opportunities. Teach financial classes at your congregation. Provide scholarships to local colleges. Anything that adds agency, builds options, and creates opportunities makes an effective difference and lay the foundation for real change.

Rev. Lia Scholl is a pastor and sex work ally. Having worked with sex workers for more than 10 years, she’s currently on the board of the Red Umbrella Project in New York. She formerly worked at HIPS in Washington, DC and Star Light Ministries, in Birmingham, Alabama. She pastors the Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia. Her new book, I ------------------
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One would hope that churches

would be the first institutions to step up to support women of all kinds. How far mainstream Christianity has fallen from the teachings of Jesus.