A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Is Prostitution a Sin?
March 9, 2003
Lent 1 Mark 1:9-13
Three times they asked me, "Is prostitution a sin?" Twice I answered, "That's not the point!" The third time, more out of frustration than careful thought, I answered, "No!"
The occasion was a talk back radio interview after going public in support of the decriminalisation of prostitution. After I finally gave in and said no, the interview tailed off and the interviewers cut the phone dead as they cursed my lack of morals. I felt a little like Peter at the time of Jesus' execution with the repeated questions attempting to nail me.
The issue of sex work and the law is being hotly debated at present and seems a good issue to explore as we begin the journey through Lent. It raises many important questions. What is sin? Is sin only personal and private? What is the connection between personal choice and law making? How do we mend broken social situations, and how can the law aid this process? I hope to begin to address some of these questions by telling some stories of my experience of prostitution on the streets of King's Cross in Sydney where I saw some of the reality. Keep in mind that my experience in the early 1990's was pre-decriminalisation in NSW.
One of my jobs was to drive errant clients out of the area after they had refused to pay or abused a worker. The grapevine worked effectively and within minutes there would be scores of male, female and transsexual street workers baying for blood at the doorsteps of the café the church operated. My task was to escort the drunken middle aged men through the crowds and into my car, then drive them to the next suburb's train station. I usually left them with the advice to not show their face again. The major damage was usually to my car which, to the day it stopped running, had the marks of the stilettos in its doors as a constant reminder to me of the violence of the world I was living in.
Who was sinning in this situation? Was it the sex worker choosing to live amidst this violence, or the perpetrator who inflicted the violence? Of course it becomes a ludicrous question. The whole situation is tragic, and personal sin is the least of all considerations. You could even say that the law sins when it criminalises the victim and supports the perpetrator.
On another occasion I observed a sex worker attend a church service, conspicuous by her dress and clearly in between clients. The respectable people in the congregation were able with their judgmental glances to make the woman feel so out of place, so 'other' that she left cursing the church. Who is sinning here, the woman who has chosen a life of violence or the religious people who can't see past their prejudices?
Lent has been hijacked in some circles as a time of reflection on personal sin. Traditionally it is associated with preparation for baptism and often includes fasting or being denied a pleasure. What is rarely considered is that baptism itself is a corporate act, particularly when we baptise infants. It is an act which unites family and church and community. In fact many groups who have moved towards the practice of adult baptism have turned it into a personal righteousness initiation. They have left behind the radical and political nature of baptism in the time of Jesus. It was an act of defiance, a public declaration of allegiance to a cause, and it was an act of solidarity.
So for Lent the act of fasting, if that is chosen, should be more a matter of solidarity with the hungry, or those who are oppressed than a matter of personal cleansing. Come back then to the issue of prostitution. I'm well aware that there are different opinions on the issue. It is not straightforward. The number one consideration for the church should be solidarity. In this case solidarity with the sex worker who in the Jesus scheme is prime candidate for God's preferential love. The way we can show solidarity with the sex worker currently is to support decriminalisation, as it will make their choice (or lack of choice in some cases) safer. It will minimise the harm.
We have the ashes of last Wednesday still faintly marking our foreheads, the reminder that God's hope arrives, always arrives in the midst of despair, often in the least likely places. We move towards the memorial of the political death of Jesus, travelling the way of solidarity, the way of God's love for the despised in society. We move towards Jerusalem constantly reminded that the seat of power will go to extreme lengths to maintain its privilege, and we reflect on the global role of the US at present.
We follow the Jesus journey with the good news of the constant possibility of resurrection always before us. There will be risk involved, but the reward will be fresh hope. If we decriminalise prostitution we are told there are risks, an increase in sex work and exploitation. We are told that it has happened in places like NSW. My experience on the streets of Sydney tells me that the self-regulation which occurred in the early 1990's could not have been any more violent and destructive. What the industry lacked was solidarity, from the law, from police, from politicians and especially from the church.
The Easter lesson for me was the resistance to the presence of the café in the same street as a respectable church school. We fought for its future, we kept coming back because we believe in a God who keeps coming back despite the resistance. The Easter lesson for me was the trannie who came out of the cold into the café for a chat and a coffee between clients. She was tired and struggling, and her humanity was overwhelming as she asked us about our lives and our church. The reminder again was that faith is found especially in those who have experienced loss and despair.
Our Easter journey is to know and feel the suffering, the isolation, the fear of our neighbour, even the sex worker, and to offer solidarity. In that we will show how much we have loved.