A Christian response to Amnesty’s call for decriminalized prostitution

Michelle Brock

Michelle Brock
August 17, 2015

There are ways - other than legalizing it - that Christians can meet the problem of prostitution with love.

Doug Vande Griend
August 17, 2015

The problem in the argument for decrimalizing prostitution,that it will eliminate human trafficking, is this: unless underage prostitution is also legalized, it won't eliminate underage humsn trafficking.

Setting the underage difficulty aside for a moment, this is a difficult question for those who advocate political pluralism -- I being among them. At what point, and for that reasons, should the government, prohibit a person from engaging in sex acts? The inherent difficulty in the question leads many libertarians of course to say it just shouldn't.

This is a question that demands a careful defining of the role (sphere) of government, not just making an easy decision about what private behavior is right and what is wrong. Were the latter the case, government should also criminalize taking God's name in vain and coveting.

Glenn Miles
August 17, 2015

I believe in the Swedish model where those who use prostitutes are criminalised rather than the prostitute. however I also I agree that love is the answer but how many ministries do you know that reach to 'johns'? I was working with one from Bangkok called the MST project and another in Cambodia called GLUE Ministries. The model the latter ministry has is to believe that the men involved in the outreach can get alongside male clients simply because they have experienced God's grace and those men have not yet done so. As Christians we also need to recognise that we are also vulnerable to getting entangled in this issue especially if we play with the fire of pornography.

Bonnie Nicholas
August 17, 2015

Little girls (or boys) do not grow up wanting to be "sex workers". Rarely does anyone choose to join this "profession". The ways that people are brought in are most often violent and dehumanizing. Sex trafficking of minors is a growing international problem. Making prostitution legal is NOT an answer for anyone who cares about human rights or the safety of our children. It does NOT empower women or anyone. It's so very, very sad that such a reputable organization, one that does so much good,has taken this stance. It seems to go against everything that they stand for.

August 17, 2015

I have strongly mixed feelings on this one. I'm not sure I think decriminalizing prostitution is going to work the way some expect it to. I think it will simply cause it to go the way of pornography: there will be the "legitimate" side, and then there will be the seedy "underside" that exploits children and other vulernables. In other words, it won't solve the most heinous problems of sex trafficking in the places where it is most problematic. It may also make enforcing sex trafficking laws more difficult because there will be a fine line between what constitutes illegal sex trafficking and legitimate prostitution--I'm thinking of girls forced by enslavement or otherwise coerced by circumstances into the sex trade as children but who later escape and choose prostitution as a "profession" for want of resources to do better--that being the familiar life they know.

Nevertheless, I'm reluctant to say that decriminalizing prostitution is going to suddenly make any of these problems worse, either. On the contrary, it's possible that it will alleviate some of the legal battles that tend to complicate the jobs of those who earnestly desire to help prostitutes and former prostitutes who are looking to break the cycle. It might keep more former prostitutes out of prison cells, for one, and that could potentially improve the impact of social services ministries for this needy class.

The one thing I'm certain of is that the sex trade, whether it be the decriminalized "legitimate" side or the exploitative black market of human trafficking, is a sexual victim machine. It destroys the kind of flourishing God's design for human sexuality intends, and as such, it demands a strong Christian response. But what victims at all levels in the sex trade most need is not legal protection; it's the gospel. Inasmuch as decriminalization might bring the issue out into the open so that the gospel could be more forthrightly applied to our ministry with sex workers, I'm cautiously for it.

David Greusel
August 17, 2015

I wonder if there's a connection between this issue and the taboo against paying people for organ donations? Something about the integrity of the human person, perhaps?

August 20, 2015

Whenever I read pieces that string together heroic sounding calls like this. . .

"When we’re faced with a mother who sells her body so her children don’t starve, we must address the systems of injustice that place her in that position in the first place, perhaps by fighting on her behalf against fixed rental markets and urging our political leaders to implement a living wage,"

I think "uh-huh, absolutely, and in the meantime, what is best for those women?"

If our love for them has nothing to do with making their day better today, tomorrow or next week, aren't we just spinning our own fantasies of paradise, in which somehow we are going to be the heroes?

20 percent of children in this country live below the poverty line. We're hardly making a dent, even while "urging our political leaders" to make changes. And in other parts of the world -- hunger, a lack of clean drinking water, war, environmental destruction and unspeakable violence -- drive people into overcrowded cities, or to places where they are displaced refugees. (Like Sweden.) I believe we should knock ourselves out working on these things -- but women have to make the best decisions they can for themselves today, for themselves and for their children.

Sweden has taken in 40,000 Syrian refugees, the US -- less than 100. (Wikipedia) Perhaps they are doing the best they can, making the calculus that they can save lives, even if they can't make those lives as heartbreak-free as they'd like. Maybe they are making choices which are as compassionate as they can be, under the circumstances.

Michelle Brock
August 21, 2015

In Reply to Doug Vande Griend (comment #27398)

Yes, this issue definitely sparks conversation about where the government should step in. If decriminalization only affected private, consensual adult sex transactions, the government could simply lift all criminality, letting people do as they wish, case closed. But there is a concept of shared freedom at play.

If my freedom to do something contributes to a system that undermines the freedom of the most vulnerable sector of society, my freedom should be reigned in. The government, though not perfect by any means, should protect our shared freedom. But where to draw that line is a tricky one.

Michelle Brock
August 21, 2015

In Reply to JKana (comment #27401)

LOVE your heart for the Gospel! Legislative decisions have nothing on the transforming love of Jesus, you are absolutely right. I think the beauty of the Gospel is that it operates outside of manmade boundaries and red tape. Thanks for bringing us back to this.

A common misconception is that decriminalization brings the sex industry into the open. It brings a *portion* of the industry into the open. It's actually quite easy to exploit people within a decriminalized system, and a lot of it is out of sight, in private apartments where police and care workers can't access it. But yes, the ones "in the open" can access services, which is good.

While there will always be men (and some women) who buy sex, laws can have normative effects. A man I spoke to in Sweden told us that when the sex purchase law came into effect, he was in his early 20s, and all of a sudden it sparked a conversation between him and his male friends about whether it was a human right to purchase sex. He said it drastically changed the dialogue with men his age in Sweden.

I do think that legislation can have effects on demand levels, which in turn has an effect on supply. That's why I'm in favour of criminalizing the purchase of sex. But one thing everyone agrees with - those selling sex should not be criminalized.

August 22, 2015

In Reply to Michelle Brock (comment #27407)

"I do think that legislation can have effects on demand levels, which in turn has an effect on supply. That’s why I’m in favour of criminalizing the purchase of sex. But one thing everyone agrees with - those selling sex should not be criminalized."

Michelle, I certainly wouldn't want to split hairs here, because I sense that you and I are on the same moral page on this issue...but I did want to make one small comment on this statement, because it concerns an aspect of legal philosophy that I sometimes encounter and it irks me just a little.

To explain where I'm coming from, you have to step back from the issue of what's for sale. Let's imagine we're talking about something less volatile, like horses. Imagine if the state of Texas were to suddenly tell me, it's now illegal to buy a horse. It's okay for someone to sell a horse, if they want...but if we catch you buying one, we'll put you in prison. I don't know that I speak for anyone besides myself, but I find that line of reasoning ludicrous. If the purchase of a horse is illegitimate, than so is the sale of a horse. They're two sides of the same transactional coin. You can't legitimately offer for sale what another cannot legitimately buy, in other words.

I fully appreciate what decriminalizing the sale (but not the purchase) of sex is intended to accomplish. I simply disagree with the approach because I think it deleteriously communicates two messages at the same time: (1) there's nothing wrong with selling your body for personal gain (when we clearly think there is); and (2) there's something criminally wrong with allowing someone to sell their body to you for your personal enjoyment (even though we're okay with them selling it for their gain). Why not simply unify the message by uniformly criminalizing both sides of the sex-for-sale transaction? There's nothing that says we have to lock up prostitutes and treat them as though their crime is best addressed through harsh punishment (see my previous TC post on exactly this issue), but I don't see where simply doing away with the illegality of it is helpful, unless we're prepared to do the same for the johns and look for other morally distinct way to deal with the problem of underage exploitation and human trafficking.

Just my two cents...and I don't expect everyone to agree. I sincerely respect simply that there are countries out there trying to deal more aggressively with the issue in any way they can.

Michelle Brock
August 25, 2015

In Reply to JKana (comment #27409)
Yep, these are valid points. If the goal is to have a robust sex market, you are right, the Swedish model makes no sense. Just like in your example, it would be silly to allow someone to sell a horse but not allow someone to buy a horse. But here's the difference: a person selling a horse is generally not in a position of vast inequality compared to person buying a horse. In contrast, in the sex industry, research demonstrates that the person selling sex almost always (though there are of course exceptions) is in a position of less power than the person paying. Therefore, an asymmetrical approach is required.

This asymmetrical approach is used in other circumstances where vulnerability is present (ie loan sharking - it is not illegal to borrow money from a loan shark, but it is illegal to be a loanshark). This addresses the asymmetrical nature of the transaction. The borrower in this case is inherently in a position of vulnerability, while the loaner is not.

In a similar manner, the person selling sex is usually in a position of vulnerability, while the person buying sex has money and more power. As one of our anti-trafficking friends likes to point out, "I've never met a man who had to purchase sex in order to feed his children."

Criminalizing the person with the power has very different effects than criminalizing the person with profound vulnerability. If we criminalize the person selling sex, it will be more difficult for them the get the help of police, more difficult to get a job (since they'd have a criminal record), more difficult for them to leave if they wanted to. Criminalizing both parties has not worked to help vulnerable people out of their situation.

As Christians, we of course believe that selling our bodies is not what God intended. At some point, we all have to take responsibility for our own actions, and I've met many women who have left the industry and found freedom in its fullness. But if we don't address the skewed power dynamics and hold purchasers to account, it will be very challenging to prevent sexual exploitation.

I think we all agree that this needs so, so much prayer.

Thanks for caring about this issue JKana!

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