In the fight to abolish slavery two hundred years ago, those seeking reform faced a number of obstacles. The social and economic structures had a powerful interest in maintaining the slave trade, and people at home had little idea of what was really going on aboard slave ships. To expose the evil underbelly of the slave trade, abolitionists needed to challenge the political powers and incite the moral imagination of the culture.
Part of that task involved a painstaking process of explaining what the word slave meant. Yes, there was slavery in the Bible – but the socioeconomic situation of slaves in the first century was not the same as the slavery the abolitionists were talking about in the eighteenth. Slave didn’t mean what people think it meant – and so, reading about beloved slaves like Onesimus did not give Christians a pass at saying the eighteenth-century slave trade was justifiable. As John Newton pointed out, the better biblical word to describe the situation was not slave, but people-stealing as 1 Timothy 1 describes:
“Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.” (KJV – 1 Timothy 1:9-11)
Words teach us how to think, and showing people that the slavery they were dealing with was more accurately men-stealing marked a pivotal change in the way people responded to the issue.
Today the word prostitute needs an overhaul in our thinking too. The way we’ve been using it (and seeing it in the Bible) doesn’t reflect the reality of what is going on in our world at the moment.
I remember when people started to call prostitutes sex workers, a term which emphasized the business-nature of the women involved. Whether it is called prostitution, whoring, or “the oldest profession in the book” – the terms have all focused on it being a woman’s chosen way to earn money.
A quick search through the Scriptures for the word “prostitute” supports this idea: people are repeatedly told not to prostitute themselves, and shame and judgment are reserved for those who would prostitute themselves in this way (Exodus 34:15-16, Leviticus 20:6, Deuteronomy 23:18, to name but a few). Prostitutes in the Bible are women who have made shameful and sinful choices, as Proverbs 7:10 describes: “Then out came a woman to meet him, dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent.” The prostitute of Babylon in Revelation is the ultimate depiction of one who has chosen a path of evil and reaped all its rewards.
For sure: there are women (and men) in our world who choose to sell their bodies for sex. They are prostitutes, or sex workers, by choice. However, the alarming truth of the sex trade today is that a vast majority of those who exchange sex for money in our day and age are not choosing to do so. The truth is, the “prostitutes” today are more often than not vulnerable woman who have been exploited, beaten and violently forced into a trade. They are, to all extents and purposes, sex SLAVES: sold for another’s profit. They are beaten, drugged, brainwashed and manipulated to keep them enslaved. And it does no good to say, “Well, they say this is their choice,” when the truth is that someone is threatening to kill them if they say anything different. Read Liz’s story for a glimpse into what was really going on behind the words of compliance she was forced to utter.
If it is true that many (if not most) of those whose sex is for sale are being held against their will, then the appropriate Biblical word for today’s “prostitutes” is not prostitutes, it is “victims of violence,” “the oppressed,” and “the fatherless.” For most, there is no choice involved. And if the appropriate word is not prostitute, but victim; then the appropriate response from us is mercy, not judgment.
We need to stop thinking of these women and children as prostitutes, if by prostitutes we mean someone who has made a sad and unfortunate choice of career. Children, by law, cannot even legally make this choice. Anyone under the age of eighteen by definition cannot consent to prostitution. They are by definition victims of sex trafficking and victims of violence.
We also need to stop thinking of pimps as “managers” of these shady career women, and instead start to see them as prison guards or slave owners. Their offer of “protection and shelter” is as heinous as the “protection and shelter” offered by the mafia. The relationship between pimp and prostitute is not one of business-partnership: it is one of fear and exploitation.
The right word to describe these women and children is not prostitute (or sex worker, or ho, or whore), but victim.
We need to change the way we think about these words, because words teach us how to think. We need to follow the lead of Sweden, who have changed their legislation to reflect a better understanding of what prostitution is (and isn’t):
“In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem… gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”
Christians need to be at the forefront of this change, for it is Kingdom work to advocate for justice. We need to speak out and speak up for the defenseless. We need to shine light into the dark places. And one of the ways we need to make a change is to change the way we talk about prostitution. It doesn’t mean what we think it does. It means something much, much worse.
This post is part of a 5-day series called #ACourageousOne, seeking to raise awareness, money and hope about the issue of trafficking. We need to talk about this, and we need to use the right words. Sex trafficking is not the same as prostitution. It is a violent skin trade happening right around us (in white, middle-class, well-educated America, as well as around the world). We need to pray about this. We need to find these girls – the Courageous Ones – and do something. They need your help.
And you CAN help. Support #ACourageousOne this week by:
- Giving ONE Dollar to end sex trafficking. Click here to send your $1 to CourageWorldwide, or to International Justice Mission, who work directly to rescue women and children in sex slavery locally and internationally. (There are many more incredible organizations that work to end trafficking, but these are two I know enough about to personally endorse them wholeheartedly).
- Praying for ONE minute for this issue. Pray for perpetrators to repent, for victims to be found, for God to rescue and heal. Tomorrow I’ll post a Psalm you can use as a guide.
- Share ONE article on social media. Share this post, or Liz’s story. Share Courage Worldwide or IJM’s website, or the In Plain Sight film trailer. Share about celebrity efforts to end trafficking (like the incredible pro athletes who founded Not For Sale) ) But whatever you do, spread the word. The sex industry relies on secrecy and shame to keep going, and we have the power to change that: if we’re talking about it, it’s no longer a secret.
Of course, you are welcome to give more than $1, pray for longer than 1 minute, or share more than once – but would do you at least one? Support #ACourageousOne, so that we can support the many Courageous Ones out there.