The national conversation around prostitution has changed markedly over the last several years. Although public support for legalizing prostitution waxed and waned throughout the 20th century, a growing number of Americans now believe that people should have the freedom to sell their bodies for sex if they so choose. While just 29% of Americans favored legalizing prostitution in 1982, 40% of Americans thought sex work should be legal in 2016. As state legislatures around the country begin to consider decriminalizing prostitution, most Christians don’t know how to engage in healthy public conversations on the topic. While the Bible is clear that prostitution is sinful (Proverbs 9:13-16, Proverbs 5:3-14, 1 Corinthians 6:9-13), to what extent should believers prevent others from doing what they want as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others? If prostitution is nothing more than “selling” your body and labor to another person or company, many ask, how is it any different than work completed by a farmer or carpenter?

WORK: GOD’S GOOD DESIGN FOR FLOURISHING

Work was designed to be a blessing from God, not a curse. Before the ruthlessness of sin distorted and mangled our relationships with God, creation, and one another, the Lord asked Adam to co-labor alongside Him as He brought order to creation (Genesis 2:15). Since the beginning, He has desired for us to join Him as He glorifies Himself and multiplies human flourishing. The work God gave Adam was neither exploitative nor transactional but relational - an invitation extended in love and affection. His heart for work is the same today. Work was created to give us dignity, not strip us of it. 

While most of us do “sell” our labor to the organization for which we work—we give them our time and effort, and they pay us in return—there is a fundamental difference between working in industries like medicine, law, and construction and the sex trade. Workers in most fields can be exploited for their labor (and often are) or use their roles to hurt people instead of help them. However, their work can ultimately be redeemed. When an unethical construction company decides to pay employees fairly to make cities better places to live, human flourishing increases and God is glorified. When doctors focus less on profit and prioritize the care of their patients, they flourish and God is glorified. Prostitution cannot be redeemed in any way. By its very nature, it cannot bring God glory or humans dignity.  

At its worst, prostitution  is practiced by men, women, and children forced into the sex industry by poverty or coercion from a trafficker. Even at its best, when sex workers choose to enter the industry, prostitution reduces human beings (most often women) to nothing more than their economic and sexual value. Men in a 2016 YouGov poll supported legalizing prostitution at higher levels (51%) than their female counterparts (40%), and this may be because men are more likely to “benefit” from commercial sex. In fact, 12% of men in the study admitted to having paid for sex in the past compared to just 1% of women. While many men see legalization as a way to better satisfy their sexual desires, women understand their gender will pay the greatest price.  “...Prostitution cannot be made respectable,” write Mary Lucille Sullivan and Sehila Jeffreys, two scholars from the University of Melbourne. “Legalization does not make it so.” They continue: 

Prostitution is an industry that arises from the historical subordination of women simply as objects for sexual use. It thrives on poverty, drug abuse, the trafficking of vulnerable women and children. Prostitution teaches men how to mistreat women and damages the lives of both the women who are used...and the status of all women in the state. Legalization causes the business of sexual exploitation to flourish...Once prostitution is legalised, ending it becomes much more difficult, as a lobby of “respectable” businessmen would have to be put out of business, and the government would have to tax the rich instead of living off women’s bodies (p.12-13).

Some advocates of legalization contend that sex work, while not a glamorous profession, still provides a way for poor individuals to escape poverty. We should lament over any society that decides to “help” its most vulnerable members in this way. Sex work as a form of “upward economic mobility” is a call for the poor to lay their dignity down at the altar of financial independence. Allowing someone to legally sell their bodies for sex is neither loving nor empowering but an abdication of society’s real responsibilities to the poor in the name of promoting “self-sufficiency.” “There are those who argue that people work at all kinds of jobs that they don’t like because of financial pressure, and that working at sex is no different,” observed Dr. Emily Rothman, a professor at Boston University. “But that is not a universally held opinion by the people who have sold sex.  Some feel that having their bodies penetrated by customers is fundamentally, qualitatively different than standing behind a cash register.” A people truly committed to helping the marginalized offer a better reality.

GOD’S HEART FOR THE PROSTITUTE

The Lord is grieved by prostitution. It tramples upon His craftsmanship and degrades human beings He fearfully and wonderfully knit together. Whether practiced by the sex trafficking victim held in bondage or the low-income woman simply trying to put food on the table, God desires something better and profoundly more dignifying than the selling of bodies for another’s sexual gratification. The Bible shows us that Jesus felt deep compassion for those engaged in sexual sin like prostitution. He met them in their brokenness and saw their hurt. Despite knowing everything about their pasts, he viewed them not as diseases to be eliminated but weary sinners desperate for living water. Jesus protected the woman caught in adultery from stoning before forgiving her and commanding her to sin no more (John 8:1-11) and praised the faith of a “sinful woman” even when the Pharisees harassed him for keeping company with her (Luke 7:36-50). In fact, when talking with a group of people that rejected Jesus as the Son of God, he told them that “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” While this group rejected the good news of the gospel, Jesus says that the tax collectors and prostitutes received it and were saved (Matthew 21:31-32 CSB). He learned their stories, forgave them, and called them to walk in newness of life.

When Christians encounter men and women forced into prostitution, we are to love them with everything we have. If they have been forced into prostitution against their will, we are to rescue them, punish their oppressors, and help them find healing in Christ and in community. We should pursue exposure to the issue by volunteering with anti-trafficking nonprofits, invite recovering survivors into our churches and homes, and help them gain access to the counseling, social services, and community they will need during the healing process. By loving victims with the same tenderness and care as Jesus, we can introduce them to the transformative power of God’s mercy and the unmatched love of the Shepherd for His sheep. The Book of Isaiah reminds us that the Lord “will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle” but “bring justice to all who have been wronged” (42:3 NLT). Our love toward those choosing to become sex workers should be equally as affectionate. It was not because of our good works or clean sexual histories we were saved but because of God’s unconditional, unmerited grace toward us (Galatians 2:16). This reality should humble us and move us to pursue deeper friendships with those others have cast aside. Many who become prostitutes do so in an attempt to find real connection, intimacy, and friendship. Others do so out of sheer desperation and fear of the unknown. Believers should stand ready to show them to the Cross, where fears and burdens can be laid down, peace and purpose discovered, and the crimson stains of sin washed white as snow by our Savior.

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Garrett Clawson

I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.