You might ask, if everything was equal, everyone had shelter, food, clothing, and jobs they loved, would people still sell sex? In all honesty, I believe they would. Some people sell sex because of sexual desire. Some people would sell sex to get one step further up the food chain. Some people would sell sex because they like it.
If everything was equal, though, the desperation around sex work would diminish. Sex works would be less likely to trade sex in risky situations. They’d be less likely to ignore their inner voice that says, “Run!” when a client is violent. They’d be less likely to have sex without a condom and risks HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. They’d be less likely to get into coercive relationship with pimps and more likely to keep more of their earnings. (44)
By the time I reached page 44 in I Heart Sex Workers, I was completely drawn into the powerfully compelling book. I will read almost anything that’s sex positive, particularly from a fellow RevGal, and I’d been anticipating Lia Scholl’s book for months before I was able to get my hands on it. Yet, I could not have imagined how this book would challenge my (allegedly open) worldview and encourage me to reflect deeply on my own views regarding sex work, sex workers, and sex purchasers- along with a whole host of other topics.
Paragraphs like the one above are carefully worded to bring the reader along a path of self-discovery that Scholl clearly traveled herself in her own years of assisting sex workers. Each book section begins with a midrash around a woman from Scripture who might have been involved in selling sex- either as result of her own choices or because of someone else’s choices. The creative telling of the stories of Tamar, Rahab, Hadassah (Esther), and the woman at the well set the stage for Scholl to explain various aspects of sex work and to expand the reader’s understanding of agency. Sex work is not a black and white world with clear causes and clear solutions.
As mentioned above, people enter sex work for a variety of reason. Scholl makes clear that while sex trafficking is a real and genuine issue, it is not the most frequent cause or result of people choosing to trade sex. Sex trafficking might not even be the most pressing issue in your community with regard to sex work. Scholl writes that well-meaning people who want to help sex workers need to think beyond the parameters of trading sex.
If there is no poverty, women cannot be duped into sexual slavery. If there is no discrimination, sexual minorities can get high-paying jobs to support their families. If there is not greed, then governmental and societal safety nets can help those in real need.
Want to “solve” the sex industry? Seek to understand its multiple layers. Begin to understand the sexism, racism, ageism, transphobia, and discrimination against individuals with mental illnesses. Be sure to note the way those layers intersect with class, agency, and opportunities. (44)
As individuals and groups reflect on their reactions to sex work in the community, it is important to consider both why different individuals are trading sex and what the correct response is. Knee-jerk responses like criminalizing the sex worker or setting up pyramids of rewards for “leaving” sex work do not actually address underlying issues and also do not respect the agency of people who choose to trade sex. A better approach to relational work with persons who trade sex is called “harm reduction”, Scholl explains.
Harm reduction works to minimize harmful effects, not ignore or condemn them. Harm reduction doesn’t believe that the circumstances of someone’s life are monolithic or black and white… It takes into account that there is potential and actual harm that comes from all of life’s experiences. Harm reductionists believe that “everything is overdetermined”, meaning that there are multiple factors that bring a person to where they are today… Harm reduction sees individuals as the primary agents in deciding their futures and sees to empower them by sharing information. Recognizing agency and not treating individuals as victims is very important. Victims don’t have agency. Survivors do. (143f)
The discussion of harm reduction may be some of the most stunning writing in the book. Scholl’s reflections on the relationships between any two parties, particularly between advocates and sex workers, is enlightening. Is a sex worker struggling between fears of sexually transmitted infections and the fight to get each sex purchaser to use protection? Scholl describes the harm reductionist as one who would talk with the worker about offering to apply condoms with her/his mouth- a prospect that may make a recalcitrant sex purchaser less balky about protection. The harm reductionist understands that the worker’s current concern is protection from infection- not leaving the trade.
By taking the current main concern seriously, an advocate builds a relationship with the sex worker based in the reality of the worker’s own agency and status as a human being. It sounds very simplistic to write that sentence, but in reading Scholl’s book, I have come to see how quickly sex workers are reduced to their trade, their history, their experiences, or their most recent decisions. Part of the life of faith is understanding, respecting, and advocating for the neighbor who is most difficult for you to understand. This advocacy is rooted love and affirmation of all persons standing in the light of God’s grace. Scholl writes:
If I hold you responsible for your past and assume that you will only act today in the way you have acted in your past, do I not deny your humanity in some way? Do I not deny you the human right to change? (112)
Whether or not a sex worker chooses to leave the trade, she or he deserves (like all people) to know that there is a safe place to be known and loved. Scholl’s book is a lighthouse for any reader- illuminating dangerous shoals of assumptions and painful missteps that may wreck the voyage of support and journeying together. A person who chooses to stand with sex workers may well make mistakes, as any person in any ministry does, but Scholl has written a great guide to first steps.
I recommend I Heart Sex Workers to everyone. Period.