The Questions We Should Be Asking About Prostitution

Let’s ask these questions until we hear answers, until we see change implemented.

I think we're asking the wrong question about prostitution. 

As the controversy over this issue rages on, most recently fueled by President Trump signing the FOSTA-SESTA bill earlier this month, I am convinced that we are not focusing enough on the heart of the matter. 

Eight years ago I met Rose in a dusty basement room in Istanbul. I was there as a volunteer with an organization helping to provide resources for refugee women. When the organization learned I had a small amount of training in trauma counseling, they asked me to meet with some of their clients. 

"I'm not an expert," I protested. "I only took one class in graduate school." 

The director gave me a level look. "You have more training than anyone else these women have access to," she said firmly. 

Which is how I met Rose. A client of the organization, she was a beautiful young woman from Nigeria. As we sat together she told me her brief and heartbreaking life story. Molested by her foster uncle as a child in Nigeria, sold as a domestic servant to the Middle East as a young teen, she fled abuse in the household and paid a smuggler to get her to Turkey where she was now stuck, unable to work legally, unable to leave Turkey unless she could pay for a plane ticket home. She had recently turned to prostitution to survive. 

She was ashamed, she confessed to me. She believed in God and believed she was doing something wrong, but she felt she had no other option. 

I had no idea what to say to Rose. My one class had not prepared me to help her navigate the seemingly impenetrable tangle of her past abuse, current economic hardship, and the quandary of her status as a refugee with no resources. Her autonomy had been taken from her through years of exploitation and then through the morass of the Turkish refugee system. She was a woman without recourse, without choice. 

Much of the current debate surrounding prostitution seems to boil down to the question of legality. Should an individual have the choice to sell sex? Unfortunately, I think there are far bigger questions we are too often ignoring, questions Rose's situation highlighted perfectly. 

Aid workers educate and empower young Moldovan women to explore healthy options for their futures. Courtesy Rachel Linden.
Aid workers educate and empower young Moldovan women to explore healthy options for their futures. Courtesy Rachel Linden.

Does the individual selling sex have a choice NOT to do so? Do they have options to choose something else in order to survive? Do they have control over their own bodies and lives? Prostitution is legal in Turkey, but Rose wasn't concerned about the legal particulars of what she was doing. She didn't want to be engaged in prostitution at all, but felt she had no other way to survive. 

All my interactions with women in prostitution and those of my colleagues who have worked in the red light districts of Europe for years highlight the reality that most women, like Rose, do not want to be in prostitution. They are doing so because they feel they have no other choice. Talking with a colleague who worked for more than a decade in Europe with women in prostitution, I asked her how many of the women she'd met wanted to be prostitutes. Her answer: zero. 

I know that some women willingly choose sex work as an occupation, but in my experience these are certainly the minority, especially in the economically disadvantaged post-Communist countries where I worked with a faith-based NGO for five years. There, women often come from poor, rural areas where economic opportunities are virtually non-existent. Many have dependents they must provide for. Often they are trapped in prostitution by the powerful forces of economic need and organized crime or relational manipulation from pimps. They do not have another choice. We need to work hard to change this reality. 

Women freed from trafficking are given an inspirational talk during a Moldovan church event. Courtesy Rachel Linden.
Women freed from trafficking are given an inspirational talk during a Moldovan church event. Courtesy Rachel Linden.

We should be less focused on the ideological and legal questions surrounding prostitution and far more on practically empowering individuals in prostitution with resources, options and opportunities. More than once I've read a detailed article outlining a particular ideological position on prostitution and find only at the end a brief sentence or two acknowledging that most people in prostitution do not want to be engaging in this occupation but have limited options and need a comprehensive system of support to empower them. Why is this incredibly important point seemingly getting so little attention? I think of Rose and the paltry help I had to offer her. She deserved more. 

Amidst the heated ideological debates, statistics and global controversy, we cannot forget what we should all be aiming for — the freedom and empowerment of each person to have true choice about their own bodies and lives. With this in mind, as champions of choice, let's persist in asking these strategic questions. 

How does each law or organizational mandate help provide individuals in prostitution with a choice? What are countries and NGOs doing to provide those in prostitution with resources and options? What laws need to change to protect and empower these individuals? 

Let's ask these questions until we hear answers, until we see change implemented. Remember, at its heart, the issue of prostitution is not about causes or ideologies, it is about people. Real people like Rose. 

Real people. Real lives. Let's help empower them with real choices.

Rachel Linden has a Master's Degree in Intercultural Studies from Wheaton College. She has nearly a decade of experience helping survivors of sexual trauma across the globe through nonprofit work. Her novel Becoming the Talbot Sisters (Thomas Nelson) deals intimately with this subject and releases May 1.

Cover image via Smarta / Shutterstock.com

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