Since intentionally beginning to learn about prostitution and exploitation issues around the age of 18, and then beginning my work at 21 with Servants Anonymous for 4.5 years; and then engaging it in various places overseas, particularly in Eastern Europe, and then in advocacy and investigative roles back here in Alberta, I have come to learn and understand that many of us start out with the best of holy intentions when it comes to prostitution, exploitation and human trafficking.
Holy intentions can get us into a lot of trouble.
Not only that, but holy intentions can cause some serious damage to the hearts and minds of other people.
It's been my experience that when people find out about human trafficking, particularly the sex trade, we all want to become brothel busters, rescue the victims, and somehow save the suffering. While I understand that impulse, there's really not other way to say it but: "Get your head out of your butt".
Ain't gonna work. Nor should it.
The following list is a grouping of extremely common phrases or statements offered to those in prostitution or exiting the trade — most with these holy intentions — but go on to cause damage, tell lies, or heap more guilt upon already heavy-laden shoulders. I developed this list through experiences with former sex trade workers I've cultivated relationships with, through making HUGE mistakes with beautiful souls exiting the sex trade, or from vulnerable youth who have perhaps seen the inside of a counselor's office all too often already.
Let me be clear: I am writing this from the perspective of an advocate, investigator, former (and hopefully once again) frontline worker. I am not, nor have I ever been exploited, prostituted or traded. My friends who have been might have a thing or two to add to this, or even delete the whole thing. I bow to their expertise, wisdom and experience. With that in mind, let's get started.
1. "You are simply living the consequences of your own choices" — this has got to be the single most common phrase a woman hears, sex trade or not. Not only is it wrong, it dismisses entirely all the violence and abuse that comes with the choices of other people forced on to those in prostitution. Do prostitutes make bad choices? Sometimes… as do we all. But nobody — nobody ever — makes a choice that justifies rape or torture. Rape is a deliberate act on the part of the rapist; exploitation is a deliberate act on the part of the exploiter. Girls don't wake up one morning to decide: "Gee, I'm gonna be a hooker today". If you want to help your friend, put the blame game away right now.
2. "You wouldn't need to prostitute yourself if you hadn't gotten addicted to drugs or booze" — I know this dredges up the whole "choice v. disease" issue with addictions, but not all prostitutes struggle with addictions, and not all addicts are prostituted.
Bear in mind that addicts, while savvy in getting what they need, are incredibly vulnerable and easily manipulated. If you know your friend at all, know that more than likely someone else is controlling the purse strings. Drugs and alcohol are not only coping mechanisms, but are methods of control that someone else is using to make sure your friend stays in line.
Also… as tough as it is to say… many in prostitution experienced deep trauma in early childhood and coped as best they could for their age at the time. Are you going to be the one to blame a 9 year old for why she started drinking?
3. "Everyone's a sinner saved by grace" — in essence, you are placing yourself on the same level as your friend. Now, in many Christian traditions there is no hierarchy of sin so to speak, and the intention here is to try and make your friend feel like she belongs. This will backfire quicker than you can blink.
You have no idea what experiences your friend has had, faith-wise. Chances are, she already believes she's lousy, has no future, is going to die an early death, and is totally 100% worthless, love-less and hopeless. Pointing out the sinner card can dig a deeper hole for someone already at rock-bottom. In her eyes, she is NOT the same as YOU. See the world through her eyes before preaching your own truth on to her. Remember, not all of her experiences are her fault… but she's self-blaming more than you could imagine.
4. "If you really wanted to leave, you would have run away" — your friend has holds on her that you have no idea about. You don't know how terrified she is of her pimp, if she's seen any of her friends killed just to prove a point, if she's been gang-raped to keep her quiet, or if she's got kids that could easily be hurt if she leaves. Leaving the trade is not simply a matter of: "Oh well, my life sucks and I need to change". She's got serious ramifications to her health and security should she try to leave. Be sensitive to this reality. You haven't lived her life.
Oh yeah… it takes a world of courage to leave once. Chances are, your friend will go back. Love her always. Don't give up. But keep the guilt at home.
6. "But you had a great home life!" — many prostitutes in Canada have prior experiences with abuse, neglect, the foster care system, addictions and so on. Some, however, do come from stable loving homes. In your quest to understand "Why?", don't put your need-to-know at the forefront. Again, you haven't lived her life, and her motivations and experiences could be completely invisible to you until she's ready to confide. Don't assume that because a woman was originally from the 'burbs that she had the perfect life.
7. "Pray to Jesus. He'll help you." — Oh really? Last night when your friend cried out for help while being raped, where was this Jesus of whom you're speaking?
Again, your holy intention is to throw a lifeline to your friend. However you've already put your own faith journey on to her, assuming that she'll be grateful to discover some ancient Rabbi suddenly loves her. Do you catch the dissonance here between you and your friend?
Yes, I believe Jesus loves us completely and fully. I believe Jesus wants to reconcile all things and people to Him so that we can be redeemed and restored. But this is a lifelong process for every single one of us. A relationship with Jesus needs time to be cultivated. If your friend brings up spiritual stuff, quietly express to whom you pray and why. Answer questions gently and honestly. And if you get a big ol' "F— YOU!", accept it. Jesus can. So can you.
8. "If you hadn't dropped out of school…" — school is not a guarantor of safety from exploitation. In fact, underage kids often attend school while being prostituted. What better cover? If a kid's in school, why bother thinking s/he's being pimped out?
Remember that a pimp could easily be a boyfriend. Your friend is scared to leave him because he'll share naked pictures of her all over Twitter or Snapchat, so she keeps sleeping with him and his friends. This is prostitution too. Money doesn't need to change hands. The coercion is right there.
As a former grad student now paying off student debt, believe me when I say that post-secondary costs are insane. We press our youth to go to college or university, but… who's paying for this? It makes for a grand environment ripe for prostitution.
Furthermore, drop any and all "Well everyone knows how NOT to get pregnant!".
Not everyone does. Some have even been told old wives' tales that will blow your mind, but be understanding. Not everyone had what you had in terms of sex ed.
And even if your friend does know accurate sex ed info, it doesn't mean she gets to have a choice as to whether or not a john uses a condom. And condoms break.
Education is certainly important, but let's make it an affirming goal (if your friend chooses it), instead of a guilt trip meant to create regret.
9. "I'll pray for you" — has that phrase ever made you, yourself, feel any better? I thought not.
Sometimes when specific people tell me that they're praying for me, I'm encouraged but that's because I know these people will follow THROUGH and… these people will follow UP (with me). Prayer dwells greatly in relationship. Don't use it as a slide to push the tough stuff away with your friend; and don't think that she's thinking of prayer in the same way you are. Will God listen? Sure. But it's not the best way to cultivate trust or relationship with the other person.
For all you know, she's had 30 other people tell her the same thing today. You'd be encouraged when the same 30 folks told you that, patted your little head and went on their way? Thought not.
10. "You are simply living the consequences of your own choices" — this one gets used so much that it bears worth repeating. We are addicted to the blame game. It HAS to be your friend's fault at some point or another, right? Wrong.
AIDS isn't a choice.
Rape isn't a choice.
Forced pregnancy isn't a choice.
Forced abortion isn't a choice.
A lack of education or access to needed resources, especially in the early years, isn't a choice.
Having kids taken away by Social Services isn't a choice.
Finding coinage for food for your kids daily isn't a choice.
If there's any place to begin Thoughtful Redemption of how we see and relate to sex trader workers and former sex trade workers, it would be here. It's not a choice. Bad choices get made in other areas, and they affect life in prostitution, but we need to learn this: prostitution is not a choice for the majority of people. Even if it starts out looking like a choice, when life goes from dancing on a pole to being forced to sleep with clients… tell me if you could have foreseen that if you were in that situation?
WHAT CAN WE DO?
1. Listen. Just shut up and listen.
2. Keep handing out those cups of hot chocolate on cold nights. Know when you've overstepped your bounds or if you're taking up working time thus putting your friend at risk from her pimp. But show up. Keep showing up.
3. Put the Bible away. That might sound like heresy to some, but oh well. You know nothing of your friend and if you love her that much, focus on her like Jesus focused on others, and repeat #1.
4. Keep the door open. Your friend will likely fall back into the lifestyle… maybe even multiple times. Don't close the door. Have healthy boundaries, but keep that door open. She'll know you can be trusted.
5. See her. By this I mean, don't get drawn into the clothing or the hangover or the makeup. See HER. If we are so desparate to be seen by others for who we are, it's not going to be different here. Don't get hung up on trivialities.
6. Admit when you're wrong. Trust me, you will be wrong a lot. Maybe you'll make an erroneous assumption about her life, or maybe you'll accuse her of something, or maybe you'll close that door when she needs it open. Be vulnerable and real: admit your mistakes and ask for her forgiveness.
7. Pray for her. On your own time and in your own way, pray for your friend. If she's open and okay to have you pray with her, go ahead. While flippant prayer phrases can do damage, the spiritual practice of following THROUGH and following UP are powerful.
8. Be patient. If she gets angry at you, curses at you, spits towards you or sneers at you… be patient. You're not being a persecuted Christian and she's not raining the entire fire of hell down on you. She's in pain and trying to heal. Sometimes you'll get the raw part of that. Accept it… be grateful that you're a part of it. Wait with her through it. Hold her hand when she reaches for it, but be sensitive to the reality that abuse can make people frightened or angry at touch. Don't race to hold, hug or have a hand. More patience.
9. Walk alongside. Unless her very life is in danger (and you know this to be a proven fact), have the humility to let her get into that car, or go with that guy, or take that next drink. It might hurt you to see her suffering, but she's suffering too. Walk with her… don't pull her ahead. When she's ready, Spirit will bring her to a place of healing and restoration… and that place might NOT include YOU! (be prepared for that too!)
10. Listen. Your friend is intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, emotional, prophetic, and wise. You might think you've got all of the answers to her problems, but the joke's on you. You'll never forget the day when your friend speaks some Word into YOUR life and, astounded and probably a bit embarrasssed, you will want to cover it up.
You ain't all that.
Your friend's a person needing love and healing, but she's also able to give and nurture.
In a word: