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Are Prostitutes Slaves?

To misunderstand prostitution is to misunderstand the nature of the commercial sex industry.
by, JB Mavrich

This month at ExodusCry we’re featuring Bangkok, Thailand as our City-in-Focus. Bangkok is famous for the commercial sex trade, but that also means it is rife with misunderstanding, even within the church in the west. In this three part series, I’m uncovering 3 wrong ideas about the sex trade in Bangkok in an effort to shed sensational ideas of the sex trade, and get the heart of Jesus. Helping me is Annie Dieselberg, half missionary (in Bangkok’s Nana Sukhumvit district) , half CEO (of NightLight Designs), but entirely on the front lines of the war to save women’s souls and bodies from the commercial sex trade. This is part two in the series.

MYTH #2: Women who are are prostitutes by choice are not enslaved.

Most of the women Annie ministers to are prostituting themselves in the commercial sex district, in clubs and bars. That means they go home every night instead of being locked in a room. It means they collect a paycheck that dwarfs the salary of college graduates in the country. It means that they were probably trafficked, but migrated to the city from the country in search of work, or that if they were trafficked, they have since accepted their fate and chosen to remain a prostitute. To the degree we’re disappointed to hear that, or that these women claim a dubious victim-status, that is the degree to which have a sensational understanding of the issues.

But how can we not get disappointed when we’re told that the face of the commercial sex trade in Bangkok is women and children locked in cages? Annie has actually encountered this breed of crestfallen missionary: “A lot of times when people find out that these women can walk out, they ask, Well where are the [children] who are locked up? We want to help them. But that might only be 5 or 10 percent of trafficking. But the pain of a woman who has to sell her body to man after man every night is real; she is not relieved by the fact that she is not in a child’s body. She is still a victim. They think that choice means people want to do it. But choice in this context is, if i don’t sell my body, my family will starve. And that’s not a choice. That’s bondage by another name.”

If we, as western believers, are reluctant to lend our hearts to this, I suggest it stems from an otherwise healthy doctrinal foundation of the nature of sin, and our understanding that sin must be deliberately resisted by our free will. That idea is unequivocally true, and biblical. But, as citizens living in a developed nation, we have the luxury of making those efforts on full stomachs, with running water, and in the same cultural space where we decide which college to attend and which dreams to pursue. Our understanding of free will is only naturally attached to economic prosperity, and civil liberty. But in Thailand, there are massive forces– economic, cultural, political, spiritual– that drag a young girl from the rural hills to the overcrowded urban centers like a grim undertow. Bangkok is a place where a young woman coming of age, facing enormous cultural pressures, goes when few options present themselves. Oftentimes only one option presents itself.

Trying to figure out whether a woman “choosing” prostitution in a dance club is as much of a victim as the sex slave locked in an apartment is an attempt to split a very fine hair with a very blunt metric. Both are trapped, and both are destroyed. “To me,” Annie said, “it’s like the difference between a terminal cancer patient given 5 years to live and another given only a few weeks. For both the devastation is total– physical, emotional, spiritual, economic. But the one given 5 years to live has time to get used to it and accept it. Women in prostitution who are there by “choice,” are experiencing a slow death to their soul, and it is eventually fatal. They may not be trapped by chains or a locked door. But they are trapped by other forces: demonic forces, the culture, the obligation and fear to send money home to their parents, the economic need, the lack of education that leaves them with no other option. Women who “choose” this lifestyle are more likely to blame themselves for making this choice, even though they really don’t have another choice.”

The young women targeted by Annie Dieselberg and NightLight Ministries would have loved to have had the luxury of choosing Poli-Sci vs. Bio-Chem. But their choices are much more dire, on the live-or-die level. In order to get the Lord’s heart on the issue of the global sex trade, the church of Christ absolutely must connect with the idea that you don’t need to have a gun to your head to be “forced” into prostitution, because death by bullet is just as terminal as death by undertow.

3 Comments on “Are Prostitutes Slaves?”

  1. Justin Says:
    December 8th, 2014 at 11:19 am

    So they don’t have a choice of getting a job at a grocery store or gas station and living a normal life like everyone else? There are all kinds of jobs that would accept them without any work experience that would give them enough money to pay the bills and eventually work their way up to having a good paying job. I don’t think they are trapped at all. No one is physically forcing them to stay a prostitute.

  2. Bret Mavrich Says:
    December 8th, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Hi Justin. Thanks for weighing in. But I think you’re approaching this from a western mindset and ignoring the cultural undertow that I described in this article. What you’re suggesting—begin with a low paying job and then work your way up—is unrealistic for the young girls in Thailand. Their lives begin with the cultural pressure to support their parents even at the young age of 12 years old. To fulfill that burden they migrate from rural poverty into urban areas and are often trafficked. It looks nothing like the lifestyle of middle class pre-teens in America.

  3. Justin Says:
    December 8th, 2014 at 11:34 am

    I am sorry. I rescind my comment. I skimmed over the paper, not realizing you were referring to people in Bangkok. I am sure that it is a lot different there.