While visiting home in August this year, my family enjoyed the privilege of an invitation to spend a night at a private beach house on Takwa Bay. One of the attractions our host had planned for us was to wait until the cool of the night, then take each of us on horseback to a long strip of beach at the Northern point of his expansive estate. There we observed the power of the waves as they hit the beach at full tide and listened, awed by their roar. Oh my, how those waves roared. Magical! That night and the day preceding it was the stuff of dreams, but that is not today’s story.
From that beach, one could also see the lights from a ‘city of ships’ just a few kilometres off into the distance. As those lights twinkled magically, a dark picture clouded my brow. Never mind that I had not seen this picture previously in real life but the description I had heard was vivid enough to let my imagination do the rest. It was a picture of a woman; a dead woman washed ashore from one of such ships. A woman denied the dignity of a burial by the circumstances of her death but also by us, her people. As her body washed ashore, communities living along the coast would find a sturdy object – God forbid they should desecrate themselves by touching her – and push the corpse back into the ocean. As many times as this woman made an appearance, they were ready to send her back to the waiting throat of the ocean. In my vision, this woman was beautiful. From whatever was left of the caresses of the ocean on her prone form, one could see her hair was styled in the fashion of the day. Her nails were marvelously lacquered in neon acrylic. Whatever was left of the clothes she died in portrayed a woman at peace with her femininity; after all it was the tool of her trade. But at this point, my vision could go no further.
Who was this woman? She was a sex worker aka Ashawo, procured by some clandestine means for some sailor – or two, or more – somewhere in that city of ships. The story I heard is it that she had ran afoul of her client for some reason and given that her procurement was clandestine, given that she had no one to speak in her defence, given that she was literally on her client’s own turf, the only way to settle the rift was to push her into the ocean to swim or die. She died. She died because of our hypocrisy.
I’ve heard it said often that prostitution is the oldest profession in the Bible. I disagree with 50% of that statement. The oldest profession in the Bible is farming (Genesis 3: 17). I agree however, that sex work was a profession in the Bible. Let’s look at this from the Bible itself, shall we? In Genesis 38, we see the patriarch, Judah, turn aside at the sight of a ‘veiled woman’ whom he imagined to be a sex worker and propositioned her. This verse addresses an interesting stereotype: veiling does not necessarily connote chastity. So dire was Judah’s sexual need that in the face of his empty pockets, he entrusted the woman with his signet ring, his cord and the staff in his hand, essentially handing over every symbol of his male authority to – God forbid! – a sex worker. I may surmise from that transaction that this profession was not entirely absent from Jewish society of biblical times. In Joshua chapter 6, we encounter Rahab. Two scouts sent on very important business, a matter that bordered on the very survival of the nation of Israel ended up seeking refuge in the home of a sex worker. If they were sanctimonious about such things, they might as well have rented a room in an inn. In the end, Rahab and her entire household were saved. The verse even mentions her father. Hold on! She had a father? There’s even mention of a household; a family that likely depended on her earnings. Let’s keep reading. In 1 Kings 3: 16 – 28, it took adjudication of a dispute between two sex workers to establish Solomon’s wisdom to the ends of the earth. Imagine that these women could boldly come into the presence of the King to seek justice. Just imagine that for a moment. Wise King Solomon welcomed and listened to sex workers. Sanctimonious Police officers today would blame them for their plight, shoo them out of their sight and allow their abusers go scot free. Finally, in John 4: 6 – 30, Jesus at the well of Samaria, first asked for water from a woman we may describe today as a sex worker BEFORE offering her the eternal water of life. After that encounter, she went and summoned the whole village to meet him. If she could boldly summon the whole village and they responded to her call, she was no outcast in that community.
Reading these and a number of other scriptures, it is clear that this generation is way more hypocritical than our forebears. To be sure, the Bible does not encourage sex work. It is clearly labelled a sin and reflected as degrading and filthy activity. In fact, the earnings of sex workers should not be brought into the house of God. However, the Bible also recognizes that sex workers are daughters, sisters, mothers, even wives. They were part of society, loving and being loved by their families. It appears by all accounts in the Bible that society accepted their existence and left them well alone. In the present day, that would mean access to health care services, freedom from discrimination on the basis of their profession, decriminalization of sex work, access to social and financial services and protection from violence. If government will look the other way when sex happens between two consenting adults, why does it take umbrage at transfer of compensation for a sexual act?
I am of the opinion that in our highly moralistic African societies sex work may not be a choice for many. It is often a matter of last resort, an act of survival. However, the people who point fingers at sex workers often have questionable moral characters themselves. On the scale of wrong doing, corruption has cost Nigeria and Africa more destruction than sex work ever could. Yet, the corrupt ones in society sit in judgement and cast stones at sex workers. The situation of sex workers is even more compounded because majority of them are women. In a world where women’s rights are proscribed in favour of male privilege and convenience, sex workers have found themselves at the very bottom of the ladder. Whilst they live with constant threats of violence and other human rights abuses from pimps and clients, the Police perpetually hound and harass them, dismiss their complaints of wrong-doing and extort sex from them as part of the perks of night patrol.
Listen up world, the very existence of sex work and sex workers points to a need or demand for their services. Why do we point fingers of accusation at sex workers and deny that their clients even exist? Believe it or not their clients are your brothers, fathers, sons and husbands. Men, YOU are their clients. Why are you less culpable than they? In Jesus’ times, he was notoriously criticised for eating and drinking with sex workers and tax collectors. He did not approve of their profession but He lovingly embraced and called them to repentance (John 8: 3-11; Luke 7: 36 – 50). If you ask me, it is not the job of government to intervene in sex work; except to ensure they enjoy the human rights to which all human beings are entitled. It is the job of you and me to show them love and help them transform their lives if they so wish.
So, what triggered this reflection? The woman, murdered in the city of ships has haunted my mind since I first heard her story. I heard she was not the only one. Residents of the coastlines of Lagos had seen -and pushed back into the sea – many like her. Driving to work in Nairobi, two days ago, I listened to a news story of sex workers in Nakuru County of Kenya, protesting to secure protection for their members – as humans and as citizens of Kenya. On average 46 of their members are murdered nationwide in a given year but in the past week alone, six of them had been murdered in Nakuru alone, by unknown persons. In Nigeria, a study conducted in 2014 found that 52% of sex workers had experienced some form of violence from pimps, clients and even law enforcement. World over, the threat of violence from people who believe their lives are dispensable, is a daily reality for sex workers.
Sex work may be unimaginable for some, not permissible in some of our societies and totally reprehensible by religious standards but the fact that a woman is a sex worker does not mean she has placed her life in ‘your’ hands. It does not mean that the she has divested herself of all her human rights. It does not mean that the church and state should turn their backs on her.
In Matthew 21: 31 – 32, Jesus Christ said, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
Dear world, if you really value your daughters and wish to intervene in any way in sex work, please take the log of hypocrisy out of your eyes first.