By Arthur Brown
Last June a close friend of my wife’s and mine died. Cindy was someone who transformed our life, faith and spirituality, and taught us something about frailty, vulnerability and suffering. She showed us something of Jesus in the most unexpected ways. As well as being a friend, Cindy was a crack addict and a prostitute! Prostitution – the world’s oldest profession as it is sometimes referred to – is a multi-million dollar business, and one that is practiced in all corners of the world. This of course is not news to anyone.
However, how might those who claim to follow a God of justice, compassion and grace respond to the realities before us, at least in Lebanon, where prostitution in various forms, is a major example of human rights abuses? Although there are many forms of sexual exploitation that take place in and beyond Lebanon, I will focus on one form that is particularly well know, and officially tolerated [and regulated], that of the ‘super nightclub’.
It is estimated that at any given moment there are approximately 2,500 “artists” in Lebanon. A specific department of Lebanon’s General Security grants an “artist” visa to women who will ‘dance’ [perform striptease] within licensed ‘super nightclubs’. These visas are valid for 6 months at a time, and only renewable after the woman – typically from the impoverished parts of Eastern Europe – has been out of Lebanon for a minimum of a year, resulting in the ‘trafficking’ of vulnerable women caught up in this ‘business’ around Eastern Mediterranean countries. Whilst technically illegal, it is clear that the purpose of these women being in Lebanon is for prostitution, as they are regularly required to be tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases [std’s]. They are also only allowed to stay in certain registered hotels, and their freedom of movement is severely curtailed. Visitors to these ‘super nightclubs’ typically arrange to meet these women during the following day, when they may be paid between $50-$200 to engage in sexual relations. The club owners are protected from prosecution, as they are able to state that what goes on beyond the doors of their clubs is not within their control, despite the controls they put on the women they are ‘sponsoring’. Many of these women have been deceived into these situations, become captive to debt bondage, and risk reprisals towards them and their families were they to try and escape. They are also victims of legal frameworks that offer little, if any, protection, whereby they are regarded as criminals, regardless of the ‘illegal’ and immoral practices of their ‘employers’, and thus deported if for example they contract any form of std or become pregnant.
The present reality before us faces us with a multitude of issues and difficulties. Rather than focusing on the obvious issues of morality in terms of individual sexual behaviour – a common focus of much indignation from Christians – I feel there is also a need to take a wider view. The reality is that Lebanon, as well as other countries that are destinations of sex tourism, ‘benefits’ enormously from this de-criminalized ‘trade’. One womn, within a threemonth period can bring in earning in the tens of thousands of dollars, much of which will likely be given to her ‘employer’. The fact that this industry is so prevalent [there are according to one report at least 127 super nightclubs in Lebanon] means it is not only those directly involved in the business, but Lebanon as a whole, who indirectly benefit from tourists attracted to the readily available sex industry.
It is clear that the dignity awarded to all human beings, by nature of God’s design [Gen.1:27], is clearly distorted when women become objects of sinful desire and victims of systematic and structural abuse. One such victim, tears in her eyes, said, “I hate when someone chooses me…I feel like I’m a product in a market and anyone can just point at me and say, ‘I want that.'” But what might a Kingdom focused response be within this situation A friend of mine once said that if we, as followers of Christ, are never ‘guilty by association’, then we are probably not spending enough time with the right people. Jesus was often accused of sin, due to those he kept company with. And yet, it is hard to know how to respond in a way that seeks to bring justice and wholeness to the victims of sexual exploitation in this context. What is clear is that if the Church were to engage in significant levels of advocacy and campaigning on behalf of the victims of this modern-day slave trade, we would be confronting a very powerful system and there would be significant consequences. Should this be enough to stop us? Near the beginning of Mark’s gospel [Chapter 3:1-3] Jesus is confronted by the powerful religious system of the day. A man with a shrivelled hand, and therefore ‘unclean’ in religious terms, came to Jesus for healing – on the Sabbath! For Jesus to heal him would have been a direct affront towards the socio-religious imperatives, as they were understood. Knowing the implications – the religious leaders were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus – He healed the man. This led to plots to kill Jesus, due to his unwillingness to remain quiet, or passive, in the face of unjust and inhumane treatment of those who were easily excluded.
How we practically go about confronting the particular system in our midst today is a mystery to me. However, as a starter here are a few of my suggestions. Maybe we need to start by refusing to blame the individual women themselves – they are of course the easy target – which is often the case for those who are most marginalised within any society. In doing this we recognise the social dimensions of sin and evil, and the systems that hold them in place. Maybe we must also be willing to accept that our actions towards seeking justice will, by definition, attract negative reactions, and be willing to accept these as part of what it means to speak with a Kingdom of God perspective. We can of course seek to educate ourselves about such issues, maybe by supporting organisations who are better equipped to work on the front lines. IMES’s Middle East Conference, in exploring a range of human rights issues will, for example, have a particular focus this year on human trafficking, which will include at least one session on sex trafficking in Lebanon.
What is clear however is that, in the words of Martin Luther King Jn.‘Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals’. What is also clear is that within God’s Kingdom, many who currently experience oppression from the rich and powerful, poverty in all its multiple forms, and disgust from those who consider themselves righteous, will be restored into wholesome relationships, through the welcoming and un-exploitative embrace of Jesus.