Not long ago, I came home from work to find a young Cambodian woman sheltering from a storm under a tree near our house. A bag of clothing by her side was gradually getting soaked, and she was shivering with cold.
She had been living and working in a local Phnom Penh brothel until her pregnancy became too advanced for her to work, and they kicked her out on the street. My wife and I invited her to stay a while.
“When I was 14 years old, my mother got very sick,” she told us, “The only way to pay her medical bills was for me to come to the city and do this work.”
Listening to her story, my heart broke again. I could see immediately that this was not “sex work.” This was a 14-year-old girl who saw no other options but to engage in sex for economic reasons. Men with money took advantage of her vulnerability.
It seems to me, the only word for that is rape.
I’ve lived much of my adult life in slums and inner cities where prostitution is a source of income for far too many of my neighbors and friends. For several years I headed up a non-profit organization that ran medical clinics and exit services in brothels as well as a drop-in center for marginalized women.
Many people believe that unless someone is trafficked, women in prostitution have made a choice to pursue this form of so-called work. There is no choice when you see no other options. That is not freedom. It is exploitation.
Thankfully, there is a remarkable change taking place in a number of nations that shows great promise for protecting and supporting women trapped in prostitution like my young friend.
Last week, France became the latest country to adopt new prostitution legislation, inspired by what has come to be known as the “Nordic Model.” Under the new French law, anyone caught purchasing sex from a prostituted woman will be fined and required to attend classes on the harms of the practice. Brothel ownership and pimping are also illegal.
The Nordic Model is based on the idea that we should decriminalize the women in prostitution so that they can get help and support whenever they need it. And at the same time, criminalize the actions of those (mostly men) who seek to exploit, purchase sex or otherwise pimp out women.
Sweden was the first country to adopt this new approach in 1999. After seeing the remarkable results, other countries have since adopted the Nordic Model: Norway in 2008, Iceland in 2009, then Canada and Northern Ireland in 2014. The European parliament approved a resolution calling for the law to be adopted throughout the continent.
Countries like Sweden that have criminalized sex buyers, have seen a significant drop in sex trafficking. Sweden is now seeing far less sex trafficking than Denmark and Germany—nearby countries where buying sex is legal. Sweden also saw street prostitution halved and Norway saw similarly major decreases when they criminalized sex buyers and pimps.
But this is only part of the picture. Advocates of the Nordic Model also stress that support and exit services are an important part of addressing the root causes of prostitution. Clearly, if women are there for economic reasons, then a wide range of economic initiatives are going to be important to make sure their basic needs are being met.
Some speak of prostitution as “the oldest profession”—giving it a sense of inevitability. But when confronted with the dramatic capture of a woman being punished for breaking the sexual laws of the time, Jesus immediately stepped in and protected the vulnerable woman from further physical harm and the legal consequences (John 8:3-11).
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus declared, subverting their attitudes toward women and ruining the stoning party that was about to take place. He was showing them that all of us are implicated, including the mysterious missing man with whom she had been sleeping.
In Jesus’ day, men and women were treated differently—and certainly, in this case, only the woman was being punished. Still today, prostituted women are much more likely to be arrested than the men who buy sex. Yet it is men who drive the demand for prostitution.
This is not just a women’s issue. Men are responsible for almost all the demand for prostitution. We can’t afford to ignore the massive power differential between women who feel this is their only economic option, and men who have the resources to take advantage of their situations.
The pregnant young woman who stayed with my family moved on a few days after our conversation. We helped her find a place with an organization that would help support her with the new-born baby.
We’re praying that her child will grow up in a different world than the one her mother has known—a world where our most vulnerable members of society are not exploited and used for the pleasure and profit of others. The new laws in France and other countries are a promising move in the right direction.
If we work together, men and women, we might just see that world come about.
This article is based on a post that appeared earlier on Craig Greenfield’s weekly social justice blog.
Craig Greenfield is the author of Subversive Jesus: an adventure in justice, mercy and faithfulness in a broken world. He is also the founder and director of Alongsiders International, a grassroots movement for vulnerable children in Asia and Africa.