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.
Brilliant, Arthur. I entirely agree and I DO KNOW that “Hate the sin, Love the Sinner” is never more needed and relevant than in these sort of cases. And I do appreciate what a mountainous task it will be taking on these giant and influential foes. Anyone who makes the attempt has my wholehearted admiration; the way will be long and hard and rewards negligible, but someone’s got to do it. It takes enormous courage, but a few steps in the right direction is how things get started. I know, too, that you and Lou have already worked courageously in this scenario prior to taking up your current appointment. Love, Sheila. XX
Thanks Sheila, I really appreciate your thoughts and encouragement. Lou sends her love. Congratulations to you & Alan!
Thanks, dear Arthur, for bringing out this issue which badly needs to be raised in Lebanon, and other places in the world, it is a great consicousness raising article. Very few people are interested in bringing awareness to such difficult problems, so women continue to be turned into slaves and sex objects, like maids are also often turned into slaves in that part of the world. Your assessment, analysis and spiritual input is much needed and appreciated, continue the good work, Evelyne
For a number of years I volunteered with a project supporting street sex workers. As a lady was telling me her story I touched her shoulder. She remarked sadly “That these days I am only touched by those who want something from me”. Later reflecting on this I thought of Jesus who touched the man with leprosy (Mark ch1). Jesus could have healed his body simply with words but by touching him he accomplished a deeper healing. Sex workers have a God given humanity that can not be stolen by being trafficked or their bodies sold. Sometimes something as simple as reaching out and touching someone can be profoundly powerful. We can not all challenge the systems that hold these women in bondage but we should at least be prepared to hold out our hand.
I agree with you Louise that sometimes taping on someone’s shoulder or holding their hands, can really make a difference. Small actions like these can speak more than words. It is true that we may not be able to change their situation, but showing compassion like Jesus did, will surely leave a great impact on their lives.
There is no excuse for the people of God to accept this situation. Laws can be changed if people are willing to pay the cost of changing them. In the scriptures God commands his people not to exploit the foreigner in their land.
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat him. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself…”
Another frustrating aspect of this whole tragedy is that these clubs are found in the “Christian heartland”. What impression does it give to non-Christians to see their friends and neighbors go to these clubs? What impression does it give of Churches and those who attend them? There is indeed a massive “guilt by association” here and it’s the wrong kind of association. It is association with the exploiters and those who despise the poor and marginalized.
Christians need to be known as people who reach out to and help the poor and women who are marginalized. In Lebanon, however, they condone the establishment that exploits them. This should not be.
It is a real pity to know that in Lebanon 2500 “artists” are working in nightclubs and elsewhere. So whenever people see a women from Eastern Mediterranean countries walking in the street, they think she is a prostitute, but sometimes she is not. In many other poor countries, the girls start this “profession” in a young age, and they are obliged to do so.
Jesus gave us the great commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, and the great commission to go and preach the Gospel to all the nations. I believe these women are part of people who need to know about God’s love and His forgiveness of sins.
Thank you Arthur for highlighting this important and sensitive matter, hoping that each one of us will not judge others but rather be a channel of peace helping people to be reconcilied with God through Jesus.