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October 3, 2013

Survival Sex: When Living Becomes the Ultimate Sacrifice

By Arthur Brown

The ongoing crisis in Syria and the resultant humanitarian catastrophe for millions is taking an intolerable toll on individuals, families, communities and nations. Desperate times lead to desperate measures. This is true not only for those on the battle fields but for those responsible for caring for children and loved ones, those with few means and little hope.

Reports have been coming out about the rapid growth in the practice that has become known as ‘survival sex’.  The term alone gives us a clue as to the motivations of these women, who are at time prepared to give away their dignity and often sense of humanity for as little as $7 at a time, in order to scrap together enough to make ends meet to keep themselves and their loved ones alive.

Qass Em-Saad of the Lebanese branch of the aid organization Developmental Action Without Borders says Syrian women and girls are so desperate they are selling themselves for as little as 10,000 Lebanese pounds – about $7 – outside Ain Helweh, the Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon where more than 20,000 Palestinian Syrians have sought refuge.[1]

When I lived in East London, most of the sex workers known to our church community were ‘working’ in order to feed their drug habit.  Within Lebanon stories are emerging of growing numbers of Syrian and Palestinian refugee women who have reached such desperation that they are willing to ‘sell themselves’ in order to provide food and shelter for their children. Various ‘hubs’ have developed in which such practices are becoming commonplace, if reports are to be believed.  And again, it is poverty and marginalisation that are at the root cause.

Whilst this particular issue is extremely sensitive and of course open to moral outcry – often from one religious tradition or another – the fact is that this is an issue that needs to be considered by those who claim to follow Jesus, the Jesus who associated not only with ‘tax collectors’, religious leaders, and disciples, but with the prostitutes, the poor and the marginalised. All too often it is the women, themselves the victims, who bear the brunt of such an outcry and in most contexts are the ones criminalized.

However, rather than reflecting upon the apparent criminality of such activities, I want to ask the question, what would I do in order to ensure my children were fed? What would you do?

This moves us away from the typical moral questions that surround the topic of human sexuality and sexual deviance, and into a discussion about self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, sacrifice rooted in love.  It seems ironic in these instances that the women’s choice to demean themselves in this way is motivated by love, but that the sex taking place has nothing to do with love at all, but simply inhumane, self-indulgent gratification on the part of the men.

Aid Workers agree that:

Organized criminal trafficking isn’t large scale in Lebanon. What has become endemic is women and girls being forced by their circumstances to resort to street-walking and survival sex and the aid workers say many men are happy to exploit their plight, seeing them as fair game.[2]

Sahar Samhoun, a social worker based in the Bekaa Valley, suggests:

When she [a refugee] resorts to being a prostitute…it’s because she doesn’t want to die, she wants to survive. [3]

However, I would imagine that many of these women might prefer death to the horrendous ordeals they are willing to put themselves through in order to feed their children. Perhaps they continue to live lives, lives invariably leading to social ostracism and shame, out of a love and commitment towards those for whom they bear responsibility.

I am led by all this to ask:

  • What future do these women have?
  • In which ways can the local and global church play a prophetic role in seeking justice and work to restore the dignity of these women, victims of the ongoing crisis?
  • How should those responsible for the systematic trafficking of these women, within Lebanon and beyond, be dealt with by the authorities?
  • How should we respond to those NGO workers who are offering ‘aid for sex’ to the most vulnerable?

These are questions to which I have no answer, to my shame!  What we must never do, however, is ignore what is going on…we must not retreat and stay quiet!

While the Western powers have been playing politics, contemplating military strikes and exploring diplomatic solutions, please spare a thought and a prayer for those individuals who continue to exist in a living hell, irregardless of the geopolitical realities surrounding them.

Read more on the Daily Star website: ‘Whether survival sex or prostitution, Syria’s poorest refugees face grim choices’, by Samya Kullab.

For an Arabic language report,


  1. Adam Estle says:

    Hi Arthur, you and I met in the summer of 2008 when I was there for a practicum through Fuller Seminary. Thank you for all of your amazing work.

    This post left me in tears as I contemplated these horrors that lead back to our deep human brokenness, especially around sex and love.

    I will be sharing some of this post with the men’s sexual purity group that I lead. And we will pray, not only for the situation but repenting of the role that we play in perpetuating these types of atrocities around the world. Thank you for the impetus to pray about this. Blessings to you.

    • James says:

      Your post reminded me of a comment C.S. Lewis made in regards to “our deep human brokenness, especially around sex and love.” In regards to the bondage these things can lead to he said, “The danger is that of coming to love the prison.” I pray God will continue to bless your purity group with heart felt repentance and a hate for the “prison.”

  2. Cathy Gosden says:

    Thanks for making us aware of this, Arthur.
    It is tragic and utterly heartbreaking, and left me in tears. The hopelessness and despair that these women must feel is beyond imagination.
    Sadly, inhumane, self-indulgent gratification is far too common in many areas of life today.
    I pray that the “international community” will stop using the Syrian situation as a means to pursue their own agendas, and give the refugees and host countries all the help that they so desperately need.

  3. DanutM says:

    Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    This is a must read.
    And, please, remember Syrian women in your prayers this week.

  4. James says:

    As an expat who lives in the region I’m often stopped by Syrians aggressively begging for money. Many times I give them the change in my pocket and they refuse it insistently saying, ”it’s not enough, more, more, more!” As you can image months of this type of encounter would jade even the most sensitive of us, and indeed it has jaded many of the nationals where I reside. Your article has been for me a call back to the second greatest commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.” May we ever increasingly learn to love our new Syrian neighbors who continue to suffer the loss of their country and dignity.

    • Cathy Gosden says:

      James, Thank you so much for your comment. It was a good reminder for me. One of my neighbours is a homeless guy who begs in a pedestrian area near to where I live. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t spoken to him for a long time, even though I often pass him. From now on, I’ll make sure that I talk to him whenever I get the chance.

    • It’s so easy to become desensitized to the needs/ circumstance of others when it’s always brought before us. I currently live in Austin. Which is considered “Hobo Heaven”. And here you are constantly asked for money. I find myself switching between ‘I don’t want to pay for your habits’ and ‘what terrible circumstances and emotional wounds must’ve lead you here’. It’s different in America, where people have institutions in place to serve as a safety net. But the mental conflict remains. I guess my point is, don’t feel badly for having that conflict. You’re inspiring to readers like me, who deal with the same thing, but probably in a less Christ like manner. Thank you!

  5. Women who resort to survival sex are forced to do so as a result of their poverty and lack of options. They might even be forced into it by their families. For humanitarian/aid workers who ask for sex for services, this is a matter of the utmost seriousness. The biggest actors have codes of conducts and ethics for their staff and partners on this, and should reported to the heads of the organizations. UN and other known international organizations take this very seriously.

  6. […] ‘stretched-to-breaking point’ country. We see young children daily begging in the streets and women selling sex for $5 just to survive and feed their families. Nevertheless, it is still possible to ignore an individual’s personal […]

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