You may have seen the news. Amnesty International leaders have added prostitution--they prefer to call it "sex work"--to the list of human rights they will defend. Last Tuesday the Nobel Prize-winning human rights organization adopted a new policy endorsing "the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work."
"All aspects" means that Amnesty will seek to shield from prosecution not only the prostituted women and men but also the "johns" who pay them and the pimps who profit. Perhaps these participants in the sex trade, if arrested, might join the list of Amnesty-certified "prisoners of conscience."
Once again, we are reminded that we inhabit a world that "call[s] evil good and good evil" (Isaiah 5:20). Even prestigious international organizations can get the two mixed up.
How Did "Sex Work" Become a Human Right?
How did we get to this point where prostituting oneself--or worse, prostituting others--became a sacred human right? What we see here is the outworking of two assumptions that have become prevalent in our society, and even among many Christians.
The first is the assumption that "it's my body, and I'll do what I want with it." In this neo-Gnostic view, "the real me" is the conscious self and the body is an external object controlled by the self. The body has no inherent value or purpose; its value and purposes are only those assigned by its sovereign master, the conscious self. The body exists to enable the conscious self to have gratifying experiences. It makes no difference, in this view, whether the experience being sought is an athletic accomplishment (say, running a marathon) or a sexual conquest.
Second, there is the assumption that the only thing needed to justify sexual relations (or almost any other human interaction) is the contractual consent of all parties involved. In this liberal view, we must cast aside all divine or human standards that might limit our sexual options. The external characteristics of the relationship--its duration, the presence or absence of any stated love or commitment, the sex and number of partners involved, how the body parts are conjoined--are of no moral consequence. All that matters, in this view, is that the partners have agreed--without pressure or coercion--to engage in the activity. Each person is the sole judge of what best serves his or her purposes.
These two assumptions are powerful currents running through our society today. They underlie the ongoing sexual revolution, which has already toppled taboos against cohabitation and homosexuality and now appears to be moving toward the normalization of polyamory and prostitution.
After all, if "it's my body, and I can do whatever I want as long as I find a willing partner(s)," then on what basis could we exclude any of these behaviors? Why should we be bothered if a consensual contract specified the provision of a service (sex) in exchange for money or material goods? As long as both sides find the bargain advantageous, what's the problem? That, at least, is the new perspective at Amnesty International: "Sex work" is just another service industry.
We should observe that these same two assumptions--the instrumentalization of the human body, and the reduction of morality to consent--also point toward the acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, and drug legalization. The social changes engendered are far-reaching.
One reason these assumptions have gained such power is that they seem like common sense. Most people cannot imagine who besides the conscious self might be sovereign over their bodies. They cannot imagine why mutual consent wouldn't be sufficient to justify a sexual relationship.
Christians Should Know Better
But we Christians know better--or we should know better. We recognize a Sovereign above ourselves. We know "that the LORD is God; it is he that made us, and not we ourselves" (Psalm 100:3). Our bodies are God's handiwork: "For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." (Psalm 139: 13-14)
We confess, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, that "I belong--body and soul, in life and in death--not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ" (Q.1). The "I" who speaks here is as much body as soul. God's image is engraved as much in our bodies as in our souls. God's Son had a body, and he was raised in glory as a body. Our promised future, likewise, consists in "the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting" in that body (Apostles' Creed).
So our bodies are not objects to be exploited. They are instead holy gifts to be handled with care and respect, as befitting the Giver. Wise use of those bodies requires more than human consent. The Giver must be consulted. Our bodies find their purpose in his design, as revealed in nature and his Word. And it is before the judgment seat of Christ that we will all appear, "so that each of us may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Corinithians 5:10). Therefore we must be concerned with God's pleasure more than our own.
"Glorify God in Your Body"
The apostle Paul weaves these themes together in writing to the Christians in Corinth, where prostitution was common. Paul insists that our bodies do have a purpose: to glorify God. "The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body," he declares (1 Corinthians 6:13). "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?" the apostle asks (6:19).
Paul tells his readers that "your bodies are members of Christ," and "anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (6:15a, 17). In light of this truth, he challenges the Corinthians:
Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall become one flesh." (6:15b-16)
In other words, the function of sex--as God created it--is to unite a man and woman in an all-encompassing, unconditional, steadfast love that reflects the love of God. To use sex for any lesser purpose--any self-interested exchange of service for goods--is a travesty. Christians are not free to unite themselves to prostitutes, according to Paul, because they are already united with Christ. Jesus has a prior claim on us, and he has not consented to participate in an unworthy ménage a trois.
The apostle closes this passage by stressing the gravity of the matter. Jesus staked his claim on our bodies, Paul reminds us, by sacrificing his own body on the cross. "For you were bought with a price," Paul says, "therefore glorify God in your body."
What "Unalieanable" Means
This biblical line of thinking shaped the heritage of human rights upon which Amnesty International was first founded. When the U.S. Declaration of Independence affirmed that all humans are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," it was responding to arguments made by apologists for absolute monarchy. Those apologists--e.g., Thomas Hobbes--theorized that people originally possessed rights to life, liberty, and property, but they gave those rights away in exchange for the protection of a strong monarch.
Thomas Jefferson and company rejected the idea of such a base bargain. They maintained that people could not under any circumstances give away, or "alienate," their rights because those rights were not their private possession. Those rights were a gift from God--"endowed by their Creator"--and God had not authorized anyone to deprive people of the freedoms he had bestowed.
Thus, for example, I am forbidden to take the life of another because that life belongs to God. Even if someone hands me a gun and implores me to shoot him or her, I must not shoot because that person is not entitled to grant me the power over his or her life that pertains to God alone. Similarly, slavery is wrong even when there is a contract to which all parties consent. Even if the enslaved person had freely contracted a debt, for which slavery was the specified means of repayment in the event of default, that contract would still be invalid because nobody is entitled to sign away the liberty that comes from God.
The same principle applies in the case of prostitution. There can be no valid contract under which a person sells--or more accurately, rents--his or her body to another person. Our bodies belong to God who made them. They are not objects to be traded. They can only be given freely in a mutual love that images the love of God.
The Liberal Critique
This classic appeal to principle is still the strongest argument against prostitution. There are other arguments--notably a liberal critique that hinges on consent. Many feminists have protested Amnesty's decision on the grounds that most "sex workers" are not in a position to give free consent.
Studies indeed show that prostitutes come disproportionately from poor families--often broken families. They don't see many other options to support themselves. Many have been physically or sexually abused and have low self-esteem. They are subject to mental illness, and fall prey to substance addictions that need to be fed.
All these factors render these young women and men (and children) vulnerable to exploitation. They are often lured into prostitution by false promises. Sometimes there is outright coercion, as in the sex trafficking rings that are inevitably fueled by the demand for prostitution and pornography. Even where the pressures are more subtle, prostitution may be less a choice than a desperate last resort for survival.
Nevertheless, the liberal critique of consent falls short of impugning all prostitution. Amnesty's endorsement is addressed to "consensual sex work," and there is no doubt that such a thing exists. One could easily find "sex workers" who swear that they practice the profession willingly.
The problem in these cases is that the prostitutes, their customers, and their pimps have conspired to alienate that which must not be alienated. Unfortunately, Amnesty appears to have forgotten the meaning of "unalienable." Yet it does acknowledge the suffering associated with "sex work."
Bringing in the Marginalized: Amnesty vs. Jesus
Amnesty's statement notes that "sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse." But Amnesty seems to believe that this risk is mostly the result of "sex work" being illegal. It assumes that if the activity were legalized and regulated, the abuses would disappear or diminish. Amnesty doesn't consider the possibility that the prostitutes' sufferings might be related to the demeaning nature of the activity itself.
Prostitutes were marginalized in Jesus' time too, and they must have suffered greatly. The gospels do not record Jesus advocating the acceptance of prostitution under Jewish law. They do report that he allowed himself to be approached at dinner by "a woman who was a sinner" (Luke 7:36-50). After the woman wept on his feet, drying them with her hair, Jesus declared, "Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven." He assured the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Jesus also told a parable about a young man who squandered his inheritance on prostitutes and dissolute living (Luke 15:11-32). Amidst his misery, the man came to his senses, returned home, and confessed to his father, "I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father received the son back with joy and proclaimed a feast because "this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!"
Perhaps we should take our cues more from Jesus and less from Amnesty International. Jesus knew the true price that was paid when people were sold into prostitution (or any other sin), and he paid the price to buy them back.