For sex workers, finding a spiritual home can often present a challenge. Sex workers have a barrier to entry – facing stigma in religious spaces for our work. This exclusion comes both in scripture and the actions of clergy and congregation.
The hypocrisy that lies in religious communities excluding sex workers is clear. Sex workers who desire a relationship with God are pushed away from a higher power… by the same people who claim to work to bring people closer. What happened to love thy neighbor?
Only God Can Judge, But Yet, Others Do
Sex work, despite being known as the “world’s oldest profession,” is one of the most stigmatized. This stigma in action looks like being forced out of communities, denied housing or financial services, or worse: being threatened, stalked, and killed for the work we do, as sex workers face violence at notably higher rates than the non-sex working population.
This stigma, and the resultant discrimination and violence, are in no small part due to religious morality surrounding sex, the body, and purity. This bias has deep roots: multiple Bible verses speak ill of sexual labor and those who engage in it, even though there are revered Biblical figures who were sex workers, like Rahab and Mary Magdalene.
Purity, Politics, and Sex Work Stigma
The historical impact of religion on society can not be separated from modern conversations on the violence sex workers face. More specifically, we need to examine how Christian colonization has played a significant part in how societies treat sex workers.
By creating binaries of good and evil, using fear as a weapon, and worshiping the written word over the messaging behind it, modern Christianity has actively alienated people from building a relationship with God or a higher power. Gatekeeping this connection to only the “purest” among us has destroyed innovation, methods of community, and influenced the belief that alternatives to this white-washed Christianity are not suitable at best – or inherently evil at worst.
Look to the scripture, the stigma is rooted in the text itself. Bible verses like Deuteronomy 23:17 stating that “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel..,” and Proverbs 5:3-5 proclaiming, “For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her seductive words are smoother than olive oil, but in the end, she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave.”
This framework influences a significant tie to Christianity’s purity politics regarding sex work: the idea of being “saved.” But what do sex workers need saving from, and what are they being saved by?
Sex workers are too often portrayed as abused and diseased, both in media and in religious thought. People are trained to see sex workers as victims, rather than depicting them as they are: people of various backgrounds and identities who use sex as a means for survival and profit.
Modern portrayals of sex workers, from the classic film Pretty Woman to the anti-sex work film, Buying Her, by the religious anti-porn propaganda group Exodus Cry, to the Netflix comedy series BONDING about a graduate student moonlighting as a dominatrix, continue to push the rhetoric of being “saved.”
These trends, in film and other forms of media, illustrate men who wish to “save” sex workers from our work. It’s always the same: a man pushes the imagined sex worker to a more “pure” state — out of the sex industry and, more importantly, often married to a man who can supposedly redeem them.
The desire to moralize sex work, or, more simply said, creating good vs. evil binaries around sex work can be attributed, in part, to the tradition of policing communities based on religion. Many religions view sex outside of marriage as a sin, with some traditions viewing sex work as a sin. However, in today’s society? The desire to “save” us is rooted in stigma, bias, shame, and a lack of education surrounding consensual sex work.
The “push” from society, both historically and today, for sex workers to exit the industry is rooted in social stigmas and religious understanding. Oftentimes, the “saving” of sex workers as marriage, moving to a different industry, or a religiously defined “better life” is unsuccessful, unwarranted, or undesired.
Purity Is A Construct
Historically, America has not been a sexually liberated society. From its Puritan roots that spread from early New England colonies to the continuous fights for bodily autonomy around access to birth control, abortion, and gender-affirming healthcare, it’s impossible to argue the United States and the politicians that govern it have intentionally worked to suppress sexuality.
This influence has shown up in American society in ways we’re all familiar with. Well exemplified through abstinence-only education which has been proven to do more harm than good and the institution (and later repeal) of sodomy laws, restricting oral and anal sex between consenting adults.
This, of course, doubly impacts sex workers today. From the surveillance of online sex workers to shutting down city streets to prevent full-service sex workers from working, sex workers are heavily policed simply due to the criminalized nature of our labor – despite the fact that it’s permissible to do the same for free. Even online, sex workers face discrimination — facing heckling and harassment, losing access to online spaces for advertising, and facing deplatforming and suppression on social media, which is an often essential tool for marketing. and we or to even speak on the matter of their work, and generally harassed into leaving the industry they’ve chosen.
Policing The Body
Policing bodies, pleasure, sexuality, and sex isn’t new to politics or religion. Throughout nearly all of American history, the law has been used to suppress women — from historical bars on owning property and voting to modern laws, like one in New York that deemed carrying condoms as probable cause to arrest on the suspicion of prostitution.
Sex work isn’t risk-free, but risk isn’t the concern in the majority of anti-sex-work activism. While sex work may have safety hazards, many issues such as harassment, assault, and theft, arise due to a lack of social services and support for sex workers. Housing, financial freedom, food and healthcare accessibility, and the safety of going to the police without fear of incarceration are taken for granted by many. Sex workers don’t always have that luxury.
Instead, sex workers face criminalization, stigma, and whorephobia: the hatred, disgust, and fear of sex workers, in both personal interactions and policy to the point of marginalization and violence.
But who influences these anti-sex work policies? Many politicians and religious right-wing organizations are focused on “saving” sex workers through legislation such as the Nordic Model, a legislative process for abolishing sex work by criminalizing sex buyers, not sex workers. While that sounds great in theory, the Nordic Model isn’t as successful in practice without social services that assure sex worker’s needs are met. On the other hand, FOSTA-SESTA, which was supposedly targeted at ending sex trafficking, has targeted the consensual sex work industry by shutting down and censoring consensual, independent, sex work-based sites and social media accounts.
No matter the law, the political intent is clear: sex work (and arguably, female liberation) is considered unacceptable by the governing body of the state, and thus, should be eradicated. Can you remove religion and morality politics from the drive to do so?
Combating the Stigma in Religious Spaces
Religion is supposed to be founded on connection. Personal views aside, for those who want to know, how can religious communities be more open and welcoming to sex workers? Where, and how, can sex workers find religious and spiritual care?
Cashmere discussed this with faith leaders and organizers – Chaplain Alan Hamm, the Community Support Line Coordinator for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars, and El-Farouk Khaki, the Co-Founder and Imam of El-Tawhid Juma Circle.
As a chaplain, Alan Hamm has worked with sex workers for over a decade, providing spiritual care to the sex work community through hospital chaplaincy and his work with SWOP Behind Bars.
He emphasizes the need for listening to sex workers over politicians to mitigate stigma and increase safety. “These issues are complex – we need to look at those who are affected by [these laws], not those who are making the laws and benefitting from banning,” says Chaplain Alan.
Although sex workers have not been his primary audience, El-Farouk offered insight into Islamic principles that are more central to Islam than policing each other. He emphasized the need for more Muslims to focus on taqwa, or God-consciousness, rather than policing each other. “We are all made in God’s image – Allah breathes life into each and every one of us,” El-Farouk tells Cashmere.
When it comes to the spiritual care of sex workers, both Chaplain Alan and Imam El-Farouk agree: that the prioritization of caring for the soul needs to come without judgment.
“Sex workers still end up at the bottom of collective judgment, even though sex workers are in all communities across the world,” says Imam El-Farouk. Chaplain Alan shared a similar sentiment: “Frequently I would hear sex workers say, ‘I don’t want to talk to a priest – I don’t need anyone to save me. ’”
These small recognizances showcase the most important point: By listening to the sex workers, religious professionals can learn more about how we want to be treated and cared for, rather than listening to politicians. media, and influences who carry ulterior motives. Sex workers can have a connection with God and religion, without a savior complex attached.
Religious Leaders Can Take Action… And Accountability
By focusing on systemic oppressions that are at the source of the problems surrounding sex work, such as a lack of social support programs and accessible STI testing, religious leaders can focus less on saviorism and more on ending violence against 一 and providing support 一 to sex workers.
Religious professionals can take the first step by evaluating how they talk about sex in their spaces. See if there’s room to become more compassionate and make changes. Reach out to local sex worker charities and initiatives, and see how you can get involved. It can be a building block to creating relationships with sex workers in their communities.
“Sex is the stigma — wrapped up in patriarchy and colonial and post-colonial experience,” explains El-Farouk. “Codifying religion into law [regarding sex] harms everyone.”
To end whorephobia in religious spaces, more religious leaders need to listen to sex workers and make their spaces actively welcoming.
Below are key ways to fight sex work stigma in religious spaces and beyond:
- Nurturance over Saviorism. Sex workers need to be treated with dignity, not disgrace or judgment. Those who engage with sex workers need to learn that our voices matter, and we are not looking for saviors to uplift us out of the work we consent to.
- Fight for Bodily Autonomy. Just like issues of reproductive justice, abortion rights, and transgender health rights, having the right to decide for ourselves what we do with our bodies in consensual environments needs to be prioritized.
- Resources, Resources, Resources! Due to more recent legislation that censors sex workers online and in-person, direct aid to sex workers and sex work organizations is the best way to support sex workers. From food pantries to support groups, actions speak louder than words.
- Decriminalization, Not Legalization. As seen with the examples of the Nordic Model and FOSTA-SESTA, sex workers’ voices have been clear: letting governments have more control over our bodies is not the solution.