Protection of Sex Workers: Lessons from the Bible
Recently I read through 1 Kings 3:16-28. The story therein caught my immediate attention. It was the time-defying story of King Solomon adjudicating between two "harlots" both claiming the maternity of a child.
The brief facts of the dispute are these- two women of easy virtue lived together. As an occupational hazard, they both conceived and bore children. On a certain night, one of them slept too deeply, lay on her baby and snuffed the life out him. Waking up to see what she had done, she quickly switched her dead child for her “colleague’s” living one. But as the owner of a thing will always recognize his property, the woman whose child had been taken rejected the dead child in her bosom. And so the dispute was born- they headed for the palace to get the attention of the king.
This is what strikes me about the story- Israel was a religious state that faithfully practiced and endorsed Judaism. For the sin of whoredom alone, God sent a strong plague that claimed many lives- the remedy to which was the killing of a man and woman who were in the act of open and unabashed copulation. In Israel, adulterers were stoned in public and covetous men were burnt alive- with their children and the coveted property. Needless to say therefore, a harlot had no place in Solomon’s Israel. But when these harlots-turned-mothers showed up at the palace craving royal attention, King Solomon attended to them
He did not discountenance their grievances for reason of their looseness as harlots nor did he condemn them both for being reckless and irresponsible mothers (after all, one of them had killed her child while the other had slept so deeply her child was taking from her side without her knowledge). He listened to them. And justice was done.
Solomon saw the bigger picture. Instead of embracing legalistic sanctimony, he understood the precedent that would have been set if he looked the other way. Rather than see two bickering prostitutes, he saw a child whose future was about to be thwarted into the hands of a wrong (and possibly cruel) mother. Rather than see two despicable women without honour for themselves, he saw them as what they were the day they were born- human beings.
And this is my contention. This is what drives me whenever I make a case for the protection of Sex Workers in Nigeria. My reasons are simple:
One: The sex worker is a human being: the law does not make a variation as to who deserves the good things of life and who doesn’t. Even a convicted criminal has certain rights that must not be infringed. The sex worker is no different. She may not have a high sense of self-worth but in the sight of the law, she maintains her right to dignity. So it doesn’t serve the purpose of the law to have her beaten, stripped, groped, unduly detained or tortured by Law enforcement agents in a bid to curb her activities.
Very recently, a sex worker in Abuja had her breasts roughly grabbed by a taxi driver- an action to which she violently objected to, resulting in the smashing of one of the windows of the car. As she fled from the man (who was in hot pursuit), she ran into a Policeman who summarily compelled her to pay for the window and then detained her afterwards. In a balanced society, the taxi-driver was to be regarded as a sexual predator and the sex worker, his victim. But in our society where fraud makes you a chief and petty theft makes you a convict, the poor sex worker spent the night in jail- until I had her released.
Her case is not new. Whenever prostitutes show up in Police stations to report sexual assault, they are laughed at. Some policemen tell them they invited the rape. Whereas the law is settled that even when a person has given consent to intercourse, once that consent is withdrawn, any penetration afterwards is rape. And the law is silent on (nay, does not recognize any such thing as) “invited rape”. This hypocrisy-based apathy is not limited to sexual crimes alone. Even in cases of kidnap, robbery and fraud, the sex worker is a pariah too filthy for the golden sceptre of Law Enforcement.
Two: A filthy attire is to be washed, not discarded . To let sex workers be at the receiving end of brutality and sexual impropriety is tantamount to throwing away a piece of clothing because it’s dirty.
And it’s not the prostitute’s fault that there are too many workers and too little jobs in this country. It’s not the prostitute’s fault that our legal system is retributive and not rehabilitatory. It’s not the prostitute’s fault that we love our high horses so much we would let a “smaller” evil thrive if it crushes the greater evil.
And this is our error. From Biblical times, the world has had prostitutes. And till the end of time, the world will have them. No degree of hate and violent opprobrium will stamp out sexual perversion from our land. So when we let the rape, assault and kidnap of sex workers go on by turning a blind eye, we are in truth making a statement on our collective morality (or the lack of it) and encouraging the growth and nourishment of two grave evils because NO ONE will erase the other. In the words of Dr. King, hate is a downward descending spiral- it only creates more hate
Three: The larger society is served by the protection of sex workers. These sex workers could so easily be our sisters. Our wives. Our daughters. Our mothers! That’s me just being sentimental? No, it isn’t. I had the privilege of a University education during which my definition of the word “prostitute” changed. They are in our classrooms, fellowships, clubs and associations. In fact, a campus magazine published names of prostitutes on my campus- a girl in my faculty was named. Today, she’s a Law graduate. What if she had been killed then? What if she had been subjected to assault-related psychological breakdown? What if she had been pushed to murder an assailant after she could no longer stomach the sight of him walking free, let loose by a legal system that crushes the weak?
Further, if there were no patrons, there would be no sex workers. These patrons are everywhere. But we never see them paraded on TV after a brothel raid. All we see are the hapless prostitutes paraded by kidnappers, trigger-happy drunks and patently corrupt bribe-takers. If a sex worker services 6 men a day and gets a sexually transmitted infection from each of the first 5, she passes them all to the 6th patron who then passes them on to his unsuspecting wife who bears him children with congenital diseases that could have been avoided if the sex worker had enough protection to confidently demand healthcare and post-trauma attention.
Prostitutes are by default- even in the absence of rape and assault- victims. Victims of our collective wrong. Victims of a value-gap. Victims of a suffocating economy. It doesn’t make any sense therefore to expose them to scenarios and people who take them as victims and transform them to liabilities- the walking dead in a land of little life. I stand on the authority of the precedent set by the world’s wisest man known- King Solomon