Contributing nearly £9bn to the UK economy and with over 80,000 women providing services to the industry, the world’s oldest profession (though midwives may disagree) is still thriving in many of the UK’s towns and cities.
Prostitution is as old as the Bible too. In the Old Testament we read of Tamar’s desperate evening with her father-in-law Judah, Hosea marrying the prostitute Gomer to prophetically represent Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, and Rahab, a prostitute and brothel owner in Jericho, who heroically enabled Joshua’s spies to escape. In the New Testament, Jesus is criticised for socialising with female ‘sinners’, and the woman who washes his feet with her tears and costly perfume has traditionally been assumed to be a prostitute.
The stories of women working as prostitutes in the UK (such as Bryony’s, see box) are just as multifarious as those biblical women; some forced by oppressive social structures while others follow generational patterns. Life isn’t as simple as the dichotomous ‘virgin or whore’ narrative our society often chooses to project on women.
Prostitution is essentially the exchange of sexual services for payment. The dynamic is predominately one of women offering sexual services and male clients paying for them. This exchange can take place on the streets, in massage parlours, through escort agencies or at private addresses.
Despite some media portrayals of empowered women living the glamourous life of a high-class escort, the reality is very different. The high levels of childhood abuse, homelessness, drug use and poverty experienced by those involved strongly suggests that survival is the overriding motivating factor. Somewhere between 80 and 96 per cent of those involved in street-based prostitution have a serious drug habit. One study in San Francisco found 78 per cent of prostitutes began their involvement before their 18th birthday.
The flower of life-giving sexuality is trampled on when women are forced to sell their bodies for sex. So who is sharing God’s love to restore the dignity and beauty he gave them?
Ruth Robb has been working to support sex workers for 30 years. She started Azalea, an outreach and drop-in centre in Luton, in 2007. The charity’s name was chosen because the flower is often associated with dignity and Proverbs 31:25 which says: “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.” Azalea works with street prostitutes in economically deprived areas of the Bedfordshire town. The majority of the women have never been in mainstream employment. Ruth explains that “All the women we work with are involved in drug abuse”. She identifies the cause of this “self-medicating” to be a background of sexual abuse. “We work with women who are five or six generations in sexual exploitation – they don’t know anyone outside of their circle.” Astonishingly, Ruth also claims that all the women Azalea work with have been victims of child sexual abuse.
It is the lack of self-worth felt by those in prostitution that motivates Azalea’s work. Ruth believes it’s self-evident that it was never God’s plan for humans to “sell their bodies for violent sex”.
This motivation makes projects like Azalea different to other organisations in the field. Although Ruth is aware of many “really inspirational” non-Christian projects that work in the same area, she believes that what makes Azalea distinctive is the team’s faith in Jesus. “It’s the message of Jesus and his unconditional love, that you don’t come changed but you come to change from the inside out and that’s the big difference.”
Ruth says her aim is to enable women to leave the sex industry. Azalea employs a full-time ‘exit officer’ who supports women with an individual care plan. This nearly always involves working closely with local statutory bodies.
I was brought to Luton after my ex-partner assaulted me and went to prison. I had previously gone through a lot of traumatic incidents such as homelessness, rapes and criminal activity, including sex work. That led to drug addiction, and I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
I was in the worst mess I had ever been in and I came to Luton a selfdestructive, self-loathing woman. Azalea has helped, supported and guided me through the most turbulent times in my life. They gave me a safe place to go when I didn’t have anywhere or anyone. When I thought nobody cared, they welcomed me with open arms. They donated things for my flat, gave me food when I had none, and provided me with clothes. I felt loved and cared for. Azalea allowed me to use the shower and washing machine. They put on creative workshops where I could forget all the negative things going on, and could express myself freely. It gave me an opportunity to feel like I had accomplished something.
When I ended up in hospital after a suicide attempt, Azalea volunteers visited me, prayed with me, and gave me a phone so I could contact my family. I was introduced to Jesus, and started to believe that God loved me. Other women said Azalea is a place where prayers are answered...This is certainly my experience. I know I wouldn’t have gotten this far without God’s love for me so wonderfully expressed through the love of the Azalea team. I am eternally grateful for all their help, support and love.
*Bryony’s name has been changed
While some Christian organisations struggle with these relationships, Ruth says that’s not the case for Azalea.
Azalea’s drop-in support centre provides 90 women with help, ranging from hot food to free haircuts. They also offer facilities for washing clothes. With around 30 per cent of the women not owning a front door key, homelessness has practical repercussions. The facilities provide an alternative to the public toilets where women resort to drying their clothes using hand dryers.
Ruth says the drop-in centre provides a non-judgemental place where “the women can come as they are and [know] they are loved unconditionally”.
All of their work takes place in the context of strong financial and prayerful support from local individuals, the majority of whom are members of churches in Luton and its surrounding towns. “Churches in Luton are absolutely fantastic in the level of support they give,” Ruth stresses. “We have a massive prayer movement [in Luton] because transformation happens by the power of God.”
Azalea isn’t alone in its desire to reach out to women working in prostitution. !Audacious Church send out their ‘A-Teams’ to the red-light district in Manchester to engage with sex workers and share Jesus’ love. This project of the vibrant megachurch (over 2,000 people regularly attend) is run by Julian Wolstencroft, a community pastor. Julian suspects some of the women they work with have been trafficked, whereas others he describes as “professional” who “regard it as a job”.
!Audacious began going out onto the streets only six months after launching. The advantage of their early adoption of the cause is that it has “become part of the language” around mission in their church. Julian reflects, “If we’d been an established church and tried to do this it could have been complicated.” Despite some raised eyebrows at the policy of giving out free condoms to the women, the majority of the congregation have been supportive. Julian’s hope is to purchase a vehicle to park up and offer a safe space for women to receive a warm drink and a shelter from the harsher winter weather.
Yet, despite the relationships of trust the teams have developed over nine years, integrating those relationships into the wider church community has been challenging. Julian explains regretfully, “No matter what we’ve tried to do, we’ve only had one girl come to church for an event we did.” He doesn’t put this down to a fault in his team’s evangelistic ability, but rather the way the women view themselves: “We put on events for them to try and get them down…we’ve even had our volunteers try and pay for their time…[But] they won’t even do that.” His team have had women refuse any invitation to church, saying, “How could I possibly do that living the life I’m living?”
But this lack of take-up hasn’t discouraged Julian and his team of volunteers: “We are not here to convert them or turn them to Christianity,” he explains. “We are here because it’s what churches ought to be doing, engaging with everyone in the community…no matter what results we receive from it, we continue because it’s what we should be doing.”
An alternative approach
Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes is not surprised by the lack of enthusiasm from the women invited. “Why would you want to be identified as having a job that is stigmatised?” she asks. “They probably do visit church buildings but they probably don’t go in as sex workers.” Cari fears that there seems to be a misunderstanding of the identity of prostitutes, with some Christian groups seeing prostitutes as a homogenous group.
The English Collective of Prostitutes was founded in 1982 to campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution and to campaign for sex workers’ rights and safety. They are a non-religious organisation who also offer resources to enable people to get out of prostitution if they want to.
Cari is keen to emphasise the financial focus of the women in the industry: “You’re out there because you’ve got to get some money. You get out and get back to your family as fast as you can. You get your money and then you go.”
Without a religious perspective, Cari sees the act of paying for sex as morally neutral. Prostitution, she says, “is not a moral issue, it is an economic issue.” She isn’t against projects such as Azalea or the !Audacious A-Teams, but views prostitution as comparable to other low-paid jobs.
Cari explains, “Most people want to get out of prostitution! Just as most people want to stop doing whatever job they are doing…It’s useful for there to be projects which offer help to women who want to leave prostitution but that should be if and when they want to leave.”
In her opinion, churches should take the same lead as clergy such as Rev Simon Buckley of St Anne’s Soho who defended the rights of prostitutes in his parish during a spate of police raids on local brothels. Rev Buckley wrote to the Bishop of London and senior Metropolitan police officers to complain about police behaviour during the raids, describing it as “unacceptable and, at times, unlawful”.
Cari believes it’s important for the Church to use its significant social capital to nudge the government towards relaxing the law. The English Collective of Prostitutes sees criminalisation as a trap that counterproductively keeps sex workers on the streets.
When it comes to Christian projects which work with street prostitutes, Cari believes that they should actively insist that the police do not arrest women. She explains, “Having a record prevents you from getting a job because a prostitution record comes under ‘sex offences’, outrageously, along with rapists and paedophiles.” This legal action along with the drastic cuts to social benefits puts prostitutes, particularly mothers, in a vulnerable position. Instead of the Church making moral judgements on these women, Cari believes that it ought to have a “moralistic agenda against the government which is imposing these conditions on women, on mothers”. In her view, “They are only there to earn money, they are not doing anybody any harm.”
Clients in church
Ruth from Azalea agrees with the English Collective of Prostitutes’ position up to a point. She says the drivers towards prostitution in Luton are “completely economic”. But she argues that “something has gone wrong if you’re prepared to sell yourself for seven quid without a condom. We are not talking £700-800 a client, we are talking absolutely raw economic deprivation”.
The huge support Azalea receives from Luton’s churches provides many opportunities to speak about their work in a context of sexual brokenness. Ironically, when Ruth preaches she frequently sees men in the congregation whom she knows to be clients of the very prostitutes she is talking about. After her talks she often receives an “avalanche of emails” from those men asking for help. This surprising response has led to Azalea’s new project ‘Flint’ - which works with male clients of prostitutes in Luton. “If we want to see sexual exploitation eradicated, we need to start with the demand” Ruth explains.
Ruth doesn’t see the launch of this new project as a contradiction, instead as an embodiment of the Good News – “everyone can be involved!” The Church often finds it easier to discuss prostitutes as victims while ignoring those who sin against them. But as Ruth says, “We are all a hideous cocktail of victim and perpetrator.” For her, the gospel message of redemption is the centre of Azalea’s work, both with prostitutes and clients.
Helping churches help others
Because Azalea is a specialist project, they train their staff to a high standard, but the temptation for other churches can be to just give it a go. But for Christian PhD student Bethan Taylor, who writes about the support services available for prostitutes, enthusiasm (however gospel-centred) is not enough: “It’s simply wrong to say that having a heart qualifies us to work with sex workers.”
Something has gone wrong if you’re prepared to sell yourself for seven quid
Instead, Bethan holds up Street Pastors, with its in-depth training, as an example of how a Christian project can exemplify best practice across a sector. Her advice to churches seeking to reach out to prostitutes is to first see what local organisations are already doing in the field.
“We are great at being rescuers,” Bethan says. “The temptation is for churches to start their own glamorous project that makes them feel good as they rescue sex workers.” Instead of this glamorisation of the role of rescuer, Bethan challenges the Church to “try and affect policy when it’s hidden and unseen”.
Sharing the gospel when working with prostitutes can be difficult. Ruth says, “The women are violated constantly in their own space and then a bunch of Christians come and violate them as well and tell them what they think is best for them rather than listening to God’s agenda.” In light of this abuse of relationship, Bethan’s advice to churches who engage with prostitutes is to “love them in a way that they are comfortable to be loved. And, to share the gospel in a way that they are comfortable”.
Ruth agrees. “Change isn’t our department,” she says. “We all know that Jesus can do abundantly more than we ask or imagine, but we just need to open the door.”