By Donna Lee Schillinger, Revised, originally published in 2011.
A report from Vatican City in December 2014 said that Pope Francis has joined Hindu’s Buddhists, Anglicans, Jews and Muslims in a new initiative to end human slavery by 2020. The religious dignitaries present committed to doing everything within their power and faith communities to free the estimated 35 million victims of human slavery. Subsidiary to the problem of slavery are the tongs on this pitch fork from hell: organ trafficking, forced labor and prostitution.
Drawing on his own experiences in the ministry in the slums of Buenos Aires, Francis has made eliminating slavery a priority of his pontificate. I applaud the pope’s priorities, but I have to wonder if they are more rhetorical than practical. I wonder if he might be jumping on the bandwagon that started several years ago, and by garnering signatures from the world’s top religious leaders, taking the Catholic Church from zero to hero on the stand against human slavery.
Obviously a man of great influence, why did he not make some impact in his own country on the issue of prostitution during those years of ministry? In a country that is 92 percent Catholic, surely a high-ranking priest in the Church worldwide would have some palanca, as they say in Spanish. Nonetheless, Argentina is among the 77 countries in the world where prostitution is legal. And where there is prostitution, there is human slavery.
I recently had the opportunity of living in Buenos Aires for one month, half a block off of the Argentine equivalent of Manhattan’s Broadway and 34th. Walking along Corrientes, the “street that never sleeps” in Buenos Aires, light poles, walls and phone booths are plastered with mini-flyers that advertise prostitutes in various compromising poses and varying degrees of undress. Additionally, there is no standard in Buenos Aires that porn magazines should be in any way concealed, so there they are in prime shelf space on the corner newsstand, right next to the Toy Story and Mickey Mouse coloring books! Even in one of the sex-trafficking centers of South America—Iquitos, Peru, there is nothing to compare with the graphic ticker tape barrage in Buenos Aires.
My initial reaction to having my children exposed to these images was to get red in the face—not out of anger, but embarrassment—probably the same reaction my teenager was having. After a few days, however, my embarrassment soured to irritation and my new response was to rip those flyers down, as many as I could, as I walked by, occasionally pausing at a light pole here or a phone booth there to completely clean it off.
Sometimes, on our return home, we would see the same spots covered again with new flyers, often the glue was still wet – and we knew the pimp’s (glue) gunman had to be nearby. At times, my heart beat a little faster, contemplating the possibility that the (glue) gunman might have the chutzpah to confront us, or that he might follow us and see where we were living. A couple of times, I allowed my mind to wander too far into dark fantasy and I got downright scared.
What were we doing anyway? Was this making a difference? It surely wasn’t helping the prostitutes to get a better life! We might have been making life a little harder for the johns. One evening I saw one walking the streets, examining closely the remnants of the flyers in frustration as he was unable to get a complete phone number off of any of them. But a determined john need only walk a block or two more to find a plethora of prostitute promos.
If there was any impact, it was probably in causing more than one Argentine man or woman to consider what might possibly be offensive about these flyers. We got very many stares from all sorts of people. Surely a few of them wondered, “Why is Mother Gringo teaching her young ones to throw away prostitute flyers?” And maybe a few even concluded that we must find them offensive. Then perhaps one went on to reflect on why such a thing might be offensive. I allowed my mind to wander along that light fantasy as well.
Mostly, it just made me and my daughter feel better to tear these things down; and so we did—every day on every walk.
Legal prostitution has nothing to do with a country’s level of development or human rights record. Among those “highly civilized” places offering legal exchange of sex for money are: every country in the North America except the United States, all of Western Europe and all but two of the poorest countries in South America (Guyana and Suriname). Illegal prostitution (a more enlightened stance, to my thinking) actually corresponds to some of the least developed countries in the world, including most of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe (see Wikipedia’s color-coded continent maps). Isn’t it paradoxical that legalized purchase of sex—a practice that not only creates a demand for human slaves but demeans women in general—is more common to countries where women have more legal rights?
Why aren’t human and women’s rights’ activists up in arms about prostitution to the same degree they are reproductive rights (among them, the right to abortion). In fact, at HumanRightsWatch.org, a leading Web site in the field, prostitution is mostly mentioned in the context of human and women’s rights abuses as it relates to the illegal trafficking of women and girls for prostitution. It seems other countries don’t share the American thinking on prostitution as a rather savage and degrading practice. In 2005, under “intense pressure from an international coalition of organizations,” the United States rescinded a position requiring countries that receive HIV/AIDS relief from the US to adopt policies opposing prostitution. Touted as a great victory, HumanRightsWatch.org said they have worked to combat discrimination and violence against sex workers, implying that the US’s position would heighten hostilities against sex workers and make it harder for them to access HIV/AIDs treatment and prevention.
How about, instead, working hard to combat one of the root problems of the HIV/AIDs pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, and a major contributor to human slavery: prostitution? Human Rights Watch’s position makes about as much sense to me as saying we should work hard to dress poor people in nice clothes so they won’t be ashamed of being poor. The root problem here is not discrimination against sex workers, it is the fact that there are sex workers at all! They should be working hard to combat people—mostly women—being forced or having to resort to making a living off of selling their bodies and souls! Is this position not tenable in NGO circles while all of “cool” Europe gleefully engages in legal exchange of sex for money?
It would be oversimplifying things to say that prostitution is a result of unchecked testosterone—that women don’t have the legal, political or social clout to change things. In fact, in some of these very countries where prostitution is legal, women head the governments, including in Argentina! It would also be oversimplifying things to say that making prostitution illegal would put an end to it in the near future. In fact, it is rampant in our own country, despite the prohibition. But shouldn’t it be illegal anyway? Isn’t making something illegal often the first step to social change? The law to abolish slavery certainly preceded the end of slavery by a substantial margin, and it preceded the end to systemized discrimination by almost a century; but the fact of the matter is that it worked. I bet it was also controversial when the first pagan congress entertained putting an end to human sacrifice. I can just imagine the clamor it must have caused: “Oh, that will never work! The gods will always have an appetite for human flesh!”
There’s a lot wrong in the world today, but there has also been a lot of improvement in the general human mentality. We got rid of that nasty human sacrifice thing; we now acknowledge people’s humanity, for goodness sake, whereas there was a time when some of thought others weren’t even the same species! Women and children have tons more rights than they used to and even animals have some! The light and salt of this world has made an impact, and we must continue to do so. I’m glad Pope Francis and others have taken a public stand against human slavery and its nasty subsidiaries. Now I pray they put some action behind that statement.
UPDATE: Just checking in on this since we’re well into 2020 now. How we doing with that eliminating human slavery thing? Looking back, that whole initiative looks pretty naive, though well intentioned.
Here’s a more realistic target: Shutting down Pornhub and preventing any other site like it from rearing its ugly head. Learn more here:
Donna Lee Schillinger is founder and president of On My Own Now Ministries, Inc., and the author of Straight Talk from the Proverbs for Young, Christian Women who Want to Remain Pure, Debt-free and Regret-free and editor of the new anthology Purity’s Big Payoff/Premarital Sex is a Big Rip-off. Visit her on the Web at www.OnMyOwnNow.com.