Lia Scholl, I Heart Sex Workers: A Christian Response to People in the Sex Trade, (Chalice Press, 2013).
Rev. Lia Scholl was one of the first contributors we had to Two Friars and a Fool when we moved to this new site two years ago. For a long time, her article on Street Cred for Ministers was the most popular on the site, and our video responses were, um, memorable. So I was thrilled when I learned she had written a book, entitled I Heart Sex Workers, where she could share her work and give expression to ideas like Harm Reduction, and Sex Positivism which the Church has mostly ignored as they arose in the past couple decades.
Scholl begins with the crazy idea that sex workers are people, with agency, who don’t need to be judged as much as they need to be listened to; saved as much as they need to be offered options and support. She describes from her experience as a sex worker advocate and a minister ways of engaging that do not otherize, shut-down, and push-away those who trade sex. Her methods aren’t a mere pretext for evangelism. We have to earn trust by being trust-worthy, not merely by learning to say the right things so we can get past a sex worker’s defenses hoping to convert them.
Scholl doesn’t let sanctimonious moralism get in her way from any direction. She points out a variety of reasons why sex work might be the best choice for certain people, but she also points out the real harm that can come from engaging in sex work. Her concern is increasing the agency and minimizing the harm for every individual she works with. In some cases that might mean leaving sex work entirely, but in others it might mean just increasing the frequency of condom use, or helping an individual slowly take control of their drug usage. The book steers resolutely away from big-picture solutions toward direct harm-reduction in each circumstance.
This might all sound very pragmatic. If you’re inclined to view that positively you’ll say she’s a realist. If you’re inclined to see that as a negative you’ll say she compromises her values, but I think you’d be wrong in both cases. The thread running through her book, exposed by her title, is that she deeply cares, emotionally and theologically. She is not merely being strategic, she is being Christlike – and I mean that in the most literal sense. In this work, she is like Christ.
One of the most useful aspects of this book is its straightforward simplicity. It demystifies the subject by pointing out things which should be so obvious, but hardly anyone thinks of. For example, sex work is a wide spectrum, from the webcam operator in her living room to the high paid escort, to the porn star who has done 200 pictures, to the student who accepted money to do a sex tape that one time, to the girl who sleeps with her ex-boyfriend when she can’t make rent knowing he’ll leave a little cash on the table as he goes. Not only is sex work widespread and variable, but nearly everyone is connected with the sex work industry in some way – none of us really have any high ground to get preachy from.
Not that I’ll let that stop me – it is my fervent conviction that the Church has so utterly betrayed herself on matters of sexuality through abuse of the vulnerable and exclusion of those who do not fit our narrow, ill-conceived norms, that we need a prolonged period of fasting and repentance. When we’ve done making apologies and amends for all the people we’ve hurt (it’s gonna take a while), maybe we can humbly ask for enlightenment about sexuality from the people we’ve scorned: like sex workers.
What is most delightful about I Heart Sex Workers is the creativity of the writing. The chapters are titled after songs that perfectly capture the subject and theme of each chapter. I pretty much always found myself singing as I read. Each section of the book begins with a short-story centered on a woman from the bible. These stories work in two ways. They humanize and give dignity to characters who are often sparsely detailed in the pages of scripture, much the way her ministry with sex workers seeks to impart dignity and agency. The stories also provide a backdrop against which the reader’s consideration of sex work becomes less prurient and more humane. We see the story of the dancer suddenly out of work due to pregnancy in the light of Tamar’s story and we recognize it for what it is: sacred.