So, I was having dinner with my friend in the sex industry the other night….
Take a moment, try to be fully honest with yourself. What judgments or emotions does this sentence create in you? Would it be possible for you to say “my friend in the sex industry”? Or are you “unreachable”, never allowing a situation like this to take place? I’ll tell you how I found myself in this exact situation during one of my travels.
I have been attempting to write this article for a couple months now. How can I speak openly about something that is often so hidden and so judged that even just the mention of it can cause offense? During my recent time in SE Asia I visited some friends I have known for many years.I was welcomed to stay with them in an apartment shared with a few others and was introduced to a woman I”ll call “Nan”. I was excited to spend some time with my old friend and meet some new ones.We (My friend, Nan, another woman, and myself) spent a day together being tourists in a beautiful coastal region. We had a wonderful dinner together talking about life, family, and hopes for the future.
During our ride back home my friend mentioned to me under his breath that “Nan” was working as a “bar-girl”. (Click for a link to a definition) He mentioned that this was of course not approved of in society and that Nan was living separately from her children so they would not learn of their mothers’ shameful occupation. This same woman, who was nervous meeting and talking with new people, who had dreams for her children’s future, who wanted to enjoy an afternoon with friends… was working directly in the sex industry.
I immediately found my judgment sensors kicking in.
“She should stop living in this disrespectful way!” “She is wrong. Why would she do that – HOW could she do that?” And then without consciously thinking about it, I could feel myself distancing myself… my emotions, my mind, my talk. At this moment, I mostly wanted to stop speaking. Simply being another friend to this woman now felt uncomfortable. All the talk of interests, hopes, dreams, and stories that I felt comfortable sharing before somehow started to fade into non-discussable/non-engaging territory.
I had already listened to Nan share about her children, their ages, their interests and how much she misses them. I could see a sadness in her eyes. She made choices that many parents often make; desperate sacrifice for the sake of children. In the following weeks, I had a chance to speak more directly with Nan about her future, her family, and her own personal dreams. I heard a story that was familiar to many single mothers. A failed marriage, lack of employment and support from family and friends. With the cost of school fees, children’s clothes, food, and rent exceeding what Nan was able to earn in her previous job she took the difficult decision to earn money for her family by working in the sex industry.
Lessons of love or morality?
Mostly, I found myself heartbroken and challenged by the story told. I was heartbroken because I saw a woman with a gentle and quiet personality taking an occupation that not only went against her personality but also was eroding her self-worth and view of herself. Trapped in a cycle of hiding from her family in shame. I was challenged because my stereotypes of the type of person who is a sex worker were no longer fitting the mold. I wanted to teach a lesson of escape, I wanted to reach out. But with what? A lesson of love or morality? How could I suppose to walk in shoes that were in no way my own?
Freedom & dreams
I don’t claim to have all the answers for how to bring goodness to what looks like a difficult and seemingly helpless situation. But as I considered my feelings of empathy I discovered that my own personal goals and dreams certainly have a way of re-humanizing me on days when I feel I have become just another cog in the capitalist machine. Nan and I began to have conversations about dreams and goals. At first, her responses were about dreams she had for her children, but in time we were able to start to speak about her own dreams and interest. One of them being painting and drawing. We also started talking about freedom. What other potential ways she could become free of this guilt and shame of her current occupation and what possibilities she had for sustainable work in the future.
Many religions attempt to offer explanations and solutions to injustices like this. I particularly like this verse from 2nd Corinthians 5:17 “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” This newness of life is something that people all over the world are trying to find. Who will find it? And what does the “new life” look like? A common theme of suffering. An uncommon destination of freedom.
I wrote this article not to explain some narrow path or view of how you should behave in or judge a situation like this. But to raise awareness about how often we as a society are judgemental or indifferent to challenges so many women face on a daily basis around the world. Making a choice between self-sacrifice or sacrifice of family. I hope to keep my eyes open wider than before and my heart, less judgemental. I will face a “reality check”. Am I doing what I can in good conscience to love each person I meet fully? Or do I prefer the feeling of my familiar judgments and the safety of my disengaged comfort zone?
I recently learned that Nan was able to find a well-paying job in a restaurant and has started creating T-shirt artwork which can supplement her salary. These positive changes in Nan’s life are allowing some happiness and light to re-enter her life.