Loving a Prostitute

by Judith Hahn

Judith Hahn is a counselor at Genesis House in Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 19, 1989, p. 415. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Perhaps the greatest gift anyone can give is unconditional love. Too often love is part of a bargaining process for getting what one needs at the expense of another. Prostitutes, like all human beings, deserve respect and a chance to live life to the fullest.

Our culture often portrays the prostitute as someone beautiful, sexy, seductive and in control. An aura of mystery surrounds her, and many may want to imitate what they perceive as her glamorous lifestyle. She seems to make a lot of tax-free money and to be totally independent. A mother once told me that her young daughter had commented that she wanted to be a prostitute when she grew up. The mother was horrified and quickly tried to determine why the child had such aspirations.

Why does the prostitute horrify us? Why does she confuse and mystify us? She lives in a subculture that is alien to most of us. To understand her trauma and tragedy we must enter into her world and let go of our self-righteousness.

Consider Marnie. She was 15 when she entered prostitution. Her family was severely dysfunctional: her father drank and abused her mother emotionally and physically, and her mother constantly made excuses for his behavior. Marnie would hide in fear when she heard her father approaching, for she knew that he would strike out in rage at her mother and anyone around. Her mother was afraid to leave the relationship, and Marnie felt very insecure and alone. Her father was unable to hold down a job, so there was never enough food in the house and sometimes the utilities were shut off. Holidays had no meaning, and often Marnie’s parents forgot her birthday because they were absorbed in fighting. She found home intolerable. At school, she felt awkward in her dirty and torn clothes, yet school offered a refuge from the trauma of home.

One day after school, when her mother was out looking for a job, Marnie found herself alone with her father. He approached her while she was alone in her room and forcefully started undressing her. The sexual abuse began. Marnie was only nine. The abuse continued for the next six years, always accompanied by her father’s threat, "If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you." Marnie’s sense of self continued to deteriorate and no one understood why she did so poorly in school. At 15, Marnie decided to run away from home. She wanted to be free of the violence. She bought a bus ticket to the city, and almost immediately after arriving there met a man who noticed her bewilderment and offered to take her to his home.

Life was safe and secure in his apartment. There were no fights and no abuse. She got all the food she wanted and nice clothes, too. After a week her friend began to bring home pornographic movies, which they would watch for hours. He also introduced her to cocaine. One day he told her that she needed to start paying him back for his kindness. He wanted her to go out and do the thing that she saw in the videos and had practiced with him. She was to come back each night with a certain amount of money. If she didn’t, he would beat her and withhold cocaine. If she tried to run away he would tell his street friends and her life would be endangered. Marnie had unknowingly made her way into the life of prostitution.

This life, which may seem exciting for a while, eventually takes its toll. A prostitute risks her life every time she gets into a car. If arrested for soliciting or for prostitution, she will end up in jail if she cannot pay the fine. The need to support her drug habit keeps her on the streets. She ages quickly. After a while she might leave her pimp for another one or try to work on her own. Most likely she will have children. She might know the father of her child, or the child might be a "trick" baby, the offspring of a customer. She may give her child up for adoption, but usually she gives the infant to a family member or tries to care for the baby herself. Unfortunately, since the prostitute was probably raised in an abusive family, she is very likely to be an abusive parent herself.

Are there any alternatives for her? What are her needs as she attempts to leave "the life"? It is precisely in response to these questions that Edwina Gateley founded the Genesis House in Chicago in 1984 as a place for new beginnings, a house of hospitality, nurturing and hope for women in prostitution. Genesis House continues to grow and has made contacts of varying kinds with thousands of women.

Many women hear about Genesis House in lockup before they appear before a judge. In the close quarters of the holding cell, trained Genesis workers talk with the women about a variety of topics, including AIDS. Other women are referred to us by various agencies or hear about us through word of mouth. These initial contacts offer a message of hope: "Yes, there is life after prostitution." They also present a challenge: a woman must choose how she wants to live her life and take responsibility for pursuing her hopes and dreams.

Women who turn to Genesis House undergo a careful assessment of their needs and options. Drug or alcohol rehabilitation is often the first priority. Unfortunately, few inpatient treatment centers will accept those who have no insurance, and waiting lists are long for the facilities that do. Government cutbacks in welfare programs have also limited such crucial facilities. It is difficult for someone with a powerful addiction to wait weeks for treatment.

Having made the decision to recover from her substance abuse, the woman faces a range of other issues, such as employment, education, housing, memories of abuse and incest, self-esteem, self-confidence, intimacy and friendship. She must learn how to re-parent herself, to find within herself an inner direction and strength that will lead her to a fulfilling future. It is not easy. The task of finding healing and wholeness is enormous when there is so little upon which to build. To address this, Genesis House strives to offer something money cannot buy: love.

The history of the early church offers similar stories of love as an instrument of conversion. Writings about the early desert hermits tell of the seductress somehow finding her way to a solitary who leads a life of prayer and meditation. Having lived in solitude for so many years, the ascetic has touched the pains and joys of being human and is humbly aware that no one is excluded from frailty, weakness and sin. The contemplative’s love, compassion and understanding awaken in the harlot deep longings for that which is life-giving. Often such stories end with the harlot giving all of her material possessions to the poor, leaving her former livelihood and committing herself to a life centered on the gospel.

Writers of the Middle Ages expressed confusing statements about prostitution. Generally, any woman who entered into prostitution was excommunicated from the community for explicitly living in sin. Arguments sprang up as to whether she should keep the money she earned. The conclusion was that she could, for it was hers even though the way she earned it was not ethical. This exemplifies the double standard that church and society have imposed on prostitutes throughout history: what she does is deemed wrong, yet she is rewarded, or paid, by her customers. Thomas Aquinas used the prostitute as an example in explaining why God permits certain evils in the universe, since without them a greater good would be threatened. Quoting Augustine, he says, "Do away with the prostitutes and you will throw everything into confusion with lusts" (Summa Theologica, Q. #10, art. #11). What does he have in mind as the greater good?

During this era papal pronouncements encouraged the prostitute either to marry or enter a convent. To those who would marry a prostitute the church offered many indulgences for saving her soul. At the same time, both church and state benefited from the taxes levied on brothels. Such a lack of compassion and loving acceptance only widens the gap between the church and the women who work in the streets or brothels.

While a few women do freely choose prostitution and become high-class call girls catering to a select clientele, in my experience prostitution is a profession for the poor, for runaways, and for those addicted to narcotics or dysfunctional relationships. To legalize prostitution would condone it as a survival mechanism for women who have no education or job skills, and whose self-esteem is minimal because of a life of abuse.

My work at Genesis House has taught me that change is possible if an honest, caring love supports it. Ultimately, a woman must assume responsibility for her own future and choose for or against the street life. The challenge to live "straight" is almost overwhelming. Some women fear they cannot do it; the pain is too great and the odds are too formidable.

Church and society must accept their complicity in prostitution. We need to address family violence, incest and the availability of day-care and drug treatment, and re-examine the way we view women. We need to develop educational and job-skill programs for those whose emotional victimization has hindered their ability to learn. We need to ask ourselves if we view our own sexuality as a gift from God to be lovingly shared with tenderness and respect, or as a weapon that hurts and demoralizes others.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "Prostitutes are a necessity. Without them, men would attack respectable women on the streets." Jesus looked at the men who were about to attack an adulteress and said, "Let you who is without sin, cast the first stone." These sensitive words of Jesus must constitute the basis of the church’s response to women caught in the oppressiveness of prostitution. Name-calling and stone-throwing do not solve the pertinent issues. Compassion, understanding and a love that allows another to grow must undergird any conversion.