Nov

12

2012

Collin Hansen|11:00 PM CT

Sex Is Cheap in Birmingham

My car rolled swiftly down First Avenue North away from downtown Birmingham on a rainy, overcast fall morning. Off to the right, Sloss Furnaces towered over the "magic city" they helped create by turning minerals from the surrounding mountains into iron for the nation's industrial boom. To the left, low-income housing testified to the aftermath of the furnace shutdown in the early 1970s. Several blocks later I pulled into our church offices at Cornerstone Christian School, nestled behind the ministries that pass for commercial development in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham. Here, one day earlier, pastor Joel Brooks broke some bad news. While many of us last week were still celebrating a last-minute comeback victory by the Alabama Crimson Tide or watching election results, a Birmingham police undercover operation netted 35 arrests, mostly for soliciting prostitutes. On First Avenue North. In front of our church. One local TV station captured footage of the crime scene while standing next to our church sign.

We knew Redeemer Community Church meets in a tough neighborhood. In fact, that's why we're here. So the sting itself didn't catch our attention. But you could hear the gasps in the congregation when Joel told us the going rate for a prostitute in our neighborhood. Sex is cheap in Birmingham. You can get pretty much whatever you want for between $5 and $15. Our neighbors are selling their bodies for less than they could earn a couple blocks away working at McDonalds. Lord have mercy.

Police worked with local media to publish the names and photos of every man and woman caught soliciting prostitutes. Someone recognized one of the men as a 30-something pastor from another church. I can't imagine that call home from jail. From what I can gather reading the news, there were many such agonizing conversations last week. General David Petraeus, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Joseph Rogers Jr., chairman of Waffle House. Even the voice of Elmo, Kevin Clash. Infidelity cannot be confined to any class, race, or creed. Sex scandals are nothing new. Neither is prostitution, especially in economically distressed communities.

So what's the big deal? Why stigmatize adultery in a tolerant, permissive, supposedly enlightened age? Maybe because even as the supply of sex drives the price down, the cost of infidelity to our communities remains as high as ever. Our bodies know something our minds don't want to admit.

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be

Sexual liberation wasn't supposed to end with $5 hookers. By freeing love from the shackles of marriage, we were going to enjoy sex as a pleasurable physical act and nothing more. Our movies and TV shows envisioned a brave new world without repressive mores and the prudes who sought to enforce them through shame. Leading publications have celebrated the new normal, where women now rule the hookup culture. Writing this fall for The Atlantic, which has cheered such cultural progress, Hannah Rosin said:

We are, in the world's estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold. Is that so bad? . . . What makes this remarkable development possible [gains for women in education and workplace] is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom---the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don't derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women---not men---who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.

Women, like men before them, could only reach this point by cheapening sex, by reducing it to purely physical pleasures. To conform around the education- and career-oriented life, sex has been devalued, robbed of its biological bounty and spiritual significance. Sex has been emptied of the power that attracts us to it in the first place.

Don't believe me? Check out the HBO series Girls, which has already done to Friends what The Sopranos did to the mobster genre. That is, life-imitating art casts doubt on earlier, glamorized renditions of the good life. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote earlier this year of Girls,

It's offering a fairly dystopian take on twentysomething social life, in which the comedy is dark, the sex is gross, the romance is disappointing, and the mix of nudity, jadedness and bawdy talk doesn't carry any of the aspirational frisson that was always associated with the post-sexual revolution single life on a show like Sex and the City.

Cheap sex is just that---fleeting, easily discarded, unworthy of memory. This is liberation? From what? Safety. Security. Significance.

Infinite Cost

According to the apostle Paul, God designed sex with awesome power. Writing to the sexually dysfunctional church in Corinth, Paul taught, "The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body" (1 Cor. 6:13). God created all things good for his glory, so he knows what he's talking about. Paul, then, asked these beleaguered believers, "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, 'The two will become one flesh'" (1 Cor. 6:15-16).

Quoting Genesis 2:24, Paul grounded sex in the original purposes of God for the man and woman he crafted in his image. But tucked in 1 Corinthians 6:14, Paul says something unexpected, even jarring. "And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power." Apparently, God so values our bodies that one day he will raise them from the dead, just as he did with his sinless Son. God so values our bodies that as their creator he tells us how to protect them and even how to delight in them. God so values our bodies that even if we have offered them for $15 or tried to buy someone else's for a mere $5, he redeems them at the infinite cost of his Son.

Sex may be cheap in Birmingham, but we are not.

Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter.

Categories: Christian Living
  • Sam

    Thank you for that last line.

  • http://www.docsdining.blogspot.com Jason

    Collin,
    Thank you for this article. May we weep for our sins and may the Lord come quickly.

  • http://saet-online.org/category/blog Jason B. Hood

    Great piece, Collin. Lord have mercy indeed.

  • http://blogergism.blogspot.com/ Doc B

    "You can get pretty much whatever you want for between $5 and $15."

    This is a basic illustration of the law of supply and demand. Since so many women are willing to give it away for free (the 'hook-up' lifestyle), why should men continue to pay big bucks for it?

    On the one hand, this is an incredibly sad commentary on our culture. On the other hand, it's poetic justice. But justice or not, the sadness of the state of our culture seems to win this debate.

    • LG

      What a terrible thing to say. Many, perhaps most, sex workers are exploited -- whether drug addicts, victims of sexual abuse, or living in virtual slavery to a pimp. There is nothing "poetic" or "just" about that.

    • jffy

      There is no "justice" in the exploitation of vulnerable and abused women.

  • ohayayay

    I think you need a new paradigm for understanding this - because your knee-jerk reaction to condemn these men and women for their sins with no interest in any deeper solution is not a remotely Christian response.

    The men and women who are selling themselves for $5 on the street corner (across the street from your church!) today are not remotely "liberated" in any way," and to put this at the feet of sexual liberation is pretty misguided. These are not free people.

    You mention that they could just go get a job at McDonald's. There are a lot of reasons why someone who is dirt poor and living on the streets would not be hired to work at a fast food chain, most likely having something to do with how they ended up there in the first place, but let's leave that for now....

    These people that you are talking about could also just walk across the street and ask people in your church for help. Hmmm. I wonder why they do not just do that? What would be your reaction? Why didn't you even suggest it?

    When the prostitute approached Jesus and anointed his feet, the pharisees were disgusted, and said that Jesus must not know what kind of person she was. But Jesus said to her "Your sins are forgiven."

    Your obvious disgust with these people, your neighbors, is overlooking some simple facts here: these people are not healthy, whole people making rational choices. These are not the privileged, middle-class women from the HBO show "Girls," for example (though you try to conflate the two!). They're drug addicted young men and women. They're people who have hit rock bottom. They're homeless and/or dependent on their pimp. They're not free, thriving, liberated people.

    And the men seeking their services are not free people either. I don't know what is going on in your life that you would want the services of a $5 prostitute, but those are not the actions of a liberated person. The pastor your friend recognized, for example...if this man really had a healthy, liberated sexuality, do you honestly think he would be buying sex from the street corner?

    Blaming the sexual revolution and hookup culture for prostitution makes absolutely no sense. Men have been paying for sex since time immemorial. Yes, prostitutes were in the Bible...and tragically, they were actually just accepted as a part of life. The problem has not worsened since sexuality has been de-stigmatized. I do not think it is a healthy or a good thing, but it is nothing new.

    People who become prostitutes do so because they are already living on the margins of society. Some of them are being trafficked against their will - some of them may see no way out of this life. They are people who need our compassion and our help. Remember how Jesus lived on the margins too?

    Hookers and prostitutes thrive in the shadows - in a place where sex is shameful and taboo. Before the sexual revolution, women and men who had normal sexual urges were made to feel ashamed of them. And before women's liberation, it was much easier for a man to force a woman to have sex, or to sexually abuse a woman, and to face no consequences. Do you really think those were "the good old days"? For whom?

    Instead of laying judgment on these people (prostitutes and those exploiting them) and why not try to reach out and help them? Why not try to figure out what is really going on here instead of spewing vitriol and hatred? Because your arguments are weak and outdated, and they do not speak of compassion or Christian love or even any type of reality-based thinking.

    • http://thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      Thank you for your comments. I'm sorry that I made you so angry with my "vitriol and hatred," my "weak and outdated" arguments. In compassion and Christian love guided by reality-based thinking, help me understand from your experience working with these men and women how our church can help. I'm sure we can learn.

    • ohayayay

      Ok, now that I have had my angry rant, let me say thank you for addressing this issue. I found my way to your post simply because I had not seen many people respond to the Birmingham news article about the prostitution sting in a very mature or compassionate way.

      I was curious to read a faith leader's take on it, especially one from that immediate community, and I found myself disappointed and angry in your response because I felt that it only further alienates people who desperately need to know their value and their place in God's kingdom - though I doubt that was your intention.

      In my experience opening the doors of church to the poor and downtrodden means that one cannot place oneself above them. This is why I became angry while reading your post - because I felt that calling everyone else "cheap" while claiming moral superiority is no way to open your heart and your church to others.

      In my experience, people know when you think they are not as good as you. My experience is both as a person working in a ministry (dealing with teen pregnancy, homeless/drug addicted people, people who smell bad because they don't have hot water at their house to shower, people who are unemployable and turn tricks or get in bad relationships to pay their rent and feed their kids) and my experience is also as a person visiting churches where I have myself often felt alienated, judged, "not good enough" to be there. I once went to a church where they turned away a young woman who had come to the early service from her night shift at a club, and she was turned away at the door because her clothing was inappropriate. That is not a church I want to be a part of.

      In my experience, the best church is one that opens the doors to all to come and find redemption in Christ, even if we are obviously not perfect. This church will not be a pretty one. But even in a "good" church, we are all lacking in some way. All of us make poor decisions that "cheapen" us in some way. Some people have affairs. Some people have casual sex. Some people have addictions. Some people are not able to hold down a job at McDonald's. Some people lose everything and end up on the street corner selling themselves for $5 - or end up on the street corner buying someone for $5.

      When I look at where those people are, I feel pity, but I also feel a recognition and a kinship. I have made mistakes in my life but I have been fortunate enough to have a loving family, a loving church and a community of support along the way. Fortunately I have never found myself so degraded that my picture was in the paper for soliciting or selling sex (some of those pictured were actual prostitutes, btw). Not everyone is so blessed...but I honestly think that there, but for God's grace, go I.

      From your post, it sounded like you were more interested in shaming and blaming these people than in loving them despite their mistakes. That may not be your way or the way of your church (I have never been there, nor have I met you), but that is how I read it...and in my experience, people who are obviously not perfect are not going to feel welcomed into that kind of church.

      I am sorry I became angry, because the reality is we just have different worldviews. I do not agree with your version of reality, and I still do not see how the sexual revolution is to blame for prostitution, nor how this is a valid response to a problem that is desperately sad. Perhaps there are people who are welcomed into your church who have come from these difficult circumstances, and the message you preach is what they need.

      I do not doubt that your beliefs compel you to say these things. They are just not my own and I felt compelled to say so!

      • http://thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

        We don't let anyone but sinners into our church, so as long as you meet that qualification, you're welcome to stop by! Who knows, maybe your judgment of us will be confirmed. Or perhaps you'll discover something unexpected once you give us the privilege of knowing you personally. You might even learn that we agree on more than you imagine.

      • http://www.ironworkspikechurch.org Jack

        There are different ways of measuring someone. Compared to Absolute Divine Perfection, none of us are superior. But a fair-minded person is better than a bigot; an honest police officer is better than a cop on the take; Sister Theresa was a better person than the Madoffs; and a sexually pure woman is better than a prostitute.

        • GratefulforGrace

          @Jack, your use of "better than" here bothers me. I guess it reminds me of the ways Christian men (in fact, ONLY Christian men) have looked down upon me because of my past choices.

          I think I'd probably use the word "healthier" instead of "better than." "Better than" seems to set up some kind of hierarchy that I don't think Jesus spoke about when speaking to the religious and the sinners.

          • http://www.ironworkspikechurch.org Jack

            But being healthy is *better* than being sick, isn't it? Besides, those words are euphemisms for "godly" vs "ungodly." The Bible never uses PC therapeutic language. The Scripture approves the use of morally-evaluative language -- it repeatedly talks about the "wicked" vs the "righteous", for example. My wife is a far better woman than a prostitute or a thief, though my wife is also a sinner. The Bereans were more noble-minded than the Thessalonians, in that they studied the Scripture to see if what Paul preached was true. The Bereans weren't healthier-minded, they were better than the Thessalonians at least in that matter. The apostles called certain extremely wicked people "dogs." It illustrates that the Holy Spirit doesn't follow modern PC guidelines on speech.

            • GratefulforGrace

              okay

  • Laura

    This article is severely lacking, in that it completely disregards the high probability that these women are being pimped out by controlling, powerful, and dangerous men (and sometimes women). While this doesn't make the situation any less sad (it actually makes it worse), it does speak into where the blame should be placed. Women on the streets are victims, not perpetrators. Even if they would not say those words, it is typically because they have been brainwashed and abused, likely since they were children.

    So yes, the situation does need prayer. All people involved desperately need the redemption of Jesus! But we should be careful about where we cast blame.

    • http://thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      Few of the prostitutes themselves were picked up by the police. The sting focused on the men and women paying for their services. So I don't know who you think is treating the women as the primary perpetrators. How did I leave that impression? Thanks in advance for your help.

  • Laura

    Well, mostly I was just referring to the fact that the victimization of the women wasn't mentioned, and therefore leaves the impression that the women are choosing to devalue their bodies. Mostly, I just don't want readers to get the destructive impression that prostitution as a whole is the woman's fault. It is this mindset that has in some ways gotten us to where we are in this issue of human rights and justice (that "prostituted women don't deserve help because they got themselves into that situation").
    I realize that this wasn't your focus in writing it (and you may very well know all of this), but I just wanted to point it out.

  • http://apoormamasdiary.blogspot.com Della L

    I think people are missing the point of this article... just because the author doesn't touch on each and every detail of prostitution, or answer every question or concern that the viewer might have, does not mean that he, or his church, are not concerned with those aspects as well.

    In making the connection between "liberation" and these prostitutes so close to home, as I am a Birmingham native, I didn't take that as saying that these prostitutes are themselves liberated, but that this in just another of the many sad consequences of what misguided "sexual liberators" set out to do. They are in need of our compassion and Savior just as much as any of us in the church pews are, and I didn't feel that this article said anything differently than that.

    Keeping in perspective that this is an article, and not a book, I think your point that "Sex may be cheap in Birmingham, but we are not", was well made.

    • Joe Rucker

      Thanks Della. My thoughts exactly.

  • Marie

    Were any women really picked up for soliciting a prostitute? I have never seen a woman do that.

  • T.Newbell

    I'm thankful that your church has chosen to be in a tough neighborhood. I believe when you write, "Lord have mercy," you truly mean to cry out for the Lord to have mercy on these women. That is what I gather. I can't imagine the pain and desperation of these women. I am praying. Thank you also for the last sentence. As image bearers, all created by God, what value they have. I pray God would open doors for the gospel and compassion ministry at your church. How amazing it would be if one day, one of these women could testify to God's faithfulness. And, you are right, sex has been cheapened. It is everywhere--dulling us to the beauty of it in the context of marriage...Thanks, Collin, for your efforts here!

  • Sara

    It seems to me that, Collin, you've used this sting in Birmingham as the catalyst for a broader topic for your article and at times using crass language and a rather detached viewpoint. Could this be why folks are having a powerful reaction to the article? Sometimes the court of public opinion really does need to count for something.

    • http://thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      Thanks for your comments, Sara. Maybe you have some experience working closely with prostitutes and the (mostly) men who solicit them. Based on that experience, how would you counsel our church with how to help?

  • Darren Blair

    As an MBA?

    One of the immutable laws of business is that there are two key forces affecting any given market situation.

    The first is "supply", or the availability of a particular commodity or service.

    The second is "demand", which is the desire of someone within the general public to possess that item.

    I see that both the article and some comments here on the page propose eliminating the "supply" part of the equation by trying to eliminate prostitution.

    Thing is, in situations like this people forget to contemplate the matter of "demand". Why are these people paying for sex in the first place? What situations are causing them to be willing to shell out rather than seek an actual marriage with someone? Why do these people feel that the risk of jail time and/or STDs is worth it? Figure out the reason why, and you can figure out how to resolve the problem(s) behind the matter. Resolve the problem(s) behind the matter, and you help remove the "demand" side of the equation. Remove the "demand" side of the equation, and there's no more money to be made in the business.

    Follow it up with efforts to resolve the "supply" side of the equation (like counseling, substance abuse rehab programs, and job counseling / training / placement), and you've got a large part of the problem solved.

    • http://thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      As the Birmingham Police Department and everyone else knows, it's much easier to scare away the "demand" through the threat of arrest and public shame than to fix the culture that gave rise to the "supply." The church needs to take the lead in offering hope and to the women. Police can't solve that problem. They can't create an alternative to our sin-sick culture, they can't build a place where women are honored and sex is valued as God intended. Through Christ, however, the church can. And despite our differences on a variety of subjects, the church can surely agree that these women deserve better.

      • T.Newbell

        Amen!

  • MJ Schmid

    Excellent, insightful post Collin. I especially like your statement, "Sexual liberation wasn't supposed to end with $5 hookers." It frustrates me to no end that our culture continues in willful ignorance of the consequences of our sexual immorality. It humbles me to think that I would be no different were it not for the grace of God.
    That last sentence sums it up nicely: we live in a society that needs to be confronted with the truth of the Bible and the meaning of the Cross, both for our bodies and for our eternal souls.

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  • http://renewchicago.wordpress.com Brian Fulton

    Colin,

    Last year, we raised funds on college campuses to give to IJM & on a local level, The Well House. They are the only ones I know who have practical, tangible help in Birmingham in regards to sex trafficking. They have housing there. They are faith-based. The gal who runs the organization is a professor at UAB and is a former-prostitute herself. Its worth exploring if you aren't sure where to start. She has a wealth of knowledge in regards to sex trafficking in Birmingham.

  • http://michaelcoughlin.net Michael Coughlin

    A brave and insightful post, Colin.

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