What Would Jesus Do About Prostitution?

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From Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus by Chester Brown

“Jesus actually thought that prostitution was a good thing.”

Montreal-born cartoonist Chester Brown isn’t one to avoid controversial topics in his graphic novels, and his newest work, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, is his most provocative yet. Brown’s best known books include Louis Riel, a graphic novel biography of the infamous Métis leader, and Paying for It, a memoir that described Brown’s experience as a “john” or client to sex workers, while advocating for sex worker rights.

In Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, Brown again builds his case for the decriminalization of prostitution, this time taking from scripture as evidence that Jesus never considered prostitution a sin. “Not a typical Christian,”  Brown illustrates five Bible stories in his unique style while challenging the commonly held moral stance that Christians hold towards prostitution. His retellings collectively aim to show that prostitution and sexual impropriety are not always punished as we might expect in scripture, making some bold interpretations of Bible passages along the way. I spoke to Brown about religion, politics and the progress of decriminalization in Canada.

Adrian Knowler: What is your definition of sin?
Chester Brown: (Laughs) I guess I would consider sin, if it’s anything at all, to be treating other people in an unloving way. And of course, we all do that all the time. As much as possible, we should be trying to treat everyone in a loving way. That’s certainly the ideal, and it’s a difficult ideal.

AK: So by that definition prostitution wouldn’t be a sin, right?
CB: Right, as long as both people in a sex-work transaction are treating each other in a loving way, or at least with care.

Chester Brown self-portrait

Chester Brown self-portrait

AK: So why is there this discrepancy between your definition of sin as it relates to prostitution and so many other religious people’s? Why do so many Christians view prostitution as a sin, as something Jesus was against?
CB: I can understand where other Christians are coming from. If you take the Bible seriously, there is a lot in the Bible that is anti-prostitution. Particularly in the writings of Paul, and most of the New Testament writers. Paul was very clearly anti-prostitution, there’s no doubt about that. I think Paul was off the mark there. I’m trying to argue that Jesus actually thought that prostitution was a good thing, and that he didn’t have a problem with it.

AK: Why do you think Judeo-Christian morals are still governing our society’s view of prostitution?
CB: A lot of this is subconscious. Our attitudes towards sex work have been influenced by the Judeo-Christian culture that we’ve all grown up in. I think one of the reason Biblical writers had an issue with prostitution comes down to women’s rights [at that time.] There was a patriarchal system, and men wanted women to be under control of men. Prostitutes were outside of that system, they weren’t reliant on any one man. They got their income from a variety of men, and they could choose [from whom they got it]. That way of seeing things still underlies how we think. That’s why it’s difficult for people to see a modern-day sex worker as having autonomy. People think that sex workers are all exploited, that they’re all victims. I think a large part of this is [due to the fact that] feminism didn’t become a widespread part of our culture until about 1970. And we’re still fighting the fight for women’s rights. When people who are against prostitution talk about it, they almost always ignore the fact that there are male sex workers out there. We’re still not used to the idea that men and women are equal, and that if it’s okay for men to work as sex workers, then it’s okay for women, too.

AK: Which do you think will come first? Decriminalization, or a moral shift on the part of our society?
CB: Well, if you look at something like gay rights in Canada, there were people agitating for gay rights before decriminalization, but it wasn’t a widespread movement. Decriminalization [of homosexuality] here in Canada happened first, and it got everyone thinking in a different way about gay rights and LGBT matters. I suspect that’s how it will have to happen with prostitution — a legal change first, and then the stigmatization will fade.

AK: How optimistic are you that decriminalization will occur, and on what kind of timeline?
CB: Well, it’s not going to happen soon. [Justin] Trudeau has said that he sees prostitution as a form of violence against women, so I don’t think sex workers can rely on him as a friend who’s going to agitate for the decriminalization of the work. So I don’t see it happening in the near future, not within the next decade.

AK: So how will society overcome this stigma that is holding back the conversation surrounding the decriminalization of sex work?
CB: There has been a bit of a shift already. The media now is willing to talk about sex worker rights as an issue, at least partly because of the Pickton case. I think a lot of people could see that the [anti-prostitution] laws had made those women vulnerable. I think that shifted things [in society] to some degree. I hope it doesn’t take more murders, but that might be the case, unfortunately. The murders made sex workers human, and exposed how these laws that were designed to protect sex workers were doing no such thing, and actually harming sex workers instead.

AK: Who are you trying to persuade with this book?
CB: When I was working on the book, the people I was thinking about when I was writing it were sex workers I know, people involved in the sex workers rights movement. Of course I intend the book for a wider audience than just sex worker rights advocates. I hope to change some people’s minds about what’s in the Bible, and the Bible’s attitude towards prostitution. Of course there are going to be lots of Christians who will find the book offensive, and won’t be open to its message, but I think the book will be for lots of liberal Christians like me. I also think there are atheists and agnostics who will find the book interesting. At a basic level, the stories that I’m telling are just good stories. I hope it’s at least entertaining.

AK: You ran for federal office in 2008 and 2011, with sex worker advocacy a large part of your platform. Would you consider running for office again?
CB: I would consider it, sure. I’m still a Libertarian, and I’m still involved in the party. In the last election I wasn’t able to run because I was rushing to meet my deadline for this book. I would run again though if I had the time to devote to running. I would be talking about sex worker rights a lot [if I were to run again]. ■

Chester Brown launches Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus at Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard) on Thursday, May 26, 7 p.m.

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