DESPITE the growing literature associated with her life and
work, Josephine Butler remains largely unknown or forgotten.
She is commemorated in the Common Worship calendar on
30 May, a 19th-century social reformer who confronted a sphere of
human activity which lurked in the shadows and prompted hypocrisy
and hardness of heart on the part of religious and political
As the leader of a long and bitter political campaign, she
worked tirelessly to end cruel and unjust legislation that allowed
women suspected of prostitution to be arrested and forcibly
subjected to painful and dangerous examination.
Since her death in 1906 - when the obituaries paid tribute to
her astonishing achievement - much has changed in the buying and
selling of sex, and the attitudes of those within the industry. The
internet is making the sex trade both safer and easier. Although
some prostitutes are exposed to trafficking and exploitation, many
make mutually satisfactory deals with people who, for a variety of
reasons, seek their services. As sex workers, they view themselves
as neither sinners nor victims, and reject the identification of
prostitutes with abjection or shame.
This change in self-understanding has helped to mitigate the
stigma associated with prostitution over long centuries. The Church
played a significant part in this process of condemnation, viewing
fallen women as penitents primarily in need of rescue and
conversion from "unpardonable" transgressions.
The selling of sex remains, however, a morally complex business.
At one extreme, it encompasses women and men freely engaging
clients through the internet at agreed prices; at the other, street
sex, offered by vulnerable individuals driven by addictions,
poverty or fear, who have little or no control over their lives or
There is an important moral distinction here. With regard to the
latter, and in the face of sustained opposition from the Church and
Parliament of her day, Butler refused to condemn prostitutes. At
the House of Rest she established in Liverpool in 1867 to
accommodate women from the degradation of the streets and the
workhouse, penance was never a prerequisite to admission. There was
no talk of sin, only love and acceptance, and the offer of Christ,
who defended a woman from stoning, and released a woman from "bonds
of infirmity" (Luke 13. 10-17).
Butler remains a guiding star for any Christian seeking to
understand or help prostitutes. Her example reminds us that they
are individuals, made in the image of God. They are our equals,
inviting neither our condescension nor our calculated compassion.
By entering their very different world, the possibility of change
and human solidarity can emerge through ministries of hospitality
By contrast, the emerging world of internet transactions that
provide ready access to prostitutes raises real difficulties.
Online services of this kind treat participants as objects, and
reduce human intimacy to the promotion of economic sexual
exchanges. Within the Christian vision of relationships, people are
not a means to an end, nor even ends in themselves. They are
instead to be signs of the liberating Kingdom of God - what Butler
described as "the reign of righteousness" - in which the fullness
of our God-given humanity can be revealed.
It is difficult to detect signs of such flourishing in an
industry that sometimes places women in humiliating, frightening,
and potentially dangerous situations, even when freely
Furthermore, the claim that sex work is based on women's freedom
of choice, and their right to decide what they do with their
bodies, owes much to the relativism that defines our age. It has
little to do with the religious notion that individual choice
should not be pursued without regard for harmful consequences -
such as the destructive effect that extra-marital sex has on
couples or families. Such choices contribute nothing to the "good
and wise ends" that Butler envisaged as the proper vocation of
lives whose deepest desire rested in the love and service of
Prostitution remains the world's oldest profession, and
technology is providing it with a new impetus. The challenge to the
Church is to demonstrate that it has a better vision of relations
between women and men than sex work provides, without resorting to
judgement or reproach.
To do this, it will require the moral clarity that is the
consequence of hard thought and, not least, the compassion and
courage that enabled the prostitutes of Josephine Butler's day to
see in her the face of Christ.
Canon Rod Garner is the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport,
Theologian to the diocese of Liverpool, and author of
Josephine Butler: A guide to her life, faith and social action