Under what circumstances would you become a prostitute?
No really, I’m serious. Under what circumstances would you become a prostitute?
I’ll give you a clue. The answer is not “none.”
This is the question one of my dear friends posed to a graduate class she was teaching a few years ago.
Though no one in the class could at first blush imagine a circumstance in which he or she would consider prostitution, the energy started to shift under the pressure of questions like, “What if you had no other way to feed your family?” “What if your child had a terrible rash with no clean diapers and no soothing cream?” “What if you had no one to call who could help you?” “What if the lives of the people you loved were at risk?” “What if your own life was at risk?”
The students’ initial resistance to what some might consider an extreme solution does not reveal their superior ethics. It does not mean they are better people with a higher moral compass than many of the men and women who engage in prostitution. It does mean that these students have likely not faced the kind of desperation that would make such a choice viable.
Because desperation, like the-choice-between-life-and-death kind of desperation, changes everything.
Those of us who are making a choice between selling our skills in the global marketplace and selling our bodies on a seedy street corner are not desperate. For us, there seems to be a viable and honorable option between the two. Those who are deciding between that same street corner and the very life and physical survival of those most precious to them have two wrong choices: destruction of self or destruction of others. When faced with that dilemma, morality shifts.
One could argue the choice that saves a life constitutes the highest morality. In such a case, prostitution would become the most moral choice.
As a result, morality cannot be accurately evaluated by the secure examining the behavior of the desperate.
At a recent mental health training, it was Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, who awoke me to how deep the river of intergenerational trauma runs. It is a shrouded toxin coursing through the literal veins of oppressed people groups. He asked us to imagine the neurological reality of lynching–a nearly impossible task. The physical impact of witnessing someone who looks like you reduced to a body hanging on a rope simply because he looks like you seems outside the realm of comprehension. From a scientific perspective, the impact on the body would have been profound. So profound, in fact, that according to Resmaas’s presentation, it still shows up in the bodies of African-Americans to this day. For example, the African-American population experiences a health disparity related to high blood pressure that cannot be explained by risk factors such as weight or socioeconomic status, meaning that if all other factors were equal, an African-American individual would have a significantly greater chance of developing high blood pressure than would a White individual.
Just . . . . because.
It is commonly understood that high blood pressure is associated with high levels of stress.
So, to review, high stress causes spikes in blood pressure that can add up over time to create long-term elevation, which is experienced is disparate proportions by a people group that was institutionally enslaved in our country prior to the Civil War, and in many ways still is.
To move a step deeper, Resmaa then asked us to consider what each of us would do if he brought an adorable little puppy into the room (just stay with me here–I promise there is a point). After a collective and audible sense of fondness for the idea, he asked what we would do if he took a hammer and tried to kill it in front of us. In horror, we all insisted we would try to stop him. He went on to invite us to think mindfully of the pictures available of lynchings in the South. Though the eye would be drawn to the most gruesome details, a careful observer would see other bodies.
There are three possible reactions to trauma: fight, flight, or freeze.
As a general rule, African-Americans learned to fight. To get fired up. To spike their blood pressure. It was how they avoided being slaves while they were enslaved.
As a general rule, White bodies learned to freeze. To literally watch and do nothing.
To barely notice our urge to fight before we suppress it in favor of our own sense of survival.
To shut down our most human and instinctual impulse to rescue and save.
To cut off our empathy, compassion, and identification with our fellow human.
To live divorced from our most basic sense of belonging and connectedness.
To literally stand by and accept death.
Not of puppies.
And in so many ways, we are still frozen.
Still shut down, cut off, and disconnected.
We need to be melted.
This morning I sat in church, 2 days after the Philando Castile verdict was issued here in the Twin Cities. Our church-planter-in-residence was speaking about the tug-of-war we are all caught in between black and white, right and wrong, just and unjust.
He said what is really going on is that we have forgotten “we belong to each other.”
The mothers who send their sons in blue uniform to protect our citizens, even when they are in harms’ way themselves, belong to the mothers who teach their children to drive and worry more about them responding appropriately to a police officer than getting into a serious car accident.
The wives who labor long hours at home with children while worrying about their husbands working overnight shifts on patrol belong to the wives who send their husband out for a gallon of milk and worry that the broken taillight they are still saving up to fix could turn deadly.
The children who hope their daddy’s gun will be enough to protect him from the bad guys in the world belong to the children who desperately hope their daddy won’t be mistaken for a bad guy with a “wide nose.”
So, I have been thinking about how we melt so that we can begin to belong to each other again.
Obviously (though it is very cliche) the first step really is admitting that we are frozen.
Not only are we frozen, we are the secure (the privileged) evaluating the marginalized (the desperate).
We are the bystanders, the on-lookers, the stuck–pretending the body hanging is not one of us.
We are the ones for whom staying frozen keeps us physically alive but relationally dead.
The next step is getting uncomfortably warm.
This requires closeness, like inside-my-bubble closeness, with the “other.”
It requires us to be willing to change our form. And to know that what contains us will have to shift as we change shape.
It requires us to be willing to re-evaluate our identity in light of a broader context.
Because melted us won’t look like frozen us.