A few months ago I blogged about sex work and Buddhism, as it was related to some issues that had bubbled up in Cambodia at the time. I unsuccessfully tried to pull together some thoughts on the subject. I am very interested in discussing issues related to sex work because they are all at once highly politicized, ridiculously complex, rarely discussed and also very personal.
In the past few weeks I’ve seen different mentions of sex work pop up in Buddhist writing. Below I’ve collected a handful of views by Ven. Shravasti Dhammika, Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh), Brad Warner and Noah Levine. And of course I’ll leave you with my own two cents.
In the previous post, I asked whether sex work is a misfortune of fate or a simple choice. Both points of view have been described within Buddhist frameworks. My favorite is Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu), an epic Vietnamese poem about a sex worker named Kieu (“ghee-oo”), where the title character is portrayed as having to pay off the karmic balance of a previous life’s bad deeds. Kieu is drawn into sex work against her will, and she is only redeemed once her karmic slate has been wiped clean. To this day Vietnamese sex workers still compare their lives to the tale of Kieu.
An August blog posting by Ven. Shravasti Dhammika discusses sex work only in terms of a choice. He makes a distinction between two types of sex worker, and that in either case, their intentions are “karmically negative.”
Roughly speaking, we can say that there are two types of prostitutes: (1) those forced into prostitution by poverty or social deprivation and (2) those who choose to do it because they feel it is a convenient and easy way to make money. This first type of prostitute is called a harlot (vesiya) or a streetwalker (bandhakã) in the Buddhist scriptures while the second type is called a courtesan (ganika or nagarasobhini). The intention of the first is probably just to survive and is therefore kammically far less negative than the second whose motive might be greed, laziness or lack of self-respect. The first is not willingly involved in wrong livelihood while the second clearly is.
Ven. Dhammika leaves out the most tragic end of the sex worker spectrum: the trafficked sex worker. That said, his divisions seem more to relate what he has read in the Pali Canon and less to provide insight into the nature of prostitution. Unlike the following three commentators, Ven. Dhammika explicity frames prostitution in terms of karma; I am curious to know whether he feels that trafficked sex workers are also committing negative karma. But it’s important to underscore that his emphasis on the detriment of sex work is shared by all the authors here.
Buddhism does not support prostitutes. On the contrary it points out that prostitution is an unwholesome act. Buddhists do not look down upon prostitutes. If they choose to practice dharma, they have an equal, if not better chance to become enlightened.
You will hear similar words from a Dharma punk. Just today I ran across a passage on sex work by Noah Levine in his book Against the Stream, where he discusses right livelihood. He alludes to the moral complexity surrounding sex work, but as with Vens. Dhammika and Dhammananda, he places the profession within the realm of wrong livelihood.
Working in the sex industry as a stripper, prostitute, or purveyor of Internet porn is perhaps a more subtle form of wrong livelihood. Sexuality is natural and sex for sale is an ancient profession, but, again, if we look deeply, it is not hard to see that the lust that motivates such an industry has negative effects on both the workers and the customers. At the very least, participation in the sex industry is dependent for profit on lust and attachment, the very causes of suffering and dissatisfaction for people.
I only know one Buddhist sex worker. But I assume there are more out there. I think Buddhism might be attractive to them because it doesn’t have any specific value judgments on what they do. There’s no concept of sexual sin in Buddhism, so there’s no idea that being a sex worker is morally wrong. It may be or it may not be, depending upon the person. For some people, being a yoga teacher or therapist or DMV worker are absolutely the wrong occupations — for them. What’s better — a really conscientious sex worker or a really lousy therapist? Which one has the greater potential to cause more harm? My guess is that sex work takes a very deep toll on a person physically and psychologically. And therefore it’s probably not the best line of work to get into if you want a stable life. But having said that, there is no sin involved and it certainly wouldn’t be categorically forbidden.
One could read these words in different ways, but I take Brad Warner’s opinions in line with those expressed by the three writers above. As with Ven. Dhammananda, he upholds that Buddhism doesn’t judge sex workers for their profession. At the same time, he notes the “very deep toll on a person physically and psychologically,” where likewise Noah Levine writes of “negative effects” and Ven. Dhammananda writes of “unwholesome” acts. What these commentators all share is the common message that sex work is not ultimately the best line of work to go into for the ardent practitioner. And I’ll just leave it at that.