I am Rahab’s sister: Like many black women living in the twenty-first century, Rahab was single and challenged with the responsibility of caring for her entire family. African-American psychologist and relationship expert Linda Young affirms that seventy percent of black women are unmarried (including, never-married, divorced and widowed). In a study conducted by The Population Research Institute at Penn State University, the findings reveal that without respect to race, “over half of single mothers spend some time living in a household with other adults, usually in response to a crisis (divorce, non-marital birth), and most often live in households with their parent . . . .” According to the study, “total income is chronically low in many female-headed households due to the presence of at most only one (female) wage earner and to women’s lower earnings in the labor market.” However, the rise of female-headed households, especially among black women, places them at a distinct economic disadvantage.
Black women experience what I call the Triple Threat—the interlocking, oppressive realities of racism, sexism, and classism. Not only do black women by virtue of their race experience discrimination and subordination, but being black and female, and in many cases poor, black women are still considered a marginalized and inferior group. Even those of us who have education and well paying jobs still get confused with the maid and/or the cook. Consequently, this economic and sociocultural phenomenon leaves black and other marginalized women like Rahab alone in a patriarchal society to fend for themselves.
Rahab’s sisters are, therefore, women in need of advocacy. They need courageous women and men willing to stand in the gap, doing for them what they are unable to do for themselves. This need is evident in the Joshua narrative “where a paternalistic bias has led to [Rahab’s sisters] being overlooked.” Notice Rahab’s negotiation with the spies in 2:13, “when Jericho is conquered, you will let me live, along with my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all their families” (NRSV). Compare this verse to the redactor’s description of the men’s response in 2:18, “. . . And all your family members—your father, mother, brothers, and all your relatives—must be in the house” (NRSV). Even in 6:23, after the city was overthrown, there is still no mention of Rahab’s sisters: “The young men went in and brought out Rahab, her father, mother, brothers, and all the other relatives who were with her . . . ” (NRSV). What is evident here is that if Rahab had not spoken for her sisters, there would have been no mention of them in the narrative; their presence and predicament would have been invisible. Rahab, although marginalized, advocated for a place for her sisters to be remembered. Neither the spies in the text nor the redactors mentioned Rahab’s sisters who, like Rahab, were in need of rescue. They were marginalized, forgotten, and rendered invisible. In this way, Rahab and her sisters represent women alone in a male dominated culture, women who were and are still at risk of invisibility. The odds of their survival and thriving are minimal, and their risk of vulnerability is optimized, especially if such women are without a husband, lack financial security, education, and marketable skills. The text does not mention the occupation of Rahab’s sisters. It is likely that they were not prostitutes, but were supported by the resources generated from their sister’s profession.
Although the Joshua text gives little socioeconomic data on Rahab, a case can nonetheless be made, by virtue of her “occupation,” that she had few marketable skills with which to make a living; prostitutes in antiquity were on the lowliest economic and social rung. Thomas A.J. McGinn in The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World makes clear that, “women who became prostitutes were not the respectable and accepted members of society but in most cases were slaves or freed women without other means of supporting themselves.” Nevertheless, somewhere in her life Rahab learned that her body was her saving grace. Someone or some tragic circumstance placed Rahab in a position where trading sex for money was a survival skill for her and her family. Such women and children exist in contemporary society.
Today women and children are sold into debt bondage in order to pay off family debt, a transaction that often keeps family members alive. Bales explains that debt bondage, the most common form of slavery in the modern world, occurs when “a person pledges him-or herself against a loan of money, but the length and nature of the service are not defined and the labor does not reduce the original debt. The debt can be passed down to subsequent generations, thus enslaving offspring; moreover, “defaulting” can be punished by seizing or selling children into further debt bonds.” Another method of modern-day slavery used as a survival strategy is contract slavery.
Contract slavery occurs among the poorest families and is a bit more sophisticated in hiding its true intention of enslaving the vulnerable and economically disadvantaged. Bales describes this process:
Contracts are offered that guarantee employment, perhaps in a workshop or factory, but when the workers are taken to their place of work they find themselves enslaved. The contract is used as an enticement to trick an individual into slavery, as well as a way of making the slavery look legitimate. If legal questions are raised, the contract can be produced, but the reality is that the “contract worker” is a slave, threatened by violence, lacking any freedom of movement, and paid nothing.
Contract slavery is the fastest growing form of contemporary slavery and occurs most commonly in “Southeast Asia, Brazil, some Arab states, and some parts of the Indian subcontinent.” These families, similar to Rahab’s family, are socially and economically disadvantaged in society. Often their children, like Rahab, are forced by these societal conditions into prostitution as a means of familial survival.
Rahab’s family did survive. In fact, the Joshua narrative reveals, “all the inhabitants of the city, save for Rahab and her family, died.” Of course I realize the text does not explicitly provide such insight into the familial history of Rahab. I have no concrete empirical records to prove Rahab had a traumatic childhood forcing her into a life of prostitution. Like African feminist biblical scholar Musa Dube, took liberties in presenting an alternative reading of the Rahab narrative, challenging feminists and womanists to abandon readings of her story through the prism of patriarchal domination, I too take such liberties. I choose to allow Rahab to “tell her own story, to speak with her own words, instead of reproducing the words of her dominators.”
When prostituted women tell their own stories, when they have opportunities to speak for themselves and tell their truth, they experience empowerment. Similarly, the Rahab yearning to be unleashed in the Joshua narrative is an empowered Rahab. A woman who, although alone in a city under siege, was determined that she and her household would survive. Rahab, the lone woman standing between the spies of Israel and the “sword of the king of Jericho,” became an empowered woman. She was empowered with an opportunity to live. Prior to meeting the spies, Rahab and her family survived; but surviving is not necessarily living.
Yes, at one point in her life, Rahab merely survived. Perhaps she bought into the lie that she was only good for the sexual gratification of men. Now, with an opportunity to live, her voice will no longer be silenced. Every prostituted woman has her own backstory, a narrative that needs to be told in order for her to be understood; that is part of her healing.
Rahab was never married and had no children of her own. Yet, she cared and provided for the needs of her siblings—her biological brothers and sisters, and even her aging parents. Her name means, “pride” and although her vocation is the antithesis of it, her willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of her family reflected a belief in their significance. Rahab placed a high value on her family as she refused to subject them to begging or depending on the government as a source of aid. Perhaps, her father bartered her for food and other necessities, like girls in the mining towns of the Amazon, who were sold to “recruitment agents” and afterward beaten, raped, and put out to work as prostitutes.”
Rahab is a woman standing “with her back up against a wall,” the Jericho Wall. Rahab’s back was so far against the wide Jericho wall that she made her home in it. She lived inside the city wall. Living in the wall meant marginalization and living with a sense of hopelessness. Rahab was stuck. Stuck in a life she never planned for herself. She was stuck in a situation of degradation, waking up every morning to the touch of another musty man who would get up and go home to his wife, leaving a few dollars on the nightstand. In contemporary society, Rahab’s sisters do the same thing—retrieve money from a nightstand in order to buy groceries for their children, all the while feeling worthless because this transaction is a reminder that their backs are still up against the wall. The sale of women and children whose backs are up against a wall, generate billions of dollars annually, worldwide. They are the people society renders throwaways.
Recently I read a blog that distressingly described the concept of “throwaway women.” The author (Charlie Callahan) was interning at a drug treatment facility for women. Overwhelmed by the brutality and violence most of these women experienced, he decided to write through his frustration and feelings of hopelessness at ever being able to make a transformative difference in their lives. His words poignantly spoke to me because they illustrated the real life experiences of women prostituted and marginalized by commercial sexual exploitation, women like Rahab and her sisters. While I do not share his pessimism, his words bear repeating:
This is about interning at a two-year halfway house for female drug addicts, all of whom were diagnosed with mental disorders in addition to addiction, most of whom had been incarcerated or were on intensive supervisory probation, two of whom were pregnant, and how trite the concept of “treatment” is, and how the Twelve Step notion of turning one’s life over to the care of God is idiotic because he is not going to help them, and how worthless taking their moral inventory is because ninety-five percent of them had their morals torn from them by fathers and uncles and brothers when they were defenseless little girls, and how they cling to abusive men who are just like their fathers and uncles and brothers because they are desperate for love, any kind of love even if it is sick, and how much these women hate themselves. . . . I still remember those throwaway women, I still remember some of their faces, and I often wonder how many of them (and their babies) are still alive because their chances were so very small.
The blogger, a white male, though angry at the predicament of the women in recovery, still relegates the outcome of their predicament solely on the women. Although, in a sense, he does acknowledge their soul murder by emphasizing sexual abuse, etc., he nonetheless, blames them for their situation. Even so, his description of the women highlights the effects of childhood trauma on their ability to make healthy choices for themselves. Sometimes women’s survival decisions are dictated by their circumstances. Research suggests that “specific social contexts of limited labor market opportunities” make prostitution a rational survival strategy.
For many poor, uneducated, unskilled, and unemployed persons, trading sex for money “offers a viable solution to the problem of income generation” and it creates an opportunity for self-sufficiency, independence, and flexibility. Choice, when used as a concept to describe prostituted women’s commencement into the commercial sex industry, must be deconstructed. Since choice implies that the decision made is in light of other less preferable options and alternatives, consideration must be given with respect to the viability of alternatives available to the prostituted woman. Very often, they must decide between selling their bodies and homelessness, turning a trick or feeding their families. In reality, what they have is the illusion of choice and, consequently, they choose prostitution. The point I am making here is the choice to prostitute oneself is most often made in light of other negative alternatives. Before categorizing prostitution as a choice, an important consideration is this: Had other healthier and life-affirming choices been available to them, would they have chosen prostitution?
Current research gives the impression that feminists fighting for women’s rights have a sort of schizophrenia as it relates to the prostituted woman. One strand of feminism has come under intense scrutiny because it labels prostitutes as victims who are fighting for their rights. Prostitution-rights advocates argue that such labeling “has removed much of the agency from sex workers. Feminists, as well as psychologists and social workers, recognize violence, exploitation, victimization, and gender subordination as realities for persons in prostitution. Those who reject this view argue that prostitution is not something that happens to the prostitute, but rather an intentional choice made by them. Even some sex workers believe that conflation of sex work with sex trafficking is a disservice to both victims of sex trafficking and sex workers because the latter deliberately choose their vocation, and those lured into sex trafficking do not. Prostitutes are thus seen as not merely victims.
On the other hand, social theorists “present the prostitute as worker, healer, sexual surrogate, teacher, therapist, educator, sexual minority, and political activist.” Prostitute rights advocates posit that “inside the constructions of worker and sexual minority operates the tension between empowerment and victimization; constructions such as healer, sexual surrogate, teacher, and therapist are employed as empowering characterizations to destabilize the traditional negative representations of the prostitute.” In other words, prostitutes are marginalized as sexual minorities. Such labeling imposes negative stereotyping by society as well as a negative self-perception of prostitutes toward themselves. In redefining the prostitute’s activities in positive ways these new descriptors seek to create a counter-discourse as a form of empowerment for prostitutes, as well as function as a form of resistance to traditional representations.
However, in researching for this this book it became dishearteningly clear to me that in our modern society, “many mistakenly assume that prostitution is sex, rather than sexual violence, and a vocational choice, rather than human rights abuse.” From my experience with women seeking escape from prostitution, the idea of all prostituted women having or making a deliberate choice is problematic, primarily because it characterizes them as criminals since prostitution in the United States is illegal. The notion of prostitution resulting from an intentional, well-informed choice is also troubling. When given other options such as financial assistance for school, rent, utilities, and childcare, the majority of the women with whom I have worked chose to leave prostitution. Moreover, depicting prostituted women as criminals helps ensure that their buyers remain socially invisible.
Take the Joshua narrative for example. Few preachers highlight the spies as johns, and thus procurers of sexual favors. Granted, the two spies were on a mission of espionage, but they also stopped at a brothel, a stop they were never instructed to make. The sexual proclivities of the spies, at least for the typical churchgoer, remain invisible, primarily because preachers fail to decipher the text in such a way as to expose their conflicting behavior. Statistics indicate that 1 in 10 men in the world have purchased prostitutes. In other words, a social reality for our time is that 10 percent of the male population in the world has paid to have sex with a woman. Yet, men who purchase sex remain largely invisible in our legal system, while the women remain visible, and the church remains silent. What results from rendering the buyers of sex invisible is the demonization, marginalization, and criminalization of their victims, prostituted women, further promoting their designation as throwaway people.
Prostitution in the Twenty-first Century
In modern society women and girls all over the world, irrespective of race, culture, or religious affiliation, are thrown away. Yet, the idea of dispensable women is not a new phenomenon. As the blog’s author unwittingly points out, a patriarchal society creates a system in which misuse and abuse of women, children, and others who are most vulnerable, is an inherent part of the system. A patriarchal society creates a system in which women, children, and others who are susceptible to being mistreated are cast aside, thus thrown away. What happens to the body and souls of throwaway women and children? Sadly, many are enslaved and trafficked both internationally and domestically. Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. Except the question is no longer “Are they the right color to be slaves?” The question is “Are they vulnerable enough to be enslaved?” Modern-day slavery no longer focuses on race, but rather on weakness, gullibility, and deprivation.”
Bales further discusses “contemporary slavery,” confirming that “slavery is not a horror safely consigned to the past; it continues to exist throughout the world, even in developed countries like France and the United States.” In providing a picture of the economy of slavery in the modern world, Bales enlightens:
Slavery is booming business and the number of slaves is increasing. People get rich by using slaves. And when they’ve finished with their slaves, they just throw them away. This is the new slavery, which focuses on big profits and cheap lives. It is not about controlling them completely. People become completely disposable tools for making money. 
Bales depicts not only sexual slavery, but a new kind of slave labor involving the production of goods and services, as well as household slaves. In that regard, he shares the tragic story of Seba, a young woman sold into household slavery when she was a girl. Seba, while under the care of her grandmother in Mali, was sold to a Paris woman under the guise of caring for her children. Seba was promised she would be sent to school and that she would learn French, none of which occurred. Instead, Seba was forced to perform work each day from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. On one occasion, when she failed to perform a duty as expected, she reported the following horrific incident:
“My mistress and her husband were furious with me and beat me and threw me out on the street. I had nowhere to go; I didn’t understand anything, and I wandered on the streets. After some time her husband found me and took me back to their house. There they stripped me naked, tied my hands behind my back, and began to whip me with a wire attached to a broomstick. Both of them were beating me at the same time. I was bleeding a lot and screaming, but they continued . . . She rubbed chili pepper into my wounds and stuck it in my vagina. I lost consciousness . . . The pain was terrible but no one treated my wounds. When I was able to stand I had to start work again, but after this I was always locked in the apartment. They continued to beat me.”
Fortunately Seba was freed when a neighbor, after hearing her screams, called the French Committee against Modern Slavery. Yet her scars remain forever etched on both her body and her soul. Although Seba is now an adult woman, she has the emotional and intellectual understanding of a child less than five years of age. Seba is learning how to live in the world, yet she admits to having difficulty with the concept of her own agency. It is hard for her to believe in herself, in her self-worth. She is baffled by the idea of “choice.” Her volunteer family tries to help her make choices, “but she still can’t grasp it.”
The issue of “making choices,” particularly healthy choices, is not an uncommon problem for prostituted women seeking transformation. Some do not believe they deserve the good, so they are stymied when faced with an opportunity to decide what is in their own best self-interest. Many do not understand that human value is not earned but is an intrinsic part of being human. Too often, their pimp or their slave owner, ensuring their vulnerability and dependence, made decisions about their lives for them.
The above is an excerpt from my book, Murdered Souls, Resurrected Lives: Postmodern Womanist Thought in Ministry with Women Prostituted and Marginalized in Commercial Sexual Exploitation.
Linda Young, “High Achieving Black Women and Marriage: Not Choosing or Not Chosen?” in Psychology Today online, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/love-in-limbo/201006/high-achieving-black-women-and-marriage-not-choosing-or-not-chosen (accessed October 25, 2011).
Anastasia R. Snyder, Diane K. Mclaughlin, and Jill Findeis, “Household Composition and Poverty among Female-Headed Households with Children: Differences by Race and Residence,” Rural Sociology 71, no. 4 (2006): 599-600.
L. L. Bumpass and K. L. Raley, “Redefining Single Parent Families: Cohabitation and Changing Family Reality,” Demography 32:97-109.
Snyder, “Female-Headed Households,” 599-600.
Bernard P. Robinson, “Rahab of Canaan—and Israel,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 23, no. 2 (2009): 270.
 Thomas A.J. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 60.
Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 19.
Musa W. Dube, “Rahab Is Hanging Out a Red Ribbon: One African Woman’s Perspective on the Future of Feminist New Testament Scholarship,” in Feminist New Testament Studies: Global and Future Perspectives, eds. Kathleen O’Brien Wicker, Althea Spencer-Miller, and Musa W. Dube (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 179.
John H. Stek, “Rahab of Canaan and Israel: The Meaning of Joshua,” Calvin Theological Journal 37, no.1 (2002): 43.
John R. Franke ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament IV (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 8.
Bales, Disposable People, 4.
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 11.
Robinson, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 260.
Charlie Callahan, “Throwaway Women,” from http://thefirstprojectoftesticles.blogspot.com/2009/01/throwaway-women.html (accessed February 3, 2012).
Eva Rosen and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, “A ‘Perversion’ of Choice: Sex Work Offers Just Enough in Chicago’s Urban Ghetto,” Journal for Contemporary Ethnography 37, no. 4 (August 2008): 417
The term “sex worker” refers to adult men and women who intentionally and deliberately choose to sell their bodies for money. Sex workers in this context do not consider themselves victims, in that they are not coerced or otherwise forced into prostitution. Furthermore, in using the phrase “forced into prostitution,” I include such traumatic experiences as rape, incest, and other traumatic sexual experiences that have the tendency to undermine a person’s sense of value and worth, making it difficult for them to negotiate healthy sexual practices or escape prostitution.
Shannon Bell, Reading, Writing & Rewriting the Prostitute Body (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 103.
Melissa Farley, “Human Trafficking and Prostitution,” from Prostitution Research and Education, http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/faq/000175.html (accessed July 29, 2011).
Laws.com, “Sex Crimes, The Prostitution Statistics You Have to Know,” http://www.sex-crimes.laws.com/prostitution/prostitution-statistics (accessed July 29, 2011).
Bales, Disposable People, 11.