Oxfam and sex

This news story is developing every day. These thoughts may have been overtaken by events by the time you read them.

It is alleged that while working in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, some fairly high-ranking Oxfam employees had sex with prostitutes. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti. It isn’t clear whether any of the women were underage. On discovering this, Oxfam sacked some but allowed others to resign, and then were less than fully frank about the matter in their reports to the Charity Commission.

These revelations have caused quite a brouhaha.

We can probably all agree that:

  • if prostitution is indeed illegal in Haiti, these men (I’m assuming men?) were breaking the law of the land in which they were guests, and this is itself deplorable and probably a sackable offence;
  • although not wanting to “wash one’s dirty linen in public” is a very understandable and indeed legitimate desire, full disclosure should always be made to regulators;
  • it seems very clear that issues of transparency and safeguarding (possibly also salaries and recruitment procedures) in the world of aid and overseas assistance need a thorough overhaul;
  • the purposes and effectiveness of aid needs to be constantly reviewed;
  • the practice of “allowing people to resign”, although very widely practised by employers everywhere, is murky and open to horrendous abuse;
  • anyone who wishes to pay for sex has an overriding moral duty to be sure that the woman or boy isn’t underage (and to know the local law on this);
  • many prostitutes throughout the world have been trafficked or otherwise forced by other people into the trade;
  • women in countries that have just suffered a devastating natural disaster are particularly vulnerable to offers of sex for money or food;
  • many people believe that using prostitutes (I prefer the less loaded and dehumanising phrase “paying sex workers”) is inherently exploitative and evil.

I think we’d all agree with all the above, wouldn’t we?

But I am intrigued by the way that this story is being reported as if “sexual abuse” and “sexual misconduct” were easily definable, and the same thing. “Sexual misconduct”, in particular – what’s that?

From the beginning of time, men have sought relief from very stressful occupations (such as war) by having available sex. I even refer to this, as it happens, in “The Tenth Province of Jaryar.” Dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster is likely to be a stressful occupation.

The implication seems to be that of course Oxfam’s employees should not have been relaxing in this way. Even if it was their own money, and in their own time, and even if prostitution had been legal in Haiti, which it isn’t.

Because paying for sex is immoral.

Of course, I agree with this. But then I take the fairly traditional line that any sexual intercourse outside of marriage, or a relationship very similar to marriage, is immoral. I had thought until recently that my view was rather old-fashioned.

I do not agree (with lots of caveats about consent) that paying a sex worker is necessarily more immoral than having a one-night stand. Arguably there is less danger of deliberately or accidentally raising false expectations with a sex worker, who knows the deal.

I certainly do not agree that paying a sex worker is more immoral than cheating on your spouse, which is adultery.

Or that it is more immoral than dumping your spouse because you’ve found someone more attractive, which Jesus also called adultery (Luke 16:18).

How many of the journalists and politicians who are leaping up to condemn Oxfam have done any of these things?

I feel that the moral disgust being shown here is partly because we elevate aid workers to a level of secular holiness, if you like, that means their private lives, even when they’re far from home and in distressing circumstances, should be squeaky-clean and saintly. There is no obvious reason for this.

My second point is simple. Let’s not forget that some of those leading the condemnation may have their own agendas when it comes to overseas aid and development.

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Judith Leader

    16th February 2018 at 9:02 pm Reply

    I worked in a highly stressful job and would not dream of taking advantage of my position by talking about religion or politics knowing that the parent/parents of the baby might feel they needed to agree as it might in some way affect the care of said baby (contrary to a medical drama I once watched, we didn’t have time to go to the toilet let alone sex in an office – actually there wasn’t a spare office). People who are representing a charity need to be above reproach they also need to be accountable to the people they are serving, the country they are in, the good name of the charity and the people who give them money. Not to wash ones dirty linen in public is code for hiding an unpalatable truth in case it affects donations/the church as we have seen at regular intervals etc. I am less likely to give to Oxfam because of the cover up. The workers broke the law of the land and what else we do not know, Oxfam broke the trust of the charity by covering up.
    There are lots of stressful jobs, e.g. fire and ambulance service, rape crisis centre and lots more we don’t hear about. We have heard of police who have had sexual relations with a suspect (I am sure most policemen are above reproach), who they said was consensual, we can guess what that means and even if it was the policemen in question are in the wrong. We are talking about taking advantage of people and covering it up as well as breaking the law and I see no excuse

  • Stephen Sheridan

    16th February 2018 at 11:49 pm Reply

    I think there are two main issues here. The first is the sin of pride. Oxfam has in recent times paraded itself as a paragon of virtue and truth. While it has been doing so it has become a more political organisation issuing statements on economics some of which it has had to row back from when they are simply shown to be incorrect from the statistical evidence. When Oxfam advertises that it is saving lives and then spends a large amount of money raised on political advertisements then it is not being honest. The other aspect of pride is the lack of transparency to the public over the issues it faced. Some of the latest revelations are its own guidelines it did not forbid its workers for paying for sex as it might interfere with their “human rights”. Such a lax code could be used to justify much bad behaviour. It then went on to lie or obfuscate to the relevant authorities.
    There has certainly been a decline in charity standards over the past few decades. Charity CEOs (the mere title CEO implies it is a corporation not a charity) have seen huge increases in salaries and a corporate PR approach. All this against a background of very limited accountability. For instance the US charity International Rescue has David Miliband, a politician with no previous charity or aid experience prior to his appointment, as it CEO on £400k p.a. Does he really need £400k to do his job? How many lives could be saved with half his salary?
    The second is exploitation. Sex workers in crisis environments are not making a lifestyle choice, they are simply trying to survive. In a broader setting, some of the charitable engagement in the West has a disturbing echo of imperialism and paternalism. Wherever possible it should be local people solving local problems. Charities can provide logistics, infrastructure, skills training and supplies; but the paradigm of a group of typically middle class white people (who usually know little, if anything, about local cultures) coming in to save the locals, however well intentioned, troubles me greatly. Attempts to do this across the globe have been almost all been failures.
    Sure, those who criticise Oxfam will hardly be beyond reproach, but Oxfam showed hubris in portraying itself as beyond reproach and its CEO’s staggering lack of contrition continues to show it.
    Charities should not be corporations or political parties. Much can be learned from the Salvation Army and Medicines Sans Frontieres in this regard. Let the real aid workers heroes shine.

  • Stephen Hall

    28th February 2018 at 4:51 pm Reply

    Well said Penny. The events in Haiti certainly seem to have been seedy, but ‘Man has sex with prostitute on a work trip’ would not normally be newsworthy, let alone deemed a major scandal, had it not been for the contrast with the Oxfam image. If this had been BP oil executives in Nigeria, no story.

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