I have been a Robert Parker fan for 40 years. Long known as one of America’s greatest crime fiction writers, he gave the world Spenser, Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall, Virgil Cole, and a host of other crime-solving and crime-causing characters. Parker was himself a fascinating figure—an English professor with a Ph.D. in literature, his fiction combined philosophy and psychology with street savvy and pugilism. He died of a heart attack sitting at his desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts in January 2010.
In the years since, his characters have continued to live through a variety of authors. Parker’s Western characters, Territorial Marshal Virgil Cole and Deputy Marshal Everett Hitch, make their second post-Parker appearance in Robert Knott’s new novel, Bull River. Cole and Hitch find themselves chasing a wife-stealing bank robber to Mexico City and beyond, led by a killer they capture and then are forced to trust as a guide. The dialogue is classic Parker—terse, often funny, and exactly what you’d expect Western lawmen to say 150 years ago.
The part of the novel that most surprised me was the widespread and legal presence of prostitution in the old West. The two lawmen encounter numerous brothels in every town they enter. Prostitutes are prominently present in every saloon and place of entertainment. Brothels are as accepted by the culture as restaurants. I wondered if Knott’s novel reflects life as it really was.
It turns out, it does. During our War for Independence, prostitutes were allowed to follow the Continental Army and were considered by some leaders to be good for troop morale. In the 19th century, brothels were commonplace across America; there were more than 200 in lower Manhattan alone. The gold rush brought prostitutes to the mining towns of the West. By 1858, prostitution made more money than shipping and brewing, combined.
In the 20th century, various efforts led to criminalizing prostitution in America. (Dr. George Truett, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was a leader in this movement.) Today, brothels are legal in the rural counties of Nevada but nowhere else in the country. Nonetheless, the practice continues in a variety of ways, from street solicitation to massage parlors and escort services. The trade is estimated to generate $14 billion a year in America and $186 billion worldwide.
I was surprised to learn that prostitution is even more widespread globally. In Canada, the exchange of sex for money is legal, though brothels are not. The same is true for much of Western Europe, including England, France, Spain and Italy. In Mexico, prostitution is legal (sex can be sold) and regulated (brothels are allowed). Prostitution is allowed everywhere in Australia and in South America (except for Guyana and Suriname).
Far from a victimless crime, prostitution is one of the most victimizing activities in the world. Consider these facts:
- The average age a girl enters prostitution is 13.
- As many as 100,000 to 300,000 children are bought for sex in America every year.
- Sex trafficking generates $9.5 billion a year.
- In a San Francisco study, 88 percent of prostitutes said they wanted out of the sex trade.
- On average, of 100 men who solicit prostitution, only one is arrested.
- The typical prostitute is sold 10 times a night. If she begins at age 13, by the age of 18 she will have been statutorily raped 15,600 times.
In addition, men who buy sex are far more likely than non-sex buyers to commit violent crimes against women and be involved in substance abuse, assaults, weapons, and crimes against authority.
I’m glad we no longer live in the Old West, where gunfights were commonplace and brothels dotted the landscape. But human nature hasn’t changed—the forces that popularized prostitution in America and drive it globally are as sinful as ever. The continuing popularity of prostitution is proof that we desperately need a spiritual awakening.
In the meantime, pastors and other spiritual leaders must speak for sexual purity in all its forms, as forcefully and effectively as we can. Legislative leaders must do all they can to protect their constituents from this plague. And believers must pray for spiritual awakening while standing for godliness in their words and works.
Be encouraged: the darker the room, the more obvious your light (Matthew 5:14-16).