The modern human trafficking movement has much to learn from the treatment of women and girls in Greco-Roman society. In ancient Rome, a woman who was raped was socially expected to commit suicide to redeem her good name and to prove her chastity. Hence, according to legend, the Roman exemplar, Lucretia, sparked a revolution by taking her own life to demonstrate her innocence after being raped. She was seen as a heroine, able to transform a sordid sexual transgression into revolutionary virtue.
St. Augustine, however, made a radical break from this cultural norm in his work City of God. Writing in 410 AD during the aftermath of the sack of Rome when Christians were attacked, raped, and killed, he offers comfort to those who were assaulted. Rather than calling on women to commit suicide after being raped, he offers comfort to them and challenges those who think Christians should follow Lucretia’s example.
Instead of victim-blaming, Augustine argues that if a woman does not consent to sexual activity, she remains chaste—properly understood as an attribute of the soul not the body (Bk 1.18). Thus, women who have been violated should be supported rather than being victimized again.
Augustine’s principle of avoiding revictimization and providing care can be applied to those who are sexually exploited. As my colleague Lani Prunés points out, the federal government and most states have Safe Harbor Laws which treat trafficked minors as victims rather than criminals.
These victims didn’t violate their own chastity and, therefore, are not guilty. But an unfortunate number of states don’t provide trafficking victims immunity from prosecution or adequately fund reintegration services. In so doing, we continue to maintain the shame-based morality of Greco-Roman culture in which the victim of exploitation is responsible for the sin and crime of human trafficking.
Legal protections are essential to aid reintegration, but moral protections are also necessary to support trafficking survivors. By funding recovery programs, we can learn from Augustine the value of not blaming the victim. Victims should be given the help they need to reintegrate into society (as organizations such as FAIR girls, Courtney’s House, or End Trafficking are doing), rather than leaving them vulnerable to returning to a dangerous and degrading form of life.
If we allow people to be shamed or forced into crime through a lack of viable alternatives, we are morally culpable, like the Greco-Roman society that taught women their life was only worth as much as their physical purity.
Greg Williams is Communications Assistant for Sojourners.