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Prostitution has been described as the world’s oldest profession. One of the first forms of prostitution is sacred prostitution where each woman had to reach the sanctuary of Aphrodite and have sex with a foreigner as a sign of hospitality for a symbolic price. In India, it was practiced extensively, so much so that Kautilya mentions it in his master piece ‘Arthashastra’ written around the 4th and 3rd century BC.
In South Asia, a tawaif was a courtesan who catered to noble men, especially during the Mughal Period. The tawaifs would sing, dance, recite poetry and entertain their suitors at mehfils. Their main purpose was to entertain their guests and sex was not always a part of the contract. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose between the best of their suitors. They contributed to music, dance, theatre, film, and the Urdu literary tradition.
Today the world’s oldest profession remains sketchily legal in India. Prostitution is legal under certain conditions but, a number of related activities including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering are crimes. The current law allows prostitution to thrive but attempts to hide it from public.
The primary law dealing with the status of sex workers is the 1956 law referred to as The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA). According to this law, sex workers can practice their trade privately but cannot legally solicit customers in public. As long as it is done individually, voluntarily, sex workers can use their bodies’ attributes in exchange for material benefit. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) which predates the SITA is often used to charge sex workers with vague crimes such as “public indecency” or being a “public nuisance” without explicitly defining what these consist of. Recently the old law has been amended as The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or PITA.
Currently, prostitution is not regulated. Soliciting sex is an offence though practising it ‘in private’ isn’t. And more often than not, clients are criminalised and prosecuted. Organised prostitution isn’t allowed either. Also, Indian law doesn’t recognise male prostitution. Unlike the case with other professions, sex workers are not protected under labour laws thus, making it uncontrolled, unregulated and very unsafe. And this is not counting the huge amounts of human rights violations and human trafficking that is a part of this illegal state of happenings.
Prohibiting prostitution isn’t going to stop it from existing. Until and unless it is completely eradicated, which by and large is a very far stretched idea considering its existence and practice since ancient times, proper legalisation and regulation of prostitution will not only benefit sex workers but also the society as a whole.
Most of the girls in various brothels come in through human trafficking. A firm, liable to the higher authorities, must be established, where every sex worker would undergo an interview with which her views, ideas, choice would be taken into consideration and only then can she she work in such an environment. If found forced, then the dealer who brought her could land up in jail. Secondly, regular and surprise inspection must take place. During such inspections, if revealed during conversations with sex workers that appropriate money is not being given then the brothel could be shut down and the license cancelled. Thirdly, as they also constitute under the domain of ‘ workers’ so they must be protected under labour laws, given aadhar cards, various rights under the law, voter identity card, etc. Fourth, they shouldn’t be denied the basic human rights conferred by the constitution and various central govt schemes.
If prostitution is ‘properly’ legalised, it will help control illegal human trafficking, help fight HIV/AIDS and other STDs which are rampant in India. It will ensure better living conditions for sex workers as well as their children. Most importantly, it will give sex workers protection under labour laws. At present, they don’t have any rights and as such are forced to lead miserable lives. If the law recognised it as any other profession, violent clients could be taken to court which at present, is not possible. Brothels could be issued proper licenses and therefore regulated. Other positive points are revenue generation, choice of profession, less trafficking, better health conditions due to awareness, acceptance to achieve equality in the society, optimum satisfaction level of living in a country, employment, more of external finance to overcome the deficit, security, tax revenue and many more! Legalising prostitution will regulate the trade and help in curbing down the way HIV spreads in our country. It will officially recognise those practising it and entail them to basic human rights which they are denied till now.
Sex workers will be more respected and less abused. They will be raped less and there will be less number of reported rapes. They will be pimped less and will receive better health care. They can openly talk about their profession and not be ashamed about it. They will receive benefits from the central vis-à-vis state government. They will no longer be treated as second-class citizens because legally they will be bearer of rights. Regulation must be implemented properly in consultation with the sex workers. This will ensure good working conditions can be legally enforced, thus reducing exploitation. It will improve public health, increase tax revenue, help people out of poverty and get sex workers off the streets.
It will drive a lot of pimps out of business; women and men alike will work of their own accord and not against their wills and desires. It may also lower some forms of crime. Without legal protection, exploitation will remain unpunished, just like in any other unregulated industry. Sex workers must be directly involved in this process, they have a right to political participation.
When abortion is legal, so should be prostitution. The ‘my body, my right’ argument should apply here too. Moreover, morality is subjective and as long as no one is being forced, it shouldn’t disturb anyone. Sex work is a human right; it’s as respectable as anything else.
I smash the patriarchy for a living! Founder & Editor-in-chief of Feminism in India.
You might be correct in your way of thinking. In our opinion, all such ladies should be taught the art of entrepreneurship and the Government of India must provide them sufficient financial assistance to start their own venture. Integrated Congress of Women Entrepreneurs is committed to give such ladies all types of assistance for their sustainable existence. Again, I will suggest to amend your thoughts and instead of legalizing prostitution, it should be banned totally in India. All the brothel houses be raided and closed for ever.
Dr Mrs Sushma Joiya Pandit
This is utopian thinking. how many brothels can be raided? How many rackets smashed? Can something which has been going on for thousands of years be eliminated and rehabilitation done in a jiffy? Licensing is a viable solution. Some countries have done it and have succeeded. Prostitutes there carry health certificated , pay tax and get other benefits.
Your entitled to you views and what you think is morally right. Sex workers want decriminalization of sex work. Let them decide on this matter, not non-sex workers
Legalising prostitution cons
1. Husbands and fathers are forced to sleep with a woman he never met and that will be considered okay.
2. young boys (teens) will lose their virginity before they learn what the right sense of morality is.
3. Prostitution is the ultimate power called PMS (Patriarchy Misogyny and Sexism).
So I disagree with your points other than the fact they have to be treated, especially because most of them innocent victims of human trafficking.
Even now husbands and fathers sleep with women they never met and this is considered ok by society.
Young boys lose their virginity now in pre teens and there is no one to stop them.
The only difference is legalising prostitution will lead to more benefits to prostitutes and their exploitation shall come down to some extent.
Don’t conflate trafficking with voluntary-adult-sex work. When we talk about trafficking lets go by clear evidence.
Thanks to both of you for your feedback. Highly appreciated. However, I stand by my article and my opinion that prostitution should be properly legalized and regulated in India. To substantiate my article further, I would suggest you to read this article which also is in support of legalization of prostitution.
Japleen, you forgot to mention that they should be provided pensions when they retire.
Thank you Mohan, I will add this too.
Since labour laws shall be applicable in the proposed scheme pension will be covered.
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