What Do Sex Workers In India Want For Themselves? Let Us Explode Some Myths

There is such a thing as voluntary sex workers in India – it is not always about trafficking, and what they want for themselves will surprise you!

If I painted the portrait of the hackneyed brothel-street, it would be doing great injustice: not only because that was what I never saw when I went to speak to a couple of sex workers, but also because that imagery is problematic on many levels. One, it portrays sex workers in India through an approach of othering – either through the lens of victimhood or the uppity lens of a moral high ground. The conventional brothel setting that we’ve all watched in films portray sex workers in India as either victims of horrific crime – which, is undoubtedly true in the case of those who were forced into the sex trade by circumstance or outright coercion and trafficking – or, as morally depraved people who deserve judgment and exclusion.

When I met Selvi, Suganthi and Komathi, a lot of myths were exploded. Walk with me down the lane as I share some of my new lessons.

We want respect

“Respect. I already have dignity. I want respect,” Selvi offers in English. “See, people think we don’t have dignity or lost our dignity by joining the sex trade. But it is very much like every other profession. Our dignity is intact. Society does not have the right eyes to view us with.”

Sex workers in India, like Selvi and her two friends, are into the profession voluntarily. How does that operate, I ask. “Well, it is like any other trade. You lot have courses to study in a school or college, that grooms you to do the work, then you have your placements and whatever, and you get a job. Just because we don’t have official channels that certify us in the trade of our choice, why should we be on the fringes?” Komathi asks me.

Very valid point, indeed. I’m curious to know why they chose to become sex workers, but I’m afraid to ask – because aside of my curiosity, there’s no moral judgment prompting my question, although it isn’t going to sound that way.

I suppose they sense the question coming, because Selvi offers an answer to the unasked. “I enjoyed the idea of sex work. Simple. That’s why I’m here. It’s the same for Komathi. Suganthi, she’ll tell you her story,” she chuckles. I look to the quietest of the three, as she begins to talk. “There’s nothing to my story other than that this was the only occupation that interested me because this was the only thing I knew. A lot of people have advised me to try domestic labour or manual labour, but I’m very happily in my profession.”

Sex work in India is not legal, and is not illegal, either. The lone legislative framework in place is the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956, which does not differentiate between sex work and trafficking. On both sides of the fence are arguments: voluntary sex workers in India want their profession de-criminalized, while opponents argue that legalizing the sex-trade would result in a hike in the trafficking of women and children.

For its part, the law does not distinguish between one who makes a voluntary choice out of free and full consent emanating from free will, and one who is trafficked / abducted / forced into the sex trade without any element of personal agency. Consequently, everyone is painted in the same shade of victimhood by the law. The absence of a firm legal standpoint allows for morality to creep in to ground judgments within. The cat-on-the-fence is causing sex-workers to bear the brunt of criminalization. “We have to hide so we don’t get arrested. We can’t access medical care or even obstetric support. People use morality to judge us, the police uses morality to criminalize us,” shares Suganthi.

Under the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, the procurement, induction and detention of people for prostitution is punishable. While this works well to protect the interests of those trafficked into the sex trade, other provisions of the act affect sex workers adversely. For instance, take Section 3 of the act, where the keeping of brothels is criminalized. Now this affects voluntary sex workers adversely.

Selvi explains, “How can you criminalize a place that is safe for us to organize and to earn our livelihood? I can understand that kidnapping or selling of girl children into the sex trade should be criminal. But why say a brothel itself is a crime? We need to have a place to live, and no one is willing to give us a place to rent or lease because of our profession. In brothels where all of us are voluntary sex-workers, we have a measure of safety in being in numbers.” Suganthi adds after a measured silence, “If we are in a brothel, we have a means to engage with one another and support each other through medical needs, our rates are collectively structured, and there’s room for everyone – if not, to each her own, and it is a dangerous world out there.”

The viewing of voluntary sex workers in India as criminals also keeps them away from seeking the support of law enforcement when they are in need of it. “We don’t always have support from the police. They sometimes don’t register complaints, or if they do, they don’t follow it up with the right kind of legal sections – instead, they book the complaints under offences that are of a lesser degree.” The sex workers themselves are doubly vulnerable by exposure to their clients, who find it easier to exploit lone sex workers than those that are part of an organization. In one instance, a sex worker went missing – and when a few of her friends complained to the police about her having gone missing, only to have them respond with judgment. “Where can we complain? They don’t recognize that we are working in the sex trade and are not committing crimes. They don’t treat crimes against us as crimes.”

We want health care

Sex workers are often not able to access health care easily. One, for want of money, and two, for want of sensitized providers who do not dispense judgment, but offer careful treatment and support. “We are shamed by most gynaecologists and nurses. I remember, once, when I had a cyst by the side of my vagina and couldn’t walk. I went to the government hospital, and naturally our profession does come up in conversation. When the nurse was helping me get set up for the doctor to examine me, I felt a little uncomfortable for some reason. She immediately sensed it and told me, ‘You are used to opening your legs wide for anyone. What’s the big pretense here?’ Even then, my pride was not dimmed, but I was hurt. You can be hurt and still proud too, right?”

Most sex workers are unable to access menstrual hygiene support – sanitary pads and tampons for many are beyond affordable, and where they are affordable, access is questionable given the taboo around menstruation. According to research by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Kolkata-based sex workers’ collective, around 40% of sex workers still use cloth, instead of sanitary napkins, and this comes with its own cache of challenges – given that there isn’t space to dry out these cloths before reuse, leading to infections.

Selvi explains, “Forget the health care aspect – many of us don’t even know what we are to do with ourselves during the time of the month, or when we fall sick. Our trade revolves around our bodies, and if we must earn, the body must be functional – so many of us arbitrarily pop pills and go about life.” In instances where they get pregnant, Selvi mentions that they are given two tablets – whose names I decipher from her broken pronunciation to be Misoprostol and Mifeprostone, but the post-abortive care is often ignored. Bleeding, fatigue, pain or anything notwithstanding, most of these women have no assistance. Added to these woes is the fact that infrastructure also fails most of them – the lack of clean toilets, access to clean water and safe public spaces have devastating impacts on their health.

We want inclusion

“The whole problem with this is that society has married sex to shame. Any sex outside of marriage has no legitimacy!” says Komathi. “You people look at us as if we are committing a sin because sex is hidden inside a cloak of shame.” The exclusion starts from that mindset, and fans out into behavioural and policy exclusion. For instance, the Ministry of Women and Child Development released the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill in May 2016. This was then followed up by the ministry opening up channels online for individuals to offer up comments and feedback – but there was nothing done to actively seek out sex workers themselves to weigh in on the content of the bill. One might casually say that the online medium was open for their articulation – but that’s privilege talking, because many sex workers are illiterate, still many that are literate have no access to the internet – if not access to weak internet that is patchy at best.

In October 2016, the Supreme Court of India ruled that a sex worker cannot file a case filing for rape if a customer refused to pay her. The bench comprising Justices Pinaki Chandra Bose and Amitava Roy added that “though evidence given by a woman alleging sexual assault should be given significance, it shouldn’t be treated as gospel truth.”

Clearly, when it comes to policies and legislation, sex workers in India are not given the attention they deserve to have. They face increased exploitation and are vulnerable to violence in both, public spaces, by society and the law enforcement authorities, and private spaces by their clients. Even when the JS Verma Committee structured comprehensive notes with respect to sexual violence against women, there was a brief mention of sex workers – but again, from a victim-centric perspective that essentially rounds in on the downside of prostitution and trafficking. Perhaps the only fish swimming against the tide of adverse judgments related to sex workers rights was one given by Justice Markandey Katju in 2011, when he said that sex workers in India also have a right to a dignified life under Article 21 of the constitution. But that again, is one gem in a field of sand.

Transgender sex workers in India

The three women and a few transgender support organizations on ground said that trans women sex workers face completely different issues in addition to some of these common issues. The politics on ground with respect to transgender sex work and the fear of law enforcement has rendered most of them invisible. Despite trying hard, I was unable to find anyone who was willing to talk about it – which only goes to prove that erasure is dangerous because it renders true stories virtually invisible.

The writing on the wall

Havocscope says India has the second largest number of sex workers in the world – a whopping three million, as of 2015. When a population of three million is excluded constantly, even in policy and legislative frameworks that concern them, there is something horribly wrong in the approach towards addressing their needs. When voluntary sex workers themselves do not look at themselves as victims, why must they be confined under the scope of a legislative framework that is decidedly meant to address the needs of trafficked victims?

Header image is a screen grab from the movie Chameli

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