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Can Sex Work Be Empowering For Women: A Walk Through Amsterdam’s Red Light District

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By Karthik Shankar:

Recently as I walked down Amsterdam’s red light district, I saw row upon row of glass windows that displayed women the same way clothing boutiques display their latest fashions. The women weren’t mannequins however. They teased men whose gaze lingered too long. They beckoned prospective clients by unbuttoning their blouse. The location of the red light district right in the bustling centre of the city, was truly a sight to behold and such a contrast to the ghettoised brothels in India.

Image source: Wikipedia.org
Image source: Wikipedia.org

Sex workers in Netherlands are officially recognised by the government, pay taxes and have mandatory health check-ups. It’s treated like any other profession; commendable because by legitimising it, the government is able to drastically reduce child trafficking, pimping and STDs, that continue to plague the profession around the world. Legalising sex work objectively seems like a no brainer for me, since I think its benefits clearly outweigh the harms. Yet, I’ve always had this nagging feeling. Is the profession really empowering women?

A sex workers’ museum provided a little insight. Most women in The Netherlands don’t spend more than two to three years in the profession. This isn’t a commitment that swallows up their lives whole. Moreover, a Dutch friend told me that many women turn to sex work as a means of financing their studies or raising young children. Put in those terms, it’s just another means of financial security for women.

Image source: Karthik Shankar
Image source: Karthik Shankar

The question then is whether it can still be a feminist act without the financial component. Oscar winning Hollywood screenwriter Diablo Cody has often spoken about stripping being a more feminist act than white collar jobs. “I actually found the white collar jobs a lot more anti-feminist,” Cody said. “I found myself shoehorned into the adorable secretary who fetched older men’s coffee. I would much rather give lap dances“, she added. Maybe the same could be true of sex work? By willingly engaging in it the women fly, in the face of a culture that implicitly encourages female chastity. Of course the very crucial idea of choice is what separates it from being a dehumanising profession.

Some people may argue that even in a Western liberal democracy, going into this profession is a coerced choice; that it’s poor and destitute women who use sex work to make ends meet. Yet, isn’t that true of many menial jobs? Is sex for money inherently more demeaning than manual labour? A woman who works as a janitor may also do it simply to fend for her family. Respectability politics however places one over the other. Undoubtedly I’m coloured by my perspective as a male. If those rows of shops were filled with men, its exploitative nature might have screamed out to me. Or not. Male privilege entitles us, men, to this idea of choice.

Still, this is a complicated subject and that is seen in the varied ways sex work is treated around the world. It is legal in countries like Netherlands and Germany. It is outright banned in the U.S. Some other countries like India take a more complicated stance by not banning the industry but just falling short of legally recognising it. The Singapore government for instance has quietly encouraged a bustling red light district with the belief that it allows migrant workers to release their sexual urges without resorting to rape.

Still, outright legalisation can have severe pitfalls. I remember a lecture by Sugata Roy, a communication specialist with UNICEF, where he spoke about taking part in a raid at a brothel and uncovering a false wall behind which young girls were hidden. With fewer checks, those younger girls could have hidden in plain sight. Even prostitution in Netherlands has been on the scanner in recent years and the government has shut down many brothels for suspected involvement with criminal elements.

Sex work, both demystifies the kind of sacred hold sex has in our world, and yet further obfuscates it. In discussions with family and friends, I’m gung-ho about getting rid of the moral prurience that surrounds the discussion of sex work in the media and deal with it strictly the Dutch way. Yet on the day I walked to the end of the sex workers’ museum, I thought differently. There was a video screen that had people ogling at you as if you were on display and it didn’t feel so empowering.

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  1. Khogen

    I think prostitution is definetly anti feminist stuff. It is against the dignity of women.It encourages the objectification and sexualization of women’s body. And i think here its not the women but the men who buy sex should be seen as criminals. women are actualy the victims here as laws in scandinavian nations ( most gender equal group of nations) says. Men who buy sex will not be faithfull to their wives.Women who get into its trap are umfortunate and the women who willfully sell sex even after having other sources of income are like mother in laws who force their daughter in laws to abort female foetuses in other words a disgrace to feminism and women kind.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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