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Sex Work Should Be Decriminalised In India, Here’s Why

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By Nandini Mazumder:

In India, the debate around sex work is often convoluted between that of, legalization, abolition and an in-between demand for decriminalization. Opinions oscillate between- sex cannot be work because it is an intimate human act and should not be sold, to equating it with any other form of labor and hence completely valid. The debate is further made complex by the socio-political scenario as the Indian state maintains an ambiguous stand on sex-work; neither overtly approving it nor disapproving it and allowing it to exist in the underbelly of our society.

sex worker in india

If we look closely, the non-legalization, abolitionist advocates are typically women middle or upper-middle class backgrounds, who argue that sex is an intimate act that should not be transactional. The argument sound weak, especially, because of the lack of voices from community members themselves – women who were forced into sex work/prostitution (including the voices of those who came out of it and those who couldn’t or didn’t). They also fail to address the state of labor and laborers in almost all sectors in the country. All work under the present profit-driven, capitalist market-order, is exploitative in some degrees. Many jobs that may not explicitly ask for sexual favors demand it covertly and continue to exploit the weak and vulnerable in every way, including sexually.

Abolitionists in India, seemingly liberal men and women who may support sexually liberty, like, pre-marital sex, sex outside of marriage, sex with multiple partners or open relationships; but they will still look at transactional sex or sex for material or financial gain, as a taboo. This attitude is perhaps due to the two reasons, first, the notion of morality that restricts the perception of sex workers as either ‘victims’ or as ‘bad/fallen’ women; and, second, their own privileges that makes it difficult for them to see beyond and relate to women who take up sex work as the best viable income opportunity available to them. These factors make them develop biases against sex work while they fail to question or look at the set-structures critically; like for example, a worker in a factory or at home, toiling away without over-times, holidays or any other benefits and safety mechanisms, they are also an exploited class of labor and yet they are not looked down upon the same way as sex workers, even a sex worker who may express her willingness to be in the profession. Similarly in the organized sector too, workers spending hours in monotonous desk jobs, sedentary and selling their brains with no creative outlets will not be considered ‘exploitative’ or ‘derogatory‘. This explains how our ideas form about ‘exploitation’ and ‘derogatory’ are formed selectively and that they are problematic because they reflect our privileges and the associated prejudices.

The economic situation in India and worldwide is volatile and in a turmoil; there are more people than there are jobs, more mouths than food available to feed them, more homeless people then shelters available for them. In such a scenario, as we face challenges to earn a decent livelihood, we are also discovering/inventing new income opportunities. One such economic avenue that has opened up in recent times, is surrogacy, or making ones womb available for money to fulfill the someone else’s desire to become a parent. This takes us back to the abolitionist debate that sex is an intimate act; therefore, it cannot be commercial and any commercial sex work is exploitation. The same argument, if applied to surrogacy suggests that pregnancy and having a child for money, is less intimate than having sex with someone for money? However, if pregnancy can be made commercial, then what is it about sex that unnerves us? Is it because it challenges the established notions of marriage, monogamy and family and accepts that sex could be transacted like all other commodities; a grey area where women assert their sexuality by selling their bodies to earn a living. Sex work is no more or no less exploitative than many other forms of labor – domestic labor, construction worker, miners etc.; they feed on deep poverty and vulnerability of people and don’t even spare children.

The conditions of a majority of women in sex work are far from favorable but they are not an exception. They share the same fate as millions of other workers in India who languish in low-paying, humiliating and exploitative work conditions. Sex workers are constantly reminded that they are not welcome in mainstream society as they are ‘bad’ or ‘fallen’ women, caught between our dilemma of desire and abhorrence (a fact reflected in the ambiguity in our laws related to sex worker where she is neither legal nor illegal). Those who argue that sex cannot be work because women would not want their daughters to become sex workers in future, should ask a sweeper, a laborer in a brick kiln, a servant and a farm labor (out of several other sectors languishing in poverty and exploitation), if they want their children to take up the same profession as theirs? Moreover, labor in several sectors is so exploitative and poorly paid that women are forced to take up sex work, as an additional source of income on a seasonal basis or as per needs. These women, who have primary jobs in other sectors, refuse to be identified as sex workers yet sex work is crucial for their sustenance and tiding over when the primary job is not sufficient or viable enough. However, labor itself is not the problem and it is crucial for the very functioning of the civilized world as we know it. The problem therefore is exploitative-labor and singling out and targeting sex work is a disservice to both sex workers and to victims of human-trafficking.

Perhaps the most central of all abolitionist argument against sex work, is the one where they link it with human-trafficking. Another fallacy that needs a closer examination – human-trafficking is a complex of structural issues, that may be, political, cultural and socio-economical. These macro-issues are in-turn driven by three main factors –
(a) The corporate profit-driven economy that feeds on the exploitation of the helpless and the poor with the single aim to drive-up the profits,
(b) The apathetic-corrupt state that is based on the profit-driven economy and works to perpetuate it; and
(c) The rigidly-hierarchical, patriarchal society that perpetuates the vicious cycle through marginalization based on caste and community.

All these factors keep the poor in poverty and make them vulnerable to threats like human-trafficking. If poor, low caste and marginalized, children and women find themselves in sex work because of all these factors mentioned above, then by denying them their agency and dignity, we are further victimizing the victims of an unjust and highly stratified social-economic and apathetic political system. Furthermore, evidence shows a majority of human-trafficking pushes the victims into a number of other exploitative situations from forced marriages, to organ trade to forced domestic labor to forced begging to working in factories in inhuman conditions. Sex work is not the fueling cause for human-trafficking as the abolitionists would like us to believe and ending sex work will not end human-trafficking. Evidence shows decriminalizing and creating a more responsive and stigma free environment is the way to go if we want to address exploitation such as human-trafficking within any situation, including sex work.

Therefore, sex work needs to be separated from exploitative labor and human-trafficking. It should be treated as another form of work and a viable income opportunity in world of shrinking opportunities; sex workers should be given their due rights to live and earn a livelihood with full respect and in safety. The more we push them in the underground of society through our ambiguous laws and stigmatized stands against them and their work, we only increase their vulnerability.

Only in a society where sex workers are stigma-free and can confidently access social welfare and protection services, they will be enable to engage and co-facilitate with the state and society to create a safe work environment where no one (minor or not), is forced into sex work and even become instrumental in the process to bring out people who want to discontinue or change their profession. This has been demonstrated to some extent by the Self-Regulatory Boards of Sex Workers CBOs like Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in Kolkata, West Bengal. Most importantly global evidence shows that criminalization of sex work will only drive it underground and increase the vulnerability of sex workers and their families.

Therefore, there is a need to engage with these communities in a dialogue and collectivize their voices. There is a need to challenge and repeal laws like ITPA (Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act) which was intended to ‘save’ women in sex work or prostituted women but instead victimizes them even more by shaming and stigmatizing the entire profession. There is a need to stop shaming sex workers for who they are and what they do. There is a need to understand exploitation in all forms of labor, across sectors and not specifically limited to the context of sex work.

To sum up, we need not appoint ourselves the self-declared saviors; instead we need to engage in dialogues, listen, and reflect with an open and respectful mind. We need to remember that solutions are not found in generalizations but evolve through acknowledging the nuances and including the voices that have so far been left behind or not heard adequately enough.

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  1. shreya

    Just like making surrogacy has backfired, decriminalizing sex work would backfire too… Just as there are black markets for surrogacy in India, human trafficking will gain a legal umbrella!
    It is not ‘Sex’ that unnerves us, it is the lack of women empowerment in India that is of higher concern. It is first important to educate and empower women, so they can take the right decisions for themselves. and then decriminalize sex work.
    Right now the society is not yet mature. Women must have the power to gain control of their lives in this profession and not be controlled by brokers.

    1. Nandini Mazumder

      I agree with you that the situation, in terms of, society, economics and politics is not conducive for women to live in an environment of respect, rights and equality (because of the patriarchy-capitalism nexus). I can speak from all the literature and reports and my own interaction with women in sex work, that decriminalization and recognition of sex work as work, is the first step towards the long struggle where all women can live in dignity, as equals, irrespective of who they are and what work they do. I don’t know what is the basis for you to say that decriminalizing sex work, will backfire – have you read reports or know women in sex work who believe so? I would suggest before you reach a conclusion, talk to women in sex work – there are a lot of sex workers organizations that for their rights. Also, read the only autobiographical book written by a sex worker in India – Autobiography of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela. Finaly, black markets exist in every form of economy, be it life-saving drugs or food or anything else, so does trafficking. I know I am repeating myself here, but sex work and trafficking are not the same things. They must not be conflated. There is trafficking in every form of labor and service sector. Again, evidence shows taking away the shame and stigma will be a step towards making sex work exploitation free, trafficking free. Let us look at models of sex work, like, in New Zealand, where decriminalization has certainly improved the status and condition of women in sex work. India is a ;long away from that because of the extreme misogyny and deep poverty that makes it very easy to exploit people – but let us be rational and remember that it does not stop with sex work. So isolating sex work as the sole culprit for exploitation and human trafficking is wrong and will not solve either. After almost a decade of working both with anti-trafficking groups and sex workers organizations, I have come to believe for several reasons that the only way forward to create a more just and humane society for sex workers and their families, is to start with decriminalizing sex work.

  2. Rani Sinha

    Article well written but the photo used only showing women’s body not as a whole person is quite questionable. Whenever you are talking about the sex work topic try not to objectify women by showing a headless photo.

  3. Brooks

    Prostitution should not be decriminalized in India, because decriminalization would lead to thousands of girls being forced to stop their education and enter the sex trade against their will, thereby violating their human rights. A key challenge for India is to reduce gender disparity in educational attainment. Decriminalizing prostitution would severely undermine efforts to increase girls’ educational attainment.

    Many more women would also be forced to enter the sex trade against their will if prostitution is normalized.

    The belief that decriminalization will end stigma against prostituted women is nonsense. Look at the case of Stormy Daniels. She works in America’s legal porn industry, yet she’s severely stigmatized–her name is never mentioned with out the label “porn star”. Most prostituted women in Germany, where prostitution is legal, refuse to register as prostitutes, because they fear stigma.

    Decriminalization of prostitution will reduce stigma only for sex buyers, pimps, and brothel owners. They, not prostituted women, will benefit from decriminalization.

    To see the impact that decriminalization will have on girls and women in India, it is more instructive to look at the experiences of Bangladesh and Germany, rather than New Zealand, which is a remote archipelago with a total population of under 5 million. Competition between Germany’s megabrothels has pushed down women’s wages and working conditions, and increased human trafficking.

    Decriminalization of prostitution in India would be a human rights and public health catastrophe. The belief that decriminalizing prostitution will empower women is a neoliberal fantasy.

    1. Nandini Mazumder

      Dear Brooks,

      I follow Stormy Daniels and I think she is an icon. However, America is not the ideal indicator for development. For goodness sake, the country struggles to provide for all its citizens equally, it sends drones to Pakistan but cannot clean the water in Flint, armed white men run havoc and kill masses while, basic medical treatment such as, family planning and contraceptive services remain unavailable. Story Daniels is not stigmatized for her profession but for all the reasons that has kept America this way and held her back from becoming the truly great nation it has the potential for.

      As for India improving its gender index – the reason why liberal half measures have failed all around the world is because they failed to connect the social structures built on the economic base. In other words even if we improve on gender equality, the widespread and universal economic inequality and instability is here to stay. The current PM promised new jobs yet India’s unemployed youth has hit a record high. Despite better gender equality and education for all, the present economic system simply cannot accommodate the masses within the limited organized sector. Therefore, manual jobs in the unorganized sector is a solution and sex work is one of the many manual labor in the unorganized sector.

      The terms of legalization is usually decided by the authorities and at cost of the communities. They are restrictive and violate basic human rights of sex workers. Therefore, legalization is not a solution and we don’t need more laws around sex work. Instead we need is to humanize sex work as a form labor and decriminalize it. So sorry Brooks, the harsh legalization of Germany in the mainland is not what sex workers deserve. They rather have a model that treats them as a human being, gives them greater freedom (and does not contain or quarantine them like a deadly disease). Therefore, the decriminalization model from the remote archipelago of New Zealand is far more welcome.

      As for women and girls being forced into sex work, that is the oldest cliche in the book that abolitionist and fanatics use to argue against sex work. Please do some research before you use this tired argument. Forced labor is rampant across sectors in resource poor settings. For goodness sake, the skewed gender ratio has fueled forced marriages and bride-trafficking in India – so let us stop the demonic practice of marriage shall we? It is high-time we retire this argument while acknowledging that forced labor is common in different settings – in garment factories of Bangladesh, in shoe factories in India, in various other industries, including, farm-based, agriculture and fisheries, across Asia and Africa. Sex work is no exception yet when sex workers are given a voice, they have proofed successful in preventing girls being forced into sex work. For example, the community regulatory boards of DMSC in Kolkata or the sex workers collectives in Maharashtra.

      Finally, I don’t know how many sex workers you have met and interacted with but through my interactions I found that they are not least bit ashamed to earn money and run their families, without having to beg for mercy or be dependent or commit a crime. They are hard working people – they are people, just like you and I – the moment we realize this it will probably be easier to respect their decision to choose sex work as an option within a limited set of options of our unstable and insecure economy.

      Please do yourself a favor and read Nalini Jameela’s, An Autobiography of a Sex Worker, to really understand what many sex workers think.

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