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.
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.