March 3 is observed as the international sex workers rights day each year and like every other year, this year it came and went without much noise. After all, in a traditional and conservative society that is as ‘sanskari’ as ours, who would celebrate a community that is either perceived as immoral and in need of punitive action or pitiable and in need of rescue? However, the female sex worker in India represents a number of inter-sectional identities, such as class, caste, gender and sexuality. Each of these identities contributes to her vulnerability and become a site for violence, perpetrated in the name of morality, culture, and law. Until we understand, listen and have a conversation about these issues, the world remains unjust and we all remain caught up in the cycle of violence and disenfranchisement.
I was interested in women’s issues, issues of the oppressed and the subaltern and my first job gave me the opportunity to work with children of female sex workers. In those initial days, I was infused with a heavy dose of pity towards these women and their children, however, within a few years that began to change. As I interacted with women in sex work, they challenged me, made me question myself and asked me tough questions. After all these years I can safely look back and say that my understanding of feminism and human rights itself, was incomplete before and got shaped largely through my interactions with sex workers. My perception of women in sex work changed gradually as I could not ignore the strong voices of these women who demanded to be seen as workers, as women playing several other roles simultaneously, and most importantly as diverse humans beings. Their voices are important especially in the world we occupy that is constantly challenging and narrowing down the notion of ‘respectability’ as the current capitalistic system pushes ‘purchasing-power’ as the new marker for deserving respectability.
To mark the occasion of International Women’s Day, I will share some of the important interactions that challenged and changed my understanding of a sex worker and sex work. These interactions also deepened, enriched and expanded my understanding of feminism and human rights –
In Delhi, I met many women who were housewives and occasionally did sex work to supplement the family income. They shared that with inflation and rising prices, it became a necessity to ensure the kids are well fed, get a good education and the household continues to run smoothly. They did not think of themselves as sex workers necessarily because self-stigma is real, yet they did not seem to consider what they were doing as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. They were fulfilling their roles as a good wife and mother by supporting and contributing towards the home and family like a good wife and mother does. How are these women any different from the rest of us?
In Ahmedabad, after conducting a session on sexual and reproductive health and rights, a young woman asked me what made social workers like me more knowledgeable than them? I couldn’t find anything appropriate to say and thankfully she answered her own question and said its money. She said, “your parents could afford to send you to a school and mine couldn’t. That’s why you can come to talk to us and we as sex workers sit and listen. If my parents had money, the situation would have been reversed.” I agreed with her because in this highly skewed and unjust system where wealth is controlled by a minuscule minority and women stand even lower chances in every aspect of life, a few of us have lucked out and it is not fair. However, there was another side to her story – despite being born into poverty she earned and saved money from her income as a sex worker, and now owned her own house in Ahmedabad! Something that even many white collar workers cannot even dream off and that should be a humbling thought for those who like to ‘pity’ sex workers. Her grit and determination was relatable and inspiring at the same time. It made me doubt that other than the circumstances if we are we really that much different from one another?
In Kolkata, I met sex workers who were also young mothers and keen to support the progress of their children. They spent a large part of their income on their children’s education and scrutinized their progress reports closely. They expressed pride at their achievements and concern at weak academic performances. Women who reminded me of any other working mother, constantly balancing between work and motherhood. Despite their fears of failing as a mother, they overcame extreme difficulties and most often proved to be great mothers. They were after all not much different from other women then really!
In Warangal, I met sex workers who were strong collectives of women and looked out for each other. They shared problems and provided support, spoke not for any individual but for the entire collective and demanded not for personal gains but for the rights of the community. The camaraderie that they shared with each other reflected the possibilities for bonding between women and forging feminist friendships; a comradeship that stands for solidarity, bridging differences and bringing us closer.
There was another thing in common that the women in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and Warangal shared: they all had strong entrepreneurial instincts. They rejected offers for other low-paying, menial, working-class jobs, such as domestic, farm or industrial labour, and chose sex work as their profession. They argued that sex work offered them greater autonomy and agency and gave them the kind of economic empowerment that was missing in the other menial jobs. They also talked about sexuality much more openly and honestly, adding humour to it, cracking jokes, especially, about the men. They joked that how the men wrongly assumed that they were in charge when it was the women who were leading them. They talked to each other in code languages about the type of customers to avoid or the trouble-makers, the good ones, the petty criminals and law enforcement officers they encountered. Even when working on streets or highways, they often have a network to seek help if anything went wrong. This also meant that women in sex work live better and in greater safety when they can come out and form networks with one another. This is often hindered by the punitive and obscure laws around sex work that often conflates it with trafficking, making them vulnerable to arbitrary arrests and increasing violence against them.
The international women’s day is observed on 8th March every year, only five days from international sex workers day. I firmly believe that any conversation around women’s rights is incomplete without including women in sex work and their rights. Sex workers are deliberately unheard and unseen and pushed into the shadows of representatives by people like us. People who show but don’t see and talk but don’t listen, people who profit off of their stories told through the distorted lens of poverty-porn.
A good and ethical report on sex work should not be sensationalizing, voyeuristic, intrusive and opportunistic. Instead it needs to be sensitive, respectful and empathetic. Reporters should not play the role of a saviour or a mourner, but apply the same level of objectivity and cognitive skills while presenting other kinds of news and facts. They need to ask questions and listen, and not just passively photograph people and add their own emotions as the context, without getting any real context from the people being photographed. While sharing articles on sex workers, one can analyse if the articles are in the voice of the sex workers or it is about the person who photographed or wrote about them and merely a reflection of their emotions and judgments? If it is the reporter’s voice solely, it has failed the community and not worthy of sharing. In my own journey as a social worker, I found talking to sex workers was important but not always possible. Therefore, I started looking for books or articles written by sex workers or representing their voice (not by outsiders and not representing the feelings of those who rescued them or mourned for them). In the Indian context, the lack of availability of such material was stark and all I could find was Nalini Jameela’s work, “Autobiography Of A Sex Worker“; a book that I will strongly recommend to anyone interested in sex workers issues told in their own voices.
As subaltern voices all over the world are rising up and finding their own voice, it is high time we stop sharing these ‘pity’ pieces on sex workers. We must end the collective voyeurism to shame a community whose definitions of morality, sexuality and agency, is different from our mainstream ideas of them. I wrote this article because it is tiring to tell well-meaning, progressive people the harm in indulging in the poverty porn industry. An industry which singularly targets sex workers because they defy the narrow norms of a ‘good woman’; instead we should open our minds and listen to them in their own voice. In doing so, we will not only be supporting women in sex work but all women in their demand for a better world, a world that we truly deserve. A world where we are treated as equals, where safety is all-encompassing and unconditional, and violence is not regular and a norm like it is today. Where woman’s bodies and sexualities do not become weapons for fighting a cultural and moral battle, but their autonomy and agency is respected.
And remember these words by Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”