Lessons learned from the sex workers’ rights movement
Is Dhanda work?
Is business work? Can business that involves providing sexual services be understood as work? If work is any mental or physical activity performed for a result, then for the individual performing the activity sex work is work. If work is any activity performed as a means of survival, then sex work is work. If work is the use of the physical body to perform a manual task for the benefit of the individual paying for the service, sex work is work. Similar to services provided for monetary gain using the physical self manually, sex workers use the sexual act as a service for monetary gain.
By doing so has the sex worker stripped the sexual act of intimacy? Of love? Of privacy? Of mutual pleasure? Of mystery? This discussion has consumed popular understandings of sex work. As the sexual service is provided mostly by women almost exclusively to men, the understanding that sex work is enslavement of women rather than work has gained ground throughout history. The ‘common prostitute’ construct created an image of ‘availability’ of such women as slaves to male ‘carnal’ desire.
Countering widespread perceptions of the sex worker as a person who is ‘used’ by men, sex workers claim that they offer the service with consent for monetary gain. They refute the construction on two grounds. Firstly, services are never offered for free and the price is always negotiated and paid for before the service is rendered. The client always pays for the service – if the sex worker is in control, then to the sex worker, and if the sex worker is not in control, then to whoever controls the sex worker. Secondly, the sexual service is used as a negotiation tool when in danger and is not articulated as violence and or abuse. It is also considered as part of work in a criminalised setting.
Is Dhanda exploitation?
Dhanda is practised in an extremely criminalised environment. Sex work per se is not illegal but the way it is practised is illegal: notably brothel-keeping, soliciting, living off the earnings of a woman in sex work, arbitrary detention of a woman found to be a sex worker (with or without her consent) by a magistrate. Since sex workers are always on the wrong side of the law the possibility of being exploited (monetary and sexual) mostly by petty criminal gangs, by traffickers, by law enforcement, by non-paying clients, by brothel owners, by loan sharks, by men/women who have emotional and/or financial control is very real.
The exploitation is not in the provision of the sexual service per se; it is in the vulnerability of the sex worker forced to provide sexual services in unsafe working conditions. Section 370 of the IPC defines exploitation as, “The expression ‘exploitation’ shall include any act of physical exploitation or any form of sexual exploitation, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the forced removal of organs.”
The term ‘sexual exploitation’ means any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including but not limited to profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another. (UN Secretary- General’s Bulletin on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) (ST/SGB/ 2003/13))
Interestingly, though the term ‘exploitation’ is used in almost every document to describe or even refer to sex work, the global community cannot agree on one definition of ‘exploitation’ and thus there is a lot of ambiguity, both contextual and literal, in understanding what is meant by the term.
Is Dhanda violence?
When a policeman rapes a tribal woman, everyone is outraged. But if that same woman happens to be in sex work, nobody considers it rape. If a woman is murdered, it is considered murder, but if that same woman is in sex work, it is considered ‘natural’ – almost as if murder is an accepted outcome of being in sex work. The question then is this: why isn’t violence against women in sex work seen as violence against women?
The reasons for this are deeply embedded in the structures of society. They include the patriarchal division of women into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women; the ‘whore stigma’ that separates women in sex work from all other women; and the belief that sex work itself is inherently violent. This societal paradigm expresses itself as the violence of stigmatisation.
Women who follow the norms of a patriarchal society are viewed as ‘good women’, and it is their status as ‘good women’ (rather than their status as women) that entitles them to certain rights in the eyes of society. Patriarchal mores brand women who are non-heteronormative, sexually active, single, lesbian, in sex work, as ‘bad’ women who have sex outside of marriage, for pleasure or to earn a living. When a ‘bad woman’ is raped or assaulted, society does not view it as rape – a transgression against a transgressor is not viewed as a crime.
Women in sex work fall squarely into the category of ‘bad women’. Interestingly, although ‘prostitutes’ are considered to be victims, they are also viewed as wanton (i.e. liberated sexual beings), debauched (making valueless money from sex) and morally weak. The whore stigma emphasizes the ‘evil influence’ of such ‘base’ women on the ‘good’ moral character of society, deeming them deviant; women who have transgressed the norms of ‘acceptable’ social behaviour. The concept of the fallen, debased and deviant woman has always governed public opinion, policy and law. Women have therefore been policed, coerced and raided, to be rescued, reformed and rehabilitated by a society that would like to order and control their lifestyles.
Is Dhanda trafficking?
The concept of ‘sex work as violence’ also prevents society from viewing the day-to-day violence within sex work as violence. Trafficking, when conflated with sex work, has contributed to this confusion wherein sex work is inherently violent, whether women are kidnapped, purchased, fraudulently contracted through organised crime syndicates or procured through love and befriending tactics.
This perspective assumes that all sex workers are forced into the institution, and that trading money for sex is synonymous with sexual exploitation – and sexual violence. There is no doubt that any form of force in any situation – whether sexual or not – is violence. But the viewing of all sex work as forced and inherently violent prevents the viewing of what happens within sex work as violence. When every sexual encounter between a woman and her client is viewed as rape, there is no room for a woman in sex work to actually be raped.
Is Dhanda done by choice?
The issue is not one of choice or force to do Dhanda. The choice is between ‘good and bad’. The good woman/bad woman discourse and the socialisation of mainstream morality squarely put the blame of this choice on women in sex work. This is the choice that women in sex work are forced to make. To be ‘good’ or to be ‘bad’. Once they have chosen the ‘bad’ (to overthrow societal norms and morality) there is no going back for them. There is also a sense of liberation, the badass attitude that fights for recognition. Mainstream society does not forgive them their ‘choice’ of the bad, believing that they have violated the sacred space of womanhood as enshrined in mainstream morality. The punishment is violence and stigmatisation against sex workers.
The violence of stigmatisation refuses to accept the reality of people in sex work, especially sex work as experienced by the women themselves. The women’s voices are never heard; they are not allowed a voice, let alone listened to. Is this not a form of violence? The violence of stigmatisation is the major factor that prevents women in sex work from accessing a range of rights. “As people who experience violence as a part of our daily lives, we are being more and more penalised by increasing violence in a society that is trying to order and control our lifestyles,” say women in sex work from the sex-worker collective VAMP. “As women in sex work we protest against a society that forces on us the violence of a judgmental attitude.” Therefore VAMP says, “the violence of stigma we dare to survive, of dignity we dare to dream.”
Sex work needs to be seen not in binaries (good/bad, immoral/moral), but understood as a way of life that encompasses diverse elements of violence, victimhood, autonomy, and agency. Until sex work is understood as a million shades of grey – and until women in sex work are seen as part of the workforce whose livelihood is dependent on providing sexual services, there is little hope of meaningfully addressing the issues raised by women in sex work.
Photograph Credit: WE ARE HUMAN TOO: VAMP members perform ‘Hum aur Tum Sab’. PHOTO: DEEPTI GUPTA