When we hear the term ‘working woman’, what is the first thing that comes to mind? That the woman could be a professor, police officer, schoolteacher, doctor, seamstress, lawyer, scientist, or work as domestic help. Within the ambit that comprises women who work, do women in sex work get acknowledgement? Or does the presence of the word ‘sex’ in front of the word ‘work’ result in automatic disqualification from the realm considered as work?
In December 2018, for the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to interview two women formerly in sex work. They graciously agreed to accommodate our request. The initial process of rapport formation with them was tentative, but fifteen minutes later, they were pouring their hearts out. They told us about their childhoods, triumphs and victories, the unpleasant chapters in their life, their current situation and their aspirations for the future.
While talking about a case she was handling, as an outreach worker, Parvathy (name changed) asked me, “Why do we look at sex work as sex and sex only? Each and every varied job in the country, however big or small, gets acknowledged as work. Sweeping is acknowledged as work, then why not sex work? Is it the word ‘sex’ that makes people think we are chasing after cheap thrills, as opposed to earning our food?” Both the women we interviewed, talked about a twofold approach that society took with them: pity, with the assumption that they were forced into sex work, or a sense of revulsion because they were sex workers who were thought to be unworthy of any dignity and self-respect.
This pity versus revulsion trope that goes hand in hand with any reference to women in sex work has been regularly fed into our mindsets through cultural mediums. Two famous cultural examples of this binary trope comprise the Bible (Delilah, Mary Magdalene) and the literature of Victorian England (Charles Dickens’ literature). Closer home – how Bollywood loves its trope of the sex worker with the golden heart! Always self-sacrificing, always sidelined as opposed to the chaste heroine who will obviously never engage in sex work, and they always have a back story of having nothing left in life and thus resorting to sex work. Three contemporary examples would be Gauhar Khan, Kalki Koechlin and Kareena Kapoor’s characters in the films Ishaqzaade, Dev D and Chameli respectively. With the exception of Kalki Koechlin’s Chanda, they belong to vulnerable communities; even within fictional storytelling, women in sex work dare not belong to dominant, privileged communities and exercise agency. The sidelining and the stereotyping tropes rob them of their multiple complexities and personhood. For all the pity in the world, we still cannot muster enough humanity to see them as people.
While last-resort-induced steps into sex work is very much a reality for many women in sex work, pity and shunning them from society rob them of their very personhood. This stigma prevents larger society from acknowledging them as workers. In addition, contrary to what Bollywood thinks, the reality of sex workers isn’t about losing everything in life, hitting rock bottom and then being forced into sex work. It’s also rooted in the lottery of birth – the caste, community and religion that one is born into. Within the Devadasi system and the Bedia community, entry into sex work has been continued down successive generations.
Despite progressive steps in academia, law, policy and media about human rights for persons in sex work, we are still, and collectively, stuck at refusing to acknowledge them as workers and refusing to acknowledge sex work as work. Sex workers and the discourse around sex work cannot just be reduced to stigma, sexuality and a formalised understanding of human rights. Sexuality combined with the social location of class, caste and religion disallows women in sex work from even having a chance in the job market and accessing their due entitlements as workers.
Sex workers endure inhumane working conditions, round the clock physical labour, no benefits and leisure time, lack of dignity, and social stigma. Women in sex work render services in exchange for remuneration. So why is sex work not considered to be work? Since the service in question is of a sexual nature, it jars an abhorrent form of social stigma and immediately alienates women in sex work from being recognised as workers. Besides all the notions of morality that have attached themselves to the act of sex, society sustains absolute disdain for the idea of sex as a transaction being taken to public places and money as a transaction inside the bedroom.
Parvathy told me about a case that she had worked on involving a girl from a blue-collar family. She got caught in a moment of intimacy with her boyfriend and was attacked by a mob. Following which, her mother marked her out as a ‘bad’ and unchaste girl and then disowned her. Sometime later she got involved in sex work and was caught by the police in a raid. The policeman who detained her assured her release on the condition that she provide him with sexual services. When this was taken to the police by Parvathy, she was soundly abused by police personnel who hurled casteist slurs at her, accused her of having no dignity and being the harbinger of all false rape cases. The first step to accessing the legal process is cut off by police personnel who exploit sex workers when they see fit and then go on to prevent them from accessing grievance redressal and justice.
Existing legal literature in the form of Acts (Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018) and the Indian Penal Code (Sections 370-370A, Section 371, Section 372-373, etc) have taken on trafficking and slavery, without taking into account the agency and worker status of women in sex work. As a tribute to the patriarchal stigma of sex and the social location of women in sex work, legal jargon is tied up with words like ‘immoral’ and ‘modesty’. To make matters worse, the creation of and amendments to legal literature has not taken into account the voices of sex workers. In addition, there is a failure to distinguish between voluntary and trafficked women in sex work. Tripti Tandon states that, “The problem of trafficking cannot be disassociated from poverty, livelihood, displacement and security.”
Given the nature of their work and their social location of caste, class and tribe, the legal process infantilises women in sex work and leaves them devoid of their autonomy. This leaves them further vulnerable to violence at the hands of state machinery, such as the police. Anne McClintock writes, “Where sex work is a crime, clients can rape, rob, and batter women with impunity.” She also points out, “Between 1980 and 1984, not a single landlord was arrested for illegally pandering to prostitutes, but 44,633 prostitutes were arrested for soliciting in Bombay alone.”In a nutshell, women in sex work are not allowed any access to law, and if they are, they’ll be implicated in a crime.
This stigma of caste, class and sexuality is a pervasive amalgamation of socio-cultural mindsets that take root and function in myriad complex ways, and paint working women in broad, sweeping, agency-less brush strokes. Those of us who claim to be socio-culturally progressive are complicit in the perpetuation of the stigma of caste, class and sexuality if we cannot support sex workers and the worker rights that they are entitled to. In addition to articulating agency, establishing personhood, eradicating the caste-class discrimination and availing their rights, the need of the hour is also access to safe working spaces for women in sex work.