There’s a brand new expressway built between the Indian cities of Ahmedabad and Vadodara. On this expressway, with its spanking clean lines, signs and general sexiness, I drove past a person wearing a sexy, colourful swirly skirt, shirt and hat outfit. I wondered what a woman dressed so was doing under the hot mid day sun, why she was on an expressway without a vehicle, should I give her a lift? Just passing thoughts, as she raised her arm to thumb a lift off a passing truck. Her face and body now appeared typically male. I drove on thinking to myself, okay this is sex work on the expressway, and it looks different from the somewhat grotty visuals one has grown familiar with through Bollywood portrayal of red light areas. I wondered whether she was a person who identifies as a woman but was born a man? Or is he a transvestite male sex worker, looking to expand his services to truckers? What lovely, colourful clothes. Large shades with a high style quotient.
Who is this person? What does this person want? Is it random cruising? Is money the goal, is it adventure? Why does it make me think of selling strawberries by the dusty roadside? I don’t have a single answer. Sex work is a lurking unknown in the world of sexuality. After the moral science line has been lifted, after the commercial logic is stated, after the anxiety around sex work has been acknowledged and the political thrashed and re-hashed, the lurking continues. Here is one way, amongst many, that it does so: I searched the Internet, out of curiosity catalysed by my observation on the expressway, for sex work on the Ahmedabad Vadodara Expressway. One of the results I checked was on a well-known website which offered “15,145 Jobs for Sex Workers” that included ‘remarkable’ offers of full-time jobs working out of home as well as BPO and data entry work.
In 1978, a child, barely six years old, was run over in traffic and lost his penis as a result of the terrible accident. Decades later, in 2012, he was fitted with a bionic penis. He got married. For some reason he didn’t tell his wife about this part of his life. They didn’t have sexual intercourse at all. At some stage, she left him. Charlotte Rose, an award-winning sex worker, offered to have sex with him. To give him the opportunity to have his very first experience of this activity. For free. Her regular fee is £200 an hour. This was when he took steps to rebuild himself beyond the bionic bit. He accepted her offer. This story is such a fascinating one, and perfect for the theme of this month. The loss of genitals. The impact of this loss on life, selfhood and relationships. The recreation of genitals and of self. The support extended by a practising sex worker. There is just so much to ponder in this story.
Yet, there is also the danger that we use this story to pacify moral concerns and sentiments. Sex work, hmm, for ‘a good cause’. Almost medical and therapeutic. Actually, there is quite a bit discussed and accepted about sex work for medical and therapeutic causes.
Not all sex workers are providing services of therapeutic value. Sex therapists are not sex workers, but they could be. In fact, a sex therapist is quite often a relationship counsellor or family or marriage therapist. Sex therapists and sex surrogates will dignify and improve acceptance of their specific expertise by ensuring firm boundaries of language and occupation status – they are not sex workers.
Stanley Siegel, in Sex worker or Therapist? says, “Every escort might not have the same talents to heal and while some do exploit their clients, the sex workers I spoke with, as well as some I have been with, share many of the same positive values and ethics as therapists. Both psychotherapists and sex workers have guided me, at different times in my life, to a deeper understanding of my true desires, partly by challenging me to confront shame.”
Sex surrogates practice an occupation that falls somewhere on the spectrum between sex work and a sex therapist working on the therapy requirements of clients challenged by issues of sex and sexuality. So you have the sexual surrogate, who may include sexual activities as part of their services to their clients. The International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA) says, “In this therapy, a client, a therapist and a surrogate partner form a three-person therapeutic team. The surrogate participates with the client in structured and unstructured experiences that are designed to build client self-awareness and skills in the areas of physical and emotional intimacy.”
What about sexuality and sex work away from the realm of therapy? In not naming, but in deeply internalised ways, most of us mostly reject the concept and practice of sex work. Sexuality is romanticised, or buried under the unspoken acceptance of somebody else’s notion of honour, decency and custom. Sex work is the most stigmatised of the stigmatised in the universe of sexuality, and some kinds and categories of sex work more so than others. I don’t think sex work is going to get the status of a university course with its own curriculum and degree certificates anytime soon. However, there is much content if such a curriculum were ever to be thought of; sex, sexuality, law, safety, health, therapy, identity, minimum wage, rights of clients and of service providers.
In India, sometimes (I do not know how often, for those who will immediately want to ask), when some ‘boys’ become ‘men’ and are to cross the threshold to ‘manhood’, they are set up with female sex workers, who will teach them how to have sexual intercourse with a woman. Personally, at the face of it, I think learning how to have sexual intercourse in a practical sort of way is not a bad thing. I’ve always been impatient with the thought that girls and women are not supposed to know anything about sex until their husbands and boyfriends teach them. While researching this article I read cases and experiences, shared by women, of the therapeutic consequences of their engagements with male sex surrogates. You learn how to wash your bum because someone teaches you, how to drive, cook, focus on a film, because someone gives you an opportunity to experience and learn these things. Whether or not you choose the person who’s teaching you and whether or not you choose to pay them, is a different issue. Even looking at it as something to learn, not just a fuzzy birdy-bee-y matter is an issue. So much to think about. Time to shine a light on the lurking unknown even if just to see what it tells us about ourselves.
Photo Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0