The event also discussed the multiple factors that contribute to the entry of women, men and trans persons into sex work.

Dont ignore our agency and consent say Tamil Nadus voluntary sex workersImage for representation
news Sex work Wednesday, July 03, 2019 - 17:38

Have you ever thought about sex workers and immediately felt bad for their "plight" and pitied the circumstances through which they were "forced" into this work? Well, don’t— unless you know more. More precisely, whether they are voluntary sex workers or not. That’s the message a group of sex workers from Tamil Nadu wished to convey on Monday as they came together for an event organised by the South India AIDS Action Programme in Chennai. The panel discussion, which was preceded by a lecture from Dr Shyamala Nataraj, the Executive Director of the advocacy group, dealt with a number of issues under the title ‘Sex work is work: Re-thinking labour, consent and agency.’

Chief among the issues affecting sex workers is the fact that the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 does not take into account voluntary sex work and treats all sex workers as trafficked persons. “This is problematic. Usually, nobody plans to be a sex worker when they are growing up just as they don't plan to be a domestic worker or a shop factory worker. A number of factors lead them to doing that work— whether it is poverty, unemployment or sexual harassment in other job areas. However, for voluntary sex workers, their work is just as bad or good as any other job. With their clients, there is consent and they exercise agency,” explained Dr Shyamala.

The panel discussion that followed featured sex workers from different districts in the state aligned to the Vadamalar Federation, which advocates on issues pertaining to human rights, and laws that influence the life and livelihoods of sex workers. 

“Upper caste and upper class people are opposed to sex work as work because they want sex to be free. When there is money involved and we dictate the price, we are also determining our rights. This does not sit well with them. If I work as a domestic worker or a construction worker, I will be forced to sleep with the man of the house or the contractor for free. But here, we decide whom we want to take on as client and how much we want to charge for the service,” explained one woman sex worker who spoke at the event. 

One male sex worker recounted his hellish experience when after college, he worked at an accounting firm and was bullied for "behaving like a woman". “They said I was effeminate and bullied me. I was sexually harassed. I am educated and entered the work force but this is how I was treated for being gay. Just like you choose what you want to eat, as a sex worker, I choose who I want to be with,” he pointed out.

“Sex work for me was a tool for elevation. As soon as they come out, most trans persons are sent away from their homes. And even if we are disowned, we are expected to support our struggling families. I had to educate myself and support my family. I was able to do all this through sex work. It is my body and the rights over it are mine too,” said a trans woman sex worker. 

However, the sex workers did address the perils that led them to the profession and those that continue to haunt them. “I started off as a labourer doing construction work. I was forced to sleep with the mason every day. I was frustrated. I had a family to take care of, I had to educate my son and daughter and support my ailing husband. So, I decided to enter sex work. Today, my kids are educated and my grandchildren study in English medium schools. As long as I am healthy, I wish to do this work,” one sex worker from southern Tamil Nadu said.

The sex workers also spoke about police brutality and violence from toxic men that continues to affect their lives and livelihood. They said that many police officers often force them to have sex, threatening to arrest them if they didn’t, thereby perpetrating violence upon them. Violence also comes from men who approach them as clients and then begin acting as though the sex workers are their property. 

“Gradually, we’ve learned to overcome this and know ways to handle it, but it definitely still happens. Police would force to have sex with them at the police station and when we are produced before the magistrate the following day, we will be told to keep quiet. We don’t anymore. We tell the judge in open court that we were abused.” said one woman sex worker. 

Dr Shyamala added, “Police is the instrument of the state’s abolitionist approach to sex work. They will have monthly and weekly targets to meet. This is organised violence by the state.”

The conversation also veered towards the changing nature of the industry. “You may think that we go and stand on the streets and wait to be picked up. This is not the case now. The age of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Digital India’ is here. We don’t have to go to the streets, it’s all done on apps. You should check it out,” quipped one sex worker, leaving the audience in splits. 

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