Empowering India’s sex workers: How decriminalising the trade could protect those forced into it

The idea may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but many sex worker led organisations are putting it to practice on the ground, say activists.
Empowering India’s sex workers: How decriminalising the trade could protect those forced into it
Empowering India’s sex workers: How decriminalising the trade could protect those forced into it
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This is the second part of the TNM Delve Human Trafficking series. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

Shirley* is a sex worker in Hyderabad. Sitting in a coffee shop in the posh Jubilee Hills neighbourhood, she speaks about how she landed up in Telangana from Shillong, Meghalaya. The 21-year-old is confident, has an assertive tone and a piercing gaze. “Tell me something, why should they arrest me for soliciting customers? Which service has been sold without marketing?” she asks.

Shirley moved to Mumbai from Shillong two years ago, with a dream of being a model. “But, I fell in love,” she says. Her boyfriend convinced her to move to his hometown, Hyderabad. Her parents back in Shillong knew where she was and were satisfied that she was pursuing her dreams of modelling.

In Hyderabad, she modelled for a few print ads initially. But, she found it tough to make ends meet.

Through her boyfriend, Shirley met other boys who were willing to pay thousands for a few minutes of foreplay. “It all started as payment for seduction,” she says. “But, once seduced, the boys pay much more to go all the way through.”

Without naming names, Shirley indicates that she has been with several high-profile men in the city. “My only rule is that he be younger than 30!” she jokes.

When her boyfriend began to ask for a cut in her earnings, she broke up with him. “He thrashed me. I lay curled up in my apartment for several weeks,” she says.  She continues to live in Hyderabad. “I would love to move out, perhaps to Delhi or Bangalore, but that would mean I would have to make connections all over again. That isn't easy in my line of work, you see,” she says matter of factly.

According to Shirley, her migration to a larger city would have been easy if there were sex worker organisations there. “Look, workers of any kind need to organise themselves. It is only fair,” she says.

“We can negotiate benefits better, protest exploitation and seek strength in numbers,” Shirley asserts.

When pointed out that there are sex workers’ unions, Shirley says she cannot join any of them as that would amount to outing herself. She needs to keep her identity hidden.

Dealing with the problem of sex trafficking

Many sex workers, though, would say Shirley has had it better than others. Those trafficked for sex work have seen a lot worse.

“I have seen children being smuggled in gunny bags and brought to Sonagachi, I have seen young women from north Bengal who were promised marriage, I have seen parents push their daughters to brothels,” says Bharti Dey of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a sex workers’ collective of over 65,000 members in Kolkata’s Sonagachi.

Since the sex workers collectivised in the mid-1990s, the instances of forcing women into sex work has been dealt with by the collective. “Our first rule is to find out if the woman is above the age of 18,” she says. “Second rule is to find out unambiguous consent,” she adds.

Focus on informed consent

The DMSC has sent many trafficked women back to the safety of their parents’ homes or have found reasonable employment in case they found that the person was not voluntarily entering the sex trade and was not safe in their own home.

“I have personally interviewed many women, probed them about consent rigorously and when I found that they are not up for the job with all their heart, have found an alternative employment for them,” says Bharti.

This is a small graphic novel published by another sex-worker led organisation, Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad or VAMP. It illustrates the difficulty in identifying consent of the woman. “Sometimes the women are not ready, sometimes they think they are, sometimes they are taken in by other people who influence them, sometimes the money lures them. All these do not mean they know and understand the profession they are entering,” says Kiran of VAMP.

A sex-workers collective ensures that a woman realises what the profession entails. “We are never short of recruits in our profession, we just need to ensure sex work is separate from forced sex-work,” she adds.

Image for representation.

‘Need organisation, not moral lessons’

While law enforcement agencies approach sex work from a moralistic perspective, the solution to which is to abolish sex work, women who are in the profession say that it’s hardly the solution. Because of their approach, the law enforcement agencies are not suited to deal with the problem of sex trafficking, says Kiran.

“We believe sex work is a job which the society should accord dignity to,” she adds, pointing out that the difference between sex work and forced sex work should be recognised.

Except, most sex workers, especially in south India, are still unorganised.

Even though the Karnataka Sex Workers Union is one of the strong bodies that has defended the rights of sex workers, Ramya*, who is a sex worker in Bengaluru, is not part of it, or any other union. "I feel the organisations are for fighters. I cannot fight the society and its rules," she says. “I know of women coming in from northern states. They do not know the language, they are migrants, do not know the city well. They are the most vulnerable and can benefit the most from unions,” Ramya adds.

Organisation would mean safety

For many sex workers, the lack of an organised trade also means lack of safety.

“There are no brothels or red light areas in south India,” says Zoya, a sex worker in Hyderabad. “That means we are forced to conduct business in hotel rooms, farm houses or in our own apartments,” she adds.

“Who will account for our safety?” she asks. In such cases, most sex workers have to rely on their agents.

“The agents, in many cases, provide security to the women.” says Aarthi Pai, a lawyer and activist. “I do not mean to say there are no exploitative agents at all. Every profession has people who exploit others who are vulnerable,” she adds. “But, when a sex worker is all by herself, with no safe space and no collective to back her up, she needs someone who is on her side. Many times, it is the intermediary,” Aarthi says.

For instance, says Bharti, the intermediary ensures that a client doesn't get away by not paying.

What collectives like the DMSC have also done is to find innovative ways of providing social security mechanisms for sex workers and former sex workers. They run a co-operative bank, schools for children of sex workers, pension for some of their members and an anti-trafficking unit.

How sex-worker led organisations help stop trafficking

According to Kiran, sex-worker led organisations have been more successful than law enforcement agencies in tackling the problem of trafficking.

By organising and recognising consent as the basis of sex work, sex-worker led organisations have a multi-pronged approach to the issue of trafficking.

First, they disseminate information on safe migration practices and safe sex practices. In addition, they also hold workshops and distribute pamphlets about the rights of sex workers.

Second, they want to make it easy for a trafficked person to approach the police, by campaigning for the decriminalisation of sex work. Given the ambiguity around laws about sex work, decriminalising the profession will help the police deal with cases of trafficking instead of targeting those who are in the profession by choice.

“It is a very simple thing,” says Bharti. “Give us equal rights as workers. The minute you clear out the moral shroud around sex work, you will begin to see us differently. And the minute that happens, we gain confidence. We will ensure that we keep our profession clean from trafficked victims,” she says.

Image for representation.

Feminists Divided

But not everyone agrees with Bharti on decriminalising sex work.

A section of feminists believe that sex work itself is demeaning to women as it perpetuates patriarchal structures and vests the power in the hands of men. They believe that sex trade would never be a woman’s first choice. “Hundreds of thousands of women and children have been deceived, coerced or manipulated by fraudulent means and forced into sex slavery. It is hard to enumerate the number of victims but it is roughly estimated that 3 million women and children are trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and 45% of them are children,” reads Prajwala India’s website. Therefore, these feminists want to abolish sex trade in order to eliminate sex trafficking. When there is no sex trade there will be no sex trafficking, goes their narrative.  

There is another section of feminists, however, who believe that it is about a woman’s agency. “Isn’t feminism all about recognising a woman’s choice?” asks Aarthi.

The allegation against organisations like Prajwala is that they conflate sex trade with sex trafficking. Sex trade is not necessarily always exploitative sexual slavery, several women believe they are in a dignified profession. Sex trafficking is a crime when women, men and/or children are forcefully involved in commercial sex acts.

The crucial aspect is that of consent.

Decriminalise sex work

The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) believes that the answer to the consent question is to decriminalise sex work.

In a statement this January, the NNSW advocated for a rights-based approach to sex work. “It defines ‘women’ as persons being above 18 years of age and recognises the agency of consenting adults in sex work. Minors in sex work are viewed as victims of child sexual abuse and this approach demands that trafficking in the context of adults and children be clearly separated into two different laws to ensure that consenting adults are not infantilised and children are given justice.”

Many sex workers, though, realise that decriminalisation of sex work in a society that places a high premium on the “chastity” of a women is a far cry. “Will my wife, sister or mother ever want to be paid for sex? Never. So, how can I then believe you when you say some women volunteer to be paid for sex,” asks a senior policeman in Hyderabad. He requested anonymity as he didn't want to be found talking about sex in public.

Challenging stereotypes

But many are now challenging this idea that women are not interested in sex, or that they never enter the profession voluntarily.

Scrolling down classifieds on websites like Locanto can throw up many posts apparently of women sex workers and escorts who advertise their services. There are hundreds, if not thousands of such ads. One can search in different cities, different services provided and different age groups of women.

Image for representation.

Under the a strict condition of anonymity, a 28-year-old girl, who also advertises on these websites, speaks about her sexual urges and how she wanted them satisfied. “No one recognises that women also have sexual needs,” she says. “They think we are asexual!”

If we charge for providing them a service how is that wrong, she asks. “I am a modern woman. I have needs. And the law of the land doesn't ban sex work. Yet,” she says.

Giving voice to several women like her, Meena Saraswathi Seshu and Aarthi Pai, wrote in a 2015 article, “What caught our imagination was the notion that casual sex could be a physical act stripped of emotion, can be initiated by women, can be used in a commercial context and even be pleasurable. Besides, many adult women seemed to appear in the communities, out of ‘nowhere’ apparently, comfortable with this notion of sex within a commercial context with multiple men. This challenged our initial idea that no woman could and would enter sex work on her own and the notion that all women were forced and trafficked into sex work. It was apparent that many women were not there by force, deception or in debt bondage and were freely walking in and out of the communities.”

Empowering sex workers

However, there are also women like Ramya who want to exit the profession. “But, the society will never let me lead a dignified life again,” she says. "So, I am kind of stuck with it," she says.

Also, most women cannot earn as much from sex work as they grow older. Therefore, benefits and social security is an unsurmountable problem.  “Look at it this way, we are being denied basic human rights - right to mobility, right to livelihood and sometimes, right to life because of society’s presumed morality,” she says. "This morality denies us the right to collectivise as well," she adds.

“Once we find strength in numbers, we will work towards keeping our profession free from forced sex work,” she says. “At least, to whatever extent possible.”

*Names changed to protect identity.

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