Sex, sex workers and the city – The double standards of desire and respectability in Bengaluru

Sex, sex workers and the city – The double standards of desire and respectability in Bengaluru
Sex, sex workers and the city – The double standards of desire and respectability in Bengaluru
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It took two decades for Girija to fully understand that the work she once did and was tortured for was never actually illegal. It was a 2011 Supreme Court ruling – 13 years after she quit sex work – that brought about this realization.

Girija isn’t her real name. Neither she, not Syeda (name changed) want to talk about sex work. "We organized a public hearing two months ago. The state government did nothing. Someone cried. We don't want their sympathy, we want them to listen to us," Syeda says. Both would rather talk about how they and others have managed to lessen the violence against street-based sex workers, and it has been a long, difficult battle, where the rules are constantly changing. But there have been victories too.

“When I first came to Bangalore, I was raped by three policemen. One of them has died, the other is a head constable, and the third is a single-star (assistant sub-inspector). They had warned me against telling anyone. Today, they salute me and ask me to take a seat,” Girija told this reporter two years ago.

This grudging respect has come after years of determined struggle.

Six years after she began to do sex work, Girija enrolled with an NGO called Samrakshana, which spread awareness about the use of condoms.

Two years later, in 1998, she quit sex work. “I felt I could make a living without it. What I earned (around Rs 2,000 a month) wasn’t enough, but friends would feed me, help me (financially). Now the police refer to me as an ex-sex worker, just to insult me in front of others,” she says.

Her friend Syeda, a part-time sex worker adds: “You know how senior IAS officers train juniors, the police do the same. When we go to the police station now, and they tell their juniors ‘See, the SAT has come,’ or ‘the leather company has come – a reference to flesh trade’ or ‘See, what she was earlier, and now she comes like a madam’. The senior officers always take off their caps and tuck it under their arms when they talk like this.”

Today, Girija and Syeda (part-time sex worker) campaign for the rights of female street-based sex workers and work with NGOs for children's education. This has been possible because Syeda decided to fight back one day, with the help of activists and lawyers.

“It was Dasara time, in 2000 I think. I was boarding an autorickshaw alone to go home one night when the police arrested me. I had done nothing wrong. The court had holidays so I was kept in police lock-up for eight days,” Syeda said.

Members of Samrakshana, women's rights group Vimochana, Bengaluru-based legal advocacy group Alternative Law Forum (ALF) and others found out about it and obtained bail for her. “That’s how I met Girija. The next morning, they told me I had done nothing wrong, and I decided to challenge the case.”

Around that time, Girija was still with Samrakshana, but was being questioned by sex workers. “They would say ‘You are talking about condoms, but they (police) put chilli powder (in our vaginas) give us electric shocks’.”

Feeling the need to do more, she and Syeda began to contact women they knew and asked them to turn up for informal meetings. “We told them that they could come and discuss their problems, that they would have to work out their own solutions,” Syeda says. Eventually, in one of their weekly Saturday afternoon meetings, they called themselves Sadhana Mahila Gumpu (Sadhana Women’s Group).

Between 2001 and 2006, Sadhana and ALF fought 575 cases. “So many women joined us during that period,” Syeda says. Of these, they won 375 cases while 200 were eventually disposed of. In 2005, the Karnataka Police issued a reminder to all police stations asking them not to book cases against sex workers under Section 8 of the IPT Act (soliciting for clients in public places). Girija claims that it was their work which prompted the police to issue this order. Because they fought back, Syeda says, the police began to realize that they could not get away with harassment, torture and false cases.

Sex workers and the city

The battles with the police have resulted in tangible gains. But now, Bengaluru’s street-based sex workers find themselves up against intangible obstacles – the imagination of Bengaluru as a “clean” city that has no space for people like them.

In the last few years there have been major shifts in the way the city has been organized. Dozens of slums have been demolished with little outrage from anybody, and major projects such as the Namma Metro and the TenderSURE projects were projected as measure that would turn Bengaluru into a “world class” city.

Bengaluru’s iconic M G Road once belonged to sex workers after dark. Before the M G Road-Baiyappanahalli metro line was opened, sex workers stood near the columns that prop up the metro after dark.

“We had a lot of table company clients. They were rich men who would get us drinks, good food, and just talk. Metro yavaga banthu, namma hottege mannu bittu. M G Road inda odsidru, nanu K R Market ge hode. K R Market metro banthu, nanu Majestic ge bande” she says.

(The metro struck a blow at our livelihood. When the M G Road metro opened, I was driven away and went to K R Market. When the metro opened there too, I was driven away and had to come to Majestic)

And they were back to Majestic, and to police crackdowns that made cheap lodges inaccessible. But the metro station will soon come up at Majestic too.

“When a city changes, it changes for some people, and against others. Sex workers are being seen as dirt, as matter that is out of place in the pre-determined order of things. (By driving them away from certain areas) you are implicitly saying who the city is for, but that is against the spirit of a city. Driving away these diverse groups of people hits at the idea of difference. A city is where you meet difference,” says Darshana Mitra, a lawyer with ALF.

When Mitra began to research Sadhana’s observations about the link between the metro and their being driven out, she found that gentrification in London and France, and Mumbai’s Kamatipura all had the same stories to tell. Traditional red-light areas or city areas where sex workers worked, were gradually taken away from them and converted into upscale areas.

(Gentrification is the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.)

Mitra says that the conversation about sex workers in the upper class and upper caste imagination, and even the 64th Law Commission report “implies that there is a sexuality that is pure, and there is another sexuality that is up for grabs, and which should be made available. So while some upper class forms of sexual expression are acceptable, a Dalit woman standing on a street corner selling sex is offensive.”

A never-ending battle

Even as their claims to the city are being denied in invisible ways, sex workers continue to battle the police, whose crackdowns complement the image of a “clean” city.

Sex work per se isn’t actually illegal in India. But the law, Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act clubs together both human trafficking / forced sex work and independent street-based sex work. Crackdowns on trafficking end up snatching the livelihoods of street-based sex workers.

“Majestic is like a sea,” Girija says, explaining that sex work in the Pensioners’ Paradise is in transit points – Majestic bus stand area, satellite bus stand, Dasarahalli, K R market – where poor people come and the food is cheap. Unlike cities such as Mumbai or Kolkata, Bengaluru does not have designated right-light areas. (The Majestic area houses the city and state bus stands, and also the main railway station of the city.)

Every time a new Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) is posted in these areas, crackdowns on lodges follow. When the lodges which offer these women cheap rooms at an hourly rate are closed down, it disrupts their existing pattern, forcing them to find lodges in far off places that eat into their earnings. Or worse.

“Sometimes we have to go with the men in autos, or in theatres,” Syeda says. This puts them at the mercy of their clients and increases the risk of violence from their clients, Mitra adds.

Dealing with the police is hydra-headed monster and the myth of Sisyphus combined. Chop off one head and another appears; win one battle only to repeat it again. “Three-fourths of the violence is gone, but they still put petty cases on us. Just when we get the local inspector in line (to treat us without violence), he gets transferred and then we have to start all over again,” Syeda says.


Girija (a Dalit) and Syeda (a Muslim) have a strange similarity. Both remember the year they came to Bengaluru with reference to the films that were playing in theatres.

Syeda (40) recalls that it was Hoovu Hannu, 1993. “That is my story. I wish there had been a Sadhana back then. I am with Sadhana today for others like me,” she says.

Aasegobba Meesegobba (1991) was playing in the city when Girija (41) got to Bengaluru. The title of the film translates to mean ‘One for desire and another for name and respect’ – which perfectly sums up the dichotomies of our society, our cities, and our attitudes towards sex, and sex work.

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