‘Wasn’t this city made for you and me?’ Sex workers and their shrinking spaces

With Bengaluru undergoing dramatic changes in the last few decades, street-based sex workers are fighting a new battle – to claim their right to the city.
‘Wasn’t this city made for you and me?’ Sex workers and their shrinking spaces
‘Wasn’t this city made for you and me?’ Sex workers and their shrinking spaces
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By Neethi P and Anant Kamath

All cities experience bouts of radical change.

However, when a bustling metropolis is put through sweeping facelifts based on a popular and policy imagination that is highly exclusionary, one of the social groups in the city that gets severely affected are street-based sex workers.

And in a city such as Bengaluru, where With Bengaluru undergoing dramatic changes in the last few decades, street-based sex workers are fighting a new battle – to claim their right to the city. there are no designated red-light areas – since the entire city serves as one – street-based sex workers have been affected exponentially. Our current research at Azim Premji University attempts to record these shifts in the nature of street-based sex workers – women, men, and transgender persons – which have resulted out of deep transformations in the city over the last decade.

Our research appeals to revisit the idea of the right to a city from the view of one section of informal workers in Bengaluru, its street-based sex workers, who have increasingly been losing their spaces and locales.

The shrinking of public spaces in the city has its immediate and natural repercussions on the shrinking of operational areas of sex work in Bengaluru, which has aggravated the vulnerability of these informal workers with respect to their life and livelihood, and most importantly, their security.

Even when restricted to designated areas within the city, such as in Mumbai or Delhi, sex workers are among the primary victims of crime that stem out of coercion, sexual violence, physical abuse and so on. The likelihood of verbal and physical abuse against sex workers, from various divisions including law enforcement agents and even the media, would naturally be high in their traditional operating areas such as streets, parks, bus stands, railway stations, public toilets, cinema halls and other public spaces.

Large-scale changes

But when these public spaces undergo large-scale physical changes, when they shrink or when they disappear altogether, the likelihood of crime towards street-based sex workers skyrockets. This has increasingly been the case in Bengaluru over the last decade and more.

When bus terminuses are rebuilt and CCTVs installed, when swanky roads and neighbourhoods are put through a ‘clean-up’, when metro stations and lines are charted out, when new hotels replace lodges, when multiplexes replace cinema halls, when gated public parks replace open parks or tree groves, and when public toilets are pulled down, street-based sex workers are immediately affected.

Street-vendors, until recently old friends of sex workers, who provided them a place to rest and offered them some protection, have been moved away.

The sex workers we interviewed stated, “Thy would help us hide from formerly abusive clients or a police constable who demanded free sex, but now he isn’t here anymore thanks to the changes in this locality!”

Lodge managers, until recently ‘partners in business’ by way of providing cheap rooms and hiding places from the police, have had to give way to professional hotel managers. In fact, this has been one of the biggest setbacks to the street-based sex industry in Bengaluru.

A large majority of the nearly five dozen respondents in our study stated how lodges in the Majestic area were closed down one by one, and how so many managers who knew “we meant no trouble, were now replaced by those who just don’t understand that we are victims and not perpetrators of any crime”.

Police constables too are now instructed to view street-based sex workers as a nuisance rather than one of the dramatis personae that have for decades shaped the character and human landscape of a public space such as the central Majestic bus stand. While for decades it was common conversation in these areas how “sex worker A would roam around that temple near the lodge”, or how “sex worker B likes his clients near public toilets behind that bus stop”, most shopkeepers or auto drivers in the area today deny any knowledge of sex work altogether.

Open, uninhabited grounds where children would play cricket in the day and sex work would operate after dusk, are now cordoned off with gates and ticketed entry. Street-based sex work in Bengaluru is not only fighting physical and sexual abuse, but also an encounter against physical transitions within the city and the newly forged roles of agents who were once ancillary to the sex industry.

Their locus – bus stops, pavements, large trees, groves, public parks, cinema halls, lakes, public toilets – and the reassuring network of the supporting actors were what constructed the imagination of this city in the eyes and lives of these workers. And now, these are quickly and systematically being eroded.

What is public space?

One of the underlying reasons for this new hostility is that the very meaning of public space is undergoing a dramatic change, alongside the transition of who constitutes the ‘public’.

Groups such as street-based sex workers and transgender persons are now seen as unpleasant co-occupants of a city envisioned as sleek and ‘modern’, a place that only ‘decent people’ inhabit and operate.

These exclusions may not apply to sex workers who operate through digital media for more elite clients, or those who frequent pubs and restaurants late at night. While these ‘high-class’ sex workers may not be visible (and hence, do not contaminate the city), street-based sex workers are considered immoral and a serious blot to our city.

In the construction of the vista that is Bengaluru, these and other such eyesores are conveniently pushed away and their existence denied altogether. Public spaces are no more public, but are recast as club goods – accessible only to those individuals and social groups who fit into the imagined city and do not pollute its image.

Living in the fringes

Due to transitions in the city proper, street-based sex workers in Bengaluru are being pushed out to the fringes, where they are treated with hostility, either by the incumbent sex workers of these peripheral areas or by intimidating elements, such as local goons.

The bargaining power they possessed with such elements within the city slowly evolved and was negotiated over years, and is naturally not ‘transferable’ to the new places they are pushed out to.

Finding new accommodation, ensuring security and education for their children in these new areas are also a huge challenge. Often, moving house to the new peripheral areas is not an option since a huge number of sex workers are women and men with families, who live within the city and have chosen sex work to overcome financial hardship at home and a generally precarious economic climate. They cannot relocate and find it difficult to travel all the way to the fringes of the city to continue sex work.

Even with street-based sex workers now communicating with clients using mobile phones, as elsewhere in India too, displacement still matters. Another serious outcome of displacement from traditional areas within the city is that civil society workers, activists and health professionals now cannot locate them and have to travel very far to access and provide sex workers with the necessary support and services.

One social worker who was instrumental in providing health support and awareness to sex workers around KR Market said, “They were once a stone’s throw away for my outreach activities … I knew where each one usually stood, but I now need to hunt them from the nooks and corners they have receded to.” This despite the fact that street-based sex work in KR Market has been relatively untouched by Bengaluru’s urban transition.

Of course, street-based sex work still thrives in Bengaluru, with tens of thousands of young and old women, men and transgender persons awaiting clients in the winding lanes of neighbourhoods, from late afternoon until daybreak.

But street-based sex work, which was once ubiquitous in Bengaluru, is now facing new vulnerabilities and perils with the city itself struggling to come to terms with what it is and what it should be.

The saga of struggle continues for street-based sex workers in this city, not only with regard to their traditional battles of identity, individuality and citizenship, and continuing hazards of health and hygiene, but also in their latest battle to claim their right to this city too.

(The authors belong to Azim Premji University.)

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