Sex work takes on forms as diverse as sex itself, both in terms of services provided and service providers. While female service providers have globally been viewed as the mainstream practitioners of sex work, in India sex work has traditionally been one of the few opportunities for employment available to the hijra community. The stigma associated with the hijra identity, or even with effeminate yet male expressions of gender, leads to ugly forms of harassment faced by the gender and sexual minority community. In turn, this chases most hijras out of conventional workplaces, driving many to choose between begging, extortion and sex work. The latter offers an opportunity to retain hijra identity, to live fairly freely and to make a relatively stable living, independent of the whims of discriminatory employers and co-workers.
Male sex providers, meanwhile, exist as a less visible minority within the sex-worker community, providing services to a male clientele and to a limited number of female clientele. In both cases, the relative invisibility of their clientele – women interested in hiring sex workers and men interested in paid sex with men – makes it difficult to find clients and ply their trade, and a significant amount of this trade is thus set up through word of mouth and private parties. Such a situation also contributes to difficulty in finding a critical mass of male sex workers to set up a functional union or organised collective.
This writer recently sat down to talk with four sex workers, one male and three hijras who identify as female. These individuals all belong to the Karnataka Sex Workers’ Union, a group of 700 sex workers with a sizeable number of hijra and male members in addition to a majority-female population. The interviews were done on an evening when the four, along with other members from the union, had gathered for medical check-ups, an occasion that also provided a social opportunity to gather, dance and hold an impromptu beauty competition. The diversity of this community is considerable, ranging from primary-level schooling to those who had finished their master’s degree; it also spans linguistic borders and the rural-urban divide.
These four individuals – Soumya, Veena, Arundhati and Dilfaraz – say that there were many factors, including education and gender identity, that led them to take up sex work. However, the primary attractions were its relatively lucrative nature and the relative safety in numbers offered by the profession.
With family and union help: Soumya
My father died when I was 10, and I was the only son. For a while, I made a living by rolling agarbatis [incense sticks], putting up leaves at marriage mandapas and doing domestic work. By the age of 13, I had seen many hijras around. Seeing how nice and feminine they looked made an impression on me. One day they called out to me, but I was scared. Then, I went to Mumbai with a relative, where I saw more hijras. Gathering courage with the support of this relative, I pierced my nose and ears, and started identifying and dressing as a woman.
I soon realised that most of the hijras I knew were sex workers. I wondered why this had to be the case. But I got my operation, and now have been with the community for 14-15 years. Although I did not want to do sex work or begging, I had to do both because there were no other options. I even tried to get work making agarbatis or housework, but I was not allowed to do so; agarbati-makers preferred young children and women would not want me in their houses, worried that their husbands would try something with me. I faced some harassment in sex work as well. But eventually, with the help of the union I began to like sex work, as I do now. The union is strong; it supports us when we deal with the police, goons and pimps.
Hijra sex workers face more problems than most because we are more frequently arrested, and they hold us in jail longer, whereas they sometimes leave female sex workers out of pity. When clients call us, they say, ‘Hey you, come here!’ while their speech with female sex workers is nicer – they say, ‘Hey sweetheart, come over dear.’ And the sex with us is also much more rough – they feel that we are there to be treated roughly, to be harassed. We get bitten all over, cut and knifed during sex, and sometimes we are injured in the course of anal sex. And if we try to file harassment cases, they are often simply not registered. Now, with the union, we stand up without fear a lot more. We’ve developed the capacity to gather and speak bravely to the police, and to call each other if we face trouble with goons or pimps. Initially I disdained condoms, but after learning about HIV and AIDS I not only use them when I work, but I also actively teach others about using them.
Alliance maker: Veena
My name is Veena, and I studied till the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC). I come from a Dalit family in Tamil Nadu and am a transsexual woman. I was very happy after completing my sex change in 1997; I was 18 years old at the time. I come from a very poor neighbourhood, where my father was a coolie and my mother did domestic work. We were five siblings in all. My father died when I was just 12 years old, and in order to make a living my mother and I did domestic work. The neighbours would tell my mother if I cross-dressed, and she would beat me for scaring everyone, and scold me for dressing like a girl when I was supposed to be a boy. This pained me a lot. After experiencing too much violence at home, I left my mother’s house.
For a year after, I made bidis for a living and did some thinking about the conflict between my male body and my female identity. By that time I was 18 years old, and decided to join the hijra community and have my operation. I started earning some money in office work, which I saved to undergo medical castration by a doctor. I was also going to school, but all my friends began teasing me a lot. When I complained to the teachers, they said that I was not alright, and that the other students’ reactions were normal. So, I left school.
When I joined the hijra community, life improved. Although my mother had once kicked me out, she took care of me after my operation. Now I am earning well, and also taking care of my family. I am still living in my mother’s house with some of my siblings, who are married with children. Now there’s no domestic violence – they have accepted me. Now, I mostly do sex work and earn well, and my family knows my profession and are happy I can support them through it. I don’t beg.
When I began sex work, there was a huge problem with goons threatening us with knives and taking away our money, beating us if we did not hand it over. The police did not support us – they too would beat us, take us to the station and make us clean their toilets, water the plants, sweep the station. They would beat the soles of our feet with canes, taunting us and asking, ‘Will you come again?’ Other than the fact that we hijras are less accepted in society, female and transgender sex workers largely face the same problems: violence from goons and police. We are all affected by the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA), which claims that most sex workers are forced into the profession. In truth, only maybe five percent are physically forced into sex work or trafficked. Most sex workers are poor people who choose to come into the field to make money. Each group has its problems and reasons for joining, but the government and society are not interested in listening to these. They just see them as sex workers and condemn them without understanding their reasons for joining.
Sex work is seen as a crime by the government, but in fact it provides good money for those of us who have come out of poverty and other difficult situations. Sex work should be recognised as a form of livelihood, and we should be seen as professional workers. This is why we formed the Sex Workers’ Union in 2006 – to get the government to recognise sex work as a livelihood. We should be able to get ration cards, voter cards, medical care, bank accounts, pension funds, loans for enterprises – all the rights of workers. The mainstream media and legal services should think about our issues, and help to bring us into the mainstream by sensitising people. We should also be allowed into the mainstream workforce, for which we need government support. Sex workers often cannot find sex work after they’re 35 or 40 years old, so they need to be able to get their own houses, have a pension and be able to find dignified alternative employment.
We hijra sex workers do have some issues different from female sex workers, We have emerged from a lot of stigma, discrimination and lack of family acceptance, leading many of us to leave our homes and migrate in search of work. Though initially we were scared when we joined Sangama [an organisation for sexual minorities], they helped us to get HIV tests. Gradually we began to attend meetings, hold rallies, and now I am an overall programme coordinator with the group. Sangama trained me well in communication, leadership, capacity building and legal training, and this made me strong. I now attend meetings of various organisations – Dalit groups, the Garment Workers’ Union, the Sex Workers’ Union. I am now the vice-president of the Sex Workers’ Union. I understood the different issues that these other people faced, and then I thought of proposing a joint memorandum to all these different groups as a manifesto for the Bengaluru municipal elections in March 2010. So, I stood as an independent candidate, working on the campaign with the group Prajarajike Vedike. I am the first person from the hijra community to have stood for these elections in South India.
For dignity: Arundhati
For a long time I worked as a trained nurse in a hospital. There, I was always teased, the same way I was teased in school – for being too feminine. In the hospital I would stand up for myself and reply to my tormentors, but deep down this still affected me. I am a good worker, so co-workers had only this ammunition with which to pull me down. Eventually, I quit my job as a nurse and became a sex worker. The pay is better – 2000 rupees for two hours of work. The dignity of the work is also much better, and now I am happy. All I’ve ever wanted was to be a good girl and to be accepted as a girl, but the barriers to sex work as a good girl do not exist for our community. We are so condemned by society because of our hormonal differences that everyone pushes us away from all jobs. But now, no one is preventing us from joining sex work, and we are able to work together and support one another.
A man’s view: Dilfaraz
I call myself a male sex worker. Around the time I first wanted to enter this field, I had gone to Mumbai on a tourist trip with my family. I had always been feminine, and used to be teased in school for it. Some local men in Mumbai noticed my feminine attributes and they lured me away from my family, saying they would show me others like me. When I went with them, these three men gang-raped me four times – it lasted all night. As a result, I was hospitalised for two weeks.
My second attempt to enter the field was when I moved with my family to Bangalore, where I befriended a fair number of people who were sexual minorities like me. During holidays prior to finishing up college, I was looking for work. I was 19-years-old at that time, and I made a friend who asked me if I wanted to join him when he went looking for sex work. I then began to like it. I knew before I was raped that I was a sexual minority myself, but I didn’t know what kind of sex that entailed. This friend of mine turned out to be an agent, a broker, and he sent me for this work to a doctor. I made 500 rupees for myself and 500 for the agent. I then began seriously wondering why I shouldn’t do this kind of work.
Male sex workers face a fair number of problems, especially with goons, who threaten us with public exposure and extort money. For a male sex worker, it is also difficult to find and pick up clients. Female and transgender sex workers can congregate together and get a good number of clients. But for masculine sex workers there are few clients. We need to come out into public or go to parties at various places, which can be very difficult. If we are found out to be male sex workers, we face discrimination by virtue of being masculine in appearance but still being sex workers. If friends find out we are sex workers, we can also face violence from them, and threats that they will tell our families. The other main problem is from the police, who mostly extort money from us in return for not filing cases against us. In society, there is surprise and questions about male sex workers doing this for the sake of money.
The Sex Workers’ Union was started in 2006, and a fair but small number of male sex workers were given places in the union. We have 700 members, of which around 150 to 200 members are male. Male sex workers from other parts of Karnataka, besides Bangalore, are also joining the union. Individuals help the community, and the union not only helps sex workers, but also helps clients who face problems. One of the biggest issues for male sex workers is that if clients are criminalised under the ITPA, it becomes more difficult for us to find clients. Either way, our main objective – for male, female and transgender sex workers alike – is recognition as sex workers. With the union, we don’t pressure anyone to join but we approach them and invite them, saying, ‘Yes, we are sex workers, we are out in the open, and we are struggling for our rights. You will be stronger with us.’
~ Kaveri Rajaraman is a biologist and activist in New Delhi.