Just what is it about sex that brings out a society’s deepest anxieties? Prudery and squeamishness, working in tandem with religious injunctions and restrictive laws, have managed to distort, constrict and control one of the most pleasurable expressions of human intimacy. Homosexuality and sex outside of marriage have always been particular targets of control and condemnation, but it is sex work, the so-called ‘oldest profession’, that has evoked the most ire down through the ages. ‘Loose’ and ‘immoral’ women, often referred to by derogatory terms such as whore and harlot, were seen to threaten the hallowed institution of marriage, and as carriers of venereal disease infecting ‘good’ citizens.
The discovery of penicillin’s antibiotic properties in the mid-20th century did lead to a calming of some of this hysteria, particularly in relation to its public-health implications. Improved management of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies served to reduce the ‘damage’ purportedly caused by sex workers and ‘protect’ society at large. Today, most of the legislative and administrative frameworks in Southasia governing prostitution are an outcome of this protectionist mindset, which continued well into the 20th century. But just as more enlightened jurisprudence and notions of human rights were seeping into public consciousness and policy, along came a virus called HIV. ‘Deviant’ populations such as homosexuals and prostitutes were suddenly made to take the blame for the spread of the virus.
The last quarter of the 20th century has witnessed an unprecedented focus on sex and sexuality. Still, at a time when women’s rights were being articulated with increasing vigour, sex workers remained noticeably absent from advocacy on both human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. Indeed, there has throughout been a dissonance between sex workers and an influential stream of feminists who are anti-prostitution. As a result, policymakers, donor agencies and NGOs, fuelled by and fearful of those who readily express moral outrage and righteous anger, have been busy banning, policing, ‘rescuing’ and ‘rehabilitating’ sex workers.
Little has changed in the 21st century at the level of opinion- and decision-makers, but sex workers themselves have begun organising. They have spoken out and acted against minors being forced to do sex work, and collectively combated trafficking of both adults and minors. They have demanded that policymakers respect their rights. They seek more meaningful livelihood options and ‘rehabilitation’ packages, as well as amendments to laws that criminalise sex work. Meanwhile, the notion that prostitution is a patriarchal system in which women are exploited by men is being challenged by transgender and male sex workers who are likewise speaking out.
That sex workers do not speak in one voice is indicative of the complex and sometimes contradictory positions that are jostling to be heard. There is little doubt that sex work can be hazardous and risky. Violence, exploitation and abuse are rampant, and many sex workers have certainly been forced into prostitution against their will. But, as those in the profession point out, these are not inherent conditions of the profession as a whole. It is stigmatisation and hypocrisy that create and reinforce conditions that increase the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, to abuse and violence and denial of access to health care, legal representation, housing and schooling for their children.
Sex and the economy
Much depends on how exactly sex work is viewed – as a tumour in society that must be excised, a vice that must be controlled, an industry that must be regulated, or as a livelihood option like any other. The abolitionist approach that has aimed to suppress prostitution has, like most bans, been a miserable failure, despite having the backing of governments and political conservatives the world over as well as the religious right, including heavily funded evangelical organisations. As for the legalisation argument, which involves zoning and confinement of sex work in ‘red light’ areas, licensing and mandatory health check-ups, this also fails to go beyond viewing prostitution as a necessary or unavoidable evil that must be regulated. This approach too, though in operation in several countries in Scandinavia and Southeast Asia, is centred more on the good of ‘larger society’, rather than the rights and needs of sex workers.
Only when sex work is viewed as a legitimate livelihood option can decriminalisation offer a path to reduction of violence and abuse. In many countries in Southasia, sex work per se is not a crime, meaning that selling sex is not illegal. Rather, it is the activities surrounding sex work that are deemed to be criminal: pimping, soliciting, running a brothel or living off the earnings of a sex worker. Yet apart from sex workers from affluent sections of society who work independently as ‘call girls’, the majority cannot function without the support structures of pimps, middlemen and brothel-keepers, or the host of ‘front’ agencies such as massage parlours, bars, nightclubs and the like. Hence outlawing of these elements only contributes to vague, contradictory, unhelpful legislation. There is now also a move towards criminalising clients, which will only drive sex work into the back alleys, leaving sex workers ever more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Moving away from such approaches, decriminalisation of all aspects would go a long way towards freeing sex workers from the clutches of the police, politicians, petty bureaucrats and others who stand to profit from extortion as long as the industry is illegal. For, make no mistake, there is money in sex work – a lot of it. Though firm estimates are difficult to make for Southasia, an International Labour Organisation (ILO) study of four Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) suggested that between 0.25 and 1.5 percent of the total female population were sex workers; the sector overall was said to account for 2 to 14 percent of gross domestic product in each country. In view of these statistics, the ILO urged official recognition of what it terms the ‘sex sector’. Indeed, if the earnings of the roughly 2.8 million sex workers in India today were to be accounted for in the GDP, the contribution of prostitutes to the health of the economy would seem obvious.
The road towards decriminalisation would not be an easy one. Trafficking for sex work is a critical matter that must be addressed separately, and abuse of sex workers will remain a constant concern. What is required is the political will to recognise the dignity of sex workers, and to secure their rights. Himal suggests the decriminalisation of sex work. Is Southasia ready?