Is sex work violence against women? This question has been posed countless times by friends within the women’s movement. It is not necessarily asked from a moralistic viewpoint, but rather comes from a genuine need to engage in a contentious space that has pitted women in sex work against mainstream feminist thought and theory. Apart from arguments about the violence inherent in sex work, a key issue that feminists raise is that it reduces the female body to an object of sexual pleasure for men, bringing it into the marketplace to be exploited. While this general view remains strong within feminist and other circles, an increasing number of people are urging a broadening of or outright change in the manner in which the fundamental concepts around sex work are defined. For instance, the Sangli-based Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, or Sex Workers Against Injustice), the collective of women in sex work with which I am associated, works specifically to challenge the notion of ‘exploitation’. Instead, VAMP’s members define sex work as adult, monogamous or polygamous sexual partnerships within a commercial context, including men, women and transgender people. For many, this has proven to be a very contentious position.
The contextualisation of sex work is critical, and needs to be understood as an act between consenting adults involving the exchange of money in return for services. This, of course, does not refer to situations of trafficking, wherein coercion and deception are the dominant features. Even with this caveat, however, the widely accepted image of the universally unwilling victim, exploited and forced to offer her sexual services, reeks of false construction. A more realistic view of the situation would recognise that the contract itself signifies the ‘mutual’ nature of the exchange – more than mutual, in fact, because the terms of the contract are controlled by the person offering the service.
The most significant challenge that sex workers pose to both mainstream and feminist constructs of sexuality is their view that there is nothing ‘sacred’ about sex – and that it can thus be offered as a service in exchange for money. Yet the unwillingness to accept that women would offer sexual services for money has been part and parcel of societal consciousness throughout Southasia and beyond, including in contemporary feminist discourse. Thus, women who seem to willingly offer such services are seen as debauched or debased – or worse, that they are unable to comprehend what they are doing at all. Such a judgemental attitude has contributed immensely to the marginalisation and denial of rights for all people in sex work.
Over the years, interacting with those engaged in sex work, feminists such as myself have had numerous lively debates. These have explored issues of sex, love, multiple sex partners and the idea, disturbing to many, that sex is a physical act that can be pleasurable even when part of a commercial transaction, and stripped of emotion. Alongside are notions that sex with multiple partners, especially over a short period of time, is inherently exploitative, violent or plain disgusting. Such stereotypes expose the common double standards and biases of activists and feminists when dealing with sex workers. The push to unravel concepts of sex-related issues – morality, sacredness, pleasure, preference, health, rights – has gradually become a crucial force in understanding perceptions of sex work, and is thus important to the life of sex workers. Unfortunately, activists often consider such discussions to be frivolous and ‘upper class’; instead, more ‘important’ issues of poverty, environment, status and violence against women take centre-stage. However, as feminist theorist Gayle Rubin pointed out in a 1984 essay.
To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality … Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress. Rubin’s point becomes clear when we consider that, in a world that continues to be threatened by the problems she outlines, so much energy and effort is expended on clamping down on and controlling sexuality. Examples abound in the fundamentalist campaigns against women, public flogging of adulterers and homosexuals, honour killings and lynching of young people for getting into same-gotra marriages. In today’s world, sexuality is clearly not an issue at the margins, but rather is at its very centre.
The immoral brigade
Paradoxically, the urge to dismiss the significance of sexuality co-exists with measures by both state and society to control and confine sexual activity within rigid norms. We can thus discern two distinct worlds: one that would like to control sexuality, couching it in moral terms and societal norms; and another of resisters, those who break norms and live by rules unacceptable to the moralists. What is forgotten, however, is that life is dynamic, and herein are found the critical grey areas around which many sex workers tend to move and live their lives – adhering sometimes to the first of these worlds, sometimes to the second, and at other times straddling both.
The patterns that emerge from stories told by sex workers would surprise many. These include the women’s sense of economic power as the head of the household, monetary gains, economic stability and security, control over their bodies (manifested, for example, in their ability to insist on condom use), and a feeling of liberation from constrictive social norms. But there is also anger, emerging from a feeling of powerlessness against the intolerance and judgements of mainstream society. Women who have had the chance to leave sex work have often chosen to remain, accepting sex work as a way of life better than those offered by the double standards that exist in mainstream society. When convenient, they have also chosen to leave and re-enter the profession down the road, depending on circumstance.
These are clear signs of women’s ability to exercise control over their lives. Yet notwithstanding such evidence, under the guise of protection (of both the individual and the ‘society at large’), sexuality that does not conform to the norm is widely considered a ‘vice’ and pushed underground. Indeed, self-appointed moral brigades campaign, at times viciously, against a wide spectrum of what they view as sexual deviance – be it single motherhood, pre- or extra-marital relationships, same-sex partners, multiple sex partners or any non-mainstream form of erotic sexual preference. In India as elsewhere, many of these choices come under the moral, and at times legal, hammer as ‘illicit sexual conduct’, the socially-sanctioned penalties for which are as extreme as flogging, forced migration or even death. In particular, sex work and homosexuality have long been considered areas beyond redemption, with stringent laws and swift enforcement. The linkage between trafficking (a criminal offence) and sex work (which is not an offence per se in India and some other countries of Southasia), and that of homosexuality with paedophilia, has been repeatedly put forward as reason enough for the moral policing of these presumed offences.
Much of the debate around sex work has been constructed between one of two polarised positions: either as a human-rights violation, a modern form of slavery, or as the exercise of the right to work. But in real life these positions – slavery and victimhood on the one hand, and choice and the right to work on the other – tend to run into each other. Such ambiguities, however, are in no way reflected in the larger discussion of morality and rights. Before any clarity on this issue can be reached, the complex terrain of the politics of the female body, female sexual conditioning and sexual control need to be understood. Of course, sex work, like marriage and family – which also significantly impact women’s sexuality – is not a monolithic institution. The degree of autonomy possible, the extent of abuse and violence, and the possibility of accessing rights vary widely according to the situation. Women experience the institution of prostitution in a complex way, creating pockets of safe refuge and struggling for survival.
The moral value of ‘chaste womanhood’, so beloved of the mostly middle-class moral brigades, is centred on monogamous heterosexual relationships within marriage. Further, the sole purpose of this relationship has traditionally been seen as reproduction – an issue considered sacred insofar as the continuance of the species is concerned. In this view, female passion is also vehemently denied, as it is seen as an ‘impure desire’, and the flaunting of sexuality is frowned upon more in a woman, who is dubbed cheap or immoral. However, women’s overt sexuality is still permissible if the motive is ‘love’ or marriage, and hence ostensibly in the service of reproduction. Much resistance to sex work emanates from this deep-seated conditioning, which is averse to accepting women’s sexuality for any purpose other than reproductive.
Central to re-examining the matter is understanding the sex workers’ perceptions of sex itself. Sex workers’ daily encounters with sex throw light on an aspect that has been little analysed. As noted earlier, while feminists have long portrayed sex work as a commodification of the female body, it is important to understand who decides whether such a definition fits a particular transaction. For instance, are monetary exchanges between families, or individuals ‘in love’, considered commercial? In fact, commodification needs to be redefined in a world dictated by commerce, where the vast majority of exchanges are marked by some material gain, be it purely monetary or otherwise.
As important are the central tenets of morality policing, the issues of ‘love’ and marriage. The assumption that sex is loftier in some situations – between individuals who are in ‘love’ or married, for instance – is extremely problematic. Are we by definition protecting purely commercial exchanges by couching them in ‘acceptable’ paradigms? Sex is sex – it is we humans who attribute certain emotions to it, depending on our socialisation and our individual experiences. Moving away from this paradigm, commodification and commercialisation need to be understood from the point of view of ‘control’. Thus, I submit that sex should be defined as commodification only if the body (be it male, female or transgender) is used as an instrument for financial gain without consent.
In VAMP, one of the most valuable lessons learned during the course of our work has been to listen to the women in sex work themselves – rather than to those who speak for them, or about them – and respect the wisdom earned from a life of resistance. As Durga Pujari, an activist from VAMP puts it, ‘Over the years, we have become “commercial sex workers” from “common prostitutes”, debates are held about us and we are discussed in documents, covenants and declarations. The problem is that when we try to inform the arguments, our stories are disbelieved and we are treated as if we cannot comprehend our own lives. Thus we are either romanticised or victimised – or worse, our reality gets buried and distorted.’
There remains a vast amount of false rumours and assumptions about sex work and sex workers. Critical evidence – for instance, that a majority of adult women in sex work consent to engage in this work – continues to be largely ignored or disbelieved, since there is little understanding of the difference between ‘consent’ and ‘choice’ (see accompanying article by Srilatha Batliwala). Likewise, the false conflation between trafficking and sex work continues to inform those who insist that all women in sex work are victims of trafficking. Further, the fact that sex work includes men and transgender people has only recently begun to seep into societal consciousness.
No one can deny that sex work often involves poor health, financial exploitation and physical and sexual abuse. These abuses are not intrinsic to sex work, however, but are the result of the stigmatisation and marginalisation of sex workers. For sex workers to access and enjoy their rights, misgivings and certain stereotypes about sex work need to be broken down: sex workers do not necessarily need or want to be rescued; they are not a threat to the greater ‘chaste’ society, nor are they mobile cases and/or transmitters of HIV. They are capable of advocating for themselves, and of demanding their own rights. While they certainly face discrimination and hardship, people in sex work do not need pity. Rather, they need the rest of society to recognise and fight against its own misconceptions, judgments and unfounded fears.
~ Meena Saraswathi Seshu is secretary-general of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM), an HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and support organisation working with the socially marginalised in Maharashtra.