Unlearning and Relearning: A Visit To Kolkata’s Largest Red Light Area

Intersectionality is one of the hottest topics among young liberals today.

However, as we strive towards including the politics of race, class, caste and disability into feminist discourse, we often leave the marginalised and largely invisible community of sex workers behind.

In fact, sex workers’ issues only began to be considered feminist issues in the late 20th century.

According to the ministry of women and child development, India alone has 2.8 million sex workers. Sex work is partially criminalised in India, which means that the selling of sex is legal, but brothel-keeping or soliciting is not. The criminalisation of any aspect of the sex industry enables exploitation as parties operate outside the protection of legal systems.

In order to understand the situation of sex workers in India first-hand, I spent time with a sex workers union – Kolkata’s Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC).

DMSC is a collective comprising of 65,000 male, female and transgender sex workers who actively combat social exclusion and stigma, fight for the full decriminalisation of sex work and ensure the medical and social safety of sex workers.

I slowly learnt that the real narrative of sex workers is drastically different from what is portrayed by NGOs, the media and political representatives.

I spoke to Sonakshi*, a 36-year-old sex worker and peer educator in DMSC, and Shantana*, a 30-year-old sex worker. They said that they were resentful of the law, and that full decriminalisation of sex work is the only way to achieve safety and social acceptance.

Although they said that they would never want their daughters entering the industry, they reiterated that it was not because they deemed their situation immoral, but because of the social discrimination and abuse faced due to the criminalisation of sex work.

Shantana explained that the model of partial criminalisation assumes that the fear of getting arrested will prevent people from buying or selling sex, but many enter the sex industry because of extreme poverty. Therefore, in most cases, sex workers continue to sell sex, even in dangerous and isolated conditions where legal protection is scarce.

Four years ago, Sonakshi left her village in West Bengal due to marital instability, no source of income or any financial support for her three children. According to a senior research officer at DMSC, women often intentionally put their lives in the hands of risky third parties to seek employment in different cities despite being aware of the fact that they will be entering the sex industry.

However, DMSC ensures the well-being of those who join the committee.

“The sense of safety, support and community at DMSC is empowering; it allows me to deny potentially abusive clients, demand safe sexual intercourse and even report violence and abuse to the local police,” Shantana said.

She recounted that before DMSC, the state was as abusive as the perpetrators but things changed when she joined the union.

“Now, local police are supportive of sex workers’ rights, and the union has bi-weekly lawyer visits as well. Further, sex workers in India are denied health checks due to stigma and social exclusion, but DMSC provides monthly blood tests, HIV/AIDS prevention and a standby doctor.”

In fact, Anjali*, a-38-year old sex worker said that her job empowers her, as she is not economically dependent on a man.

Also read: The Anti-Trafficking Bill Will Make Sex Workers Less Safe

A large part of the union comprises of transgender women.

When I asked Shobhita*, a transgender woman, about her experiences in the industry and why she joined it, she laughed and exclaimed that she loves her work. It allows her to express her sexuality and sleep with whoever she wants to despite society’s stigma against homosexuality.

If not for sex work, she said she would never be able to sleep with men and feel safe doing so.

Her response initially surprised me. I learnt that despite how liberal we think we are, there are always preconceived notions and prejudices regarding sex work that can be unlearnt.

Due to the stigma attached to sex, it seems unfathomable that one would choose to enter the sex industry by choice. Hence, we end up conflating consensual sex work and sex trafficking.

However, DMSC condemns the sex work-human trafficking conflation, because, as Meena*, a 35-year-old sex worker, says, “It is harmful to the rights of consenting sex workers.” This is because it ignores the concept of consent and the agency of women, and treats them as passive victims.

As the senior research officer walked through the main administrative office in Sonagachi, she explained how DMSC tackles the issue of trafficking internally.

DMSC has created a self-regulatory board, run by sex workers themselves, which ensures that every woman who comes to Songachi is above the age of 18, undergoes HIV/AIDS tests beforehand and has not been forced to take up the profession.

Today, less than 2% of sex workers in Sonagachi are victims of trafficking.

If criminalisation is so evidently detrimental to the human rights of sex workers, then why is there still so much cultural, social and feminist backlash?

The answer, I believe, lies in the cultural framework of our society; in notions of femininity, morality, marriage and monogamy that are so deeply entrenched in society that rational arguments of human rights violations are neglected.

According to Swati P. Shah, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, British colonisation is partially responsible for the degradation of sex workers, as they played the role of a “necessary outlet,” who were ‘polluted, wretched and removed from society’.

In the 19th century, there was a sudden spread of venereal disease in India. So, the Britishers blamed the most marginalised women in society – sex workers. This lead to increased stigmatisation, and eventually sex work became a “social problem”.

Moreover, sex work challenges bourgeois notions of monogamy, marriage and family. Sex workers defy the strict social structure of a nuclear family. They are polygamous, and are not a ‘property’ of man – either the husband or father.

As author and JNU professor Nivedita Menon, in her book Seeing Like a Feminist, says, “The porous borders evident here between the categories of ‘unmarried woman’, ‘widow’ and ‘prostitute’-each of them a woman unbound by marriage-reflects the intense patriarchal anxiety about controlling female sexuality.”

A woman’s predetermined role in society is to carry children and be a good, pure and obedient wife. The sex worker represents the opposite. This is one of the many ways in which patriarchy creates binaries amongst women and pits them against each other.

However, even some sections within the feminist community have spoken against sex work and have also opposed full decriminalisation.

Some feminists, also called abolitionists, claim that an inherent power dynamic exists between men and women. They argue that sex work objectifies women and this objectification feeds into the oppressive patriarchal desire. Thus, according to them, all forms of sex work should be criminalised and eventually abolished.

On the other hand, some, including most sex workers themselves, argue that sex, in essence, should not be moralised.

The rights-based approach says that the abuse and discrimination faced by sex workers on a regular basis are not innate accompaniments of the profession, but are rather outcomes of criminalisation, stigma and patriarchy.

I believe that the state must decriminalise sex work and recognise it as labour so that they are accepted in mainstream society.

We often hear the voices of lawmakers, intellectuals, priests, judges, NGO workers and moralists; but the very voices of sex workers themselves are absent in the ongoing debate about their rights.

In order to bring effective policy and socio-cultural change that actually benefits the rights of sex workers, it is time that their voices are heard, acknowledged and acted upon.

*names changed

Mahika Khosla is studying Politics and Anthropology at Tufts University

Featured image credit: Flickr