All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW)



1. Is sex work a work?

In the year 2003, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the largest sex workers collective in India published a New Year’s greeting card. It depicted a sex-worker in a dancing posture, and the underlying caption was: “Your entertainment is our work.” This raised a lot of criticism among recipients of the greeting card who raised questions primarily centering on if we can equate sex work with entertainment. The sex workers’ response was plain and simple. The job of the sex-worker is to entertain people, so why shouldn’t it be counted as “work”? It stuns many who raise their eyebrows in disagreement. However sex-workers go on to explain it further. “I don’t kill or hurt anybody, I don’t force, I don’t take bribe, I don’t steal – so why I am depicted as ‘bad’ or ‘fallen’ women? How do you define our work?” Even if one accepts their logic, one doesn’t want to acknowledge it as it challenges our established values and perceptions around morality.

2. Can selling one’s own body to earn livelihood could be justified?

The notion of selling one’s body is based on an incorrect interpretation of facts. When someone carries out work for example as a journalist or an office assistant, are they not using their bodies? Isn’t their hands, feet or vocal cord involved in performing the work. When a labourer works in a factory, he or she obviously performs their task through using their limbs as well as their brains. Does this mean they are selling one’s body or limbs? Sex-workers also use their body including their sex organs in providing sexual services to clients. The use of the brain and sensory organs are equally important in carrying out sex work. When we see someone driving a car, we can observe how he uses his hands and feet, but a driver has to make various decisions while driving. S/He has to make a judgement call using their brains and their eyes. Similarly a sex-worker has to cultivate minds and various other sensory organs in order to awaken the sexual pleasure of clients. It’s no doubt a difficult and complex task. For this very reason, it is essential to obtain mastery over the art of sex. So to call it as ‘selling of one’s body’ is utterly misconceived. Capitalists as well as socialists know that neither the labourer nor labour-power is sold in the labour market – it is the labour-time that is sold. This holds true for every worker, including sex-workers.

3. Wouldn’t legalisation/decriminalization of sex work encourage human trafficking?

It is unlikely that trafficking will increase if the profession is legalised. Trafficking usually takes place in the unorganized labor sectors. Trafficking means buying and selling of human beings which is a heinous crime against humanity. It was once prevalent throughout the world and is still prevalent in some countries. Trafficking is a critical source for “cheap labour” and takes place in many other trades including domestic and agricultural work. It happens more often in unorganized trades, where national and international laws are not consistently enforced. It is not possible to trace trafficking in steel plants or in the IT sector, because labor is organized and systems are in place. There are scores of policies and legislations to guide and regulate these trades. Trafficking is not possible where there is a mechanism of regular inspection and monitoring incorporated in labour laws. If labour laws are formulated for sex work, trafficking will decrease. An owner of a steel factory or a software firm never engages slave labour or trafficked labor because they conceive that there is “greater risk” than possibility for gaining a higher profit. If sex work were legalised, and the sex trade regulated through definitive labor rules and legislation including, regular monitoring, there could hardly be any possibility to traffic women into the sex trade. Yet, on the other hand people regularly confuse trafficking with sex work. All sex workers are not trafficked into the trade. The self regulatory board (SRB) managed through DMSC to prevent trafficking and entry of underage girls into the sex trade, holds facts and figures of such occurrences of trafficking in sex trade. It is observed, that at most three to five per cent of the women are forced or lured into sex work. Women in general are not trafficked. Most of them have opted this occupation due to various social and economic reasons. Women coming from rural backgrounds with little education and less marketable skills choose sex work out of limited choices available to them. Choice nonetheless is a “social construct”. All societal members do not enjoy an equal number of choices.

4. Wouldn’t pimps will get the upper hand if sex-work is decriminalized?

It’s difficult to say if pimping would increase. Presence of middleman is a common phenomena in many trades. For example, farmers cultivate potatoes, but there are many middlemen in between, who buy potatoes in huge quantities, store and later release the stock in the market. This principle regularly occurs in the service sector as well. In Sonagachi, pimps bring customers to the high priced category of sex workers. They get commission which is calculated as 25% of the fees charged to the clients. Whereas the police, toughs, and local bosses extort and exploit sex-workers. Police make best use of the ambiguities in the existing legislation (ITPA) while using their power and position to extort money, sexual favors, etc. from sex workers. In our society police receive a “social sanction” to beat or harass, or even rape sex workers. Sex work is seen as a moral condition as opposed to a livelihood option for other women in our society.
Of late, the oppression has decreased in Sonagachi red light district in Kolkata. It is because the sex-workers have collectivized themselves. They are continuing with their battle to establish their rights as worker. Rules are framed under this legislation which criminalize all activities surrounding sex work essentially allowing police and the toughs to reign the sex trade and to exploit sex workers at will. The law indirectly empowers landlords to not provide rent receipts to sex workers. They may evict a sex-worker as and when it suits them.

5. There are many underage and trafficked girls in sex work. Is this one of the characteristics of the sex trade?

Trafficking is the tip of the iceberg in an exploitative labor system. Trafficking is much more prevalent in countries and occupations where labour laws are less defined and or are not enforceable. In the United States, despite its appearance, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries are employed. If they were engaged as legal workers, employers, would have to pay them regular salaries in addition to various other fringe benefits including, compensation for physical injuries, medical expenses, etc. Yet, our global economy is much for concerned with sourcing cheap labor. People in “legal” employment can’t be forced to work beyond eight hours/day but “illegal” workers do not have an opportunity to object.. They can be locked up and made to work for longer periods of time forcing them to work in slave like conditions.
The same is true for minor girls engaged in sex work. Unfortunately external parties make money from the sex trade. This is the reason why policy makers in general support the existing system. The government took no steps to reduce human rights violations in sex work settings. It is precisely for this reason that there is a necessity to recognize sex work as work. There is a need to help sex workers organise. It is also important to prevent trafficking and child labor in sex work. The movement needs proper recognition of sex work as well as a system to monitor sex trade activities thus making it transparent. Recognition and regulation of sex work would stop exploitative practices vis-a-vis allowing those who arewanting to leave the occupation to get better opportunities to make their own choices.
Addressing issues of development, education, information sharing, etc. in villages and slums are prerequisites to preventing distressed migration. .

6. Can sex-workers lead an ordinary life?

There are many misconceptions surrounding sex work and sex workers. Sex-workers are social beings. A sex-worker is a woman like any other woman in our society. Sex-work is her occupation. She, too, has parents, brothers, and sisters. Sex-workers enter into relationships with other human beings as neighbours, friends, and lovers. They are like any other citizen of this country.
Within the place of work, a cabin crew, an air hostess, or an insurance agent enters into a temporary relationship with the clients as per the nature of the occupation. All of us know that in the service sector building relationships with clients is an important element. The same is true for sex work. A sex worker won’t be able to survive in her trade unless she builds effective relationships with her customer.
There are varieties of customers. Not necessarily every customer meets a sex worker for only a physical act. A customer’s interest is mingled with many other expectations which includes love, affection, caring etc. Sometimes a customer will begin a long-term relationship (of love) with a sex-worker. A sex-worker may also fall in love with a customer. Such events are very common.

7. Sex-workers are family-wreckers so shouldn’t it be banned?

Has there been any documented study to justify this allegation? The institutions of family and sex work started simultaneous in civil society. If sex work could destroy such institutions, by now family would have been withered. Furthermore, in our country alone, thousands of families are supported on the income of sex-workers. There is an estimated 3 crores of families in our country headed by a sex worker. She is someone’s mother, someone’s elder or younger sister. But strangely, our society disowns her and marginalizes her because of her occupation. 

8. Do they cherish their babies?

Perhaps like any other women in our society sex workers aspire for a baby. However many have lost their childbearing capacity due to a blockage of their fallopian tube. This is linked primarily to her occupation and many other allied factors. As a result, adopting a child or surrogacy still remains a practice among sex-workers. When a sex worker is pregnant but does not want to keep the child, an infertile colleague typically enters into a contract with her to pay for the duration of the pregnancy and keep the child once it is born.

9. Sex-workers’ job is to entertain, but do they get any pleasure out of their work?

Most every working person has experienced different degrees of satisfaction in your work. Those who provide services might at times find satisfaction in delivering the task, yet at other moments the job appears to be monotonous and very routine. This is equally true for sex-workers.
A sex worker may feel good providing sex service to some customers, while in other cases it may simply be a matter of delivering services according to the contract. It could be true that a sex-worker gets satisfaction from some elements of her task and not necessarily all elements required.

10. Do sex workers enjoy life?

Sex workers do indeed enjoy engaging in their work. There are some positive elements which we find interesting and enjoying. The type of freedom that they enjoy in their occupation is unique. Sex workers can travel to many places, can buy the clothes they want, can mix freely with men, and so on. This is something not common for women engaged in most other occupations.
Sonagachi Research and Training Institution (SRTI) conducted a survey (following a purposive sampling) among 200 sex-workers who had a husband and used to live in the family, but later joined the sex work profession. When interviewed 95% reported being happier and facing less oppression now when compared to their previous life. Through the power and pleasure of self earned money and newly found freedom, the sex-workers of Sonagachi have showed to the world the kind of transcendence they are capable of attaining. Their determination to become self-reliant and confident based on their skills and attitudes are palpable.

11. If the sex-workers’ are so happy, why did they started collectivizing themselves?

In India, the sex trade is regulated by laws what curtailed sex workers’ full rights as citizens. The working environment is full of extortion, raids, eviction and detention of sex-workers, arrest of customers, etc. It is not easy to live and work as sex workers without raising a hand against the controllers of the sex trade. To address state mediated torture and harassment building an organisation became necessary. Rallying together is important for survival. Not only the exploitation and oppression by police and toughs, but the regular humiliation and harassment and social discrimination that a sex-worker suffers from the mainstream society can’t be addressed without having their own collective.
While conducting a focus group with 12 sex workers the facilitator of the session asked, “Can you think of anything that has occurred in your life which you had never imagined?” Almost all of them shared “They never imagined that the officer at a police station would offer them a chair to sit on! It’s something more unreal than dreams.” They also commented that “It did happen in our lives because of our organization.” How long will representatives of mainstream society take to recognize the real issues and challenges of a sex worker and how will they be sensitized towards these issues?

12. We know that sex work grew in capitalism and increases with its spread concluding that it is a vice of a capitalist system.

It is difficult to agree with such a statement. Transaction of sexual services existed outside the family even before capitalism flourished. In fact it began with the start of the human civilisation. In socialist countries such as Russia and China, sexual service delivery flourished yet it was typically kept quiet. It is estimated that at present there are around seven crores of sex workers in China though it is a criminal offence.
History shows that social norms and political systems have influenced and made structural changes in sex trade yet laws and policies have never succeeded in abolishing the sex trade. The mechanisms through which the sex trade is controlled or regulated by the Nation states, has made changes in the structure and functioning of sex trade yet the fundamentals remain the same. Sometimes it goes out of public gaze, sometimes it is controlled by the criminals, and most of the time it becomes the happy hunting ground for police and troublemakers. On the other hand no policies and legislations (construed around morality) can help reduce oppression and exploitation of sex workers.
It is a historical fact that any outside support becomes ineffective unless the oppressed come together to raise their voices. The process of social ostracization and criminalization of sex work has prevented them from raising their voices for centuries. The basis of this oppression is centering around an ideological construct of morality which absolves rights and dignities of sex workers.
No doubt because of the growth of capitalism, like many other occupations, it has become more systematised. Today, in many countries, sex work is not considered a crime yet some countries still hold it illegal. However sexual services remain a saleable service. Sexual services are not only sold in red light districts, but all over the world, in various formats and under various wrappings. Sexual pleasure and excitement is not only made available through the union of two bodies, but could be attained through various other means. In this respect, the market for sex services is expanding and is being diversified. The buying and selling of sex services is going on in various forms be it as a model, belly dancer, bar girl, masseuse, escort girl, etc. Sometimes this service is sold directly and sometimes the transaction takes place through other media and mechanisms.

13. It seems that DMSC is trying to promote capitalism and market economy.

It is not a question of promoting market economy. Who is DMSC to make that happen? The market economy is ruling the world be it in a capitalist system or in a socialist country, be it ruled by the military or by the fundamentalists. Is there any country which functions entirely outside the market economy? We do dream for an egalitarian world where human beings will not depend on the market for their survival. Everyone will have access to basic things like food, clothing, shelter and entertainment. However we can’t forget the reality and remain aloof to the ongoing struggle in our society. Workers must unite across professions and advocate for their rights.
We have to buy food and clothing, education and health services for ourselves as well as for our children from the market. Under these circumstances why we should isolate sexual services as something that can’t be bought and sold in the market? Those who suggest that sex workers are bonded labourers have all the more reason to join in the movement of sex workers to make them free labourers. Can any individual or institution determine whether a profession will be abolished or not? When the market economy is obliterated, when space for sexual enjoyment is made available and accessible to all, when money no longer mediates all exchanges, many professions will come to an end including the sex profession.

14. Would sexual profession have survived if socialism were on the right track?

The notion that capitalism created the sexual profession is wrong. It is also not true that there is a contradiction between sex work and socialism. There is no reason to accept everything that has happened in Russia and other countries in the name of socialism as correct. This is equally true for sex work. Continuation of the sex profession does not depend on whether socialism is on the right track or not. Rather, it can be said freely that if socialism functioned properly, the exploitation and oppression of people belonging to this profession would have stopped or reduced. The sex workers would get their proper wages and dignity. They may have an increased sense of security while they are in their profession and have more opportunities to change their occupation for other livelihood options.
Unfortunately, there has not been in-depth discussions on issues of sex, sexual pleasure, sex work etc. and why sexual pleasure is important in the life of an individual. Barring few instances from some ancient civilisation, topics like sexual emotions and sexual fulfillment are almost absent in the discourses of human development.
Religious institutions and preachers have played a determining role in framing the issue and debarring others from engaging in the issues of sex and sexuality. Religious values and belief systems centering on sex and sexuality have helped in formulating the laws and regulations of the Nation state be it in socialist Russia or in capitalist USA. It is not the socialist ideology rather the deep-rooted “patriarchal conservatism” and religious dogmatism held by leaders of socialist countries who dictate every aspect of sex and sexual services, including sex trade in their countries.
Due to all “civilised” societies being male-dominated and patriarchal, the ideologies of religion and the state remain subservient to the patriarchy which is successful in developing social policies and legislation to castigate or to abolish sex and sexual pleasure. . 

15. What is the role of Government in support of sex workers’ rights movement?

At this juncture centrality of community mobilisation and ownership building are the cornerstones of the National AIDS Control program headed by NACO (National AIDS Control Organization) which promotes policies which empower sex workers through various strategies and activities such as:

    • Collectivisation of sex workers and building self-help groups and organizations
    • Improving both quality and utilisation of services through strengthening collective bargaining power and shifting the social position of sex workers form beneficiary of services to gatekeeper
    • Achieving sustainability through engaging community based organisations and articulating their position in the decision making process of HIV intervention programmes in India

The National Program also focuses on “Enabling Environment” through:

    • Actively supporting the creation spaces for the marginal communities to actively participate in articulating their views/and aspirations
    • Adopting strategies to positively influence micro-level structures, procedures and practices in sex work settings
    • NACO takes an active part in addressing macro-level structures e.g. policies, laws, regulation etc. through the Ministry of Health, Govt. of India while advocating against the criminalization of sex workers and their clients

16. Has there been improvement in the life of sex workers?

We can cite examples from DMSC which we feel are inspiring changes:

    • Durbar, a sex worker collective which represents 65 thousand sex workers (Male, Female and Transgender) took a pioneering role in stabilising HIV cases and transmission in 50+ sites through a partnership with the National Government
    • DMSC runs 35 non-formal schools for themselves and for their children
    • The sex workers run a banking cooperative which has an annual turnover of around 15 crores. The cooperative is run and managed by the sex workers
    • DMSC runs one of the most successful anti-trafficking programs in partnership with Civil society and Government through a unique mechanism called the Self Regulatory Board (SRB). Since 2002 more than one thousand underaged or trafficked women has been removed from sex trade through the SRB.

The proportion of minor (age<18 years) girls in red light areas shows decline over the period
   Year     1992   1995   1998    2001     2005 2008    2010
% of Girls 25.29 21.47   3.56     3.12       2.5   2.15     1.95
<18 Years
Year         Underage Girls* Unwilling Women     Total
2001                     29                         02                     31
2002                     26                         07                     33
2003                     53                         08                     61
2004                    129                        20                    149
2005                     21                         14                     35
2006                     82                         23                    105
2007                     61                         16                     77
2008                     97                         16                    113
2009                     55                         14                     69
2010                     58                         11                     69
2011                     57                         20                     77
    2012**              19                         15                     34
Total                    687                       166                   853
* Underage: Age at rescue less than 18
            ** Up to August 2012