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The Pimp, the ‘Whore’ and an Upside Down Feminism

The Pimp, the ‘Whore’ and an Upside Down Feminism

A rejoinder to Vaishnavi Sundar’s op-ed, “Let the Brothels Remain Shut After Covid-19 Lockdown”- Prostitution is neither empowering nor exploitative. It’s both and it’s neither. Let’s talk about it.

In her article, “Let the Brothels Remain Shut After Covid-19 Lockdown,” published by StoriesAsia, journalist and filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar spoke about an unbelievably complicated issue and I laud her courage to speak forth. However, it seemed to be rooted in an ideological branch of radical feminism – a branch that, I fear, might become exclusionary to the very women that it wants to do good for.

Starting debates and discussions about subjects such as prostitution and other forms of sex work (like pornography and exotic dancing) is imperative. However, this must be done in an inclusive manner where space is left open for people to express themselves without fear of judgment. I say this because each human experience (including that of each sex worker) is different and while it is impossible to satiate everyone’s expectations and dreams, the least that we can do is be empathetic and compassionate.

This is not possible when individuals approach problems while strictly adhering to their ideologies.

Sundar gave two compelling narratives. Mini, a 17-year-old girl, who was raped and videographed. The video was then sold and made a part of rape porn. The second narrative is that of Manju, who was sold by her neighbour when she was 13. Both were subjected to heinous crimes and became victims of the circumstances that emerged later. Both were pushed towards sex work as a means to survive. They were both robbed of their agency by many contributing factors.

The men who thought they had a right over their bodies raped Mini and sold Manju. Their families failed to give them the atmosphere they needed to heal, and the criminal justice system failed to punish the perpetrators. However, taking two cases and generalising them in an overarching narrative to say that all women who engage in sex work have been exploited to do it, is problematic, to say the very least. But let’s take up their stories for argument’s sake.

Years into sex work, neither Mini nor Manju can approach the court for the wrong that was done to them.

Legalisation, the Problem or the Solution?

Prostitution is not exactly a crime in India. Soliciting customers and other related activities leading to people profiting by prostituting someone are illegal. The Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act of 1986 lists all these activities. A sex worker, however, can attend to customers privately if the space is more than 200 meters away from a public place. However, sex workers are charged under various other crimes such as that of “public indecency.” Further, if a woman has been working in a brothel, the judiciary holds her accountable for crimes under the Immoral Trafficking Act.

This makes it difficult for a sex worker to approach the judiciary. They cannot even approach the police because of the poor sensitisation that they have towards women in general and sex workers in particular. However, I believe that a definite step towards a formal acknowledgement of the profession by law would be a fundamental step in creating a safer space for sex workers.

Armed with legal recognition, sex workers would have the provision to approach the system for crimes committed against them. I wonder how many pimps rob sex-workers of their money that is rightfully theirs; how many are being kept in brothels against their consent; and how many are forced to perform deplorable sexual acts against their wishes. Adequate legalisation would have the provisions to address all of these, and then some more.

Another benefit of legalisation would be the provision for sex workers to regulate the number of clients that they attend to. They would (technically) not have to “slave men after men all night.” Instead of the pimp, they would decide on which customers they want to see and whom they want to show the door.

Legalisation would also be able to put numbers on the people who visit sex-workers. While it is easy to find the number of sex workers in India, the number of people that visit them cannot be established. This would be an added benefit since the demand could then be regulated.

It is common knowledge that more than 800 porn websites have been banned in India since 2015. However, in 2018, the popular website PornHub saw an increase in the time that Indians spent on it. The government’s reason for banning the websites was to prevent child pornography. Despite the ban, there are many accessible websites that still show the illegal content. Under the trafficking law, making a porn movie in India is illegal. However, if the porn industry were legalised in the country, there would be further regulations in place about what kind of videos can be showcased. For example, child pornography or rape pornography could be completely banned.

Furthermore, legalisation would enable women to CHOOSE sex-work, if they so wished, on their own terms.

I thought at length about the question that Sundar raised about parents’ reactions to their daughters going into “sex work college.” I am not a parent but still my heart clenched at the thought of my daughter taking up sex work. If this were to happen though, I wondered if I would ever know that she is a sex worker. I wondered if she would ever come and tell me, or if I would ever find out. I went on to think about how I would address this, what I would say to her, about whether I would encourage her because sex work was empowering or whether I would ask her to quit because it is oppressive.

Then I came across the article “Stripping back the Myths”, where a quote by sex worker and author Juno Mac gave me some insight into this conundrum. “People get very hung up on the question: ‘Well, would you want your daughter doing it?’ That is the wrong question. Instead, imagine she is doing it. How safe is she at work tonight? Why isn’t she safer?” History teaches us that prohibition has never been a solution. We have already witnessed the criminalisation of homosexuality in Article 377 (which didn’t magically stop homosexuality in society) and the long struggle to overturn it. At the end of the day, what human rights can someone meaningfully claim if they can’t claim sovereignty over their own body?

Yes, Some Women Choose Sex Work

While it is clear that Mini and Manju did not choose to go into sex work, there are many who do. For instance, when I was conducting field research with the Bedia community of central India, I found that women were traditionally given a choice at puberty to either engage in sex work (which also involved dancing or mujra) or to get married. It is fair to say that this is not much of a choice. Times have changed and traditions have moved along with them. Now, at the age of 17-18, the women are offered a choice of either sex work or whatever other career they wish to pursue. Some of these women actively choose sex work.

Some women “rescued” from this profession wanted to go back to it. For them, it is a source of income that can provide for their families back home. Researcher Abraar Khan from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health met women from the Perna community of northern India who believed that “sex work was their duty and tradition.” The women also pointed out society’s hypocrisy in judging them while many were unfaithful to their spouses.

Khan said, “We are failing these women by focusing too much on the sexual nature of their work rather than seeing them as people with basic needs for survival.” 

Saskia Hagelberg, also a researcher, makes another compelling argument about talking about sex work simply in terms of it being either empowering or oppressive. She states that this “detracts from the need to recognise this work as work and from highlighting the need for workers’ labour rights, rather than understanding it simply as a sexually liberating act.”

Khan and Hagelberg here touch upon extremely valid points in my opinion. Most of us work to be able to provide for our families and ourselves. We talk about labour rights and take to the streets when we feel that our work is too demanding and the remunerations too poor. We protest when we feel that we are being met with injustice in terms of the protections granted to us in hazardous workspaces. We go on strikes. This right has been taken from sex workers in India.

People like Mini and Manju cannot take to the streets because of the dangers that such a move would involve. The first of these dangers would come in the form as a severe crackdown by the administration and the judiciary. They continue to work in an environment that fails to provide any kind of safety or healthcare. This is visible in the number of sex-workers who contract HIV/AIDS in their profession. Khan’s research revealed that women in the Perna community did not know about HIV or about the protections that they could use.

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Herein lies our greatest failure. We, as a society, continue to fail. 

Information Over Taboo

It is no secret that the Indian society does not look favourably upon women who take ownership of their sexuality. This is a deep-rooted problem in our society. We do not have open discussions about sex and neither do we have any kind of sex education. An added benefit of legal recognition of sex work would be that it would give room for open discussions about sex and how to practice it safely. This would also solve the influence of pornography, because people (including teenagers and adolescents) could then be exposed to it in the right spirit. For instance, they could be told what to expect from it and how to interpret it. People who find themselves addicted to porn would be able to seek the professional help that they need in the absence of stigma. 

This would also lead to an eradication of the taboo surrounding sex. We, as a society, need to accept women’s sexuality and open up spaces for women to talk about sex instead of brushing it under the rug or labeling their thoughts and curiosity as “dirty” or “shameful.” 

Women are “slut-shamed” when they take ownership of their own sexuality or they are said to have been influenced which effectively vanquishes them of their agency. Not all women who practice BDSM are doing it because of peer pressure.

Furthermore, a normalisation of subjects surrounding sex would lead to easier social rehabilitation of sex-workers if they so choose. True rehabilitation for a sex-worker can only occur when the stigma attached to them and their work vanishes. As Sundar states, “There is so much shame associated with being a prostitute that it becomes harder to rehabilitate these women.” 

Under the current circumstances, I shiver thinking about what might befall a former sex-worker if she went in for a job interview and was recognised as a sex worker. Would she be perceived just as every other applicant and receive the respect and dignity that she deserves, or would she be shamed or even assaulted in that circumstance? If the latter occurred, it would only ensure that a woman who was seeking to get out of sex work went right back to it. 

Sundar did not raise questions about whether the sex workers want to be rehabilitated. 

Mini and Manju were deprived of their agency when crimes were committed against them. The subsequent circumstances indirectly forced them into sex work. But, that does not mean rehabilitation, as a natural solution, should be decided for them. Their own voices and wishes should be respected. This, I see as yet another failure of following an ideology so strictly that one forgets to ask the right questions.

I see Sundar’s views as part of an ideology that seeks to dismantle a structure by building another one on top of it. As do all other ideologies.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of StoriesAsia and StoriesAsia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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