Prostitution is exploitation, which is neither ‘sexy’ nor empowering

At a working class residential area in Noida on the suburbs of India’s capital Delhi, 17-year-old Mini* had no idea her life was about to change for the worse. A heinous crime went unnoticed for more than a year until a bunch of rape videos surfaced on WhatsApp. Two men barged into her house, one recorded the incident while the other raped her.

The nightmare didn’t end at that, as I learned during my field research. She was raped for an entire year because they threatened to “leak” the said video if she didn’t oblige. While she was innocent in believing that the video would be safe as long as she kept having intercourse with them, her rapist was brokering deals in the dark alleys all over the Uttar Pradesh state, where Noida is, to sell this video. He sold it for 50 rupees (less than $1).

Mini tried to kill herself a few times. Having been let down by the criminal justice system, her family and society, she ended up prostituting herself to survive. Those videos of her rape were never taken down; the men who uploaded it have found new victims to prey on.

In a similar setting, but in the eastern city of Kolkata, Manju* was “sold” to a brothel owner by her neighbour when she was 13. Drugged and raped for months, she was “marketed” by her pimp as fresh meat. She had about 15 men rape her every day, and any resistance was met with injuries in the form of cigarette burns or choking till she passed out. Substance abuse became a way of coping, and addiction made her go to dangerous lengths to satiate her customers’ perversion.

Years into “sex work,” her pimp regretted spending a whopping $30 on her because she became scrawny and no customers wanted her. When she was still a teenager, he put her on a high dosage of Oradexon (commonly known as cow fattening drug). It is meant to treat inflammation and allergies in humans, but predominantly used by farmers to fatten their livestock. The “cow steroid” increases the appetite and makes for a more “curvy” teen who the clients would prefer. At 19, looking like a fully grown woman, Manju lives and “works” in a 4x6-foot cage, and the pimp has more than made up for his initial “loss!”

Like most liberals, I spent a good few years thinking that a woman’s choice must precede any societal expectations of her. Be it the way she dresses, or the work she chooses for herself. It seemed rather innocuous and fair. It wasn’t until I spoke to women like Mini and Manju and I saw through the veneer of “choice” by reading feminist authors that actually care for women, that I realised how the said choice dragged women into an abyss of exploitation. It “is” a choice; only, it is not the woman’s.

When liberals say “sex work is work,” or “listen to sex workers,” they probably allude to a handful of elitist escorts who make a living prostituting themselves, but their situation isn’t as dire as of those women who are kept by the many pimps and Johns in the trade with no agency.

Prostitution is approximately an $8-billion industry in India, with more than 2 million prostitutes and 275,000 brothels. There are as many as 10 million women caught in the sex trade. So many more who haven’t been accounted for.

When they say sexual exploitation is a choice, I wonder if they consider girls as young as five or six who are trafficked from neighboring countries, women who resort to prostitution because of abject poverty, forced/threatened like Mini who turn to the trade because there is no other option. Or, if they consider the profound influence of drugs that keep women like Manju hooked to the trade albeit for a whiff or two.

I often get shot down by liberals for being a prude, or a right-wing misogynist when I say there is no dignity in exploitation. I stopped going to Pride marches because I see the celebration of the colour red (coded for “sex workers”) more than same-sex-attracted men and women, who’s advocacy and years of oppression and abuse brought them the freedom to love, without being prejudiced against. Unbeknownst to us, we brought into the patriarchal hogwash of “accepting everyone” and allowing women to be their “authentic selves!” Anybody would fall for this. I did too - because what’s wrong in acceptance, right?

Do we pause to consider who might be benefitting from such blanket liberalism? 

This gaslighting by the industry of “choice” has turned the majority of Indians into terrorising Twitteratis who jump at the first opportunity to call women like me a bigot, and other choicest expletives. Is it possible that we are approaching this from different vantage points but we both want women’s welfare as the end result? I believe neither of us want women and girls to be exploited, so why are we not working together to challenge it? I beseech every liberal who thinks “sex work is work” to consider my argument before banishing me to the dark alleys of bigotry-ville.

Legalisation Versus Decriminalisation

Most media outlets claim that prostitution, once made legal, will give women more agency and legitimacy of “work.” They say these are the views of many organisations and activists. But nobody seems to have discussed whether legalisation would embolden men to exploit women even further, because it is now lawful.

Originating in Sweden, the Nordic Model (the Sex Buyer Law, or Equality Model) decriminalises all those who are prostituted, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence. This approach provides support services to help the women exit. And in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking, they persecute the buyers instead.

There are problems with both approaches. 

“Abuse and rape by police in India occurs whether or not you’ve been specifically accused of a crime,” said Linda Louis, an Indian human rights lawyer and researcher in sexual violence. “Even if it were decriminalised, an abusive police force could simply use any number of other laws and powers to abuse women. In a country with as many double standards regarding sex, decriminalisation will not lead to any reduction in ‘social stigma’ – it hasn’t had that effect even in Western countries.”

Rightly so, in countries that tried either approach, there was an exponential increase in demand. There are more and more men interested in sex, and Johns that are profiting from a woman’s body. This cycle leads to more pimps and brothel owners who operate on the down low. Owing to a higher demand, prostitutes are expected to perform extreme or dangerous sex acts, more frequently, but get paid a lot less because the flourishing “industry” has brought in so many women, all of whom are replaceable.

“In a ‘decriminalised’ setting, buyers/Johns have complete impunity to do as they want, and demand what they want. The capacity of the state apparatus to control them in any form is taken away,” Linda said, and added that “such an approach requires heavy investment, exit options, and a sensitive police force who will not use it to extract bribes.”

Another insidious outcome of these higher demands is that there simply won’t be enough women to meet it. This leads to women and girls being trafficked from around the world. The data is staggering and a painful detail of there being a large number of minors is hard to miss.

In May 2016, India’s ministry for women and children introduced the draft of the anti-trafficking law and claimed it would be a thorough attempt to tackle trafficking. While it alleviated a host of archaic laws that criminalised sex trafficking survivors as being complicit, the political obstinacy and ideological divide over the issue has prevented the bill from being implemented.

In a research conducted by Cho, Dreher and Neumayer, data was analysed from 116 countries on the effect of legalised prostitution on human trafficking inflows. It found that there was a direct increase in countries which formally accepted prostitution. 

“In a country deeply driven by extreme poverty, rape, and sexual abuse, decriminalisation will only institutionalise the rape of women for money, and grant protection to buyers and pimps. It will lead to mass industrialization of the abuse, like in Bangladesh where victims of child rape are now called underage sex workers,” Linda concluded.

Pornography and Prostitution - the Deadly Duo

It is estimated that our data consumption via smartphones will double by 2024. The ongoing digital transformation in the country is expected to increase India's total Internet user-base to 829 million by 2021. While this sounds ground-breaking on the one hand, it makes me dizzy wondering how many Minis will become pawns in the process of male perversion and violence. 

A new report has revealed that last year in India, 89 percent of the people who watched porn did so on their mobile devices. Three in four people are watching porn on their mobiles globally. 

The liberals are up in arms about porn, too, being empowering (just what isn’t empowering, in this nauseating postmodern world?) and think that porn is all about fantasy and has got nothing to do with the people in real life. Pornography + prostitution, however, is the rock and a hard place for these unfortunate women.

To make pornographic content, porn producers have real women perform real sexual acts. In many cases, as evidenced by the recent #BoisLockerRoom incident, these sexual acts glorify violence against women. A “porn star” is the most dehumanised being in the entire set. If you dehumanise her, you get a free pass in treating her like an object.

My latest nemesis is the offshoot of this drudgery called the “feminist porn,” and I shudder to think what is feminist about being naked and having three men violate, gag, spit or choke you?

No, women doing the same thing on men doesn’t make it okay (or feminist!). In every pornographic act, much like in prostitution, it is immaterial what the woman wants, because she’s portrayed as someone who is looking to be abused, she is shown to enjoy and not complain. One look at some of the “most searched words” by Indians on pornography sites would give you a peek into the minds of men who may expect women in real life to perform those acts.

The modern-day young’uns may go all “sex posy” and “poly am” about their relationships, I bet it feels great to have a spirited sex life. The trouble begins when women don’t realise what they glorify is in fact in the behest of an industry that thrives on exploitation. It is so methodical and cunningly devious that we don’t even know what we are signing up for. 

Assuming women don’t like to be choked, if there is pressure from a social contagion one is associated with, to say that they do, what do you expect a 16/17-year-old girl to do? What wouldn’t we do to get that validation and group conformity? And if pornography is how men (and thus, women) learn about sexual intercourse, which young girl would say “no” to her crush who “enjoys BDSM” and wants to “erotically asphyx” her?

Even if we entirely rule out this urban phenomenon, aren’t we making it easier for men to violate us by shaming someone who doesn’t prefer to be choked? With the message being so clear, wouldn’t men then feel entitled to demand extreme acts from a prostitute because he’s all charged up watching a “porn star” enjoy being urinated on? An urban 18 something girl might be protected; she may have the support system or the privilege to access the criminal justice system. But what about the little Manjus who slave themselves men after men all night?

“Sex work” is as Labour Intensive as, Say, Construction Work - What’s the Big Deal?

This comparison, often used by pro-sex workers, baffles me beyond my senses. Not only is it utterly distasteful to discredit the plight of women who do construction labour, it also trivialises the trauma they face that is unique to their laborious, often dangerous, profession. But for the sake of argument, does a construction labourer fear contracting HIV when men rape without protection? Or does she have to worry about getting pregnant or aborting a child when she is forced to take in customers nonstop? Also, when was the last time they asked a trafficked woman how she feels about this argument?

Here’s one account: “I can’t turn down men who refuse to wear a condom because I need the money to care for my children. I got HIV when I was 14 and had unprotected sex with 3,000 customers. Many of the prostitutes’ customers are men from the countryside, some of whom caught AIDS and returned home and gave it to their wives. Many others were students who passed the disease on to their wives when they got married.”

This argument is faulty on another count, too. Manual scavenging is extremely labour-intensive and devilishly casteist; nobody opts to do this because they think it is their “choice,” and for the most part, a majority of the people would still agree that it is exploitative. How is it that the argument “sex work is NOT work” never fared well? How is one form of oppression deemed exploitative, and another a choice?

Finally, if it is just like any other work, how many families will be happy to send their daughters off to “sex work college” or get a diploma on blow jobs for a career?

Difficulty of Rehabilitation - Post-COVID-19 Nightmares for Women and Girls

There is so much shame associated with being a prostitute that it becomes harder to rehabilitate these women. We can’t entirely wipe their past. With that trauma hovering over her at all times, how is she going to opt out of it, even if she dares to go against her “madam” and the gatekeeping Johns? What if they are addicted and find it hard to clean themselves up without medical intervention?

Efforts are being made in the form of a cooperative in Kolkata, whose aim is to protect the rights of the women and help them make money from other professions, such as handicraft making. Chapters opened up in other cities, and the initiative grew to induct 20,000 members in its first year.

There are organisations like Apne Aap (founded by 22 Nepalese women who were trafficked) run under the able supervision of Emmy winning filmmaker and grassroots activist, Ruchira Gupta. They aim to educate and empower trafficked women so they could find some other means of livelihood.

We need to think about all the children that were born to these prostituted women. For most of the time, the cycle is endless. Children of these women get trafficked or forced into the trade even if mothers go out of their way to stop that from happening. While none of these women want their children to go into sex trade, only few like Roopmati succeed.

Due to COVID-19, many countries have intervened in making sure that the brothels remain shut. So many women have spoken about their inability to even manage a single meal on most days. But this stop-gap situation has given rise to speculation in the minds of activists to consider a permanent end to the sex trade. 

An abolitionist approach is to mitigate what’s at stake for women and children. Kat Banyard, the author of Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equalitysays, “The need for change is here and it is now. Because the brutal, honest question remains: how many sex trafficking victims are to be raped by sex buyers before the law finally cracks down on demand? How many vulnerable women have to be exploited by men with money before the state removes sex buyers’ entitlement to abuse?”

It is being estimated that COVID-19 may push young girls to drop out from schools and be forced to marry. My guess is, a large number of them will be “sold” for the sake of the family’s wellbeing, or be pimped out. 

survey, conducted by Praxis India interviewing 290 adolescent girls from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, found that 36% were getting less food than before the lockdown (7 percent were even going without food on some days), 70 percent lacked access to sanitary pads, and 40 percent could not attend online classes.

Those of us who truly care about the welfare of these women and girls would act now. But not by appreciating PornHub for making their premium content free, but by questioning it. By demanding the State to intervene in providing alternate livelihood for these women by allocating a portion of the Prime Minister or Chief Minister welfare fund and strengthening the existing laws on trafficking children, and by helping organisations that are already doing State’s work. 

We have a huge task ahead of us because apart from the brothels, there are many underage girls and boys in “dance bars” living there for years. If we let this tide go, millions more like Manju and Mini will be swept into the trade.

Ask yourself if the “choice” to side with the pimp lobby and mindlessly chanting “sex work is work,” like a cultist, is indeed the hill you choose to die on.

*Names changed.

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