Understanding Sex Work as a “Profession” in the 21st Century

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Our narrow-minded society will frown when we hear ‘sex work’ or ‘sex worker’. Keep scowling your brows. However, they are humans who wish to enjoy the same right as anyone else. They also need equal rights and equal protection to live in this society. Unfortunately, they are historically marginalised and alienated from the mainstream in several ways. The whole society views this profession as a sinful and humiliating act where women workers become the main prey of society.

Decriminalizing sex work could be the first step to integrating the people practising it as a profession into society.

Sex Work as a Profession

Looking through the eyes of immorality, it is difficult to wipe out this entrenched thought that this is an abominable occupation. Several countries, including New Zealand, Germany, Greece, and Denmark, have liberal measures to ensure sex workers’ health and other concerns.

Recently in a significant order, the Supreme Court of India has also recognised sex work as a profession and stated that voluntary sex work does not come under criminal offence. This judgment cannot be considered historical because a nation with a 138 crore population is not a stranger to sex work. Nevertheless, it is up to the readers to think and consider whether the recent Supreme Court judgment made a paradigm shift in Indian society or not.

Accepting sex work as a profession will favour not only women but also the LGBTQ community.

The world is changing drastically, and we have to enter into an arena of recognising sex work as a vocation and assigning morality to their work. Adult men, women, or LGBTQ persons involved in sex work have every right to get paid for their work and remain free from violence, stigmatisation, and other forms of discrimination.

History of Sex Work in India

It is impossible to trace the exact century when sex work started in India. As per assumptions, sex work was introduced into the world when humans tried to exchange commodities and services. They traded money and goods for sex.

In the Indian context, the history of sex work can be traced back to the excavations of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Later it got recognised in the period of Vedic, Gupta, and Sultanate ages. In the form of religious practice, it got prominent in the Medieval Period, under the practice of the Devadasi system.

Devadasis in the 1920s

Devadasis or sanctuary ladies denotes slaves of God who have devoted their lives to God. Nevertheless, the system has lost its ethics, and under the snatch of the religious devotion of young ladies, it gradually moved to the framework of sex work. Later it got prominent in major cities of India like Mumbai- Kamathipura, Kolkata- Sonagachi, Delhi- G.B.Road, and Gujarat- Waida Village.

Sex Work – A Choice or Not?

Sex work involves considerable amount of physical as well as emotional labour. A massive proportion of people came into this profession under compulsion, force, and coercion. Only a tiny percentage enter into this vocation through consent. Commonly people come into this to earn a livelihood. The vast majority choose to do it because of their background, poverty being the primary cause.

Sex workers are often coerced into the profession by their surroundings

Furthermore, some have chosen it to explore and express their sexuality in the contemporary age. Coming into this profession with full consent is not harmful. It is up to an individual to choose what they must do for a living. However, coercing someone into this profession without their consent is a crime.

The Problems Sex Workers Face

1. Health Care

The most significant issue they face is the lack of health care services. Ignorance and fear among themselves make it difficult to approach good health care services. They often experience discrimination of various forms from the hospital authorities. It will prevent them from getting good medical treatment. So it is necessary to provide efficient health care services for a better life free of sexually transmitted diseases.

Sex workers are at a higher risk of health issues like HIV/AIDS.
2. Financial Security

Financial insecurity is yet another problem sex workers often come across. The clients sometimes pay little and sometimes no amount. It will lead to instability in their job.

3. Social Marginalisation

Stigmatisation and marginalisation from mainstream society prevent sex workers from accessing their rights. The marginalisation of sex workers will lead to alienation, which will set them aside from society and the species being itself.

Mumbai’s Kamathipura street at night
Image courtesy-Outlook
4. Safety

Safety is another hindrance in their profession. They face a huge risk of violence and are less likely to get protection from the police. Nowadays, at least in some instances, police are becoming the major perpetrators of violence against the sex workers. 

5. Educational Inequality

Deprivation of education is a significant inhibitor among sex workers. Mainly people having lower levels of education will become the prey in the hands of trafficking. The stigma against sex workers is not limited to them. It carries down to their children too. Children often face discrimination because of their parent’s profession. This behaviour will lead to lower esteem and a lack of motivation in their educational institution. 

6. Sex Trafficking

As a result of globalisation, the internalisation of the sex trade became an economic thing, leading to the trafficking of women and children. 

Hands of a missing kidnapped, abused, hostage, victim woman tied up with rope in emotional stress and pain, afraid, restricted, trapped, call for help, struggle, terrified, locked in a cage cell.
7. Legality of Sex Work

Sex work being illegal in many nations, they often fear getting arrested, and none of them wants to be portrayed as criminals. So, it is essential to get sex work decriminalised. 

8. Exclusion from Religion and Family

Sex workers are often excluded from religious institutions and families. Religious institutions hardly try to accommodate them, marginalising them in different ways. They cannot view this profession with dignity. They often feel that their work comes outside religious moralities. This will make them alienated from the community and society itself. 

Implications of the Supreme Court Judgement

In the recent judgment, Supreme Court recognised sex work as a “profession”. It detected that those sex workers are entitled to self-esteem and equal protection under the law through Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. It also stated that police forces should treat sex workers with dignity. The authorities must protect them under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. Also, they should not be “arrested or penalised or harassed or victimised” in raids on any brothel because voluntary sex is legal while running a brothel is unlawful.

Dignity is a basic right of both sex workers and their children.
Image courtesy-GiveIndia

The ruling also emphasised the need to extend basic protections of human decency and dignity to the sex workers and their children. Court also advised the media that they should take utmost care in not revealing the identities of sex workers during raid and rescue operations. This Supreme Court ruling will significantly change the existing conditions for sex workers and their families. It will at least create a slight change in the mentality of people in Indian society. 

Way Forward

We have already entered into a century of rethinking sex work from a labour perspective. Thus the emotional and physical labour they have invested in this job has to be respected like any other job. For instance, recently, a woman proudly listed ‘sex work’ as her professional experience on LinkedIn. Instead of contempt, netizens hailed her. Such incidents underline that not all people see women as an instrument of sex. 

And finally, to recapitulate – “sex work is a work.”

The state and its organs should have a keen look at the basic needs and amenities of the sex workers and should ensure that their needs are getting into the hands of the needful. The law-making bodies should also re-look at the existing legislation and introduce a better victim-rescue-rehabilitation service. We can expect that through the correct implementation of policies and projects, the attitude and behaviour of people toward sex workers can be gradually changed. This will finally implement our key phrase that sex workers are humans.

You may also like: India in the Global Gender Gap Index 2022

About the Author

Rekha J

Born and raised in a highly conservative family, Rekha always wanted to shatter all chains surrounding her from achieving her dreams. She is pursuing her Masters in International Relations and Politics from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. Her fundamental research interest is in feminism. She also volunteers for the Sex Education Kerala (SEK) foundation.

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