By Sharanya Gopinathan
On Sunday, the 2nd of June, the Times of India published a piece titled Why red light districts need secure walls. In it, they mentioned the recommendations submitted by sex workers’ unions and other stakeholders to a panel instituted by the Supreme Court to look into sex workers’ rights and working conditions. The article quotes several activists working in the field, in addition to quoting the well-known anti-trafficking activist Sunitha Krishnan. When speaking with the Times of India, Krishnan mentioned that “no woman should have to sell sex, because it causes severe damage to her body, whether it is through sexually transmitted infections, violence or wear and tear”, and said that only 20 percent of sex workers enter the field voluntarily. She said the recommendations submitted to the panel, including that sex work should be decriminalised, would only lead to sex work being legitimised.

We went to Meena Seshu the founder and Secretary General of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM), an HIV/AIDS prevention and support organization that works with sex workers in Sangli, Maharashtra. Here are some things she wishes we all knew about sex work, sex workers and their legal status in India right now: 

  • On the difference between decriminalising and legalising sex work, and why sex workers unions are lobbying for decriminalisation: If you are criminalised, only then can you be decriminalised. If you are not criminalised, you cannot be decriminalised, right? So the simple difference is just that. Because everything around prostitution is criminalised in this country, we are asking for the decriminalisation of both statutes which make women criminals for soliciting. Sex work per se is not illegal, but if you go and solicit [offer someone your services as a sex worker], you become a criminal. If your family lives off the earnings of your sex work, they become criminals. The demand we have continuously had is you have to decriminalise us, because your criminalising everything around sex work is making it very difficult for us to work safely. Both criminalisation and legalisation are regulatory methods. We are asking for decriminalisation, not legalisation. 

So with legalising, invariably, you will have the State increasing its policing, because if they find somebody on the street who is in sex work without a license, that woman will be a criminal. And you’ll have zoning, licenses will be given for certain zones, so free movement of women, which they do now, will totally stop, because licensing authorities are not going to be the (Central) Government of India. So it just becomes messier and messier for the women, and they’ll have to start making the state enter their lives even more. Already the State has entered their lives so much that they are in such deep trouble.

So the argument of the sex workers’ movement has always been decriminalise karo, jo bhi aapne humko criminal banaaya hain. Because this is work, we are exchanging sexual services for money, and because it is work, give us occupational safety guidelines, safe working conditions, all of that in a decriminalised set up so that we are safe, our children are safe, our families are safe and we are able to work and live and make a livelihood. That is the argument for decriminalisation. We are not asking for legalisation.

  • On the idea that sex work should be banned because it causes “wear and tear” to the body: Also Read: Rs 1,000 and 500 Notes Abolished? Here’s What Happened to 3 Women this Morning. Sunita Krishnan’s way of looking at it, at least, the argument she seems to be making in the TOI article is this idea of sex work causes “wear and tear” to the body [laughs]. Tell me in which kind of physical work is there no wear and tear? All physical work has wear and tear, and to believe that just having sex, or exchanging sexual services for money, is going to create severe damage through sexually transmitted infections, violence or wear and tear, I think it’s an immature articulation in and of itself. Breaking stones in the middle of the road for construction labour also can cause tremendous damage to the body. So how do you qualify what counts as severe damage?

Yes, STIs can be extremely debilitating, especially if it is HIV, it is a huge issue. But with the medications we have today, women who are living with HIV are able to live a pretty decent life. I agree that STIs are something people who are in multiple sexual relationships, whether in sex work or not should be very very careful of. There is no doubt in my mind about it. But most of the STIs, almost all of them, can be handled with the barrier method, with using condoms, and we have seen, as lived experience in the program that I run, that we’ve been able to control STIs to a large extent. It does not mean that you stop having sex, with multiple people or otherwise, it just means you’re more careful and safe, and that environments of safety are created. If the police is breathing down your nose, and raiding and rescuing you and rehabilitating you and beating you up, or some goonda is trying to beat you up, the chances of you not using condoms and being safe is high.

In fact, that is the reason one organises and collectivises sexworkers: to root out violence, unsafe conditions, unsafe practices, and to introduce safe working conditions.

  • On why all sex workers are not “victims”; in fact, the majority are not.  Many women, like the article mentions, rural women who practice sex work in addition to selling vegetables, construction work, they do not want to be considered victims of sex work, frankly. Because they are doing sex work to enhance their income. In fact if you see the Rohini Sahni, Hemant Apte and Kalyan Shankar study from Pune University, a pan-India study exploring the economics behind sex work, it very clearly shows that most people enter the labour markets in other capacities at a very young age, and they found that most of the women who went into sex work went mainly because of the rise in income. Basically, women enter the labour market early, try all kinds of things to eke out a living, and when they enter sex work and find that the income enhancement is so great, they make the leap to sex work. Their study found that 70 percent of women enter sex work in that way.

So the point is, Krishnan has quoted this magic figure of 20 percent who join sex work voluntarily. Where did she get this figure from? I have not seen it! I’ve been sitting here and reading up on everything to do with sex work that comes out of the country, I’ve not seen this figure anywhere. So now what happens is somebody will quote this figure from the Times of India somewhere else, and that will get quoted again somewhere else. I would like question Krishnan and ask her where she got 20 percent from. Sahni’s study very clearly says 70 percent, so do we quote that, do we quote you? Where did you get the figure from? Also Read: 9 Ways in Which the New Anti-Trafficking Bill Sucks

  • On the government’s saviour complex and misdirected efforts at rehabilitating sex workers: When you’re doing rehabilitation, first of all, rehabilitation of who is the question. Is rehabilitation for people who wish to leave sex work? Maybe I’m 20 years old and want to leave, and in a decriminalised set up I’ll be able to come to you and say without shame or worry or fear, saying ki i want to leave this, help me get alternative employment.

But at this point of time, the reality is, most people who are leaving sex work are people who are finished with sex work [after a certain age]. The rehabilitation is not geared towards them. It is geared towards “saving women” by abolishing sex work. So if you want to abolish sex work and you want to “save women”, you won’t be able to help the women who really want to leave sex work! You’re going to “save” people who you think should not be in sex work. That is the mess over there. Because of your own moral lens, or your wear and tear lens, you want them to leave sex work, so you’re going to cater your efforts to that very young age of 20, 25, 26, 30, when people actually will be making the maximum amount of money.

In VAMP (a SANGRAM institution that trains sex workers and those who work with them) we have a slogan: “save us from saviours”. These saviours are saving us for themselves, they’re not saving us for ourselves. If they had come to save us for ourselves, maybe they’d help us get better working conditions, they wouldn’t use the most oppressive arm of the State, the police, to “help us”.

And once you “pick them up”, you put them in the correction home if they’re adults. And then they’re rotting over there. What is your intervention there? We’re doing a study called ‘After the Raid’, with women who come back into sex work after being rescued, raided, rehabilitated, everything. Those women are also saying the same thing. One woman I asked said she was in the home for nine months and taught weaving, handicrafts and stitching and all that, and after 9 months, she goes back home and sincerely tries to make a living for about 3 months from that. And then she realises, because she spent 9 months away in the home, her family has already incurred huge debts. She was shifted from place to place and her family took on so much debt to go physically travel and meet her, rehabilitation actually pushed her into further sex work.

  • On what the government should actually do to help sex workers: It would be to not only decriminalise, but to ensure occupational hazards are not there, to ensure safety. Just decriminalisation is not going to help anyone. You’ll have to decriminalise such that safe working conditions can be instituted. So you decriminalise, then institute safe working conditions, then sex workers will start becoming safe. Today when organising and collectivising sex workers, that is the environment that we can see: this is how a decriminalised set up will look like. The collectivisation gives you a support that keeps you safe from petty political criminal elements, goondas. That gives you an environment of safety and being organised to fight violations and violence.

And then within the brothels and sex work settings, you need to work with the lodgers, dhaba owners, whoever is running this trade, work with them to institute safety. We can’t try to implement safe working conditions without the full support of people who are in sex work. It has to be community-led solutions, because anything that’s coming from people sitting in Delhi and deciding is just not going to work.

Tags: Meena Seshu, prostitution, sangli, SANGRAM, sex work, sex workers, Sunitha krishnan, Times of India, VAMP