The Red-Light Exposures: Identities of Sex Workers?

Being marked by the flashy brothels a.k.a ‘Kothas’ in the scape of fancy India, the identity contrasted with the dignity of the sex workers is rather stripped at a bliss. Mounting to a lifelong punishment, they are the invisible untouchables of our society. Read to find out more.

With the emerging discourse on the rights of sex workers at the global and the national level, India has pitched in high frequencies to respect, protect, fulfil and promote the human rights of sex workers. There are over 800,000 sex workers in India. However, unofficial facts room these figures far higher. Yet, despite these numbers, the high frequencies are never entitled to the civilized public discourse. 

The masses belonging to the mainstream society have the privilege of intellectual and physical well-being. With enough opportunities to attend schools and pursue different professions based on interests. But when given a choice between comically poor or working as a sex worker for survival, the question of ethics fades away. In fact, what would they care about, some philosophical concepts of morality or lulling their empty stomachs?

In stark reality, there is no room for respect or any form of acceptance towards a profession of a sex worker. The singular identity of being a sex worker is rather very offending for the Indian culture, pivoting itself on the stones of purity and pollution. Thus, women when being subjected to these stones every day, undergo the process of normalization. The notion of sexuality is accused of being associated with pollution, diseases, dirtiness, impurity and death. Rather their uncertain status results in a societal view, marking the sex workers as criminals. This does justify that violence against sex workers in India is linked to their perception as criminals and not citizens.

(Read Also: Global Prospects of Crimes During Lockdown)

By criminalizing brothels and restriction, the practice of prostitution in proximity to public places in an attempt to curtail prostitution has failed drastically. The act has made sex workers more defenseless by pushing them into more invisible crooks of the cities, where their exploitation is only heard by the gloomy mosses. This seclusion leaves the sex workers in oblivion about access to information. Further, they can’t access public facilities like hospitals and educational institutions, brushing them under the oppression carpet.

Due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the phases of lockdown in India, the sex workers faced a new set of vulnerabilities. Primarily being alienated by the government’s responses and ignored in the relief packages. A study conducted by Beulah Shekhar talks about the state of prostitution in India during the coronavirus pandemic. Since commercial sex workers are deprived of bank accounts or identity proofs, they can’t access formal sources of credit. The pandemic hit their financial lives very hard. Thus, they have to borrow from informal sources like pimps and brothel operators. The informal sources use the debts as a coercion tool to intimidate and exercise more control over them. The study further says that if situations do not improve by March 2021, the debt amount can become intergenerational bondage where sex workers might force their daughters to in sex work for repayment. 

Sex Workers protest in Kolkata's Sonagachi
Sex Workers protest in Kolkata’s Sonagachi; Credits: Reuters

The state transforms itself from being a protector of rights to a mere instrument of violence. The moral policing paradigms further seep into the justice apparatus. The protectionist insignia of the state poses the women as helpless and vulnerable entities. Adding to that, the representation of sex workers as victims duped by traffickers and devoid of any consent aids coercive law enforcement policies, which curtails their basic freedom. For example, sexual assault of sex workers is also high but with little social and legal recognition.

Multiple myths surround the instance of rape against the sex workers, assuring impediments in the due process of justice. ‘A sex worker cannot be raped’, this line is sustained by the logic that if the worker has consented to multiple partners, then eventually has given up the right to refuse other partner or other sexual acts. Unfortunately, this has led to systematic and large-scale violation of human and fundamental rights. Several factors put the sex workers in danger of violence. Primarily the stigma attached to their profession exposes them to violence in personal as well as public spaces. Violence here is used as a mechanism to assert sexual control, being normalized as punishment for having sex with multiple partners. 

An outcast community, with needs and desires as mainstream as us, these sex workers, live outside of the law. The oscillating conditionalities related to the law make sex work both legal and illegal under different situations. This fluctuating illegality makes the work and the identity of the sex workers as other and it also makes the sex workers subject to violence. Further, the uncertainty of the legal binary of sex work provides space for violence against the sex workers blameless through moral policing and the forces of justice itself. With socially ostracized work like sex work, their mere bodies being confined to a particular identity can appear uniform in the light of helplessness but it infuses to the numerous dimensions of vulnerabilities and the sense of otherness. The constructed identity of otherness continues the cycle of vulnerability and violence for the out-casted by the society, state and their very own conscious selves.

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Feature Image Credits: Times of India

Nirmanyu Chouhan

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