I wonder why I keep going to therapists and telling them I can’t sleep, and I have nightmares. They pass right over the fact that I was a prostitute and I was beaten with 2x4 boards. I had my fingers and toes broken by a pimp, and I was raped more than thirty times. Why do they ignore that?”
These words of a prostitution survivor are the reality for sex workers worldwide. The emotional, physical and sexual violence faced by prostitutes holds true for India too, having approximately 800,000 sex workers according to official figures. Violence against female sex workers (FSWs) has not received due attention. It is only recently that studies have been emerging in the context of HIV/AIDS research, emphasising the experiences of physical violence, harassment, and rape faced by them.
The studies based in India, highlight the extreme vulnerabilities of the FSWs such as extreme violence faced by street-based sex workers, exploitation, aggression by clients, inability to negotiate safe sex, and the perennial threat of acquiring sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS. As sex work started to re-emerge as an issue within the feminist arena, the mainstream thinking was polarised into two forms of understanding: one was the importance of sex workers’ rights, highlighted as potentially empowering and liberating; and the other believed that sex work is exploitative and perceives sex workers as coerced victims.
Physical violence is putting through physical force, which can lead to death, harm, or injury. Sexual violence includes rape, gang-rape, sexual harassment, and being physically or psychologically forced engage in sex acts that one finds humiliating and/or degrading. The least documented form of violence is emotional/psychological violence which includes, but is not limited to, being humiliated in public, insulted, and threatened with the loss of custody of their children, being separated from family or friends, controlled behaviour, and repeated shouting.
Apart from kinds of violence, several factors put sex workers at risk. Violence in client-based relationships and workplace is one of the major areas of risk. Studies in India report the same theoretical understanding in statistics, with about 10-50 percent of FSWs having experienced physical violence once in their lifetimes. In a recent study on the sex workers in Chennai, about 38 percent reported physical violence from clients while 73 percent were forced to perform unwanted sexual acts by clients. It was noticed that relatively inexperienced women in the sex-trade faced higher chances of violence by clients, which was only exacerbated by the woman initiating safe sex. One in every two FSWs who experienced violence did not disclose it to anyone. This was more so in cases when the FSWs were not registered with an NGO/sex worker collective.
Why they continue in the profession
According to studies, most of the women involved in sex work in India work involuntarily, mainly due to economic reasons or coercion. Those who turn to this for economic reasons mostly belong to lower castes, are illiterate, destitute with no family support. Having entered prostitution, they fall into the vicious cycle of paying off debts to the brothel owners and pimps, thus remain homeless and unable to switch to another kind of employment due to lack of skills.
It has been observed that trade of women and children into the sex industry happen significantly from Nepal and Bangladesh through sex trafficking, immigration and smuggling. But inadequate family income and being deserted by intimate partners who were mainly abusive or sexually exploitative, continue to be major factors for women involuntarily entering the flesh trade.
Studies found that one of the main reasons for the high rates of non-disclosure was that the sex workers did not perceive the degree of violence to be too severe as most of them consider it part and parcel of their job. If a non-paying partner perpetrates violence, the non-disclosure was generally less in comparison to violence done by a client. This is a reflection of the intimate partner violence faced by women in general which occur due to the prevalent male dominant values in Indian societies where gender attitudes and norms support aggression in the private sphere. Further, this problem is only exacerbated due to the lack of a support system or healthy environment in which women can share their hardships. The state does very little to help in this situation.
A recent study on sex workers in Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh reports about 12 percent of the FSWs facing brutality from the police. Authority figures regularly demand sexual favours from sex workers and verbally abuse. The police play a significant role by illegally detaining, torturing, and sexually assaulting them in custody. This creates an environment of social exclusion, criminalisation, and stigmatisation garbed under the blanket of patriarchal morality which in turn, does not allow these women to access their legal and human rights. As a result, most of them begin to fear retaliation from these “protective agencies” and get further secluded from getting access to health care services, housing, and additional employment opportunities.
Such statistics directly contradict the present-day image of prostitution as a “liberating industry”, putting a question mark on several feminist strands that call out to perceive prostitution as a release from patriarchy, an adequate job, sexual freedom, commercial agreement between consenting adults, and even as a human right. This viewpoint seeks to 'normalise' prostitution with the aim of decriminalising it. What goes missing in this portrayal is a darker reality of oppression and vulnerability. While the pro-prostitution lobby projects prostitution as a “free” and “rational” choice, it completely sidelines coercion and social and psychological helplessness behind prostitution. It should be noted that in this susceptible environment, the idea of consent is never posed except in economic terms.
In fact, the state can be seen as the real perpetrator of violence by criminalising prostitution which does nothing but secludes the sex worker into further secrecy and indirectly forces them to become dependent on trafficking networks or subsidiaries. It promotes the 'harmlessness' of prostitution by insisting that most of the accounts of violence are dramatised and generalised since they affect only a small population of sex workers. In doing so, this narrative ignores the violation of bodily integrity faced by a prostitute on a daily basis by both clients and procurers and the constant risks of rape, attack, murder, imprisonment, and torture of prostituted persons. It also negates the psycho-traumatic impact of prostitution akin to that of Vietnam veterans or victims of repeated rape as well as the sexual cruelty that these women face - either as a child or in an abusive relationship which makes them easy targets. Most importantly, this discourse denies the role of patriarchal power of men which allows them to feel that the sex worker is nothing but property to be used as his will since he has paid for it and has every “right” to do so.
Criminalising prostitution is also not a solution for such this multifaceted issue. A relevant example of this is the constraints created by the Indian legal framework that helped perpetuate sex trade to its current situation. As per the law, prostitution is not illegal in India in accordance with the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (ITPA), although activities supporting prostitution such as brothel keeping, living off the earnings of the prostitute, and procuring are illegal. Interestingly, the client faces no punishment under this law, and this works against the sex workers because the main perpetrators of violence go scot-free. Such a restricted view of the legislation has a direct impact on the sex workers as they are rounded up more than often during police raids in comparison to pimps, procurers, and brothel owners.
The ITPA Section 7 and 8 penalises for prostitution, seducing, or soliciting for the purpose of prostitution in or in the vicinity of public places. This has led to the localisation of the sex trade in particular areas which creates several problems for the sex workers. Since a majority of them happen to be street-prostitutes, homeless and/or restricted to the red-light areas, their dependence on brothels and pimps increase leading to further exploitation. Such a situation is occurring despite ITPA Section 3 which criminalises keeping a brothel or allowing premises to be used as a brothel. This has led to greater power to brothel owners to abuse the sex workers as the “illegality”, and limited scope of places to carry out the trade makes the women more reliant on third parties. In a paradoxical situation, when brothel owners are convicted, the women face a harder time as they are put on the streets leading to worse economic and social conditions.
The ITPA also has provision for reformative measures such as corrective and rehabilitative homes for sex workers who are convicted under this Act. However, no framework exists as to how exactly a protective home should be. Without a proper rehabilitation process, many such homes are inadequate and overburdened. This leaves them with little option but to return to the sex-trade after their sentence is over.
Looking at this multifarious problem through the lens of either pro- or anti-prostitution will not be a holistic approach. There is a need to break down the myths concerning prostitution, the most famous being, “a sex worker cannot be violated or raped”.
(The writer is a student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.Views expressed are strictly personal.)