Feminists are not thick-skinned for nothing. They have decades of experience deflecting accusations of being exclusionary, reactionary, hyperactive, overzealous, ugly, man-haters, family-breakers and so on. So criticism in recent years from many quarters that they haven’t taken up certain issues enough (education, sex work, abortion, economic rights) is par for the course. Yet when it comes to feminist responses to sex work, the last decade – in India, at least – I think has been rather dynamic. The women’s movement has been having a conversation amongst themselves and with sex workers for over fifteen years now. The last national conference on autonomous women’s movements held a few years ago – a fairly representative space of ‘feminists’ of all leanings in the country – opened itself to diverse new movements and marginalised groups including sex workers’ movements, even if the debates that took place were not fully resolved.
So I would disagree with Meena and say that the conversation has been there, filled with eye-opening moments, wondrous discovery, beautiful friendships, leading to a growing breed of feminists of another kind: those who collaborate with sex worker collectives to mainstream their voices as much as possible; those who do take up cases and run with them; those who do all sorts of other work supporting them; those who write year after year from their point of view – even if no one is reading or wants to hear what they have to say.
But still. Things. Aren’t. Changing. Why is this? Because it is not about just having a conversation but deeper moralities within people, as well as an absolute lack of clarity on how to change moral ideas or dislodge cultural understandings of what it means to be a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ woman, how to actively dismantle that ticking bomb called stigma. It isn’t just sex work – look at continued controversies globally on abortion laws – but a larger basket of issues that seem to be governed by an invisible, irrational, seemingly more sacred ‘moral law’. The ‘silence of the rights based approach on the moralities of sex work’, as Meena mentions, is partially to blame – perhaps this is because people who are human rights defenders themselves have conflicting views on sex work.
It’s also because many of us struggle with the everyday, and succumb to let’s say, ‘trafficking fatigue’. What is it that sustains the zeal of the trafficking missionaries – the passion with which they continue rescuing and reforming women in prostitution? Is it the media attention, the many awards that they get, the continued funding, the self-righteous satisfaction? Why have the counter-initiatives lagged behind? Some are overwhelmed with other issues – the broader VAW issues Meena speaks of; struggling with rising pay scales that means they can afford fewer of the brightest activists and academics who move to donors or larger INGOs; new reporting formats that rapidly consume time; all those pragmatic thorns in the non-profit bush.
I feel though that Meena’s piece hinges too much on a dichotomy that is fast fading. We are today looking at a landscape where sex and labour are overlapping in many more ways than just straight up prostitution/sex work. The question to me has moved beyond the dichotomies of prostitution as violence or work. But where is the space for multiple positions on an issue? Where is the space for a case by case assessment of a situation? How can we deal with the contradictions? Let me give you some examples: is it ok to be vocal on sex workers’ rights but to maintain that cheerleaders at the IPL (Indian Premier League – a globally-hyped, franchise-based, cricketing tournament) are a form of entertainment that is problematic? Is it ok to say that adult women should be able to choose to do sex work, but that we must find ways to enable those who want to, to move to other livelihoods without the fear of being called a reformist zealot? Is it ok to accept that some women transact sexual services and wish to continue doing so, but be troubled that sexual slavery also does exist? We need a stronger middle ground that doesn’t crack beneath these contradictions and float us to one or either side of the extremes.
We have to also start talking about new things – not just choice, consent or labour any more, but unequal gender relations, relationships, power, money, the state, corruption, poverty, violence. Perhaps even, once again, trafficking. We are on the same side. Sex workers being raided and reformed, feminists having to constantly prove (still, even after all these years) that when sexually assaulted women don’t ‘ask for it’, we are dragged through fire by a reformist discourse that is deeply institutionalised and sanctioned by the state and its mechanisms, people who (wo)man these institutions, and sometimes even our bedfellows: the larger development/HIV/nonprofit sector. This is a challenge as much for feminists as for sex workers. I think it is time sex workers stopped seeing feminists as their opposition – the enemy lies elsewhere.