Feminists might learn a trick or two from sex workers

For many feminists, sex work – or prostitution as they would prefer to call it – symbolises oppression, victimisation and the exploitation of womanhood. These feminists look at the provision of sexual services through the framework of a rigid understanding of patriarchy, viewing it as objectifying women’s bodies, and as the commercialisation of sex. Hence, for feminists, prostitutes are victims of unequal power relations between the sexes. No ‘real’ woman would agree to do sex work, because if she does she is living under the illusion of ‘false consciousness’. We hear radical feminist activists talk of prostitution as ‘female sexual slavery’ and ‘sexual victimhood’. Exchanging sexual services for money [sex work] comes to be conflated with selling of a body to another [trafficking], and the figure of the ‘prostituted woman’ comes to represent the ultimate victim of male power. By describing prostitution as violence, they foreclose any discussion over whether women can actively choose sex work as a livelihood option.

These perceptions echo the early reformist discourse, which view women as needing to be protected, preferably by laws, from lustful men. But what becomes difficult for these kinds of feminists to countenance is that for some women, in some contexts, sex work is a livelihood, a business, a form of employment that they have little desire to be ‘rescued’ or ‘rehabilitated’ from pursuing. And what is even more troubling for them is that the image of the innocent victim lured into a life of hopeless moral turpitude comes to be shattered when real sex workers come into view.

A particular strand of feminism joins hands with the extreme right wing that informs the anti-trafficking discourse, in which prostitution is viewed as a form of violence against women. Such discourses are often from privileged positions of class, race or caste, and they analyse the trading of sex through a narrow framework. This in effect limits an understanding of sex work, epitomising sex work as oppression, victimisation and exploitation of women and constructing the women only as victims of unequal gender relations.

Violence against women (VAW) has focused on domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, acid throwing etc. When VAW is conflated with sex work, it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees. For example, most sex workers report that they experience violence and exploitation by and large at the hands of police and petty local thugs, rather than in sexual relations with clients. It is conveniently forgotten that a greater incidence of VAW occurs in marriages than between sex workers and their clients. It is especially ironic that much of the violence that does occur within the field of sex work is perpetrated or sanctioned by the state, such as the violence used to justify severe action against the sex work industry such as closure of brothels and ‘clean ups’, and the ‘raid and rescue’ operations instigated by dubious foreign organisations with moral agendas of their own.

The conflation of sex work with trafficking and violence against women has presented major obstacles to initiatives working for the rights of sex workers. For example, in 2005, an American evangelist working for the anti-trafficking NGO Restore International arrived in Sangli – where the sex worker collective VAMP (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad) is based – and, with assistance from local police, conducted several brothel raids. An assumption had been made that all the young women living in the area were doing sex work, had been trafficked, and needed ‘rescuing’. Thirty-five women were picked up and sent for medical examinations to determine their age. They were detained for several days at the behest of Restore International. It was found that only four women detained were underage, out of which two were not doing sex work but living with relatives in the area. The women received no apology or compensation for loss of income, and the organisation has continued to conduct raids periodically. Sex workers’ organisations such as VAMP face an ongoing struggle with a powerful set of players who misconstrue their work, interpret the business and empowerment successes of the women as necessarily involving illegal practices, and take on an aggressive policing role under the mantle of moral authority.

The casting of the prostitute as the victim has engendered several positions on prostitution. Because women are conceptualised as ‘slaves’, one approach is to put a stop to prostitution in the literal sense – by demolishing it. The state and other establishments, such as NGOs, often use this abolitionist approach. Another feminist position posits that women in prostitution need reforming because, as women who do sex work, they have no ‘character’. Rescue and rehabilitation strategies are used here. The assumption is that women need saving from sex work and then rehabilitation by giving them alternate jobs. A third strategy, the regulatory approach, relies on laws. This does not take the stand of banning prostitution but rather accepts that prostitution is here to stay and needs regulation. Laws like the 1956 Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) in India, is a reflection of this approach. Yet another approach is the rights-based approach – which is silent on the merits or morality of sex work, per se, and contends that women in sex work should have the same rights and entitlements as any other citizen, and the state must act as the duty bearer of these rights.

It is the last of these approaches that sex workers themselves are mobilising around. Collective action and the growing visibility of their movement for rights and recognition is enabling sex workers to dare to break out of the victim mode and demand that they be seen as real human beings with rights, needs, fears, hopes and aspirations, just like anyone else. After decades of struggle, they are now slowly beginning to be recognised as persons and citizens. What we learn if we listen to them is that one of the biggest challenges they face is that of stigma. Stigma is a double-edged sword. It produces exclusion – sex workers frequently experience societal discrimination, barriers to access to services and, sometimes, violent means of enforcing social divisions that keep them out of public spaces and institutions. And this stigma also manifests in the undue amount of unwanted attention that sex workers are faced with from the state, NGOs and religious organisations who often have little interest in their rights and empowerment as workers and see them merely as instruments and objects.

In order for the stigma of discrimination to end, and fundamental rights extended for sex workers to carry out their livelihood, societal perception must be transformed. To make the big change happen, small steps must be taken. To speak, to stand up and be counted is a step forward in the campaign for rights – the right to dignity, to work, to earn a livelihood, to education, to health and leisure – rights that are available to all citizens. Rather than leaving sex workers out of the conversation, it’s time that feminists started listening to what they have to say – they may learn a trick or two about bargaining with patriarchy, as well as come to a more humbling understanding of the role that feminists might play in the bigger struggle for rights, dignity and freedom in which sex workers are leading the way.

See The Guardian Poverty Matters Blog by Andrea Cornwall

Meena Seshu, editor

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