No, this is not about butchers! 

There are forms of flesh trade where the person whose body is sold is not fortunate enough to die once!

There have been two articles in THE HINDU today which have dealt with what can be termed as the “oldest profession” in the world! One of the articles that was published in today’s Sunday supplement talks about a village in Uttar Pradesh where all women of a certain age sell their bodies for sexual gratification of men. These women belonging to the “Nat” community are pushed into this profession by birth by their family. A horrible tradition similar to the “Devadasi” system that prevails south of the Vindhyas.

There was another article in the same paper that talks about difference between “consensual sex work” and “sexual exploitation”. According to the article Sex workers and women’s rights activists across India have welcomed the Government’s move to drop the word “prostitution” as exploitation from the amended Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code. The new formulation targets sexual exploitation and not adult consensual sex work.”

I have some basic discomfort with the idea of “adult consensual sex work”.  When sex becomes work and the human body becomes   a commodity that has value in “use” and “exchange” then there is something intrinsically wrong somewhere!  If we take into account the fact that majority of the people who are engaged in the sex trade are women – particularly those from deprived socio economic backgrounds then the word ‘consensual” sounds very hollow ! A person, who engages in the business of selling sex, is doing so because they lack any other resource that has economic value for them!  Though similar to manual labor as a concept in terms of the deprivation that leads one towards it, it is very different in every other way!  A sex worker is socially ostracized by all and her work until recently was seen as “illegal”!

Inherent  around the concept of sex work is exploitation!  It is not a matter of choice. The woman who is engaged in sex trade is never the decision maker with regard to the terms of the trade.  There are others like pimps who decide the price that her body would fetch  ,the number of hours it would work  or persons that it would service!  The poor woman gets only a fraction of the amount her body makes – the rest being pocketed by the other players –pimps, police etc. While decriminalization of this work may in theory remove the need to bribe the police, would it increase the percentage of her earnings?

I have spent nearly two decades with the nonprofit sector.  . Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector is not a homogenous world – there are sectors and subsectors of specialization within it, with each sector having its own theories of change.  My experience of working with sex workers is limited . But as a person who has spent years working on livelihoods, I can say that the arguments around social and economic exploitation remain the same across whatever livelihoods one may like to apply them ! Would legalizing sex work improve the conditions of the sex worker? When the government is not able to enforce minimum wages for agriculture wage laborers can they ensure rightful wages for sex workers? Would a police man who makes nasty remarks about any rape victim be ready to take down the complaint of a sex worker if she says that she has been raped by a client?

Actually, many people do not realize that sex workers can also be raped! I had the opportunity once to speak to a group of sex workers in Rajahmundry which is a hub for sex work in Southern India. The kind of violence that a sex worker is subjected to as she earns her living is nothing short of rape! I met a young girl who claimed to be twenty ( though she did not look older than sixteen) standing at a “pick up” point in the town. She was about eight months pregnant. Hearing her experiences with clients  was like listening to a horror story. She told me about men who hit her, kicked her and then sometimes left without paying her- and all this being done to her when she was pregnant! It was a wonder that she had not miscarried!  But she still continued to do this work because she had no other options and with a baby on the way, it was all the more important that she continue to earn!

Most  in the  nonprofit sector got into the business of working with sex workers with the advent of the HIV/AIDs projects. There was huge funding for these projects and these poor women were carriers of the infection. The entire focus of most of these projects was to contain the infection. Though many of these organizations did take up the rights issues of the sex workers few really thought of long term solutions to help them cope with their professions. Some moralistic NGOs thought of training these women in tailoring and detergent soap making so that they would give ups sex work! Most laughable idea! No woman ever gives it up! Once they are in it , it is a profession for life until they are too old! They may leave it temporarily but they come back to it!

Our country is working on many social security schemes for those in the unorganized sector. I am not sure how many NGOs actually got round to ensuring these ladies got access to these schemes? How many microfinance organizations were able to develop savings products for women like my pregnant friend at Rajahmundry who could have used their savings during such difficult periods.

It is not enough to talk about “consensual sex work” unless one is able to turn sex work round on its head in such a manner that there is “fair” trade. Unfortunately, in a society like ours where even married women have limited control over their bodies and sexuality, expecting that a law would bring about dignity to this work is very farfetched!


  1. Hit the nail right on head. Married women don't have control over their bodies, how can we expect sex workers to? And ithe story of the twenty something girl is sickening. I don't think it is easy to organise this sector. Unless the entire nexus is responsible, which is not going to happen soon. Very sad.

  2. A very pertinent subject!
    I guess that the Supreme Court had ruled that nonconsensual sex between spouses too can be classified as rape.
    The foremost that can be done is to tear away the mask of hypocrisy and accept legalese sex trade. Wishing it away and using the strong arm of law is not going to help and will only exploit women more. They have legalized sex trade in Holland and in fact you may know the” glass houses” in Amsterdam I, in itself a tourist attraction.
    When once the act is classified as lawful trade, contractual obligation falls in and chances of exploitation are reduced. As for the care about infectious disease well, medicine is advanced and so is awareness.
    The oldest profession was here since the advent of man and will stay here. Moralizing is absolute nonsense and missing the wood for the trees.

  3. It is good to hear someone informed writing on this issue...The Court does not even believe in something like marital rape...I believe in legalizing prostitution but even that has its fair share of issues - with it being legal, it would be difficult to determine how many women entered the profession willingly and how many were forced to do so...I don't think legalization is the key....It all begins with education and de-stigmatization.

    I don't understand why sex is such a taboo in a country which has the second largest population in the world!! Legalize sex. Make it appear as if it's as normal as hunger and thirst because it is! Don't put AIDS and HIV at a high pedestal as if it is the deadliest of disease - people die in accidents but those are not discriminated against......Once you remove the stigma, other things will fall into place and the first step towards reducing stigma is education and spreading awareness.

  4. Namaste......
    Lord have mercy on us, as we are capable of great and magnificent things so are we capable of the most devious and depraved things.

    Human trafficking-sex slaves, body parts, child prostitution, force marriages a reflection of the depravity within our societies and humanity.


  5. Once I lived in Geneva in a building that had different sex workers, including a 70+ lady. May be consensual sex worker is something that relates more to certain groups of persons in big cities? Personally the idea of earning money by selling your body, consensual or not, seems to me the absolute bottom of the pit!

  6. There is a lot to think about after reading your post. I feel that there will be hardly any difference even if prostitution is legalized in India.
    Like you said, even a married woman does not have control over her own body, a sex worker is more vulnerable and does not have a protective backing or is given the dignity to register a complaint as she does not have a support system.

    Lazy Pineapple

  7. Thanks folks for your responses. I would like to reiterate that legalising prostitution would not change things for the women who are involved in selling themselves! Anil and Divya this comment is particularly for you. India is not Holland or even Bangkok. there are deep layers of caste and powerlessness involved that make leveraging the law extermely difficult. The social taboos around virtue and virginity, the minds of people would not change even if something were made legal.

  8. @ Vinita, you are spot on- exactly my views!

    @ Sunil, you are right, there is a certain desperation about selling your body - tells you that there is nothing else that is left for you to leverage!

    @ Rhapsody Phoenix and Cloud Nine, glad you understand how terrible this issue is. Legalising is not going to change anything!


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