Celebrating the 19th anniversary of DMSC, a grassroots sex workers’ organisation in Sonagachhi, Kolkata. Photo by author.
Amnesty International (AI) recently proposed to decriminalise sex work specifically to protect the human rights of sex workers. This landmark proposal brought global attention to the human rights violations suffered daily by sex workers and further expanded AI’s already substantial work in the field of human rights. Moreover, given that in several quarters sex work is still not considered a legitimate occupation, AI’s proposal highlighted not only the human rights of sex workers but also their labour rights.
AI’s proposal drew vehement criticism from feminists who consider the legalisation of sex work as perpetuating patriarchy and violence against women. Amongst them, the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women (CATW) was possibly the most vocal. CATW’s open letter to AI, signed by such world-renowned figures as Gloria Steinem, alleged that the recommended policy “…is incomprehensibly proposing…the wholesale decriminalization of the sex industry, which in effect legalizes pimping, brothel owning and sex buying.” While Steinem has tenaciously and effectively led the feminist movement, her (along with CATW) opposition to the AI proposal is based upon a rather parochial view of what sex work means to impoverished women, especially in developing countries in terms of labour and livelihood.
Since 2010 I have been engaged in ethnographic research with Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a grassroots sex workers’ organisation in Sonagachhi, the iconic red light district in Kolkata, India. Steinem visited Sonagachhi in April 2012 on a six-day “learning tour”, under the guidance of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-trafficking organisation that is also clearly anti-prostitution. She called this tour a “life changing experience” because she met several women who were trafficked and were victims of unspeakable abuse. However, what remained glaringly absent is the question of labour and livelihood of those who were not trafficked but are in sex work.
In the last five years I have only met a handful of women in Sonagachhi who were trafficked. In the initial phase of this research I gathered stories of how the women arrived in Sonagachhi and a pattern soon emerged consisting of abject poverty, abandonment, hunger, motherhood, familial responsibilities, and finally survival. Most women told me that they arrived in Sonagachhi through a friend, a relative, or a neighbour who was either working in and/or had contacts in Sonagachhi. “I did not know what else to do”, recollected one women, “since I cannot read or write; so this is where I came to at least be able to live and eat”. Another woman commented, “We were so poor that I knew that there was no way my family could afford a wedding, and I had already seen so many women abandoned in my village that I did not want to get married. And then I heard about Sonagachhi from my neighbour who had come back to visit her family. Nobody of course knew what she was doing in Kolakta. She helped me get here.”
The women also do not necessarily see their work as “making a choice” in the classic dyad of forced into, or chose to engage in, prostitution or sex work. Rather, it is the absence of choice and the structural barriers of poverty that lead them to sex work. “Just like bhadraloks (Bengali educated middle class) like you, this is not the life I ever wanted or even expected,” one woman told me. Another explained “But this (life of a sex worker) is my jibon-sotto (truth of life). Here I can at least eat and feed my kids; this is my home.” Such statements point to a complex reality that goes well beyond the limits of an ideal life.
In order to carve a legitimate space for sex work, DMSC has taken an unequivocal anti-trafficking stance and has established a self-regulatory board to prevent minors and unwilling women from joining sex work in Songachhi. My research documents the arduous process through which new entrants to the red light district are interrogated by the members of this board in order to determine if they are a) minors (below eighteen); and b) if they have been trafficked or are unwilling labourers before they are allowed to work.
CATW’s opposition to the AI proposal
The use of the word “wholesale” in CATW’s open letter to AI (quoted above) is particularly interesting. It suggests that one of the main problems with AI’s proposal, according to CATW, is its all-inclusive nature: all forms of buying, selling and facilitating adult consensual sex should be decriminalised. To take the contrary position however raises some serious issues. Could and should sex workers’ human rights be treated as piecemeal? What implications would this have for the collective rights of sex workers? To discuss the subject of sex work in isolation from its supporting activities is unrealistic for the realisation of human rights. Human rights is not, after all, merely a notion of justice. The human rights of sex workers is a matter of committed_ social practice_ where all engaged with the sex industry acknowledge and respect the rights of the sex workers as human beings.
CATW also challenges the inescapable implication of AI’s proposal that sex work is a realm of actual work, one in need of human rights protection like any other form of employment. CATW opposes this framing, as well as the sex trade overall, because for them sex work or prostitution is the paradigmatic instance of gender/sexual violence. Any effort to decriminalise the sex industry is perceived by the organisation as a precursor to legalisation. There are important differences between the two concepts—decriminalisation and legalisation—that CATW glosses over. Amnesty has clearly proposed decriminalisation—ending criminal penalties related to sex work—and has also expressed concerns about legalisation, which refers to the state regulation of sex work.
CATW draws upon the experiences of survivors of the sex trade, many of whom have also signed the letter, to argue that the sex trade is inherently vicious and that the harm it inflicts on women is a direct violation of their human rights. Without demeaning the experiences of these women in any way, I argue that it is incorrect for CATW to universalise the experience of its “courageous survivors” and extrapolate it for all women in the sex trade. To do so is not merely illogical. It is also unrealistic because it fails to address the question of what that labour means for women who have no other means of survival. CATW’s position cannot be reconciled with the everyday lived experience of numerous sex workers I have come to know in Sonagachhi, and others across the globe, who do not conform or succumb to the category of ‘survivors’ of trafficking. Likewise, universalising claims to speak for all women come with the grave risk of silencing voices of women on the social margins whose struggles, if we care to listen, narrate a grim reality of labour and survival.
Labour rights and health
DMSC, a signatory of the ‘NSWP statement of support for Amnesty International’, was formed by sex workers who felt the need to collectivise as labourers in order to mandate condom use for all clients as a prevention against HIV/AIDS. The formation of DMSC affirms the unavoidable intersection between labour and health in the life of the sex workers, which the AI proposal strongly reflects as well. The proposal especially underscores the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV/AIDS and the need to decriminalise their labour in order to ensure sex workers’ right to health.
CATW critiques this stance as overlooking the “intersectionality of race, gender and inequality” that underlines sex work, meaning that it overlaps with other existing forms of discrimination. They point out, and my own research partially attests to this as well, that agencies like UNAIDS are “far more concerned with the health of the sex buyers than the lives of prostituted and sex trafficked women” Yet, on the other hand, the women I work with ironically tell me that they “love AIDS”. If it weren’t for HIV/AIDS “nobody would care about us and we would never have come together for our rights”.
The question of sex work and sex workers’ human rights is and will continue to be far from settled. While the AI proposal does not claim to solve the problem of structural violence, it does take a realistic view in terms of how one can ensure the human rights of some of the most marginalised in the world.
Get our weekly email