A disturbing new study recently went viral on Indian media outlets. Authored by scientists at Harvard Medical School and Yale University, it claims that shutting down red light areas in Mumbai, New Delhi, Nagpur, Kolkata and Pune during the lockdown can reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases by 72%, and recommends keeping them closed indefinitely. One of the study’s authors, Sudhakar Nuti, later suggested that sex workers should be linked to government schemes and channelled into other occupations in order to ameliorate the effects. He seemed to see the recommendations as permanent measures to eradicate both the virus and sex work. COVID-19, he said, presents “an ideal natural opportunity to help sex workers exit their trade and find alternative livelihoods.”
While the full study has not been released yet for public review, this recommendation is based upon a flawed and dangerously simplistic understanding of where and how sex work occurs in India. With little or no consultation from sex worker collectives, activists, or academics, it recommends measures that will increase police violence and precarity for not only sex workers but millions of informal sector labourers and migrants across the country.
It is fantasy to suggest that there are clearly demarcated red-light areas of contagion that can be contained by dramatic control measures. The truth is that only a very small percentage of sex work in India work takes place in brothels. A study of 5301 sex workers across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra showed that only 24% of respondents had ever worked in a brothel. Other studies have confirmed that the vast majority of sex workers are street and home-based. Even for those who work in brothels it is rarely one or the other. Svati Shah, an anthropologist who has documented sex work in Mumbai for over a decade, found that many brothel-based sex workers have also worked on streets and at construction sites where they sometimes trade sex for the opportunity to work. They are also mobile. Most sex workers in India are either internal or foreign migrants, and as such they move frequently between different cities and their hometowns, relying on shifting networks of relatives, NGOs, state agencies, and other precarious city dwellers to keep afloat.
The study also falsely implies that business is brisk in red-light areas, so much so that it necessitates a dramatic shutdown. In cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, however, brothel-based sex work has steadily dwindled since the late 1990s. This is primarily due to the rise of abolitionist anti-trafficking movements, private redevelopment interests, and police crackdowns. One study from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that the population of brothel-based sex workers in Kamathipura, where most of Mumbai’s brothels are located, dwindled from almost 50,000 in 1992 to about 2000 in 2010 and only 500-1000 in 2016. The researchers point out that most brothels in Kamathipura have been replaced by manufacturing units for bags, jeans dyeing, mats and cloth. Shah’s research corroborates these findings. In a similar pattern, red-light areas in Goa, Surat and Pune were all but demolished between 2000 and 2004 to reclaim space for tourism, seaside hotels, highways, storefronts, and industrial units.
Is sex really the main risk factor for a virus spread by respiratory droplets, when seventeen people must live in a house with no running water to wash their hands?
The term ‘red-light area’ might itself be misleading, because neighbourhoods such as Kamathipura in Mumbai or Delhi’s G.B. Road are home to a diverse mix of migrant workers, transgender persons, pavement dwellers, sanitation workers, street vendors, home-based workers, and nomadic performer communities such as the Saperas. Rapid and uneven processes of gentrification have made social distancing impossible for all poor urban residents, not just sex workers. As landlords, private redevelopers and state agencies lock horns over these prime pieces of real estate, poor tenants are forced to pay exorbitant rents for cramped quarters with no running water and often in violation of municipal regulations, making tenants vulnerable to eviction at any time. Nuti’s blindingly obvious point that “social distancing is not possible while having sex” is something sex worker collectives are all too aware of. The bigger issue is that unsafe living conditions, exacerbated by decades of gentrification and anti-poor policies, make social distancing impossible in these urban settlements. Is sex really the main risk factor for a virus spread by respiratory droplets, when seventeen people must live in a house with no running water to wash their hands? Or where perpetually damp walls place residents at chronic risk for tuberculosis?
Brothel-based sex work has declined even more radically in the past two months of lockdown. The All-India Network of Sex Workers reports that G.B. Road, the red-light area in Delhi has all but shut down and that over 60% of sex workers have returned to their home states. In Sonagachi, the red-light area in Kolkata, a report from last month suggests that there are no more than 5000 brothel-based sex workers. In many areas women are being tossed out of brothels because they are unable to pay rent. In others, they are stranded in brothels without transport back home. Volunteers and NGOs are unable to distribute rations because of lockdown restrictions, and food prices have more than doubled. The primary concern for sex workers at the moment is not whether they have clients (most do not), but how to gain access to government schemes in a context where most of them do not have ration cards because they cannot prove residence, and do not have Jan Dhan accounts to receive government funds.
Punishment rather than protection
At the deepest level, the problem with the study is that it naively exports a predictive model based on the Netherlands, Germany and Australia to India, a country which has a vastly different reality when it comes sex work and to working conditions in general. A whopping 92% of India’s labouring population works in the informal sector where sex work occurs, and many persons selling sex do not consider ‘sex worker’ to be their primary work identity. Rather, they sell sex while undertaking other forms of precarious, unregulated, and stigmatised work to survive. The fantasy of rehabilitating sex workers by channelling them into other livelihoods is misguided because most are already engaged in other livelihoods.
A 2014 study of sex work in 14 states found that over 50% of women who sold sex had also worked as domestic workers, construction workers, or daily wage-earners, and almost 30% of women continued to work in these other jobs even after taking up sex work. Many switched to doing sex work voluntarily and exclusively because they could earn three to six times as much as they did in other jobs. For about 70% of respondents, domestic work paid Rs. 500-1000 per month, while sex work paid Rs. 3000-5000. Most persons selling sex in Indian cities are female migrants from impoverished and drought-ridden areas. Many come from families of landless agricultural labourers and belong to disadvantaged communities. On average they possess little formal education and support children, husbands, and families back home. A large proportion of transgender persons do sex work to survive after being cast out of their natal homes, coupling it with other livelihood options such as begging.
Persons selling sex in India belong to the vast population of informal sector workers and migrants whom the state has spectacularly abandoned at this time of lockdown and crisis.
Since sex work is criminalised and marked by severe gender and caste-based stigma, it entails specific and unique forms of violence. Nevertheless, the current impulse to police space for reasons of ‘public health’ has long been a way to render public space unsafe for the urban poor more generally. Prabha Kotiswaran, a legal ethnographer at King’s College London, has demonstrated how it is not anti-sex work legislation but laws governing tenancy and public space that tend to have the strongest effects on sex worker fortunes. She also shows that in the case of street-based sex work as well, laws related to public obscenity and nuisance give police and other officials arbitrary power and legal immunity while setting sex workers, beggars, street-vendors and pavement-dwellers against one another. Sex workers are treated as criminals by the law, and they pay police bribes of up to Rs. 1500 per month, in addition to legal fees and lost wages while trapped in ‘rehabilitation homes’. These proposed ‘closures’ will increase police violence for sex workers and other vulnerable communities in urban settlements such as Kamathipura, G.B. Road, and Sonagachi.
It is in the face of these facts that the fantasy of shutting down red light areas takes on such seductive appeal for the state and middle classes alike. After all, the iconic red-light area, fetishised in countless films, novels, and moral crusades, has long distorted perceptions of pervasive political-economic conditions. Shah argues that films such as Born Into Brothels and Slumdog Millionaire portray urban slums as ominous dens of sex trafficking where women need to be rescued, implicitly normalising the rest of the city while also masking the politics of gentrification, caste oppression, and precarious labour within areas like Kamathipura. Ethnographers across India have shown how police and anti-trafficking organisations, aided by the loose legal definition of a brothel, incorrectly portray children living in red light areas as child sex workers and consistently misrepresent voluntary sex workers as brothel-keepers or trafficked victims. This spectre of the brothel dates to the colonial period. The historian Ashwini Tambe has shown, for instance, how anti-prostitution laws such as The Contagious Diseases Act of 1868 produced red-light areas as a space of moral filth and contagion, justifying the control of public space in Mumbai more generally.
If these proposed closures are implemented, artificially delineated red-light areas will again become a cinematic backdrop for the state to perform grand, empty gestures of ‘pandemic control’. The fantasy is that heroic scientists and police can cure COVID-19, sex work, and chronic poverty in one fell swoop. The reality is that persons selling sex in India, whether in brothels, homes, streets, lodges, or construction sites, belong to the vast population of informal sector workers and migrants whom the state has spectacularly abandoned at this time of lockdown and crisis. Instead of enforcing stricter lockdown, the government should heed the advice of grassroots activists and sex worker collectives and send provisions, not police, to the poorest inhabitants of India’s cities.