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"Women in India are in danger from the time they are conceived until the time they die," Rukshira Gupta, founder of the organisation Apne Aap said. "They could be victims of sex-selective abortion, if they are born they may be left out to die, if they survive they'll get less food than their brothers, be pulled out of school to help with chores at home, be married early, risk death during pregnancy, be sold into prostitution, or die begging as widows."

The entire article tries to raise a very important question- Is a person really free when he/she/they choose to pursue a profession as a sex worker?

A powerful tool in the hands of the patriarchs has been religion. This tool is so powerful that it has allowed the chauvinists to oppress and dominate the other genders for centuries.

A part of this religious tool is Cultural codes or the unsaid underlying principles which regulate a person's experiences in the society and will be talked about in this article.


The Fundamental Rights mentioned in Part III of our Indian constitution guarantee a number of rights and freedoms especially under Article 19, but these freedoms seem to be exercised by only those who have already enjoyed them in the past and not the ones who've recently achieved it through struggles and protests and sacrifices, I am talking about that section of the society who did not choose to become the victims of patriarchy or male dominance.

In this context, I would like to highlight a very controversial and critiqued issue- The right to chose any vocation with regards to the recent Bombay High Court judgement on prostitution in our nation. (A Victory Statement for the Sex Workers in India)


This statement points to a deep question of different representations of rape.

Prostitution has been defined in the ‘International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences': "Prostitution is the granting of sexual access on a relatively indiscriminate basis for payment either in money or in goods, depending on the complexity of the local economic system."

Prostitution was defined by the "Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act 1956" as follow: "Prostitution means the act of a female offering her body for promiscuous sexual intercourse for hire, whether in money or in kind."

Prostitution is a product of civilization and a byproduct of the marriage institution.

Now with a radical femininst perspective, there'll be a section of society (mostly privileged in terms of class and caste) who would view prostitution as a matter of free choice and would advocate that it should be practised as a respected one but on the other hand, it is this section of society who actually engages(is rather forced) into prostitution and their narrative about sex work is entirely different and is something which was never, is not and would never be a matter of choice. This includes women, men and transgenders who're left to fetch wither through begging or paid exploitation.

Now, it is important to look back to the history of sex work as a profession in India.


Just like other countries of the world where it is said that prostitution is one of the world's oldest professions, it can be found in India's historical period including the Indus valley civilization where the institution of marriage was not rigid.

In the Mughal period, women were regarded at chattels to be sold, presented or hired out by her owner. She has become a thing to be kidnapped, abducted, raped and gifted. For the satisfaction of the sexual appetite of her master, she was purchased and also possessed. Thus she was reduced from human person to just bodies, for male utility. The most glaring form of exploitation committed against women in prostitution.

British India

In the absence of state control and regulation, the voice of prostitution became rampant and British rulers felt the necessity of control and regulate it. Law dealing with immoral traffic was enacted by British rulers. The enactment of the contagious Disease Act, 1868 opened up a new epoch in the history of prostitution in India.

An important feature of this Act was that it sanctioned the establishment of brothels and allowed prostitution in a regularized form. Every brothel keeper and prostitute was provided with identity cards with details of registration which was subjected to be produced on demand

It was 1923 that the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (S 17 A) was passed for Calcutta, Madras and Bombay presidencies. In Uttar Pradesh, the Nayak Girls Protection Act and Minor Girl Protection Act was passed in 1923. Attempt to regulate and control prostitution was started in a real legislative sense only after the passing of these Acts

The DEVADASI SYSTEM (Indian Tradition)

India has been a nation where religion and practices associated with it have been of paramount importance. But these religious practices when mixed with the potion of misconception, blind faith and dogmatism have acted as the perfect recipe which has destroyed generations.

One of these cruel and rudimentary practices was the Devadasi system. A 'devadasi' literally meaning a 'Servant of God'. Even when India has modernized in various spheres, this discriminatory practice still prevails in many parts of India including

According to this brutal system, a girl (starting from 13 years of age) is dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma - and to a life of sexual slavery in the name of religion. The dedication takes place in a 'Pottukattu' ceremony, which is similar in some ways to marriage. The girl is married off to the deity and after the marriage, she cannot marry a mortal and is supposed to serve the men of her community throughout her life.

A documentary by Marion Mayor-Hohdahl - Temple Prostitution (1998): Inside the Yellamma cult - where social climbing in the next life means selling your children into prostitution.

The girl then serves the priest of the temple whenever he needs them and as per one of the documentaries from Southern India, the priests has nearly 40 such girls and women and after they've had enough of them, these girls are released but the society never accepts them and thus they're left to fetch out for them and are found selling their bodies in the infamous red-light areas. This practice is based on the belief that this type of service to God would help them get reincarnated as a higher caste member and is then accepted as a matter of fate.

"As it turned out, it is people from scheduled castes and tribes and the backward classes that are stuck into the Devadasi system. This practice still prevails in the outskirts of one such village that is situated in Sangli, Maharashtra. These days the Devadasi marriages are conducted in a secret ceremony in the annual Yellamma Festival under the darkness of the night or in the privacy of girls homes because of the Devadasi Prohibition Act that outlawed the practice. Many of the surrounding villages still practice the Devadasi tradition openly."


According to the Hindu, State-level legislation such as the Karnataka Devadasis Prohibition of Dedication Act, 1982, and Maharashtra Devadasis Abolition Act, 2006, had completely abolished such practices. However, it didn't affect the practice. It is still prevalent in many parts of India such as Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Orissa. In all these states, the practice has had social sanction, which ensured their sexual exploitation in a sophisticated fashion. Women are portrayed as sex objects while making it seem that it was a social practice that had God's blessings.


Excerpts from the Research paper 'Harsh realities: Reasons for women's involvement in sex work in India' by Niranjan Saggurti, Shagun Sabarwal, Ravi K. Verma, Shiva S. Halli and Anrudh K. Jain.

When it comes to categorise the reasons for engagement in sex work, it is difficult to artificially group them as " voluntary‟ or " involuntary‟. Most research studies from India in the literature have failed to capture the complex antecedents that draw women into sex work (Busza, 2004). Some studies suggest that sex workers‟ experiences fall along a continuum, with women who go through widely varying degrees of choice and coercion working alongside each other in the same sites (Busza, 2004). In India, it has been documented that sex work is largely involuntary (Nag, 2006). Some women choose it knowingly but find the conditions unacceptable, while others are coerced in the beginning and then decide to stay on (Nag, 2006).

The decision to engage in sex work may either be a rational choice or an involuntary one. In a research conducted to find out the major reasons for sex work, out of 367 women, 218 woemn reported different reasons but most of them had an economic reason assosciated with the causes. For eg- they reported that they had borrowed money from several people for emergencies – to pay for the treatment of a child or parents, for buying a house, or for their daughter‟s marriage –which had led to an increasing pressure on them to repay the loans.

" Abject poverty was often the result of women being left to fend for themselves because of the death of their parents or husband, divorce/separation, or spouse‟s ill-health. Most of the women who attributed their poor financial situation as the reason for engaging in sex work mentioned that their involvement in sex work was facilitated by a known person who was well aware of their poor financial condition. Other economic reasons included "need for more money." Further analyses of the In-depth interviews suggests that some women wanted to work in other occupations but did not seem to find those options economically attractive and hence they chose sex work as a profession and remained .

This selective discrimination against women at work be it harrasment or economic exploitation has led to many of them resorting to sex work. And the economic reasons clubbed with other socio-economic factors, domestic violence, lack of education and other opportunities, religious practices, etc. has kept them into this field of work.

But the entire concept of sexual labour which was in the medieval times not looked down as much as it is done now, thanks to the British rulers has been seen under criticism. This work has been morally degraded and is seen as something which goes against the values of the society. This has heightened the oppression of people engaged in sex work forcing them to suppress their voices against the injustice, giving a boost to the pimp culture which runs on fear and the sheer helplessness of people.

The Pimp Culture!

A procurer, colloquially called a pimp (if male) or a madam (if female) or a brothel keeper, is an agent for prostitutes who collects part of their earnings., Procuring or pandering is the facilitation or provision of a prostitute or other sex worker in the arrangement of a sex act with a customer

The pimps make use of the economic constraints and deprived status of people which includes not just women but men and transgenders.

"According to a 2016-17 survey by the UN, there are 657,800 prostitutes in India presently; which means that 5 out of every 10,000 people are engaged in prostitution. Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi are the cities in India where brothels are engaged in prostitution illegally. Some of them are GB Road in Delhi, Sonagachi in Kolkata, Kamathipura in Mumbai, Budhwar Peth in Pune and Reshampura in Gwalior."

Sonagachi is India's largest red-light areas and has been documented in a number of papers and documentaries.

https://www.unodc.org/southasia/en/frontpage/2010/March/red-lights-of-sonagachi.html - This presents a case study of Munni, who was trafficked from Bangladesh at the age of 10 and her life thereafter as a sex worker.

The complexity of prostitution in India as an occupation has led to an urgent intervention by the government. Although the Britishers did come up with laws, they were discriminatory in practice and protected only the customers(Britishers especially) and not the women. Much of the sex trafficking literature focuses on the reasons for entry into sex work (Walters 2016). Entry into the sex trade is motivated by social, economic, and political factors, as well as gender and cultural dynamics(Sen et  al. 2014).

"In research conducted in Kolkata (Cornish 2006), Female Sex workers reported that marriage and righteous motherhood were key criteria for Indian women to achieve respect and that being a sex worker often denied them of these opportunities. In this study, sex worker stigma resulted in widespread discrimination, experiences of family rejection, eviction from rented flats, their daughters being considered unmarriageable, and their children being bullied at school (Cornish 2006). While sex work conducted by men and gender-nonconforming people has been less studied, we can make similar arguments regarding the social exclusion of these groups as well."


Indian law has derived its validation from its customs, be it the laws on rape which do not acknowledge adult male victims or the lense with which the occupation of sex work is viewed, these lead to exploitation of the sexes. But nevertheless, Indian laws play a significant role in addressing some part of the problem.

In this case, where we are discussing the notion of prostitution, the Immoral Traffic (Suppression)Act, 1956 was one of its kind as it legalised prostitution in India and was amended in 1986 to Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA). According to the Act, prostitution is not illegal per se, but any organized form of it is punishable like managing brothels, pimping, and prostitution services in public. This means that if a woman voluntarily and individually engages in sexual activities with a customer, she cannot be punished by law.

Although the 1986 act received criticism because of its limited scope:

- It only recognised women prostitutes and did not mention males and transgenders.

- Although brothels were declared illegal but keeping in mind that most of the earnings were through these setups, the government did not provide a mandate for their health check-ups or other safeguards.

Proposed Amendments in 2006

Various amendments were proposed to the 1986 Act in 2006 but they have not been enacted yet:

- Deletion of the term ‘soliciting' of clients from Section 8 and an increase in terms of punishment and fines.

- Criminalization of the act of visiting brothels for the purpose of physical exploitation of the prostitutes with imprisonment up to 3 months and Rs.20,000 fine.

- Constitution of authorities at the Centre and State level to combat the increasing trafficking in children and women.

"In spite of the condition of sex workers in India, they are still human beings and entitled to the basic fundamental rights under the Constitution. They are protected under Article 21 which gives the right to life and personal liberty. In the case of Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal (2011) 10 SCC 283), it was highlighted by the Supreme Court that a woman is in the business of prostitution not for pleasure, but because of poverty. If such a woman gets an opportunity to learn and get technical/ vocational training, she is entitled to earn a dignified livelihood instead of selling her body. The SC also gave directions to the Central Government and State Governments to make schemes for giving vocational training to the sex workers across the nation."

In this regard, judgement by the Bombay HC on 25th September while listening to a plea filed by 3 sex workers declared that prostitution is not an offence and should not be looked like one. "What is punishable under the Act is sexual exploitation or abuse of person for commercial purpose and to earn the bread, except where a person is carrying on prostitution in a public place or is found soliciting or seducing another person," said Justice Prithviraj Chavan in his orde r.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the community stranded. In conditions where there was a national lockdown, the sex workers in India relied only on the donations of some NGOs who would visit once a month some limited food supplies and there was lack of action by the government until the recent the Supreme Court recently ordered state governments to ensure that sex workers are given dry rations without insisting on proof of identity. The Bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Ajay Rastogi directed that this benefit be provided to sex workers identified by the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) and state committees.

Yet the ostracization women face in the society and called with derogatory names has been a prevailing norm.


Any culture in the world has placed very high importance to the chastity of women especially her sexual purity. In India too, a woman is supposed to be the torch-bearer of a family's honour and thus in many religious practices, a girl's virginity denotes her purity and marks her destiny in terms of what family will she be married into or the status of her after marriage. The purity principle in this regard has not only led to discrimination and exploitation of sex workers in India but also has shut the opportunity to be rehabilitated in the mainstream society once they're rescued.

Even with the recent policy measures and modernization, there still remain cruel practices in some parts of India which under the garb of religion, force the girls and women in prostitution, whereas the transgender community has been so disregarded and looked down upon that because of this social stigma they're left to resort to begging or sex work where they're heavily exploited .

These issues act like a lense with which feminists and scholars have viewed prostitution, invoking a question time and again- Is prostitution really a matter of choice?

Thus, it remains a matter of debate whether the legalising of prostitution has helped the condition of sex workers or has led to their exploitation.


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