Decriminalizing Sex Work in India

In 2001, a Slovenian artist Tadej Pogačar, collaborated with sex workers to create "Prostitute Pavilion" and "CODE: RED" art installation. On the 49th Venice Biennale of Art, they together walked on the streets of Venice, out and proud, in Red Umbrellas March. This not only identified them, but it also drew attention to the abuses they face.


Now, before we start developing opinions about sex workers and start discriminating and stereotyping them, it is important to understand why many turn to this line of work. A shortage of well-paid jobs, extremely low welfare benefits and insufficient income lead to a lack of necessities and other long term consequences such as shortened life expectancy. Thus, many sex workers choose to do sex work as it is the best option they have. Over 95% of Indian sex workers want to leave this sector but are unable to do so due to the industry being their primary source of income and helps them to pay off the financial burden, the average debt of which amounts to Rs. 6,95,982. The sex worker industry is estimated to generate more than 534 million dollars per year which provide as an alternative to the generic job market. Many people in the rural area are also unable to find jobs which are as financially lucrative as sex work because of language barriers, lack of qualifications and other such factors. Illiteracy and lack of education play a big role in minimising the chances of finding alternative jobs. Therefore, due to a shortage of job opportunities for people who fall into this category, their chances of entering this sector is higher. A study of street sex workers in Bristol, Jeal and Salisbury showed that homelessness and drug addiction are the 2 key factors which lead to sex work. It showed a high proportion of sex workers stating that they were either homeless or living in extremely poor conditions. And due to these reasons, many turn to brothel operators and red light areas.


Illegal by night, solicited by day, that is the life of a sex worker. The criminalisation of sex work exposes sex workers to abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, such as police officers. Human rights watch has documented that police officer harass sex workers, extort bribes, and physically and verbally abuse sex workers, or even rape or coerce sex from them. Criminalisation makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence, including rape, assault, and murder, by attackers who see sex workers as easy targets because they are stigmatised and unlikely to receive help from the police. Now hold up, did I just say that sex workers go through rape? How is that possible? How can this line of work lead to rape? Well, no means no is universal and applies to all professions. ( yes, sex work is consensual and sex workers are raped if they do not offer to provide their services.)


Criminalisation also hurts other human rights. In countries that ban sex work, sex workers are less likely to be able to recognise as workers, advocate for their rights, or to work together to support and protect themselves.

Sex work is governed by the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. The Act does not make sex work illegal, however, it criminalises activities such as maintenance of brothels and soliciting customers. The vices of this act are many. Firstly, the criminalisation of brothels implies that if women want to work as sex workers legally, they should do so alone. Further, the compulsion that sex work shouldn’t be within a 200 m radius of any public place again implies that to engage in prostitution legally, an isolated location should be chosen, thus coercing sex workers to work in unsafe locations. Section 8 of the Act notably criminalises the act of seducing or soliciting customers. Though the Act may not prohibit prostitution, it certainly makes it very difficult for sex workers to legitimately exercise their right to work. Rather than safeguarding and supporting sex worker rights, the act has made sex workers more vulnerable. The act also means that they can’t access public facilities like public hospitals, colleges and schools, the access to which are essential to improve the quality of their lives. Lastly, the act does not do a great job with the prevention of sex trafficking, either. The Act mandates that victims rescued from the sex trade remain within a ‘protective home’ until the court orders their release. Although intended to ensure the safety of these women, this aspect of the Act almost makes them crave for relief and rescue all over again — initially from the clutches of their exploiters and now from ‘protective homes’. Thus, this only proves that the act is not comprehensive enough to regulate the activities of Indian sex workers, prevent trafficking or support sex worker rights.


Now considering this, decriminalisation of sex work seems to be an option. Decriminalisation will give sex worker’s legal protection and also give them the right to use public services such as healthcare services. It will maximise their dignity, protections and rights, and will help to de-stigmatise sex work. A study published by the Review of Economic Studies found that decriminalisation of sex work in Rhode Island led to a drastic decline in sexual violence and STD transmissions. The results of the study indicated that decriminalisation reduced sexual violence by 30 per cent and improved public health outcomes by decreasing female gonorrhoea incidence by more than 40 per cent. The fact that sex work is still a profession that is done by many, despite its criminalisation, it seems only fit to decriminalise it and regulate this industry properly. It will not only help with regulation but also help with proper law-making, supporting sex worker rights and preventing human sex trafficking.


Many of us have the privilege to attend schools, pursue the profession we are passionate about and live a financially stable life. Our families have enough financial resources to protect our well-being, and that privilege is not something everyone has. Sex workers are often questioned on their morality. Put in a situation where they have to choose between keeping their children hungry and in a state of misery, versus, working as sex workers so that they can provide a better opportunity for their children and their children don't have to fall in the same line of work, they would choose the latter. The option to choose between morality and immorality is a prerogative of privilege. Miranda Kane, a former sex-worker says: “I would like to gently suggest to you, when a sex worker talks, you listen. If you want to make laws that affect us, consult us. There should be nothing about us, without us."


Red was chosen for its beauty and its strength, and the umbrella symbolises protection. In 2005 the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe adopted the red umbrella as its symbol for the rights of sex workers, which constantly serves as a reminder that “ Sex Work is Work”.


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