All India Network of Sex Workers - FAQ

In the year 2003, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), which stands the largest sex workers community in India, published a greetings card on the New Year’s that illustrated a sex worker in a dancing position along with a caption, “Your entertainment is our work.” This greetings card leads to a lot of criticism among its recipients who raised questions against the word “entertainment” and whether one can relate sex work with entertainment.
To this, the sex workers’ response was simple and effective. They believed that the job of a sex worker is to entertain people through sexual services, and hence it should be counted as work or an actual job. Many who disagreed were stunt by the reply. The sex workers further add by quoting, “I don’t kill or hurt anybody, I don’t force, I don’t take a bribe, I don’t steal – so why I am depicted as ‘bad’ or ‘fallen’ women? How do you define our work?” However, despite some willing to accept their logic, they fail or fear to acknowledge it as it directly challenges the values and interpretations that surround morality today.

The perception of exchanging sexual services for money or selling one’s body is grounded on several misinterpretations of facts and concepts. Working as a journalist or as an office assistant also requires one to use their body. To perform their allotted work, they are required to use their hands, feet or vocal chords, which are significant parts of one’s body. However, they are not considered as selling their body. But, sex workers, who are selling their body, including their sex organs, to offer services to their clients, as a part of their job, are looked down upon.
The brain and sensory organs play a pivotal role in carrying out sex work too. Say, for example, when a driver is on the road, he/she has to make use of both the hands and limbs along with the brain to drive safely. Similarly, even a sex worker requires to make use of the brain and other parts of the body along with the presence of mind to awaken the sexual pleasure of clients. It is indeed a difficult and complex job and requires one to master the art of sex. Therefore, to term it as an act of ‘selling one’s body’ is completely misjudged.
Both socialists and capitalist recognize the fact that neither the labourers nor the labour-power is sold, it is the time of the labour that is sold, and that implies for every profession, even for sex work.

It is unlikely for human trafficking to increase is sex work is legalised or decriminalized. Trafficking is mostly observed in the unorganized labour sectors. Trafficking refers to the buying and selling of human beings which is a heinous crime against humanity. Human trafficking was once prevalent throughout the world and still continues to be prevalent in some countries. Trafficking is considered as a grave source for ‘cheap labour’ and is carried out to generate an inexpensive workforce for various other trades, including domestic and agricultural work. It is predominant in unorganized trade, where both the national and international laws are incoherently enforced. It is certainly not possible to monitor trafficking in IT sectors or steel plants, as labour in such sectors is much organized and systematic. Besides, these trades are monitored under strict laws and regulations. Trafficking is difficult in places where a proper mechanism of regular inspection and monitoring is strictly followed and strongly incorporated in labour laws. That being said, if strict labour laws are followed for sex work, trafficking will significantly decrease. Legalising sex work will bring in regulation and implementation of definitive labour rules and legislations that would eliminate the chances of trafficking of women into the trade. The self-regulatory board (SRB) that is managed through DMSC to prevent trafficking and entry of underage girls into the sex trade holds facts and figures of such events of trafficking in the sex trade. It has been surveyed that around 3-5% of women are forced or lured into the sex trade. However, there are women who choose to opt-in for such professions for social or economic issues. Often, women from a rural background with little or no education and inadequate marketable skills tend to choose sex work as there are limited to no options available to them.

It is unlikely to say that pimping will increase if sex work is decriminalized. The presence of a middleman in a common phenomenon that is observed in several trades. The same is true for service sectors as well.
Suppose, in Sonagachi, the pimps are responsible for bringing in customers to the high priced category of sex workers. The pimp gets a commission that is calculated as 25% of the fees charged for the service. However, the police, toughs, and local bosses often extort and exploit sex-workers. The police make the best use of the uncertainties present in the existing legislation (ITPA), while making improper use of their position and power to extort money, sexual favours and more from the sex workers. Our society offers a “social sanction” to the police, allowing them to beat, harass, or even rape the sex workers. Sex work is still looked down as a moral condition rather than accepting it as a livelihood option.
Lately, the oppression has decreased significantly in Sonagachi (the red light district in Kolkata). This is due to the cause that the sex-workers have collectivized themselves. They are determined to continue their battle to establish their basic rights as a worker. Rules and laws are enforced under this legislation that criminalizes all activities adjoining sex work effectively and allows the police and the toughs to rule sex trade and continue to exploit sex workers. This law indirectly is empowering the landlords to prevent from providing rent receipts to the sex workers and can evict them as per there whims.

Trafficking is known to be just the tip of the iceberg in the labour system. Trafficking is much more prevalent in areas and in an occupation where labour laws are inaccurately defined and are not properly enforced. In the US, despite its appearance and laws, several illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries are trafficked and employed. If they were to engage as “legal” workers or employees the employer would have to pay the regular salary and other advantages such as medical benefits, compensation for physical injuries and more. Besides, “legal” employment cannot be forced into working beyond the 8 hours limit. That being said, “Illegal” workers do not have the voice or opportunity to object to working beyond the 8-hour limit. And our global economy is much more concerned with benefiting from sourcing cheap labour.
The situation is true for the minor girls engaged in sex work as well. It is unfortunate that the external parties seek financial benefits from sex trades. And this is one of the primary reasons why policymakers tend to support the existing system. The Government as well did not take any steps to eliminate or at least reduce human rights violations in the sex trade. It is because of the reason that there is a pressing requirement to observe sex work as an ‘actual’ work or job. The movement to fight against this discrimination needs proper stricture and recognition of sex work and a system that would regulate and monitor sex trade activities and make it transparent. Besides, recognition and regulation of sex work should permanently stop exploitative practices and also give permission to those who are willing to leave this occupation and seek better opportunities in life. Addressing several concerns of development, sharing information and education in the slums and villages are the prerequisites to prevent distressed migration.

There are several misconceptions and misinterpretations surrounding sex work. Sex workers are also human beings and most importantly social beings. One must understand that sex work is her occupation. And like everyone, she too has parents, siblings and can have relationships with her neighbours, friends and lover. Sex workers are just like any other citizen of the country. It is not unknown that service sectors need to build relationships with the client to increase business. The same stands true for sex work as well. To be able to survive, a sex worker has to build effective relationships with her customer.
There are several types of customers. It is not necessary that every customer seeks only sexual services. A customer may also meet a sex worker with other expectations and interest such as love, affection, caring and more. It has been commonly observed that a customer falls in love with a sex worker and vice-versa.

There is no documental evidence that can be used to justify this allegation. The institution of family and sex work started side-by-side in civil society and have sex workers been family wreckers, by now families would have been completely withered. Besides, in our country, many families are supported by the earnings of sex workers. The survey states that there are approximately 3 crores of families that are fed by a sex worker. She is still someone’s mother or sister but unfortunately, the society disowns her, discriminates and marginalizes her just because of her profession.

Like every other woman in our society, a sex worker too aspires for a child. Unfortunately, many have lost their childbearing or reproducing capabilities due to the blockage of their fallopian tube. This blockage can be linked to her profession and other allied factors. This is why adoption and surrogacy remains a common practice among sex workers. When a sex worker is pregnant and does not approve of keeping the child, an infertile colleague can enter into a contract with her and pay for all her necessities during the period of her pregnancy and keeps the child once it is born.

Every worker, irrespective of the industry and trade has experienced some sort of satisfaction from the job. While some portions may be satisfying enough, other parts of the job may just be monotonous and very routine.
It is same for the sex workers too. A sex worker may feel good while offering her services to some customers, others may just be a matter of delivering services to earn money. It is indeed a matter of truth that a sex worker may receive satisfaction form some parts of her work but necessarily all.

Sex workers do enjoy engaging in their work. There are some positive elements and freedom in their trade that they enjoy, such as travelling to places, buying and wearing clothes of their choice, being friends with men of their choice and so on. This is something not so common for women involved in other occupations. A survey (following a purposive sampling) conducted by Sonagachi Research and Training Institution (SRTI) among 200 sex workers, who separated from their family and husband to later take up sex work as their profession, 95% of them claimed to be happier and living a better life with less oppression now in comparison to their previous life. The power and pleasure of self-earned money and the newly found freedom helped the sex workers of Sonagachi to expose the kind of transcendence they are capable of earning. Their determination and will to emerge self-reliant and confident based on their skill and attitudes are intense.

In India, the sex trade is regulated by rules and regulations that reduced sex workers’ right as citizens. The environment they are working in is full of extortion, torture, raids, detention of sex workers, and arrest of customers, which made it difficult to live and work as sex workers without raising a hand or protesting against the controllers of the sex trade.
To address the condition and to reduce torture, building an organization became of utmost necessity. Rallying together then became important for survival. Not just exploitation and oppression by the police and toughs, but also the humiliation and social harassment that the sex workers suffer regularly couldn’t be addressed without having a collective of their own.
While conducting a session with a focus group of 12 sex workers the facilitator questioned, “Can you think of anything that has occurred in your life which you had never imagined?” To this many answered, “They never imagined that the officer at a police station would offer them a chair to sit on! It’s something more unreal than dreams.” They added, “It did happen in our lives because of our organization.” The question lies here that, how long will the representatives of the mainstream society take to recognize the hardships, the real concerns, and challenges of sex workers and what steps will they take to address the issue?

It is tough to concur with such a declaration. Exchange of sexual services existed outside the family prior to the flourish of capitalism. Indeed it started with the beginning of the human civilisation. In socialist countries, like Russia and China, sexual services prospered but it was kept silent. It is assessed that currently there are around seven crores of sex workers in China, despite it being a criminal offence.
History displays that ordinary practices and political systems have attracted and rolled out structural alterations in sex trade yet laws and regulations have never prospered to withdrawing the sex trade. The instrument through which the sex trade is controlled or regulated by the Nation-states has caused alterations in the design and working of sex trade yet the essentials remain unchanged. Many at times it goes out of public gaze, often it is constrained by the criminals, and more often it turns into the cheerful chasing ground for the police and trouble makers. On the contrary, no polices and legislations can help reduce or eliminate mistreatment, dominance and abuse of sex workers.
It is historic that any external help gets ineffective until and unless the oppressed gets together and raises their voice. The process of social exclusion and criminalization of sex work has stopped them from raising their voices for ages. The centre of this oppression is a philosophical build of mortality and ethical quality which forgives rights and dignities of sex workers.
Certainly, because of the development of capitalism, similar to that of different occupations, it has become more arranged and synchronized. Today, in various countries, sex work is not observed as wrongdoing or crime yet a few countries still hold it illegal. Nevertheless, sexual services continue to be a saleable service. Sexual services are not only sold in the red light districts but throughout the world in different arrangements and under different wrappings. Sexual pleasure and excitement is not only made available through the unification of two bodies but could be achieved through other different methods. In this regards, the market for sex services is growing and is being expanded. The buying and selling of sexual services are going on in different ways, be it as a model, belly dancer, bar girl, masseuse, escort girl, and so on. At times this service is sold directly and at times the exchange of sexual pleasure happens through other media and components.

The question is not of promoting market economy, the question is who is DMSC to do so? The market economy is governing the world be it in a capitalist or in a socialist nation, be it controlled by the military or by the fundamentalists. Is there any country that works completely outside the market economy? We do dream for a democratic world where human beings will not have to rely upon the market for their survival. Everybody will have access to fundamental things like food, apparel, shelter and entertainment. Nevertheless, we cannot fail to remember the truth and the reality and stay detached to the continuous battle in our society. Workers should come together across professions and raise a voice for their rights.
We need to purchase food and clothing, education and health services for ourselves as well as for our children from the market. Under such conditions why should we disown sexual services as something that can’t be purchased and sold in the market? Those recommending that sex workers are reinforced labourers have even more motives to participate in the movement of sex workers to make them free labourers. Could any individual or organization decide if a profession or occupation be eradicated or not? At the point when the market economy is demolished, when space for sexual enjoyment and entertainment is made accessible and open to all when money no longer intervenes all trades, many professions will reach a conclusion comprising the sex profession as well.

The thought that capitalism generated the sexual profession is incorrect. It is also untrue that there is a contradiction between sex work and socialism. There is no reason to agree with what has happened in Russia and different countries for the sake of socialism is right. This is equally valid for sex work. Continuation of the sex profession does not rely upon if socialism is progressing accurately. Rather, it can be said without any restrictions that if socialism worked appropriately, the misuse, exploitation and dominance of people belonging to this profession would have stopped or decreased. The sex workers would get their legitimate wages and respect. They may have an expanded feeling of security while they are in their profession and have more opportunities to change their occupation as per their choice.
Unfortunate enough, there have not been any in-depth conversations on issues of sex, sexual joy, sex work and so on and why sexual pleasure is significant in the existence of an individual. Banning a few occurrences from some old civilisation, subjects like sexual feelings and sexual satisfaction are practically missing in the talks of human development.
Religious foundations and preachers have played a deciding part in framing the issue and suspending others from participating in the issues of sex and sexuality. Religious values and belief focusing on sex and sexuality have helped in developing the laws and guidelines of the Nation-state, be it in socialist Russia or in the capitalist USA. It is not the socialist philosophy rather the profound established “patriarchal conservatism” and religious presumption held by leaders of socialist nations who direct every feature of sex and sexual services, comprising sex trade their nations.
Because of all “civilised” societies being male-dominated and patriarchal, the belief systems of religion and the state continue to be submissive to the patriarchal society which is effective in creating social policies and legislation to reprimand or to eradicate sex and sexual pleasure.

At this stage, criticality, of community mobilisation and ownership building are the foundations of the National AIDS Control program headed by NACO (National AIDS Control Organization) which advances policies which enable sex workers through different techniques and activities, such as: 

  • The collectivisation of sex workers and building self-improvement groups and associations 
  • Improving both quality and use of services through strengthening collective bargaining force and moving the social situation of sex workers structure from recipient of services to gatekeeper 
  • Accomplishing sustainability through engaging community-based associations and articulating their situation in the decision-making process of HIV intervention programs in India 

The National Program additionally puts focus around “Empowering Environment” through: 

  • Effectively supporting the creation spaces for the peripheral communities to actively be a part in articulating their views/and goals 
  • Embracing strategies or plans to positively impact miniature level structures, methodology and practices in sex work settings 
  • NACO takes an effective part in addressing miniature level structures, for example, policies, laws, rules and guideline and so on through the Ministry of Health, Govt. of India while supporting against the criminalization of sex workers and their customers.

We can refer to examples from DMSC which we feel are motivating changes: 

  • Durbar, a sex worker collective which addresses 65 thousand sex workers (Male, Female and Transgender) played a pivotal role in balancing out HIV cases and transmission in 50+ sites through the partnership with the National Government 
  • DMSC runs 35 non-formal schools for themselves and for their children 
  • The sex workers run a financial cooperative which has a yearly turnover of around 15 crores. The cooperative is run and managed by the sex workers 
  • DMSC runs one of the highest successful anti-trafficking programs in partnership with the civil society and Government through a unique mechanism called the Self-Regulatory Board (SRB). Since 2002 over 1,000 underaged or trafficked women has been eliminated from sex trade through the SRB. 

The proportion of minor (age<18 years) girls in red light areas shows reduction over the time frame

Year    1992 1995 1998 2001 2005 2008 2010
% of Girls < 18 years  25.29 21.47 3.56 3.12 2.5 2.15 1.95


Year  Underage girls*  Unwilling women Total 
2001 29 02 31
2002 26 07 33
2003 53 08 61
2004 129 20 149
2005 21 14 35
2006 82 23 105
2007 61 16 77
2008 97 16 113
2009 55 14 69
2010 58 11 69
2011 57 20 77
2012** 19 15 34
Total  687 166 853


* Underage: Age at rescue less than 18

** Up to August 2012