New Internationalist

Knowing the difference

Issue 404

Some women sell sex voluntarily, some are forced. Bishakha Datta talks to women who have been in both situations.

This may sound like a plot-line from a Bollywood blockbuster, but it’s for real.

Gouri Roy, the eldest of eight sisters in India’s West Bengal, was married off when she was 11. Her husband did no work. After a decade of working as a domestic in other village homes, bearing two daughters, a son, and recurring bouts of battering, she started looking for work away from home. Her husband’s friend sold her into a brothel in faraway Mumbai for Rs 15,000 ($370). Gouri was then 22. A year later, she escaped and landed back at her husband’s home with some savings. He gladly accepted the savings but threw her out along with their three children.

So what happens now? And if we want to build a hierarchy of horrors, what’s worse? Being married at 11? Being beaten up for a decade? Supporting your husband by working through your teenage years? Being sold into a brothel? Or being thrown out on returning? After weighing up her options – domestic work, a factory job, prostitution – Gouri went with a friend to Sonagachi, the best-known red-light district in Kolkata.

‘What a difference there was between Mumbai and Sonagachi,’ says the sweet-faced Roy, who has sold sex for 13 years. Her Mumbai story is the classic ‘trafficking’ saga. She was forced to have sex with men day and night and service the brothel-keeper when free. The $370 for which she was bought was recorded as a loan to her – whatever she earned went towards repaying it. All she could keep were stray tips she managed to hide. She had to eat what she was told, wear what she was told, do what she was told. And she could never go out. ‘If I couldn’t do what the customer wanted, he would beat me up,’ she recalls. ‘When I didn’t want to drink, they just pressed my cheeks in, opened my mouth, and poured it in. Like medicine.’

Sex work is what I do now, from a place of liking

In Sonagachi, on the other hand, Roy is a sex worker. She works fixed hours each day or until she has made enough money. She has floating clients and a few regulars, who are her main source of income. She pays her madam a fixed amount per transaction. Calls in sick once in a while. Occasionally turns down a client. ‘I am a human being,’ says Roy. ‘I too have a place in me from where I can say no. If I want to spend a day in bed, and not work, I won’t.’ And she has the small freedoms of daily life that most of us take for granted. The freedom to eat fish rather than chicken. To wear a red sari, not a blue one. To visit one’s children. To see a movie with her lover, who works at Standard Chartered Bank.

Although abolitionists have always insisted that trafficking and prostitution are one and the same, the experiences of those in prostitution show that they are not. Sure, they are linked – but like Venn diagrams, with some areas that overlap and large areas that don’t. Yes, girls and women are tricked, forced and sold into prostitution, just as they are trafficked into domestic work, marriage, and what have you. But no, women don’t come to prostitution only via trafficking. They often come to it for the same reasons and through the same routes through which they enter any other work. Usually to earn a living.

Many prostitutes in Kolkata’s red-light districts have experienced both trafficking and prostitution. ‘My body was readied with mustard oil and cream,’ remembers Mala Singh, who was tricked into the trade as a teenager. ‘I was not given proper food to eat. It was disgusting. I would not call that sex work.’ Singh was sent back home after a police raid. But a hostile reception sent her back to the trade. She now works in Kidderpore, a red-light district on the river Ganges. ‘Sex work is what I do now, from a place of liking,’ she says.

Gouri Das is another woman who has been through both, with a marriage and son in between. Extreme poverty made her look for work in her teens, but she’s not sure she was forced, coerced or deceived – all core elements of trafficking. ‘It would be wrong to say that my neighbour pushed me into it,’ she says. ‘Although she didn’t tell me where she was taking me, I kind of knew.’ The pride she felt in bringing home wads of cash overrode everything else for her – she has built homes, invested in property, underwritten her sisters’ marriages. ‘This is also like a business,’ she tells her son. ‘Just like your father has a wholesale fruit business, this is what I do.’ She went back to sex work after separating from her husband.

Others in sex work have never encountered trafficking. Like Roma Debnath, a married woman with three children. She commutes by train into Kolkata every day, entertains three or four clients, and is back home every night. Her husband, who does not work, knows she supports him through sex work. (In the trade, she is called a ‘flying’ sex worker who goes home at night, as opposed to a brothel-based sex worker who lives and works in the brothel). Debnath can refuse to have sex with clients she does not want, but she can never refuse her husband sex. ‘It’s not possible,’ she says. She makes Rs 60-110 for a short 15-minute job, pays Rs 10 to hire a room, and keeps the rest. ‘I have to manage my children, my work, my husband, my house, all of it,’ she says, like any other working woman who does one shift at work, the other at home.

For millions of sex workers around the world, what differentiates trafficking from prostitution – or a rapist from a client – is the use of force. Abolitionists insist that all prostitution is forced, coercive and violent, and by extension, that every sexual encounter between a prostitute and her client is actually rape. Forced sex.

Women in prostitution don’t see it like that. When a client pays her rate and sticks to what’s been agreed on, it’s sex for money – or commerce. When he has forced sex with her, or forces her to do something she’s uncomfortable with, it’s rape – or coercion. But there is such an overwhelming belief that trafficking = prostitution, or all prostitution is forced, that in India at least, policemen often ask: how can a prostitute be raped?

Many things lurk below the cop’s question. One of them is the resolute belief that no-one can be in prostitution out of choice. Coercion, of course! Circumstance, maybe. But choice? Every time a woman says she chooses to be in prostitution, that word is microscopically examined. In a way that it never is when a woman says she ‘chooses’ to be in a marriage arranged by her parents, or in a violent relationship, or when a rag picker says he ‘chooses’ to pick rags for a living. It is tacitly presumed that choices can exist in every situation, no matter how coercive, but not in prostitution.

What prevents us from seeing trafficking as force and sex work as work? In some of Kolkata’s red-light districts sex workers hold monthly meetings to stop trafficking. New entrants into the trade are produced at these meetings. Those who are minors or say they were forced into the trade are sent home or to remand homes. Those who don’t meet these criteria remain.

The sex workers who form part of these self-regulatory boards (along with outsiders) have sent back more than 100 women and girls to their homes. If they can distinguish between trafficking and sex work, why can’t we?

Bishakha Datta is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in Mumbai. She is currently researching a book on the struggles of sex workers’ rights in India.

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