12 May 2014
What an irony: the practitioners of the world’s oldest profession are still bound to justify that theirs is indeed… a profession. “Sex work is work,” an assertion in the face of the popular stigma surrounding prostitution, has nonetheless become an international slogan to unify sex workers from around the globe. National and trans-national organisations are now able to bring forth the cause of millions of workers. But few would rejoice when assessing today’s scene. This week, LILA Inter-actions starts a new series focusing on the areas where sexuality and economy intersect: Sex and the Market. Its first debate attempts a studied look at sex work and its regulations. Nalini Jameela, author of The Autobiography of a Sex Worker, defends prostitution as an occupation of dignity, in times marked by the lack of a deeper understanding from the public and the state. Luca Stevenson, from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, calls for the consultation of sex workers in policy-making, and underlines how legalisation is not the final step to answering these challenges.
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Clients are Human Beings!
Gathering the Forces
I believe that, fundamentally, there is no great difference between sex work and other kinds of manual labour requiring physical exertion. A labourer who carries sand or chanakam (cow dung) would often feel physical irritation and fatigue. A sex worker would also go through situations where she might face such bodily discomfort and exhaustion, which would have their psychological effects, too. The other side of this experience is that the satisfaction that a person gets from viewing the fruits of the physical exertion is also accessible to sex workers when they get a really good client. Then the client and lover merge and blur, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other.
All kinds of labour should be discussed in the context of exploitation. Once, after a conference, I was driven back from the venue by another participant. He told me that he too had gone to a sex worker once. “I paid her after the sex, when she was leaving. She took money from me and then bowed down and touched my feet. I was surprised. Do you know why she did so?” I replied that it might be because he was the first person to pay her in full after the sex. Labourers being cheated from their wage or being under-paid are common in India.
Nothing is inherently impossible for a sex worker. A sex worker might live many lives as a professional, besides being a labourer. Sex workers can be seen as counsellors who listen to other people’s woes, and give them expert advices. In many other countries, there are instances where sex work also occupies the place of an art form. In India, however, such leisure and creativity are often denied a street sex worker. But indeed, I think that being sex workers has also given many women a confidence, a more nuanced knowledge of the human body and psyche, as well as an awareness of the care that every human being requires. This makes them adaptable to other job spheres as well. I have three friends who, after a period of sex work, have entered other jobs, like taking care of women after delivery, working during the early morning hours in a rice go-down or as street cleaners. Just take the example of how magnificently sex workers have interfered in the AIDS prevention work all over the world. There are also a lot of sex workers who are writers, or active in theatre, or who have acted in movies, etc.
The problem then, is that society reduces a sex worker’s occupation to the act of sex, as a person from whom sex may be appropriated by force. It views sex workers as sexual props. A sex worker is not seen as a moving and thinking human being for whom many possibilities exist. Even if a sex worker enters other work areas, the tag of sex work, with its attended stigma, will follow her. She will be seen as a “sex worker who is also a writer”, “a sex worker who is also an actor”.
How does one become a sex worker? Both the choice and circumstances that make one a sex worker could be very complex, even complicated, and require nuanced understanding. Of course, circumstances play a major role in women becoming sex workers. Women who enter sex work may have limited options at work. I was a construction labourer before becoming a sex worker. When my neighbour, Rosie, told me of sex work, I decided to try this job, as it seemed more attractive to me. It paid more, gave more flexible job timings, and I would have no bosses to control me. There is no other job that I could quickly go to at any time of the day, and even at night, and come back with money in my hand. So yes, I was exerting a choice, from within my circumstances.
It seems there is a certain norm of extraction that is applied while dealing with women in sex work; the reason why I did not take up other work options is that the same logic is often extended to women engaged in other work as well, especially if she has a prior known history of being a sex worker. Many young girls who get trapped in ‘sex trafficking’ face this extraction. The people who associate with them do not want to enhance their options, or their rights to bargain with their clients. I align myself with the larger female community in our country, and I am moving a case for freedom of choice for all our women. I do not consider other options of jobs, for, I want to exercise my freedom as a woman, as a sex worker who might have had other options, but have chosen to be a sex worker. I want to be seen as someone who explores multiple options at the same time, refusing to succumb to the said norm of extraction.
The government should consider our profession as proper work. Sex work is a self-employment option available to women, and hence, it should be deemed as such. I propose that sex work is decriminalised. Though the Indian legal system does not consider sex work per se as a criminal activity, sex workers are persecuted by the police and the legal system. In Kerala, the police assume that their work is moral policing rather than the upkeep of law and order, and hence they self-righteously crack down on the sex workers. Even if the police commit murders, they are never brought to light. It is like a lipiyillatha basha, a language without script, with rules that are undefined. If sex work were decriminalised, the legal and public persecution of sex workers would be reduced. It would also reduce incidents of sexual harassment, for instance within Kerala’s society. This would mean that public morality, condemning consensual sexual activity between adults outside marriage, could not be used by the police, and by the public, to haunt women. I demand that the government should undertake a comprehensive survey of the condition of sex workers in India. In a process of dialogue with the sex workers and their organisations, it should consider the different options available.
Since I am a board member of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), I would like to speak of places other than Kerala, too. NNSW was formed with the initiative of sex workers’ organisations in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. NNSW takes the ideological stand of decriminalisation. When NNSW was formed, we had decided to start open agitations with all the strategies within our means to achieve the required changes in the governmental attitudes and in the legal system. All-India NNSW (AINNSW) is formed mainly under the initiative of DMSC, the sex workers organisation from Kolkatta. But the involvement in agitations, for the acceptance of sex work as work and for the decriminalisation of our profession, also means that the organisations that stand for these demands would not get any support, including financial aids. AINNSW, though agreeing to the ideological position of accepting sex work as work, has decided to withdraw from overt agitations, as this would lead to lesser funding.
It is essential to arrive at a consensus about the ideology, as well as the methodology, as far as the organisations are concerned, to sculpt a responsible future for people in this field of work. But the greater need of the hour is to make all sections of the society and our democratic institutions aware of what it means to live and let live.
Translated by Reshma Bharadwaj.
Sex work is work. It is not only manual labour: it is also emotional labour. Sex workers make a living through sex work, paying their rent, children’s education or other needs. In Europe, we are often required to pay taxes on sex work, though we are not offered the protections other workers enjoy, such as sick pay or pensions. This leaves many sex workers very vulnerable as they grow older or when they fall ill.
Sex work is work, but I do not agree with the expression: “sex work is just like any other work”. In fact, I do not believe that there is one definition of “work”. Those who approach sex work from a theoretical point of view often assume that work by definition fulfils or gives life a meaning. This is a very middle-class approach to work, from people who had many career options and decided to pursue the one that seemed to fit their needs and desires the most. For many people, work is an occupation that they had little choice over and that allows them to pay for food and rent. Sex work is maybe the only work that was available to them. This does not mean there was coercion, but rather a lack of choice. Some people campaign for the abolition of prostitution, and they conflate a lack of choice or poverty with coercion, but they do not explain how removing such choice from sex workers will make them freer!
Sex workers, in many contexts, have limited options in terms of employments. Trans* women, for example, face extremely high level of stigma and discrimination in many countries, and sex work can be one amongst only a few options. Undocumented migrants, who cannot obtain a contract with an employer due to their status, can also resort to sex work. But, indeed, the vast majority of sex workers are in this line of work because of financial needs, like every other worker. High levels of unemployment in Europe lead many people to look for alternative sources of income outside the traditional job market. Many sex workers do sex work to complement another income. Sex workers can be nurses, teachers, street-cleaners, etc.
Sex work can take many forms: from street-based sex work to indoors work (in flats, brothels, hotels…), from cam shows and phone sex to porn movies, from domination (which does not always include genital sex) to erotic massage… Some would also include stripping or lap dancing in sex work. Look at massage, for example: there is not much difference from a regular massage, apart from the fact that the last 10 minutes are focused on erotic stimulation. But apparently those 10 minutes make all the difference between a recognised form of employment and a stigmatised occupation, which some want to abolish. The frontier of sex work is often thin.
Europe has very diverse regulations of sex work. Many countries criminalise some aspects of sex work, such as soliciting, while others have legalised the sex industry. A few countries, finally, have criminalised the workers and/or the clients. The Swedish system, criminalising the clients, is being heavily promoted as a “caring way” to “abolish prostitution”. The reality is that there is no evidence that either sex work or trafficking has decreased. However, the stigma against sex work has increased. In UK or France, where this system is being considered, it is very clear that this law would be one more step in a punitive approach to sex work, as sex workers would still be criminalised for street-working or working together indoors.
The criminalisation of sex work (aimed either at sex workers, clients or third-parties, like brothel owners) limits our self-organisation as workers. Criminalisation means very bad working conditions and more violence and stigma. Those who advocate criminalisation of our work use the fact that our work is dangerous to further push punitive policies. It is a vicious circle. Due to the stigma attached to the exchange of sex for money, the recognition of sex work as work is not easily attained. The situation is similar for domestic workers who have only recently been recognised as workers by the International Labour Organisation. This will allow them to join trade unions and be supported by them, to enjoy minimum wages, days off and other benefits that all workers should be entitled to. Due to the criminalised status of sex work, many sex workers find it difficult to move from sex work to another job. For example, a sex worker can have a criminal record for soliciting, or for brothel keeping. It will then be very difficult for this sex worker to be hired by another employer.
Those who advocate abolition refuse to admit that those very campaigns increase the stigma on sex workers. By saying, “we want to abolish prostitution”, they actually say “prostitutes should not exist. They do not deserve rights and should not be considered full members of our societies”. This is a call for violence. It is perceived this way by those who already believe prostitutes are an easy target for abuse, rape or murder.
A usual argument given by abolitionists in Europe is that the recognition of sex work as work would imply that a person on unemployment benefits could lose them if they refused a job in a parlour or a strip-club. This is not true! There has never been such a case. Other countries show a way. Take for example the case of New Zealand, where a sex worker can obtain unemployment benefits directly after quitting her job. It is not the case for other types of work.
One important reason to fight for decriminalisation is that in many countries, the police force is one of the main sources of violence against sex workers. There are many reports from sex workers showing that the police harass them, steal from them, blackmail or threaten them, and often rape them. Furthermore, the police can partner with organised crime exploiting sex workers. The occupation of the church of St-Nizier in Lyon, France in 1975 was a response to the corruption of the police, which protected criminal gangs exploiting sex workers, and was even directly involved in pimping and procuring. Crimes against sex workers are still largely ignored by the police and when the police officer is the criminal, his impunity is almost guaranteed. By removing sex work from the criminal system, this will allow sex workers to be protected by the police instead of being fearful or hiding from it.
Legalised systems also have lots to do to improve. Special regulation of sex work often means that only very small areas tolerate street work or that sex workers have to go through mandatory testing (HIV and STIs). Sex workers, globally, are calling for decriminalisation, which is different from legalisation. New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003 and we know from sex workers there that their situation has improved, with an ability to report violence to the police, for example, or the possibility to bring an employer to a labour tribunal for harassment. One of the positive effects of decriminalisation is that two or three sex workers can work together from their home, without a licence in “Small Owner-Operated Brothels” (SOOBs).
A first step for European states would be to consult with sex workers and their organisations. Consulting means actively seeking out the views of current sex workers on how to decrease stigma and violence, and to offer them the protection they deserve. Laws and policies that affect sex workers should be written in active consultation with sex workers. In countries where sex work is legal, there are still many areas that can be improved, and only sex workers know how to make their working conditions better.
Nalini Jameela is an author, activist and sex worker based in Kerala, India. Her provocative memoir titled The Autobiography of a Sex Worker (initially published in Malayalam in 2005) is regarded as one of the most compelling works on sex work. The book is widely read and has gone into several editions. Nalini has contributed an essay titled “Thrissur Round and Around the Town” in Cities of Kerala, actually small towns (2007) edited by Baiju Natarajan. She is a board member of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW).
Luca Stevenson is a male sex worker based in the UK, and the current coordinator of International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE). He has been working in the sex industry for a decade. He is the co-founder of Sex Worker Open University-UK, as well as a board member of Strass (French Union of Sex Workers) and he has been involved in the GMB Adult and Entertainment branch, the X-talk project in London and Scot-Pep in Scotland. He is one of the directors of the documentary The Honey Bringer: Stories from the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, a sex worker gathering that took place in Kolkata in 2012.
Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
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