Sex Work: Let Us Not Make It Work

prostitution photo
Photo by Blemished Paradise cc

“We say who, we say when, we say how much…” These are the words of Kit a minor character explaining to Vivienne( played by Julia Roberts) in the movie Pretty Woman about the nuances of their trade. Both of them are prostitutes. The dialogue sounds terrific, very empowering and…absolutely unrealistic. But movies are havens of escapist comfort and as we snuggled into our comfortable sofas we tossed out reality…( )

Closer home the gritty reminder of this world came through Chandni Bar, Talash, Chameli, Mausam and other such movies where the viewer was left in no doubt that the women involved in this trade never call the shots. Kit’s dialogue sounded like fanciful words…

As the culture of cover-up seems to be finally lifting with women across the world blowing a whistle against predatory men and as the‘ethics in the work place’ debates dominate intellectual and physical space, it is time to view the state of women operating in the flesh trade which is marked by sexual abuse and exploitation of the worst kinds

The new go to terminology for those in prostitution is ‘ sex work’, the emphasis being on the word ‘work’ which accords a certain kind of legitimacy associated with the trade. The shift did not occur in a day and arguments, counter arguments and innumerable initiatives by organisations such as Global Network of Sex Work Projects have led to this change in vernacular. (

Well, it seems quite laudatory for it does prostitution ( irrespective of its socio- cultural relevance ) within the labour framework. It’s also less likely to assault our sensibilities because of the neutrality associated with it. So for the patriarchally sensitive and pretentious society, the term does have a political correctness about it. Therefore, at least in theory ,we accept that prostitution is ‘work’, which involves a payment for a commodity exchanged. Here sexual acts are traded in lieu of a payment.

However a deeper analysis shows us that such shifts in semantics  mean nothing for essentially it overlooks the innate violence, force and coercion this segment stands for. The nomenclature ‘sex work’ cannot account for what takes place in brothels, porn clubs and strip bars. The word isn’t an appropriate shorthand for the sense of vulnerability it breeds in the workers who are subject to exploitation of the worst kind without any mechanism for redressal. Also it is  very politically convenient to shift the focus to the seller and gloss over the demand side which is made up mostly of men. The term Sex work tries to accord some dignity to this set of workers without responding to the  underpinnings of violence, essentially sexual abuse and exploitation of women caught in this twilight zone.

For some time there has been a clamour of voices that have batted for the legitimisation of the world’s oldest profession. It has been argued that this can  improve significantly their rights of negotiation and help them access health care, institutional credit and other social services that they are denied right now. Most importantly there will be social acceptance for women caught in this trade which has important ramifications not only for them but also for their children. Therefore legitimising the industry could have an important socio economic impact argue many social scientists.Moreover, economists as Milton Friedman have emphasised that if there were willing buyers and willing sellers, then the state need not get itself unnecessarily involved. The Economist ran an article titled ‘A Personal Choice’where the author argued that prostitution was moving online and governments must not try to deter it. “Governments should leave consenting adults who wish to buy and sell sex to do so safely and privately online.”(

In effect it whittles it down to men and women who wish to enjoy physical intimacy in a consensual and equal rights framework.

The reality is very different and the sex industry is born out of the womb of patriarchy and works against women within it. For a modern society that has agreed in principle that women are not inferior and that rape is a criminal offence, dealing with the reality of men paying to gain sexual access to women does enter an uncomfortable zone. Such changes in semantics effectively mask the very reason for the existence of the sex industry, i.e it offers a chance for men to pay and gain sexual access to women who are otherwise unwilling, non consenting partners. That is what makes this space sexist, violent and exploitative. Also it hides the very commodification of women where bodies can be rented out very much like furniture or apparel.

Truth be told, it isn’t really about the commodification of women. It is about commodification of consent. The sex industry principally operates on the theoretical idea that the buyer is actually ‘buying consent’ and thereafter in exchange of a handful of rupees is buying access to her body. The very idea must be challenged for it is revolting to the core.

So assuming that consent has been bought, can it be withdrawn? Can the women withdraw consent if at any point she feels humiliated by the acts she is made to perform? In the movie Pretty Woman Julia Robert’s character says  that becoming a call girl wasn’t her childhood dream…That encapsulates the coercive nature of this trade. No one consents to being touched by strangers, forced into an inferior, vulnerable position, unable to either tolerate or speak up against the abuse simply because one has consented and will get some cash in return.

And even when we speak of  payment, who decides this and what exactly are the parameters governing such monetary exchanges? It is a complex mechanism which operates this trade and where youth, virginity, helplessness and vulnerability happily converge to create a supply chain.Words like sex work and consent and free market of willing buyers and sellers does not take into account the trauma, exhaustion, degradation, vulnerability, not to speak of exploitation that a woman in this area undergoes.

Feminist Economics for some time has been trying to change the definitions of work for sometime. Conventional economic definitions of work make domestic workers invisible and those who are invisible naturally cannot have any agenda or issue and are best left unattended to. However women in the flesh trade do not belong to this area of invisibility although puritanical society would like to have it so. This is a toxic trade where the participants face exploitation and marginalisation of the worst kind. Changes in semantics are cosmetic efforts and don’t address the evils associated with the trade and as a civilised society rooting for humanism, accepting the existence of women forced to sell their consent and share their bodies for some pennies gives us much food for thought. It’s a # Me Too call against society.

Saonli Hazra is an educator and free lance writer.




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