'BlissfulRevolution, Entertainment in Revolution' screamed a huge banner at Kolkata's Rabindra Kanan where the first-ever All India Conference of Entertainment Workers (EWC) was held from February 25 to March 3. Organized by the Durbar Mahila Samanyay Committee (DMSC), Asia's largest sex workers collective, the conference addressed the issue of redefining sex work as entertainment work.
DMSC's journey over the last decade began with the slogan "Sex work is work, we demand worker's rights" and has now transitioned to redefining sex work as entertainment work. Are DMSC's strategies for claiming sex worker's rights undergoing change in this process?
A pamphlet brought out by DMSC reads: "We firmly believe that [...] [we, sex workers] provide entertainment to our customers. We provide sexual pleasure. Everyone has the right to seek pleasure and happiness. Like [...] other entertainment workers of the world we use our brain, ideas, emotion and sex organs, in short, our entire body and our mind to make people happy. As entertainment workers, we seek governmental recognition and, fulfillment of our just professional demands..."
With this articulation, DMSC has expanded the debate on sex work in India beyond the realm of 'right to work' and 'right to form trade unions', to include the 'right to pleasure'. This claim deems the 'right to pleasure' to be intrinsic to sex work, as the buyer of sexual services comes to a sex worker to seek pleasure; and the sex worker entertains the customer not only through sexual acts, but also through dance, music, modeling, etc.
The demand - right to be called entertainment workers - offers a four-fold potential. First, it expands the solidarity base of the sex workers' movement by allying with other performers and artistes; second, it challenges the negativity surrounding sex and sex workers; third, it counters the essentialised understanding of women as victims of sexual danger and brings forth a positive notion of female sexuality; and fourth, it makes political the notion of 'pleasure' by bringing it out into the public domain from the confines of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
In a Marxist Feminist sense, when sex work is redefined as entertainment work, it takes on the responsibility of being a contributor to the production of capital. "After a hard day's work, when a person comes to a sex worker, he relaxes, reduces his stress and gets enjoyment from having sex. He is rejuvenated, and that adds to his productive abilities at work," points out Bharati Dey, Director, DMSC, and
a sex worker.
A question repeatedly posed to sex workers is how legitimate the articulation of 'right to pleasure' is when a majority of the women are forced into it because of extreme poverty. Says Chaitali Pal, daughter of a sex worker who runs a sex workers' children's organization, under the aegis of DMSC, "It is untrue that sex workers are always forced into the profession. And even if one accepts the fact that they are, it is not any different from when a person is unable to get into the profession of his or her choice due to lack of money or family pressures. If I want to become a doctor or engineer, but don't have the money, or I am not allowed by my family and I have to settle for being a clerk, will people say I was forced and talk about rescuing and rehabilitating me?"
According to filmmaker Bishaka Datta, who has made a documentary on sex workers, the lives of women in prostitution are like the lives of any other: "A woman can choose to become a prostitute and still face coercion from a client, or she can be forced into it, yet assert herself by refusing a client." She adds, "Choice and force are not mutually exclusive; both are situations a sex worker can encounter and has to negotiate, like any other woman." And this 'choice' needs to be recognized and respected.
But this does not give the State an excuse to absolve itself from combating sex trafficking, especially in minors, and creating enabling conditions for access to healthcare and other social justice measures. Also, there is a need to treat violence in the profession as a crime, instead of criminalizing the profession itself. But given the protectionist tendencies of the State, it is very likely to trade the 'right to pleasure' claim with the 'right to protection from violence', citing that if a sex worker claims to derive pleasure out of work, how can she ask the State for protection of her rights?
Another question that arises is whether sex workers who are not part of DMSC see themselves as entertainment workers. "If they say they are not entertainment workers, what is the work that sex workers do? It is important to name the kind and nature of work one does to demand rights from the State," says Dr Smarajit Jana, Chief Advisor, DMSC.
While one may agree with this point of view, it is necessary to be cautious of the slippery slope that the 'entertainment worker' identity entails. Where does DMSC wish to locate itself within the vast universe of entertainment workers in India? How forthcoming will the other constituencies of entertainment workers be to ally with DMSC? A case in point is the bar dancers of Mumbai who, when protesting against the ban on dance bars, carried placards saying 'We are not sex workers', in an attempt to gain legitimacy for their work.
There are other skepticisms as well. Like, whether DMSC's new agenda will cause it to detour from the path followed by the movement so far - to repeal the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 - and create fissures within the National Network of Sex Workers. How will DMSC frame its demands to engage the State to respond with policy changes? Have these demands have emerged from the sex workers' movement, or are they only a process of intellectualization within DMSC?
However, despite all these speculations, one cannot deny the potential of DMSC's strategy to bring the debate around sex work back into the realm of 'popular' politics.
(The authors are human rights lawyers)