In the sacred Hindu text of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to continue performing his duties without worrying about the result of his actions. On this note, my friend narrated a story of two women who lived across a street, one a commercial sex worker (CSW) of 'ill' character and the other a 'pious' devout worshipper. The CSW, as the profession dictates, was visited by numerous men every day. The devout lady on the other hand, kept count of the number of men visiting the sex worker each day. It so happened that they died on the same day. At the door to Heaven, the sex worker got to enter first, on which the devout lady retaliated and asked God why such injustice had been done to her, considering the fact that she had been the 'moral' one throughout. To this, God replied by saying that while the CSW had fulfilled her duties religiously without any distractions, she had allowed her mind to waver, which nullified the sanctity of her prayers. That's the same truth with a pinch of salt!
Reading between the lines above, Lord Krishna's theory of 'Karma', as it is referred to in modern day jargon, dignified actions not by consequence, but by performance.
Among the many avenues of employment that engage people, prostitution is another such avenue and the people employed in the profession are entitled to an equally respectable place in society.
Prostitution, as the profession entails, is the act of providing sexual services to another person, in return for payment. It occurs through brothels, or escort services at the customer's residence or the escort's residence, or in a hotel room rented for the occasion by the escort. Street prostitution is another kind of practice that has emerged on the circuit in which sex workers roam the streets to provide services to meet short-term financial needs.
Since, in all of the above cases, there is a voluntary agreement between the parties concerned, there is no question of violation of rights. Sex workers are normal people who deserve to be respected as fellow human beings, rather than being looked down upon as being 'immoral'. In fact, studies done in the United States have pointed out that in larger cities 20 to 30 per cent of the sex workers are male, referred to as gigolos at some places.
Keeping this fact aside for the time being, as far as the issue of morality goes, sexual needs of the human body are a perfectly natural phenomenon. The human desire for physical intimacy is an omnipresent force not only in males, but also females. Thus, just because the promiscuity of men has not been legally challenged due to its acceptance as an all-pervasive phenomenon since times adage, the society has no right to point a finger at a woman who wants to indulge in the same biological act of nature. Besides, the fact that most of them take up the profession due to poverty, debt, illiteracy, family background, lack of sex education, social customs, coercion by family, police or pimps needs to be taken into consideration before out casting them. In India, nearly 80 per cent of the sex workers are in the profession mainly due to poverty, tricked by someone close to them, or trafficking.

Flesh trade is not a very appealing choice of profession for most people. Thus, societal exclusion and criminalization of the profession is not an answer to a problem that invades the global economy to the extent of raising estimated annual revenue exceeding over US $100 billion.
Anti-prostitution laws do nothing but drive the sector underground, making the profession even more dangerous for the people involved in it. Besides, they violate the Equal Protection Clause, which only prosecutes the service providers without remotely penalizing the users of the service. According to studies conducted in the US, sex workers account for 90 per cent of the arrests, while their clients only ten per cent. This ratio is skewed against sex workers as more often than not the clients are able to negotiate their way out with the police. The sex workers, being the vulnerable lot, are unable to defend themselves and are even subjected to physical and sexual assault by the authorities. Further, these laws have a greater bearing on the street sex workers, who are already at a greater risk of physical violence and drug abuse. Studies in the US show that only 20 per cent of the sex workers are involved in street prostitution. However, when it comes to arrest cases, they dominate 85-90 per cent of the times. One study found that street sex workers were three times more likely than other sex workers to experience an assault and 11 times more likely to have been raped (Stephanie Church et al., British Medical Journal, March 2001). The homicide rate of female sex workers was estimated to be 204 per 100,000, which is the highest risk of occupational mortality for women in any sphere of life.
Laws that criminalize prostitution only contribute to further victimization of sex workers. Studies have found that 80 per cent of the sex workers have been sexually assaulted, some even raped more than 8-10 times a year. Only seven per cent seek help and an even tinier fraction of about four per cent actually report it to the police. The illegalization of the profession is to be blamed for such low reporting. The sex workers obviously do not report any case of violence due to fear of being prosecuted for their professional engagement. They are de-humanized by the society at large, such that any crime committed against them is not considered a crime at all. This is a violation of their basic human right to dignity of life.
Thus, the respect denied to sex workers needs to be restored at the earliest and the profession needs to be dignified in the eyes of the public.
In 1999, Sweden became the first country in the world to decriminalize prostitution and instead penalize the user of the service. Norway and Iceland followed suite in 2009. In Netherlands, on the other hand, prostitution was legalized in October 2000; however the sex workers were required to be over 18 years of age and the clients over 16 years. Registration of sex workers was mandatory and operation of brothels and pimping was also legal, although subject to zoning and licensing requirements. In India too, prostitution is legal, though related activities like soliciting sex in a public place, keeping a brothel, and pimping are illegal. This essentially amounts to double standards, as even though prostitution by itself is legal, any route to engage in it is illegal. This may be one of the reasons why even though the Ministry of Women and Child Development reported the presence of 2.8 million sex workers in India in 2007, but Human Rights Watch reported the figure to be around 20 million.
This points towards the fact that the duplicity in the legal framework with respect to the prostitution sector only drives it underground and fuels the menace surrounding it. In fact, due to its illegal nature, the children of sex workers are also much more likely to end up in the same profession, as pimps and brothel owners deny them access to education. Fear of being caught also prevents them from enrolling their children in schools. Thus, the vicious circle of illiteracy and lack of resources, which made them take up the profession in the first place, continues to handcuff them, without any hope for unleashing themselves or their future generations. This brings to the forefront the outcry of the sex workers for a respectable life, not only for themselves, but even more so for their children. It calls for desperate measures to cleanse the profession of the stains been inflicted upon it by years of societal disgrace and abuse.
Legalizing abortion is the first step towards unleashing sex workers from the shackles of violence and abuse. Persons over the age of 18 years should be free to indulge in the act on a mutual consensus basis. However, at the same time, registration of sex workers can be necessitated to regulate the sector and sex workers can be required to carry a license, which can also be used to avail of special benefits on the part of the government. The above reforms lead to an actual decrease in trafficking in Netherlands, as was reported by the Dutch Police. This is especially so, as sex tourism, which refers to travel generally from developed to under-developed countries to engage in sexual activity with sex workers, is on a rampant increase globally. The underlying reason behind sex tourism is the illegalization of the sector in most countries. If the sector is opened up, the sector can be monitored more closely and such tourism can be discouraged.
Hence, the amelioration of the sector demands its legalization and opening. Not only will legalization help to pull it out of its pit of social disgrace, but it will also help resolve the various offshoots born out of it. Sex workers have been repeatedly blamed for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Out of the 200,000 or more commercial sex workers in Mumbai, 50 per cent are inflicted with HIV. Lack of information and failure to use protection are the prime causes behind the spread of AIDS in the region. However, even in the above case, prostitution by itself is not to be blamed for the spread of AIDS, as it is the illegal nature of the sector that makes it almost impossible to spread awareness about the use of protective devices, and even if that happens, accessibility still remains a hurdle to be crossed. This has been proved by studies done in the US, which found that only 3-5 per cent of the STDs are prostitution-related, when compared to 30-35 per cent, which are teen related. Thus, sex education forms a really important area of government intervention.
Legalizing prostitution will make it easier for the sex workers to come to the forefront and access not only information, but also the devices of use. This can have a huge contribution in stalling the spread of STDs. An instance of the success of sex education was witnessed in Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata. An education programme was conducted in 1992, which targeted about 5,000 female sex workers, out of whom only 27 per cent reported the use of condoms. By 1995, the programme had managed to increase this proportion to 82 per cent. Thus, prevention programs and awareness workshops can go a long way in ridding the profession of its false malign image. Health checks should be made mandatory as part of government policy, and leaflets and information must be provided to them regarding sexual health clinics.
Further, legalizing prostitution will also make it easier for sex workers to enroll their children in schools and maybe even reap the benefits of education themselves. The professional life of sex workers doesn't last beyond ten years, on an average. Thus, there is the dire need to provide them vocational training and education, so that they can support themselves and their children This can go a long way in ensuring that their next generation can break free of the confines of the profession and choose to take it up by informed choice if they want to, but definitely not necessity or coercion. The government can provide assistance by providing an education cover for the children of sex workers.
Finally, though prostitution should be legalized, street prostitution can be done away with, due to its nature of fostering a drug culture, which impairs judgment, entangling sex workers in the web of drug abuse and physical violence; one feeding upon the other and deepening the web of abuse. The police can be mandated to carry out regular inspections to check on the operations. In addition to this, prostitution centers can be equipped with safety devices like panic buttons and surveillance devices to ensure smooth functioning, so that violent customers can be taken to task immediately.
Prostitution is amongst the oldest professions of all time and it cannot be uprooted by any flimsy law that outlaws the practice. Much as it may seem ironic, but the only hope of defeating it lies in legalizing it.
Prostitution provides a source of livelihood to millions across the world. The only way of bringing about any change in the system is by providing alternate avenues of employment, which can only happen if sex workers have the freedom to come out in the open to avail those options. Till the time they live a pseudo life, dreading society every living moment, they or their coming generations will not see the light of the day. A solution can only be found if the problem is brought to the forefront. Respect from society can be the first step in restoring their sense of worth and confidence in the fact that they too were born for something more. As Julia Roberts aka Vivian says in the movie Pretty Woman, "It's not like anybody plans this; it's not your childhood dream." Let's not make it their children's.

Data for Prostitution Market Activity. Accessed on 10 January 2011
Express News Service. 8 March 2007. Around 2.8 mn Prostitutes in India. Accessed on 10 January 2011  Kuro5hin. 23 December 2002. Prostitution should be legal: the statistics prove it. Accessed on 12 January 2011 
Should prostitution be legalised in India? Accessed on 12 January 2011
Wikipedia. Prostitution. Accessed on 13 January 2011
Weitzer, Ronald. April 2006. Moral Crusade Against Prostitution. Accessed on 9 January 2011 
WHO. 2001. HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific Region. Accessed on 12 January 2011 

Courtesy: Centre for Public Policy Research 


More by :  Sukanya Garg

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Comment Please read the following:
The same is posted for the benefit of your readers:

Legalization of Prostitution in India

A decision whether or not to legalize organized prostitution in India can be arrived at in one or a combination of the following four ways.

One- Majority Decision. Seek majority opinion of the people. Through referendum involving the entire population. Taking the opinion of the people’s representatives is an option. However, this issue not having been discussed at the time of elections, the opinion of the current representatives may not be fully representative of that of the people.

Two- Based on anticipated advantage. Analyze empirical data from societies across the world where prostitution is legalized to find out whether such a step provided benefit for society, government and to the prostitutes.

Three- Based on ethics. Answering the question- “Is this the correct move ?”
This question demands application of mind and serious thinking unlike in the case of parsing of data or punching of personal preference in voting machine.

Four- Based on the fundamental purpose of life. Does it help achieve it.
The fundamental purpose of life needs to be clear in this case. That is for the society to arrive at, collectively.

The first option is the most easy. The advantage is that it absolves everybody from responsibility for the decision, including the people themselves.

The second option needs to also analyze the applicability in India of systems prevalent in those societies from where the data is sourced, considering the differences between the two societies, particularly the size of the nation and demographics, in addition to diversity in culture and extant belief systems. Forceful implementation of policies that may be incompatible with societal characteristics, as sometimes done in communist and other such autocratic states, is neither endearing nor enduring.

The third option demands the society to be more responsible, more accountable towards all its constituents. It demands an outlook going beyond narrow identification with individual self and understanding the interrelationship between all constituents of the society including Nature in which it functions. It also calls for comprehending the effect of current decisons on the shaping of society and subsequent generations.

The fourth option requires the society to be evolved, to understand itself comprehensively, which would give it sense of direction regarding its purpose in relation to that of the entire creation. bharatiya samaj was knowledgeable in this aspect at one time.

Legalization means accepting prostitution as a legally supported profession. The following issues need to be considered while taking the decision.


First is the question whether prostitution can be considered a profession at all, in the sense that a profession provides an avenue for livelihood while also developing the personality of the person, giving him/her a sense of responsibility, direction and control over life, self-esteem and dignity.

There is a viewpoint that prostitution is like any service industry where customers pay to get satisfaction.
That maybe so in few cases of call girls known as escorts.
However, a large number of prostitutes are brought into the field through abduction, coercion, trafficking and/or due to poverty and unemployment. While many adjust to that way of life under duress, many others may wish for a different way of life.
Majority of these prostitutes get their visitors from among daily wagers, labourers, drivers and other lowly paid professions. In may of the cases what these visitors seek is sexual release, at the end of a hard day wherein they worked like automations, rather than any demonstration of ‘professional’ skills by the prostitute.

Even in the case of more affluent customers, often the driving need is sexual satiation and what they seek is an object, one that titilates senses.

This ‘objectification’ is central to prostitution.
It dehumanises, and thus prevents prostitution from making the grade as a profession.

Involved Decision

The second point is a question- are the people who recommend legalization doing so from a detached standpoint, like they are in an insulated sterile environment from where they observe and decide upon the fate of the prostitutes and their visitors ?

Do those who advocate legalization include wives, who are not averse to having their husbands avail of the services of a ‘legalized’ prostitute when she is not able to perform due to pregnancy or illness or old age ?
Do the husbands among them approve if their wives enjoy the services of a legalized gigolo on occasions when he is too tired to perform ?
Are these people comfortable with one or both of their parents visiting ‘legal’ prostitutes ?
Will they allow their sons and daughters to avail of such ‘legalized’ services once in a while to satiate libido? What if their sons-in-law and daughters-in-law want to avail of such services ? What about their grandchildren ?
What if some of their close relation want to enter into the ‘legalized profession’ for lucrative reasons, will they be happy with it ? Is that the kind of society that they would like to live in ?

Theoretically some may answer affirmative to the above. But when reality strikes, it is likely to be quite unpalatable, even revolting, for most.


The third point is about equating the prevalence of unlawful prostitution with bootlegging and gold smuggling that occured when liquor was prohibited and import of gold restricted in the past and the subsequent expoitation of the situation by organized gangs.

This equating is flawed because unlike liquor and gold, it is human beings that are involved in prostitution. Point being that, while liquor is distilled from materials and gold is dug from the ground, prostitutes are sourced from a broken family or by breaking a family.
While a prostitute may financially support some of her parents and siblings, she will be denied a family of her own because very few people are willing to have their spouses working as prostitutes.
Moreover, if the case is that a woman has to prostitute herself to support her family, it shows a failure on part of the society and the government for not providing avenue for employment. Legalizing prostitution does not provide escape route for society and government from that responsibility.


The fourth point is that the prostitute often has to perform acts that she is not comfortable with, for the sake of continued employment. So s/he conditions herself into acting in ways that violate her sense of self and erodes self-esteem on a regular basis. Approving prostitution means that a portion of society is condemned to live with deficient self-esteem perennially. This is not comparable to job-dissatisfaction experienced in other fields, it touches the core of the person.

Employment in certain jobs such as toilet cleaning, cannot be compared with prostitution because there are enough tools available that removes the need of personal contact.
Besides, the premise of the comparison itself is flawed because, in personal life every person cleans him/herself on daily basis to ensure hygiene, but does not clean another person unless that person is an invalid or a child. In which case again there are ways in which direct personal contact is avoided where necessary. Moreover, such acts are invariably reciprocated to the doer in times of need.

Equivalent to prostitution would be the daily cleaning by one person, of many others, who are quite capable of taking care of themselves, through direct personal contact often going beyond mere cleaning, without any reciprocation by those others.

The comparison is further flawed because sewage removal is an invaluable service that benefits the entire society whereas prostitution caters to indulge the personal whims of a selfish-minded few invariably at a cost to their own families and that of the prostitute.


The fifth point is that, despite organized prostitution being illegal currently, brothels run, trafficking goes on, exploitation occurs and child-prostitution thrives.
Legalizing of prostitution will form more avenues for bringing in under-age teens into prostitution by way of forging age-proof certificates.

Setting Precedent

The sixth point is that inability to curb harmful behaviour is not acceptable justification to propose for legalization of the behaviour. When government or law enforcement agencies give such excuse, they declare their incompetence, which has potential to set detrimental precedent. It also reveals irresponsibility towards duty. Further, such attempt to legalize the illegal portent willingness to prostitute legal conscience.

On a similar note, the deterioration of human values, apart from the obvious adverse effect on health, associated with liquor consumption and use of tobacco is well known. Sustained use of both affects the human being, his family, the society as well as future generations.
However, because its effect is more subtle and over a longer period than drug addiction, the government that approves its sale escapes accountabilty. The ostensible reason for the approval given is the apparent inability of law enforcement agencies to curb sale of spurious liquor which leads to deaths of consumers. However actual reasons may also include the profit margins that liquor barons enjoy, which they may willingly share with interested helpful persons in power, apart from the accrual to treasury through taxes. These liquor barons may also arrange for certain deaths through spurious liquor to provide timely helpful reasons to initiate removal of prohibition.

Societal Responsibility

The excuse of incompetence in law enforcement throws up questions regarding other ills in society such as child labour, which is prevalent despite being illegal. According to statistics released by the government, available for the year 2001, there were some 1.26 crore child labourers in India in the age group 5-14 years. That number alone is more than the total strength of the entire armed forces troops of China, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka combined, including the reserve. It is more than the entire population of Israel and Switzerland combined. Other agencies puts the figure much higher. This figure however does not include the large number of children who are employed as domestic help in households, restaurants and tea shops- employments that were notified as child labour only in 2006, and those employed in begging in the streets.

A parallel exists between the difference between a child actor working on movies/advertisements with a child employed as domestic help in a household/ restauraunt/begging in streets, and the difference in employment of a call girl with that of a street prostitute.
While employment of children in movies and advertisements seems to have been silently approved by the society, much like in the case of high end escort services, legalizing of prostitution, like employment of children as domestic help in households, restaurants or begging in streets, is untenable.

Society has an obligation to provide children with education opportunities and avenues for developing their personality. Similarly, society has an obligation to provide prostitutes with employment opportunities that develop self-esteem, dignity and provide a family life.


There are a few other ways in which society and government can approach the issue of prostitution.

1. Generation of alternate employment opportunities for prostitutes. Society and government, both are responsible for this. Many NGOs are already working towards this goal.

2. Improving of working conditions of the daily wagers, labourers, who work much like automations throughout the day on uninspiring jobs, that drives them to seek temporary release in the evening in the sexual act or in liquor-generated stupor. This is also a major responsibility of both government and society. It can be partly met by distributing employment opportunities across the country equitably which will remove the necessity for migration to city and separation from families. This will entail the shifting of driving motivation of governments from capitalistic expansionism to long term benefit of society. Focussing on promoting agriculture and cottage industry, instead of being fixated on the lucrative IT/ manufacturing industry related SEZs, is another way that may help reduce farmer suicides as well as provide employment to labourers.

3. Inculcating values in society, in the younger generations, to see themselves not as evolving animals, but correctly as spiritual beings. Let them understand that their anscestors were the sages who created the vedas, who realized themselves as brahma, who considered vasudaiva kutumbakam and sought shanti in all the worlds; not monkeys.
Let them understand that their heritage is not of animal behaviour, but of spiritual realization. That may help a different perspective towards living.


Each individual and the society that s/he forms part of is a composite whole. Both affects the other. If some people are considered as objects for sexual satiation of some others, it fundamentally affects the character of the society and shapes subsequent generations. Societal approval for such behaviour have serious repercussions.


Post Script

Netherlands legalized commercial organisation of voluntary adult prostitution on 01 October 2000, with the aim of freeing prostitution from criminal elements, tackle exploitation, trafficking and other undesirable forms of prostitution.

Recent developments after 8 years of the legalization: -

“Half of Amsterdam’s prostitute windows must be closed to save Europe’s most tolerant city from criminal gangs and an excess of sleaze, the mayor has told The Times.“

“Eindhoven’s designated sex work zone is due to close by 2011. Amsterdam and other Dutch cities are slowly shutting down their red light districts, but Eindhoven is unusual in pioneering material incentives to tempt women into thinking about an economic alternative to prostitution.“

In Iceland this year(2009)-

“A new law makes purchase of sex illegal in Iceland.
Before this change in legislation, selling and buying sexual services was legal in Iceland.
Iceland is the third country to outlaw the purchase of prostitution. Sweden was the first country to ban the buying of sex in 1999 and Norway followed suit earlier this year. In Finland, a ban on purchasing sexual services from victims of human trafficking was introduced in 2007.
Opinion polls have shown that up to 70% of the population supports banning the purchase of sexual services.“

Update: Smt Sunitha Krishnan, anti-trafficking crusader, gives a talk on TED. She has also blogged on the issue of legalising prostitution

17-Mar-2011 10:34 AM

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