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