The legal statute governing the rights of sex workers and trafficked persons in India is The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act (1956), amended in 1986 as The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (PITA). While this Act allows sex workers to conduct their trade in private sites, they cannot legally seek customers in public spaces or engage in organised services. Although prostitution per se is permissible, a multitude of activities surrounding it, like the operation of brothels, pimping, pandering, and street solicitation, are illegal. Despite the existence of red-light districts, the question of sex workers’ rights remains ambiguous. They are not safeguarded by labour laws or trade unions but can seek rescue and rehabilitation in state-sanctioned shelters. Additionally, under PITA, as prostitution is predominantly conceptualised through the lens of trafficking/exploitation, it precludes an understanding of sex work as a legitimate form of labour. (3)
From a human rights perspective, the implementation of PITA by law enforcement agencies has created a plethora of issues for sex workers. While its clauses allow the police to arrest prostitutes or pimps who work in brothels at close proximity of public places, the law enables a criminalising over a rights-based approach. Moreover, over-sensationalised accounts adopted in nationalist policy paradigms can result in a simplified public perception of all prostitutes in binaristic terms of victimised or deviant subjects, and the police as heroes, bolstering patriarchal power structures along with the moralistic disciplining of the state. Take for example a woman who works as a sex worker on the side to pay for college. A brothel raid could constitute the source of stigmatisation as her work is now exposed to family, acquaintances, and wider society. Such structural barriers and institutional constraints facing sex workers explicate how in controlling their bodily autonomy under the provisions of PITA, state organisations seek to discipline gendered minorities in establishing pedagogical norms of respectable citizenship. Non-consensual policy mediations concurrently legitimise a punitive policing mechanism that portrays the brothel as a site of crime, thus evading other forms of informal sexual commerce that occur in private residences. Arbitrarily implemented measures like brothel raids, forceful rehabilitation amidst other forms of societal othering, can therefore lead well-intentioned officials to continue the objectification, essentialisation, reification, and traumatisation of persons who are rescued, culminating in a questionable precedent that recovery can solely be achieved through close regulation and surveillance in governmental shelters. (4)
Feminist literature on the prostitution industry in India critiques the nature of gendered violence and systemic discrimination characterising it. Svati Shah elucidates how the urban ‘pull’ factor of cities facilitates an exodus of rural, migrant workers with limited education and skillsets who, finding no better vocational prospects, get dragged into indentured or sexual labour as a survival strategy, especially in Mumbai’s slum localities. One needs to deconstruct the violent politics of sexual regulation, especially as the local police sporadically harass workers towards protecting respectable housing localities, in tandem with real-estate agents who are sanctioned to indiscriminately check the residential quarters of suspects. (5) Consequently, sex workers’ social integration as well as political participation into civil society is highly restricted, vis-à-vis barriers to employment, upward socio-economic mobility, healthcare coverage, bureaucratic constraints towards the formation of trade unions, and/or labour rights, through which inequalities are naturalised, normalised and institutionalised.
Studies by John Frederick and Jyoti Sanghera further postulate how rescue frameworks implemented by Indian governmental authorities in enforcing PITA, hyperbolically present the brothel as a pervasive site of crime instead of a workplace, which can erroneously present all sex work as evil and prolong a cycle of abuse by taking a criminalising approach to rehabilitation. This could also prove to be counterproductive to the efforts of activists, NGO’s, and HIV support groups. Besides, it robs the woman of her agency or the desire to construct a happy future for herself via participation in the market economy or her socio-economic autonomy, devoid of the protectionist guise of the state. Post ‘rescue’, the former prostitute cannot become a successful worker, carry forward with a conjugal relationship, or become a role model for other women. She must fit into the typified account of the psychologically damaged figure whose identity is primarily marked by her former occupational status. The patronising rhetoric of saving the victim, thereby disregards complexities in causal and situational factors that propel a turn towards sex work. (6)