26 November 2020

The Missing Life Stories of India’s Sex Workers

PhD candidate Shriya Patnaik analyses limits surrounding prostitution laws and discourses in India

About the author


Shriya Patnaik  Shriya Patnaik is a PhD Candidate in International History at the Graduate Institute, Geneva and affiliated with the Gender Centre.




“Despite being a frequent object of reform, our perspectives are rarely featured on the humanitarian agenda.”(1) This remained a ubiquitous complaint of many former sex workers who I interviewed during my work with NGOs in India.

In 2016, during an exploratory fieldtrip to Odisha where I was researching the rights of marginalised communities, I had the opportunity to interview sex workers as well as social activists from a women’s rights shelter-home called Basundhara. My interactions with the former revealed interesting insights. Some discussed state rehabilitation processes that were accompanied by moral policing paradigms, which sought to correct their ‘deviant’ behaviors instead of investigating socio-economic exigencies driving them. Others, despite receiving healthcare treatments, resented intrusive bodily examinations they were subjected to, oftentimes without consent. Over the course of our work, women articulated specific concerns like menstrual hygiene, pregnancies, safe contraception, awareness of consensual intercourse, and the need for psychological counselling in cases of abuse or trauma. Finally, they posited the need for financial self-sufficiency, vocational training, and skill development initiatives, instead of paternalistic state approaches that curtailed their freedom of movement or socio-economic agency.

Reliant on such experiential narratives, I critically analyse limits surrounding prostitution laws and discourses in India, via how national rehabilitation projects pertaining to sexual commerce have relegated questions of female sexuality to the margins in criminalising concomitant gendered minorities over ameliorating their life circumstances. (2) In suggesting improvements to the legal regime surrounding such stigmatised actors, I argue that state approaches should deploy human rights principles towards better integrating sex workers into civil society. These should include sex workers’ lived perspectives alongside a consideration of their volition, bodily autonomy, and dignity in the making of policy paradigms.

As prostitution is predominantly conceptualised through the lens of trafficking/exploitation, it precludes an understanding of sex work as a legitimate form of labour.

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)

Alternative perspectives from grassroots organisations explicate the need to employ a bottom-up, holistic approach towards sexual commerce that protects the rights of these workers.

Alternative perspectives from grassroots organisations explicate the need to employ a bottom-up, holistic approach towards sexual commerce that protects the rights of these workers. One such example is Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an NGO in West Bengal working towards identifying and challenging underlying structural factors that perpetuate social stigmatisation, material deprivation, and civil society exclusion against subjects. Its social workers (many of them sex workers themselves), espouse the dignity of sexual labour, addressal of HIV + STIs infecting the community, and empowerment campaigns, as inevitable steps towards eradicating the pervasive discrimination afflicting them. DURBAR activists demand a legalisation of the prostitution industry as they believe its underground nature promotes networks of crime and workers’ marginalisation.

Analogously, Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) is a rights-based, collective action NGO that adheres to insider community participation as an intrinsic measure towards providing non-intrusive healthcare paradigms. It has designed emancipatory strategies like Self-Help Groups, whereby members collectively negotiate loans with financial institutions towards skill development programmes. Such grassroots-level movements are indicative of the need to encapsulate the lived experiences of actors in the profession, instead of an imposition of arbitrary top-down policing mechanisms, which violate human rights paradigms.

Furthermore, the voices of sex workers delineate the problematic implications of forced brothel raids and rescue operations, resulting in subsequent proceedings of punishment and forceful rehabilitation rather than guaranteeing human rights. Take for instance, DURBAR’s film-project, Tales of the Night Fairies highlighting the life stories of sex workers in Kolkatta’s slums, together with case studies from feminist non-abolitionist NGOs towards reinforcing their legal and healthcare rights. Set in Sonagachi (one of Asia’s largest red-light districts), the interviewed women in this documentary, underscore some of their predicaments alongside problematise Indian prostitution policies. They advocate a recognition of the clandestine, informal sector industry under labour laws, as well as the self-regulation of workers as a means of bringing about holistic change. (7) Take for instance one woman who notes, “We want Self-Regulatory Boards in order to stop the entry of minor girls into the trade. New entrants will have to be scrutinised by us before they start work.” (8) Another comments on the brutality of law enforcement agencies: “I am very angry with the police for violating our rights, involuntarily holding us in custody and causing our stigmatisation in society.” These experiential accounts illustrate how under the guise of welfare or protection programs, exclusionary top-down models can become complicit in the criminalisation and human rights deprivation of subaltern subjects. Listening to such missing voices from disenfranchised groups reveals complex modalities of agency, resistance and mobilisation that contest mainstream development models. In conditions of structural violence, the recollection of suppressed silences can also serve functions of catharsis and emotional unburdening. (9)

Conclusively, it is instructive to allude to the viewpoints of a DURBAR worker, which aptly summarise the challenges facing sex workers in India today, “Since I joined the line, I have worked hard to earn money. I don’t beg. I don’t steal. I’m a law-abiding citizen who pays rent. Yet, I get beaten up by the police. Tell me, where do we go for safety?” In accounting for the missing voices of such marginalised women in policy and development protocols, measures like an inclusion of their lived perspectives, legal counsel, labour rights, autonomy of movement, adequate healthcare coverage including counselling and psychological services, would epitomize a significant improvement in this trajectory.



(1) The translation of these interviews from Oriya to English is done by me.

(2) Since male prostitution is unrecognised/disallowed under Indian laws, this paper principally deals with female perspectives.

(3) Although the current laws regulating the “selling of sexual services for money” is legal, under specific circumstances, while it is a punishable offense if carried out in public (this includes pimping, street solicitation, kerb-crawling i.e. soliciting sex at roadside corners, or paid sex in brothels or hotels). Under Indian laws on prostitution, the selling of sex is legally permissible in private residences of the sex worker or client, while illegal in public sites. The use of private residences by the prostitute or client, is an unregulated domain, which complicates this scenario even further. Furthermore, The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, conflates ‘trafficking’ with ‘prostitution’ as inter-related and synonymous phenomena, and is intended as a means of limiting and eventually abolishing prostitution in India by criminalising various aspects of sex work.

(4) Anne Gallagher. 2001. Human Rights and The New UN Protocols on Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling: A Preliminary Analysis. Human Rights Quarterly 23(4): 975-1004; Anne Gallagher, Elaine Pearson. 2008. Detention of Trafficked Persons in Shelters: A Legal and Policy Analysis. SSRN Electronic Journal.

(5) Svati P. Shah. 2014. Street Corner Secrets. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

(6) John Frederick. 2016. The Myth of Nepal-to-India Sex Trafficking: Its Creation, Its Maintenance, and Its Influence on Anti-trafficking Interventions. In Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex work, and Human Rights. (Eds). Kamala Kempadoo, Jyoti Sanghera, and Bandana Pattanaik. 127-145. New York: Routledge.

(7) Shohini Ghosh and DURBAR NGO, Tales of the Night Fairies.

(8) The interviews in the documentary have been translated from Bengali by the film-maker Shohini Ghosh.

(9) Urvashi Butalia. 2000. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham: Duke University Press; Veena Das. 1998. Specificities: Official Narratives, Rumour, and the Social Production of Hate. Social Identities 4(1): 109-130.


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