This is why the term ‘sex work’ is a lie

This article in the Guardian today illustrates very clearly how the term ‘sex work’ is an obfuscatory term that serves only to hide the abusive reality of the sex industry. It’s quite amazing, because the article as a whole illustrates how abusive and demeaning the sex industry is in India, but the use of ‘sex work’ smoothes this over.

The scene in Kamathipura, in the heart of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, appears timeless. Established in the late 18th century by the British, the neighbourhood has been a hub of sex work and trafficking ever since.

This makes it sound like there are two separate activities: ‘sex work’, and trafficking, that both happen to occur in the same place, when in fact they are the same thing.

There is little thought for those who live and work here. Fatima, a 32-year-old sex worker, said the building in which she has lived and worked since being sold by her sister to a brothel owner at the age of 12 is slated for demolition.

Now, to most sane and rational people, being sold into sex slavery at the age of twelve is not ‘work’, but calling Fatima a ‘sex worker’ covers up this fact – was she a ‘juvenile sex worker’ when she was sold into slavery at twelve, or did the change magically occur on her 18th birthday?

About 10,000 female sex workers live in Kamathipura, an estimated third of the total 20 years ago. They come from all over India, as well as neighbouring countries Nepal and, increasingly, Bangladesh. Almost all have been trafficked, sold by relatives or lured by men who convinced them that a better life awaited them in Mumbai. Police are paid off, or turn a blind eye. A special trafficking court is little deterrent.

Now, if the vast majority of prostituted women in Kanathipura were forced into it (many as children as Fatima’s example above is unlikely to be a one-off), why are they being called ‘workers’?

Younger women, the new arrivals, are routinely kept captive, sometimes locked in small rooms for weeks or months on end or blackmailed into remaining.

For Sati Sheikh, 27, it was threats of violence to her two small children that kept her in a brothel, seeing about six clients every day. “They threatened to sell them both. I was compelled to work‚” she said.

Under any other circumstances, being coerced (“compelled”, “blackmailed”, threatened with violence) into sex is called rape, but here, because money changed hands, this rape is now called ‘work’, and the men who pay to rape these women and girls are merely ‘clients’ and the violence is made even more invisible.

One way out is through their children. NGOs working in the neighbourhood organise the placement of sons and daughters in local schools. When they are old enough, the children start work, allowing their mothers to pay off debts to brothel keepers and leave.

“I’ve done this for 20 years so my daughters won’t have to do it. My son is in college and working in an ice-cream parlour. He is now supporting me so I can stop,” said Devi, 36.

This is very clearly debt-bondage, in other words slavery, so why is it being called ‘work’?

The use of the term ‘sex work’ in place of prostitution only benefits the pimps and the johns, whose violence gets covered up under words like ‘work’ and ‘client’, and it is appalling that the mainstream press has so unquestioningly started using the term ‘sex work’ – every time this is used they are doing propaganda for the sex industry.

6 responses

  1. I have emailed the Guardian to complain, I doubt I’ll get a response, but I will keep you posted. Please feel free to use my email or the blog post as a template for your own complaint.

    Dear Editors,

    I wish to convey my disappointment in the article published on the 22nd of December: “Few grieve for the passing of Mumbai’s red-light district.”

    What I wish to complain about is the use in the article of the term ‘sex work’. The article describes women who were sold into prostitution as children, who were coerced with threats of violence to submit to unwanted sex, and who have few or no other options for survival available to them.

    Calling such abuse and exploitation ‘sex work’ serves only to cover up and minimise the violence and coercion involved – how can a 12 year old girl sold into prostitution be a worker?

    I would like to know why the Guardian has decided to use the term ‘sex work’ when describing forced prostitution, and I would also like to know why the men who pay for coerced sex with women forced into prostitution are being described as ‘clients’.

    This is a highly political area, and the Guardian, by using the term ‘sex work’ so unquestioningly, is taking a partisan stance.

    I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Kind regards,


  2. […] And here we have the Guardian taking part, again, in the same question-begging: the term ‘sex … […]

  3. […] is only covering this now (it’s reporting on the sex industry is skewed anyway – and they still use the obfuscatory ‘sex work’, even when reporting on child victims of c…); it was absolutely silent on the matter at the beginning of last year, when it was being debated […]

  4. Great point about the powers at be calling these trafficked women and girls “sex WORKERS.” That’s a nice play on words to manipulate people to think that these females have somehow chosen to be raped for pay day in and day out. This is all about supply and demand. If there wasn’t a demand for these females who are disgustingly forced into this nightmarish situation, there wouldn’t be need for these poor females to be supplied for these evil men sexually. But, of course, men think they are entitled to pay these (other men) to rape these females for pay. They don’t five a damn that these females are being forced to do this; they only care about getting their perverted rocks off. If these men really loved women, this “industry” simply would not exist. That will NEVER happen in mine or yours lifetimes. These females will be used up and discarded and new women and girls will be stolen to replace them. May those men rot in hell.

  5. Calling prostitution ‘sex work’ turns any problem with prostitution into a ‘labour issue’, rather than a sexual abuse issue.

    Then rape, which is what forced prostitution should be recognizable as, even to someone who is pro-sex industry, becomes nothing more than a ‘labour issue’.

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