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.