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Sex-work or sex-slavery? Reconsidering my ethical stance on sex trafficking

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

Kanav N. Sahgal, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Destiny Reflection is grateful to host students and interns, who as part of their work placement have provided their reflections on the issue of sex trafficking. The following blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Destiny Reflection, but are considered an educational tool to promote discussion on sex trafficking and exploitation.

As a budding development practitioner interested in the domains of sex, sexuality and gender, I was elated when my University informed me that I would complete my mandatory summer internship with Destiny Foundation, Kolkata. The 6-week virtual internship was an enriching experience. What stood out for me was that throughout the internship, I began questioning commonly held beliefs about sex-work in ways I hadn’t before. At my University, we studied a paper by Vijayakumar, Chacko & Panchanadeswaran, 2015 entitled ‘As Human Beings and As Workers’: Sex Worker Unionization in Karnataka, India’ that talked about union mobilization efforts by some sex workers in Karnataka. Rather than call for the abolition of sex work, the union demanded sex work be legally recognized as a legitimate form of work and that sex workers be afforded the same legal protections as people in other occupations.

The insights from the paper resonated for me because I too was pro-sex-work. My opinions on sex-work were inspired by the work of Indian feminists who, over the years, challenged status quoist institutions through their grit, courage and tenacity. Many freedoms that we enjoy today were earned only after decades of struggle, and for that, we need to thank feminists. Also, given how rigidly Indian society continues to regulate the female sexuality, I started respecting women in the sex-trade even more. I saw them as empowered nonconformists who challenged patriarchy and exercised their personal choice. After all, if women choose to work as escorts, who are others (especially men) to judge, especially if they are the target audience? Moreover, why should men judge other people’s career choices at all? Who gave them that authority? And why should they wield it? If it’s her body, what she does with it should be her choice. Given that we still live in a very hetero-masculine-patriarchal world in which sexually liberated Indian women are far too few, I believed women like Sunny Leone and Mia Khalifa were empowering, because they boldly worked the sex industry and had no qualms displaying their sexuality to the world, despite receiving tons of backlash.

However, over the course of my internship with Destiny, these opinions began to slowly change, especially when I started writing case studies. I was assigned 10 girls’ case studies to write, and the details of their stories shocked me. Out of the 10 case studies, 2 girls’ stories stood out for me, and they were Amrita’s and Kriti’s*.

Amrita feel in love with a man, Azaad* and married him, only to realize he was already married. She was sexually and mentally harassed by his in-laws. When she pleaded for help, Azaad told her that she would be safe in his sister’s place. Little did she know that she was being re-trafficked.. She tried to escape, but was caught and was re-trafficked for a third time before finally being rescued.

Kriti, on the other hand was abandoned by her family and sold to a brothel at a very young age, she remembered waking up day drenched in a pool of blood one day after experiencing vaginal bleeding. Despite asking her brothel owners for medical help, she was denied any assistance. And when she tried to escape, her thighs were cut with a blade. She was eventually rescued, but has not yet recovered from the psychological and physical trauma she endured all those years.

While writing these stories, I began to see my own privilege. For instance, I realized that something as trivial as a cellphone- which most of us take for granted, could mean the world to someone else. To these girls, it represented freedom for it allowed them to connect with others, especially their family and loved ones.

Thereafter, I vowed to never refer to trafficked girls as sex-workers. A more appropriate yet tragic descriptor for them would be ‘sex-slave’ because they were individuals who, for no fault of their own, were trapped in an inhumane system that treated them as modern day slaves. Sex trafficking is a perverse system that needs to be regulated and eventually abolished. I now understand why Destiny takes a more abolistionist stand towards human trafficking. All of the girls who Destiny helps rescue, rehabilitate and integrate never consented to entering the trade in the first place. They were all either forced or duped by others. Their innocence and vulnerability was exploited time and time again by family, friends, neighbours and others. Given the harrowing nature of the Indian sex trade, I don’t find ‘sex work’ empowering at all anymore. Rather, I see it as an institution built on deception, coercion and violence. Even the women in Kolkata’s red light areas do not see their work as emancipating or empowering. Rather, they see it as a means for survival and would never want their children to follow in their footsteps. It is for these reasons that I believe that forced prostitution should be legally regulated and eventually abolished. The goal should be to live in a society where women have complete agency over the bodies, and where no form of sexual coercion is permitted.

While I understand that forced prostitution and consensual sex work are different, they are also similar in that they thrive on objectifying women for the male gaze. Pornography, for instance, glorifies violence (videos of beating, slapping and hitting) and creates a very unrealistic picture of what sex looks like. It has never been easier to access pornography in today’s digital age, and I fear its impact on young people today, more so because of the dearth of sex education. We still have a long way to go before we may call ourselves a progressive nation vis-a-vis issues of sex, sexuality and gender; and the change must come by aiding those who need help the most i.e the girls who’s constitutional human rights are violated every single day. We shouldn’t glorify their struggles by calling them ‘workers’. Rather, we should call it what it is- slavery. And then try to end it.

* the survivor’s names have been changed to protect their anonymity.

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