Despite decades of tension between feminists
and sex workers, it is finally becoming clear that the former has much to learn from the latter.
|Photo: Alessandro Vincenzi
From the earliest days of ‘second wave’ feminism, the issues of choice and consent have been central to feminist thought throughout the world. Much of early feminist analysis focused on how patriarchies manifested themselves in terms of male control over women’s lives: their sexuality and reproduction, their mobility, their work, employment and assets, and their access to and participation in the public realm. This control not only constricted the range of women’s choices, but often denied their right to make choices at all. The issue of consent was fraught with far greater political complexity, and viewed by many feminists with some suspicion, since it was widely used by anti-feminist and religious ideologues to justify gender discrimination. Feminist thinking on consent – connoting acquiescence, willing acceptance or even active support – therefore appeared more often in the context of women’s ‘false consciousness’, as a manifestation of women’s co-option into maintaining patriarchal rule. In terms of both choice and consent, few issues have been more rigorously debated in recent decades than that of sex work; but today, it seems that feminism itself has quite a bit to learn from sex workers.
In the Indian context – on which this article focuses – analysis by both scholars and activists has addressed the question of feminism’s ambivalent approach to sex work and sex workers, and the implicit lack of understanding of how choice and consent operate in this realm. There are several possible roots to the feminist dilemma: unconscious internalisation, for example, of Brahminical patriarchy and Hindu nationalist reconstructions of the home and family as a sanctified site of ‘pure Indian-ness’, and the role of women’s chastity and sexual exclusivity in maintaining this purity. Similar constructions of women as guardians of communal identity, purity and the highest moral values were visible among Muslim and Christian communities as well.
These historical and social processes basically constructed women’s bodies, particularly their sexuality and ability to reproduce, as capable of maintaining or polluting caste and communal purity. Combining with tenets of Brahminical Hinduism – which permeated not only other castes through what sociologist M N Srinivas termed the ‘Sanskritisation’ process, but non-Hindu communities as well – a sliding scale of chastity was prescribed. Oppressed-caste women had to be sexually monogamous within marriage, but simultaneously available to upper-caste men, while upper-caste women’s chastity was non-negotiable and strictly imposed through the additional measures of restricted mobility and seclusion. Some parts of women’s bodies naturally became more sacrosanct than others – the vagina, for instance. As such, a woman who sold the labour of her hands and feet was still considered a good woman, no matter how filthy or arduous the work, or even if she belonged to an untouchable caste; but one who sold sexual labour was beyond the pale. So, while sex workers were part of the social landscape in every part of the country, they were symbols of the fall from grace that kept ‘good women’ under chaste control.
In this writer’s opinion, this is the hidden heart of the matter. Emerging from societies that held women’s sexual organs as a vehicle both to purity and pollution, Southasian feminists were, until recently, unable to critically examine the patriarchal underpinnings of this paradigm. The first sign of this internalisation was in the tacit hierarchy that emerged in forms of violence against women, where rape became implicitly categorised as the most heinous crime a woman could suffer. It could be argued that this was mainly due to the stigma attached to the rape victim, where the social consequences that ensued were far heavier than, for instance, a victim of domestic violence, who would at least be pitied or receive some grudging acknowledgement, if not justice. In a sense, rape was like leprosy – leading to social ostracism – while domestic violence was like tuberculosis, which, though far more contagious, elicits sympathy and support. But this difference in feminist reaction could also have been due to feminism’s deeply embedded but unquestioned sense that violation of the most sacrosanct part of a woman’s body was the ultimate, and therefore most unforgivable, expression of male dominance and control.
Therefore, sex work and sex workers presented a unique challenge to the feminist discourse, and resulted in several positions (or divides) in feminist approaches to sex work. But at the root has always been the fundamental dilemma: How could feminists accept prostitution – the sale of sexual services by women to men – as a legitimate form of employment, when it represented the grossest expression of women’s commodification? For many feminists, only two options seemed acceptable: to treat the individual prostitute as a victim lacking in agency, one who symbolises the ultimate oppressiveness of the patriarchal regime, and who is in need of rescue and rehabilitation; or as women of false consciousness, morally decrepit agents of the patriarchal system, whose work results in the oppression of other women. However, given that a large number of India’s feminist founding mothers came out of left political parties, a third strand also emerged. This line of thought did not engage in moral judgment, but instead argued that because sex work is a form of work, all labour rights and protections must be extended to sex workers.
Meanwhile, underlying all these feminist positions was the basic assumption that a world without sex work would be a better place – therefore making them political bedfellows of religious and political conservatives engaged in campaigns against sex trafficking.
Not hapless victims
In India, encounters between organised sex workers and feminist groups have been infrequent and strained. Sex-worker organisations have never been invited to participate in national conferences of women’s groups; in fact, in the early 1990s, a tentative attempt by a local sex-workers group to attend such a national conference created acute discomfort among the organisers, who rejected the request on grounds that the group did not constitute a ‘feminist’ organisation. Sex workers are puzzled by why the dialogue with feminists is predicated upon an assumption that they must renounce – or, at least, express an intention to renounce – their occupation, or reiterate the ‘hapless victim’ mythology. For their part, feminists wonder why sex workers expect their support on issues such as violence, police harassment or legal reform, while making their occupation itself a non-negotiable.
Another curious element in feminist approaches to sex work has been the tendency to isolate analysis of sex work from other forms of work performed by women, including those from similar classes, skill levels and mobility. Studies of women workers in the unorganised sector, both in India and elsewhere, have repeatedly underlined high levels of exploitation, sexual harassment, poor working conditions, violence at the hands of employers or agents, wide range of health hazards, and lack of social security and legal protection. Almost all of these studies, as well as the experiences of activist and women’s organisations across India, testify that poor women in a range of informal-sector occupations routinely face sexual exploitation and violence – the supposed hallmarks of sex work – as well as a form of trafficking, when they migrate in search of livelihoods. Consequently, feminist organising within the informal sector has been imbued with the assumption that women have the agency and capacity to challenge their exploitation and mobilise for their rights within these occupations. For some reason, however, the nature of their victimhood has been viewed differently from that of women in sex work, an equally informal occupation.
The only right that sex workers have been able to mobilise for has been to be ‘rescued’ from sex work itself. Indeed, the only time a link is made between women workers in general and sex work in particular is to argue that one of the negative impacts of economic reforms is the migration and entry into sex work of women from impoverished families. Thus, analysts like Manjima Bhattacharya argue that sex workers are marginalised from three directions: ‘the criminality associated with their work, the morality that keeps them ostracised, and the informality of their labour which deprives them of bank accounts, insurance, or employment security.’ She concludes: ‘Recognition of their labour and economic contribution is one of the first steps in mainstreaming sex workers and according them dignity and rights.’
Ironically, religious and political conservatives have usurped some feminist discourse on sex work in their anti-sex trafficking crusades. Outlining a series of assumptions and positions on prostitution adopted by some feminists and anti-trafficking groups, researchers Sandhya Rao and Cath Sluggett have written:
Traditionalist and conservative groups use the feminist construct that prostitution violates women per se, but their argument has very little to do with women’s equality. Rather they feel that prostitution threatens traditional sexual arrangements … The anti-trafficking movement has drawn upon radical feminism, evaluating prostitution as that which degrades all women. This is connected to a wider analysis of power and male domination. Radical feminists would [deny] that their arguments are based in morality; yet the moral message is evident in their claims … an idea of female sexuality that is contaminated by sex and all the more so when sex is separated from love and exchanged for money. None of these understandings leave room for the female sex worker to speak of her own subjective experience. In this way, the depiction of the sex worker as a subjugated, helpless victim, living a life of misery, needing rescue and rehabilitation, becomes essential to justify the anti-trafficking movement. In fact, this has little to do with the reality or self-image of sex workers themselves. Seizing upon stories of atrocities of rescued sex workers, while ignoring the empowered narratives and analysis of sex-worker organisations and movements, is a studied and conscious process.
The rapid pace of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Subcontinent, and the demonisation and targeting of female sex workers in prevention rhetoric and programmes, finally brought some feminist activists – especially from the health sector – into a closer alliance with sex-workers organisations. The injustice of focusing on sex workers as significant carriers of the disease, rather than their male clients, brought at least some feminist groups to support sex-worker organisations in pushing for condom use and the right to reject a client believed to be infected. These organisations were also able to demonstrate that, when organised, the capacity of sex workers to choose safe sex, or even to refuse to service non-compliant clients, was far superior to that of the majority of Indian women.
Over the course of this long and rather torturous historical relationship, many feminists – including this writer – have slowly come to re-examine the approach to sex work. This reappraisal has been largely due to the growing visibility, views and compelling analysis of sex-worker movements in India and beyond, and the open challenges that these have thrown to feminist organisations and the national women’s movement as a whole. The turning point occurred at the National Autonomous Women’s Conference, held in Kolkata in 2006 after a gap of nearly a decade, where women of all backgrounds from across the country came together to share their experiences. Unlike previous such gatherings, however, this one included women with disabilities, hijras and, most conspicuously, sex workers – and the latter strongly voiced their views. Thus, over the past few years a new dialogue has begun, and many feminist scholars, researchers and activists are beginning to listen and learn, rather than lecture or prescribe.
The citizenship approach
|Art: Venantius J Pinto
Organised, politically aware sex workers are making their claims within a new framework. A composite of their arguments for visibility, voice and rights would read something like this: We may not have had a choice about whether or not to do sex work, or the other choices available to us for livelihood and survival were worse. When and if we find better alternatives, we ourselves will change occupations. But for now, we consent to be in this occupation, or we choose to remain in it as the most economically advantageous option at this time. We are neither victims nor harlots, but citizens. We demand recognition as workers and all our rights as citizens.
What can feminists learn from this? First, the views of organised sex workers and their movements are framed within the discourse of citizenship rights, an approach that feminist analyses of sex work have never used. At its most basic, citizenship is defined as the relationship between an individual and a particular state, and defines citizens as having both rights and responsibilities within those settings. However, feminist critiques of this theory have addressed the ways that this kind of definition fails to address unequal power dynamics, such as based on gender, race, class, etc. Organised sex workers, among other politically marginalised groups, have been able to push for the recognition of this discrimination and hold the state and its machinery accountable to them.
This claiming of citizenship rights places sex workers in the same space as other marginalised and ‘illegalised’ constituencies; the claims made by, for instance, slum- and pavement dwellers are very similar. What is striking is that in embracing the citizenship approach, both sex workers and other groups facing exclusion and stigma are shifting the debate to new ground, away from the arenas of moral probity and social sanction and towards citizen rights. Certain organised sex workers’ groups have negotiated such rights with town municipalities, the police and even politicians – the successes of the VAMP collective in negotiating basic services with the municipality and improved protection against violence from the police in Sangli town, and of the IFPEC network’s electoral poll boycott to gain political support for their demands in Chennai, are excellent examples. The state and local authorities have been forced to deal with these women as citizens, not as sex workers; in so doing, they have demonstrated their choice of equality and refusal to consent to discrimination.
Another lesson comes from the possibilities that open up because of the way sex work breaks down otherwise rigid moral and social boundaries. While in no way seeking to minimise the enormous range of problems that sex work entails, we must also recognise that for women, sex work can paradoxically be liberating: they no longer have to behave within the parameters of the ‘good’ woman, or observe the cultural norms, taboos or submissiveness typically expected of other women. In such a situation, women sex workers are free to make choices that are not available to their ‘good’ sisters. They can speak openly, for instance, about the violence, humiliation and duplicity of clients, police, pimps, lovers and the larger community in a way that poor women in the mainstream of society often need years of consciousness-raising to emulate.
Of course, this kind of voice and power requires organisation. The evidence is quite clear, for instance, that ‘upmarket’ individual sex workers actually have less power to set the terms of their work than poorer but organised women working in brothels or red-light districts. And like unorganised-sector workers everywhere, unorganised sex workers are exploited by the structures of the sex industry itself – by brothel owners, pimps, police and others. On the other hand, even unorganised sex workers are no worse off than other unorganised workers, whose hours, low wages, health hazards and lack of social security receive scant attention from state machinery.
The further lesson for feminists here is that despite decades of organising among diverse classes of women, feminist movements have not been as successful in catalysing this sense of liberation in the most intimate sphere of women’s lives – their relationships with their own bodies, or in their sexual lives. As a consequence, feminists have collectively been far less effective in enabling women to negotiate sexual interaction with their partners –ensuring condom use, or not consenting to sex when they are ill, in advanced pregnancy, or simply too tired, for instance – that organised sex workers consider a right. Furthermore, even the limited choice that organised sex workers have in setting the terms of their trade appears more advanced than what has been accomplished through organising among other unorganised women workers, with a few notable exceptions. Indeed, it is hard to find examples of movements of unorganised women workers that are as vibrant, visible and vocal, or have made as many significant gains, as sex-worker movements have accomplished for their members in some parts of India.
Lessons from sex workers
Even within the domain of sexuality, sex-worker movements are pushing feminist theory by re-positioning sexual services – and, hence, the entire morass of choice and consent – in a fundamental way. They have taken sex out of the domain not only of morality but of the relationship paradigm entirely. The members of these movements are saying that providing sex can be a relatively uncomplicated physical service similar to nursing or cleaning. Therefore, it can also be a livelihood choice: one can freely consent to be in sex work, especially for those whose skill set and socio-economic location restricts access to ‘better’ work.
Organised sex workers also seem to suggest that when they mobilise politically conscious movements, they can assert equal or greater power and control than women in equally un-regulated sectors of the market. For instance, they can negotiate condom use, working hours, time off, housing and habitat, and health care; they can also choose clients, choose the kinds of services they will provide, and resist and penalise violence of various kinds. And they seem to be telling feminists that condemnation of sex work is evidence of their own co-option into the patriarchal belief system, an unquestioned acceptance of the mythology of the sanctity of sexual interactions.
Finally, sex-worker movements are breaking through the rhetoric of the ‘poor, hapless victim’, and of the stranglehold of external actors in setting the terms of the discussion. Sex workers are becoming the subjects of their own analysis, breaking free of this ideological and conceptual stranglehold. They are asserting their consent to be involved in sex work – whether they entered it by choice or not – and consequently challenging the victim imagery. But more importantly, they are making shocking and uncomfortable arguments about their choice in remaining within the line of work: that it gives them a higher income, more purchasing power, better long-term economic security and independence, and far less drudgery than the other options available to them. How can members of such a dubious, stigmatised profession make such seemingly audacious, non-victimised claims? Further, how many feminist movements can claim to have parleyed their organising into the sort of political power that many sex-worker movements have demonstrated?
If feminists such as myself re-examine our views in light of the radically different perspectives offered by sex-worker movements, we would almost certainly arrive at a different definition of notions of choice and consent. We would recast choice not as just ‘real’ or ‘false’, but as occurring within a spectrum that is defined by context. Consent would be looked at as not only a manifestation of ‘agency’ within socially recognised institutions (marriage, family, state, market) or for socially acceptable alternatives, but as the right to choose a social situation outside of these structures. A long-term partnership for the production of new paradigms and strategies is the need of the day, and I believe that sex workers are a key source of learning for the future of the feminist project. The question is whether we have the humility and courage to ask for a seat at their table, rather than invite them to ours.
~ Srilatha Batliwala is a scholar associated with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, based in Bengaluru.