Rethinking Prostitution in India

Oct 10, 2020

One of the oldest professions in the world, prostitution has an inherent history in the Indian subcontinent. Often referred to as a devadasi. Currently, more than 20 million sex workers practise this trade in the country, driving a psychologically and economically distressed industry to the point of no return. Often referred to in Indian mythology and historical pieces of art and literature, sex workers were once considered to be the embodiments of beauty and charm and were often termed as celestial demigods yet over time and through the change in the economic and political spectrum of the world into a heavily capitalist-driven society, it has been observed that a majority of sex workers in India are driven into the industry due to economic instability and psychological damage during childhood and therefore unfortunate circumstances. This article seeks to explore the sex trade in India and examine the modern-day sex worker through different concepts of law. 

The laws surrounding the trade of prostitution in India vary and often are misconstrued. Although legal to practice the trade of prostitution for the millions of sex workers around the country, activities closely linked to the industry such as pimping, and brothels remain to be against the law. Henceforth, it becomes crucial to understand what the industry is and who a sex worker is. The act of committing prostitution is the undertaking of sexual benefits such as sexual intercourse in exchange for financial and monetary benefitsWhile the overall act of prostitution is legal in India, certain considerations in the industry are against the law such as the act of soliciting in a public place, child prostitution and the ownership and management of brothels. 

Laws surrounding the industry are extremely vague and are primarily in place to protect the sex workers and their rights. The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act, 1956 allows sex workers to practise their trade with full immunity but with the condition of the trade being completely private. The law tends to turn against the sex workers to practice their trade openly through soliciting in the public domain. Conditions such as the prohibition of the commission of the trade within at least 200 yards of a public place and an organized sector such as brothels and pimps are strictly frowned upon by the law enforcement agencies of the country. Still, no laws exist which restricts an Indian from using their body for sexual intercourse to gain financial benefits. 

Amended in the year 1986, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act has been enacted by the government of India to abolish the industry as a whole by way of diminishing and destroying the fundamental requirements of the industry. Through deterring, factors such as the fine and imprisonment of clients for up to an amount of three months who solicit prostitution near the public domain are intrinsically destroying the entire industry which provides the income of nearly 20 million individuals. Furthermore, through the act, the government has banned the publishing of the phone numbers of sex workers in the public domain, further bringing down an industry already battered and bruised due to the lack of legal means for organized prostitution such as in brothels or through pimping. 

The trade of a sex worker has been dramatically stigmatized in the country over the years due to a lack of implementation of a formal sector by the government, much like that in countries such as the Netherlands, and through different laws that implicitly banned essential requirements such as the publication of phone numbers and the creation of organizations for brothels and pimping. Such acts by individuals in power effect and prevent the sex worker from accomplishing simple acts that may help them escape the poverty attached to the industry. The discrimination of the government and the laws in place, as well as the derogatory view of sex workers in the eyes of the common person, has implicitly denied the sex workers of the country from access to essential and fundamentally critical aspects of daily life such as healthcare and education. Furthermore, such circumstances have also denied the sex workers form earning their diligent dues from the industry itselfAs has been seen in various other countries, the formation of a formal sector solidifies the industry as a whole, protects the interests of the sex workers and significantly reduces the most significant problem of all – violence against sex workersWith a rich and diverse history of the trade-in ancient times, it is essential for the government of the country as well as its people to look deeply into the echelons of the life of a sex worker to protect the livelihood of more than 20 million individuals.