March 03, 2021
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Legalise Prostitution?

A bench of the Supreme Court recently said: “When you say it is the world’s oldest profession and when you are not able to curb it by laws, why don’t you legalise it?” Really?

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Legalise Prostitution?

While dealing with a PIL filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan about large scale child trafficking in the country, a Supreme Court bench of Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice AK Pattnaik are reported to have advised the Solicitor General, “When you say it is the world’s oldest profession and when you are not able to curb it by laws, why don’t you legalise it?”

It is noteworthy that the judges were not dealing with those women who take to this profession as a choice but children who are abducted, trapped, bought and sold by criminal mafias to be inducted into the flesh trade. I am left wondering whether the Hon’ble judges of the Supreme Court intend to legalise child trafficking as well—all because our government agencies are unable and unwilling to curb the criminal mafias who are pushing vulnerable children from impoverished families into the flesh trade.

It is extremely misleading to describe prostitution as one of the "oldest professions" in history. Even today there are numerous communities world over, including in India, which have no history of prostitution. Many do not even have a word to describe it. This demeaning form of transaction between men and women is characteristic of those societies which take a very perverse view of male sexuality. The assumption is that men being men, they are unable to control their sexual urges and therefore they need all kinds of avenues for satisfying their insatiable hunger for sex with multiple partners. It also assumes that men should not be expected to take responsibility for out of wedlock progeny. Women have to bear the brunt of "illegitimate" births. This perverse mindset that takes a very lowly view of male sexuality and moral fibre and expects society at large and women in particular to be indulgent towards their irresponsible behaviour. Using this logic even rape is often justified on grounds that the man concerned was unable to control his sexual urge or that a woman asked for it. I am convinced no self respecting man will use such a cynical view of male sexuality which amounts to declaring men unfit for socially responsible behaviour. Most self respecting men view sex trade being more demeaning for men than for women. That is why some of the strongest voices against prostitution in literature, cinema and in social reform movements have come from men.

There are compelling reasons to decriminalize prostitution for the following categories of persons: 

( a) Those that enter the sex trade voluntarily—as do many high society call girls—simply because if a person wishes to enter into a demeaning relationship with another for monetary or other favours, there is no way the government can stop the practice because it is enacted in private; 

( b) Those that gravitate towards this profession due to poverty related reasons or abusive family circumstances because such victims of circumstances ought not be treated as criminals.

It is well acknowledged that arrests and rescue operations by the police are mostly a theatrical exercise to keep the terror alive so that the sex workers and pimps dare not resist paying bribes. Therefore, draconian laws put in the hands of the police add to the problem instead of curbing prostitution. 

However, no self respecting society can afford to “legalise” the dehumanisation of millions of those who have been coerced into flesh trade through force, fraud, abduction or violence. 

Till the early 1990s defence of the right of prostitutes came mainly from feminist groups and those gender sensitive men who argued that laws penalizing prostitutes amounted to punishing the victims while letting off their male clients who exploited their poverty and vulnerability. Many of them demanded laws that punished men who trafficked in women as well as men who live off prostitutes as pimps and those who visit them as clients.

However, in recent years the discourse on the subject has undergone a sea-change due to the scare of AIDs in first world countries. This has led billions of dollars, pounds and Euros as well as other resources being directed towards “safe sex practices”, with special focus on condom use among sex workers. From Prince Charles to Bill Gates to Hollywood stars as well as some western governments and major donor agencies have all joined the campaign to legalise prostitution because they feel that is the only way condom use, regular health checkups including HIV tests can be promoted among sex workers and their customers. 

Earlier, sleazy lawyers helped sex workers get bail when arrested. Today, with the availability of massive international grants for this work, some of the best lawyers in India have emerged as defenders of the rights of prostitutes. While some still stay with the old-fashioned view that sex workers are trapped in the profession due to poverty related circumstances, many argue that renting out one’s body to a customer for a few hours is no different from a doctor, teacher or an architect renting out his intellectual skills to an employer for a monthly salary. Therefore, they demand that sex work should be legalised and treated with the same dignity and respect as any other profession. 

However, those who demand that prostitution should be “legalised” and treated with “respect and dignity” at par with all other professions and occupations need to answer a few basic questions:

What does the term “legalise” actually imply? Does it mean that a prostitute can open a sex-shop anywhere she likes and advertise her services? Does it mean men or women supplying call girls should be able to set up an office in any neighbourhood they like, just as doctors set up their clinics, proclaiming that call girls are available between such and such hours? How many of us are willing to let our young children grow up amidst an atmosphere where renting a woman’s body for sex is considered a perfectly legitimate activity?

If people come to know that a mafia don has set up a call-girl racket in their neighbourhood, do they have the right to seek its removal or does it mean other citizens have to suffer the presence of such activities in the name of  “respecting” the rights of sex workers to an occupation of their choice and thereby endanger their own lives?

Those who demand that sex work be given the same “respect” as any other profession, need to explain whose duty it is to give or ensure “respect” for prostitutes and pimps? Is the government expected to enact a law requiring people not to shun prostitutes, as for instance it did to ban the practice of untouchability? One can prove that one does not practice untouchability by freely intermixing and inter-dining with castes condemned as untouchables. How does one prove one’s “respect” for a prostitute? Do we have to send our children to brothels to intermix with the children of sex workers or do we hold special functions to socially honour the most successful among them? If prostitutes cannot win the respect of the clients they service, how can the rest of society be made to respect them?

We are told that at least feminists have a duty to respect women for making this choice. If feminism is about respecting each and every choice women make, then why are we not willing to respect women who choose to worship at sati shrines or those who abort female foetuses because they prefer being mothers of sons rather than daughters?

Countries where sex work is legal are not free from dehumanising forms of sex slavery and prostitutes do not command social respect. Therefore, copycat solutions will not work. While there is need to decriminalise this activity and free sex workers from the terror and extortionist grip of the police, to make it respectable and socially acceptable would mean turning a blind eye to the dehumanising circumstances through which the vast majority of children and women are trapped into trading their bodies.

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and founder editor Manushi


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