August 13, 2009

What is it that offends you?

Anindita Sengupta

RECENTLY, OVER AT at Feministe, guest blogger Ren did some frank speak about being a sex worker:

Well, personally, I am fond of the money and the way it allows me to set my own hours.  I generally like most of my coworkers.  I do dig my work attire way more than business casual (except the spiky heels, I do not like spiky heels, more of a platform gal myself). I absolutely admit without fear or guilt that I love making my own porn, you know, stuff that is depictions of what I like sexually and is a creative process for me and all.  I like not having to deal with the whole corporate world thing.  I love not being at a desk, in a cubicle, in a building with no windows.  In fact, the whole idea of that sort of a working life is enough to make me want to put a gun to my head….We’re all different, so why would we ever be expected to like the same things?

Her post busts a number of myths and you should definitely read it. It also reminded me of the time I met a couple of street sex workers at Vimochana, a women’s rights organisation based in Bangalore. They talked about how things get difficult for them when they’re shunted out of their work zones, in this case, Cubbon Road and MG Road. The fact that sex work has not been legalised in India means they are easy prey for cops who often extort free sex from them as a sort of ‘hafta’. But despite haftas, certain streets frequented by  ‘respectable people’ are still off limits. This hits them where it hurts — right on the belly — because ironically the same respectable people are a huge client base. One of the women got quite heated and what she said, vehemently, angrily, sticks in my mind: “What is your problem if two consenting adults decide to have sex? What is it that disgusts you? What is it that offends you?”

Of course, she meant the ‘you’ as a general form of address since I had not indicated that I was offended in the least but the strength of her bitterness struck me like a cleaver.

Because the context of sex work in India is different from that of the west, their situation was even more tangled. From an Infochange article:

Demographic studies indicate that sex workers are usually women who are already subsumed by other elements of social marginalisation. They are predominantly illiterate, have limited economic opportunities and lower social status….The minute they enter sex work however, they are further marginalised along three other axes: the informality of their labour, the dubious legal status of prostitution, and notions of women and immorality.

I don’t want to get into the issue of legalisation but you can read this this essay by Prabha Kotiswaran for an overview of arguments for and against. What I want to talk about is our personal, even involuntary reactions to sex workers. Largely undetermined by legal nits, they come from some murky, underground place of childhood when it was drilled into us that good girls don’t have sex and bad girls do, and good girls don’t talk to bad girls. Of course, we’ve all grown up and know this is hogwash, but mama’s voice is hard to get rid of, isn’t it?

Sex workers live on the periphery of our lives. They inhabit the same streets, hang around outside or in the same bars, often sleep with the same men. Yet, there is a certain discomfort, isn’t there, when it comes to sharing public space or common facilities? A restaurant, a salon, a train compartment. It’s partly why many establishments ‘reserve the right’ of admission. I saw this right exercised at an expensive salon in Bombay. I was getting a haircut when a woman walked in and asked for a manicure. They politely told her there was nobody free. She looked around the place doubtfully, at the empty salon, at the stylists standing around, clearly free. A look of understanding, and she left.

I was fourteen at the time, too young to fully understand what was happening. But what if it happened today? Would I have the gumption to say anything to the salon owners? Most likely, I would sit by just as dumbly. How do you tell people how to run their business? And it’s not they who have a problem but their clients. People like ‘us’.

So when we choose public and social spaces for food, leisure or entertainment, what criteria do we apply? What role does class and morality play? How willing  are we to tolerate not only people from different economic and social backgrounds, but also people with disparate moral or lifestyle choices in the same space? I’ve often heard someone say: ‘Such-and-such place is very upmarket. You know, no riffraff.’ Upmarket. Riffraff. What do these terms mean?

Much of it is hinged on outward appearance. So we have a problem with those visibly different from us. Through race and class, yes. But also the drag queen. The eunuch. The sex worker who hasn’t disguised it well enough. (For example, one might argue that we don’t want to be in the company of ‘criminal elements’ but for all you know, the wealthy man next to you on the flight is a drug smuggler. So that argument falls apart.)

What is usually at work is fear, the fear of people whose choices we don’t understand or whose morals we do not agree with, the fear of  moral ‘contamination’, the irrational panic that merely being in the company of someone with different choices will besmirch us in some mysterious, unfathomable way. Hatred is a result of fear. And we erect membership laws, rules, social codes to reserve our right of admission, to reserve our right to this fear and hatred.

Ironically, the very antidote to both is knowledge. The more you know about something, or somebody, the less alien they seem, the more time you have to discover the commonalities. As long as we uphold a society strictly bound up in strictures and structures, fixed positions of being and interacting, there can be no shared space, no knowledge and no understanding.

Perhaps, we need to loosen the ties a bit, stretch those social muscles in unusual ways, let restaurants and salons and train compartments profit from the refreshing mix of choice and difference. Perhaps we need to ask this question more often and more insistently: why must the right to admission be reserved, and against whom?

21 comments to What is it that offends you?

  • Surprisingly coherent and reasonable post for this website. Though you seem to have discounted the possibility that hatred could be irrational and failed to acknowledge that one is entitled to it.

  • Lala

    the above comment sounds highly tautological …. we can argue that people in general are irrational and so anything that doesn’t seem right/rational to us is irrational … i dont think what you said would really aid in making a more ‘complete’ article

  • apu

    Interesting post, Anu. For my part, I’m not offended by sex workers but I am offended by sex work itself – I think the kind of thing mentioned by Ren, the blogger you’ve quoted would be really rare in the Indian context; when you consider that the profession is full of coercion and abuse of women, I don’t see how I can be not offended. However, the “fear” of sex workers that one sees, I think is because of notions of contamination that are drilled into us when we are young – that we will ‘become bad’ in the company of ‘bad girls’. And of course, at a general level, people always want the comfort of being with other “people like us” and would like to draw that circle tighter and tighter. Sometimes I think that is highly unconscious behaviour, and to start becoming more fair, one has to consciously start questioning.

  • I agree with apu. My reaction was “good for Ren, but most sex workers are not so lucky.” I saw a extremely disturbing movie called “Lilya 4 ever” some years ago, about an eastern European girl smuggled to Sweden on false promises and pushed into the sex industry: I am told the reality is worse. Over here it tends to be Nepalis or other exploitable communities. Also read Nicholas Kristof’s stories in the NYT on the sex industry in east Asia. Aversion to the idea of sex-for-pay is one aspect, that of course one can argue about, but I think it is a minor aspect — really an academic question, not a real-life one — because voluntary sex-for-pay is a negligible part of the industry. The industry is almost entirely about slavery.

  • ps – about the legality question, my opinion is that prostitution should be legal but pimping should be illegal. How that is to be implemented, I can’t say…

  • Very good, balanced post. Like Alan Smithee, I am surprised to see it on this blog.

  • Good post, but like others here I believe the phrase “lifestyle choices” may be a bit misplaced – I don’t think too many sex workers in India (or other countries, such as Thailand) choose this lifestyle.
    Overall, a thought-provoking article.

  • Why should pimping be illegal? How is pimping different from say, IT consulting or managing a sportsman ?

  • Interesting article. In my opinion, it is our perception that the sex-workers are doing something immoral that keeps us from acknowledging them and mingling with them. The society ostracizes not only sex-workers, but other people like petty thieves, beggars etc.
    I do not think we can make a generalization out of Ren’s post. Especially in India. I feel many women are coerced into choosing prostitution as a career. And the whole industry is a black hole from which no one can escape.

  • Interesting article. In my opinion, it is our perception that the sex-workers are doing something immoral that keeps us from acknowledging them and mingling with them. The society ostracizes not only sex-workers, but other people like petty thieves, beggars etc.
    I do not think we can make a generalization out of Ren’s post. Especially in India. Many women are coerced by illegal elements into choosing prostitution as a career. And the whole industry is a black hole from which no one can escape.

  • Alan Smithee — a sportsman pays his manager. A prostitute does not pay her pimp. She is at the pimp’s mercy. It is slavery, as I said. (No comments on your IT consultant analogy.)

  • Rakhi Pande

    Am not quite sure that most girls are taught by their mothers that sex is bad. Perhaps in some cases, but not all, surely. The point here is – and am speaking only for myself, is – what makes me uncomfortable is the thought of someone paying women or men for sex. Not the actual act itself.

    To the sex-worker’s question of “What is your problem if two consenting adults decide to have sex? What is it that disgusts you? What is it that offends you?”, my answer is sure, go right ahead – when it is two consenting adults. Why pay for it or get paid? That’s conveniently forgotten.

    When I attended the screening of a good play at Prithvi, Mumbai by a talented crew of real sex-workers it brought out that though various circumstantial reasons led them to this ‘profession’, they didn’t want their daughters getting into it, which was nice to hear and understandable. The only thing that worried me was the glamourisation of the profession by them. When I asked them if they would willingly move out of this profession if we gave them other jobs/ homes, they emphatically stated that they owned lots of property gifted to them by their regular ‘customers’ and tons of money. So why would they want to quit this profession? Why indeed. Maybe I’m alone in this opinion, but there’s something wrong with this somewhere.

  • Rakhi Pande

    Also needs to be said that it’s great that you’ve written about this. It needs to be discussed in public forums such as here – we need to stop and think about this – our attitudes, what they really are. It helps knowing too how different people feel about this. I read all the comments with interest. I wish more people would write about what they really think about this – the way Anindita has. It takes guts 🙂

  • Anindita Sengupta

    Thanks for all the comments, people. Yes, the situation in India is different — however, while one can find the issue of trafficking offensive, finding sex work in itself offensive means making life more difficult for those who are already in it. Personally, I am not offended by sex work when someone chooses it but I am offended by trafficking as any sane person would be.

    But beyond that, my point is this: even if you have a problem with the profession, how should it affect your attitude towards public spaces? If one is full of sympathy, one would think that this should mean an even greater acceptance, a greater desire to make life a little bit easier?

    Pam: For some sex workers, it is a lifestyle choice — either because they choose to enter it or because they choose to stay in it. What those choices are guided by (poverty, lack of options) etc is another matter. BUt it’s commonly known that in Mumbai’s Kamathipura, many of them return to sex work despite governmental ‘rehab’ efforts, simply because they prefer the work-money it offers as opposed to working in a factory, say.

    Saika: My intention is not to make any generalizations. The point is that this is an alternative / very real perspective on the trade. In condemning the entire industry as a black hole, we run the risk of being unfair to the women who have a) chosen to be in it b) or who, now that they are in it, want to remain in it. None of us can presume to speak for all of them. The important thing to do is hear what they are saying, rather than impose our own assumptions of what they ‘should’ feel about this work / life. The issue is far too nuanced for any one blanket solution. Often, the privileged take a parental and prescriptive attitude towards the disenfranchised. (Because they are poor, uneducated, oppressed etc, they don’t know their own mind.) Which is rubbish. Sex work, like any other profession, is made up of millions of individuals. And it is worthwhile to take into account every individual testimony or attitude on it to be able to understand the issue more fully.

    Rakhi: I don’t see how the payment factor takes away from the ‘consent’. Two people choose to have sex. As part of this, whether they choose to give each other flowers, beads, chocolate-flavoured condoms or money is their business. How does this affect you? Just as a matter of curiosity — why did you have a problem with sex workers saying that they do not want to leave their profession or that they like the material benefits of it? After all, many people choose professions based on monetary compensation. What is wrong if they do the same? So somewhere isn’t it that we have certain notions of ‘body’ — what it can or cannot be used for and we want to impose this on everybody?

  • TW

    I think some part of ‘genteel’ society’s fear of prostitution is with the boundary or rather lack of it in clientele base. I mean, if sex work is considered as just another profession, then any two consenting adults willing to enter into the transaction can legally do so and that would include barely-adults to those married with families to support. I think the latter is really why society as a whole shuns it.

    And, if sex-trade is legalised (please note I am not against that at all, just bringing out a point to debate) why should con-artists and such be penalised? After all, gullibility is as much fair game as sexuality…

    I think the point is that it is difficult to implement boundaries and hence ‘society’ in its infinite wisdom (or lack of it) bans it altogether…

  • I think Anindita’s examples in the article, of “right of admission” and keeping out “riffraff” and so on, are not about keeping out prostitutes: they are about keeping out people who are visibly less affluent, or less educated, or less “well-mannered”, or simply less desirable in whatever way, than the rest of the clientele. A high-society call girl would probably not be debarred even if the proprietors knew or suspected her calling, provided she was properly dressed.

    Women who “sleep around” (without payment) are talked about much more dismissively and disparagingly, all over the world, than men who do so. When Magic Johnson was diagnosed as HIV-positive, a female star said something to the effect that “if I had slept with 100+ men, you know what people would call me.” And she was right, but as I recall, she was vilified nonetheless for being insensitive to poor Magic. So it is not surprising to me that sex-for-pay is viewed even less positively. Even if the trade were entirely voluntary and free of trafficking, it would be so and it is not realistic to expect anything else. The reasons could be multiple: apart from the above gender bias on the promiscuity issue, there are “what sort of diseases might she have picked up?”, “why can’t she do a respectable job?”, and so on.

    But I would guess that society would only react negatively to prostitutes in public places if they made their trade obvious — showed up in their work-clothes, so to speak. It ought to be easy for them to fit in if they tried — at least, easier than for “riffraff” who genuinely can’t afford stylish clothes and shoes. And I’m sure that, of those few who do have personal and financial liberty, many do lead normal lives in that respect.

  • Parinita

    Nice post though it is extremely rare to have a sex worker who has the kind of choice and income like that person who is quoted in the article. For most women, the sex industry is a hard life with lots of physical dangers. We should stop this”Laaga chunari main daag” style stories though — poor illiterate girl comes to a metro and becomes international call girl with no pimp or criminal help. And even in the U.S, rogue cops do go after sex workers for “freebies”.
    We really should be going after the traffickers,child kidnappers, and abusive pimps . These are the people who are committing real crimes.

    Alan — the pimp traditionally has physical control over the worker who has no choice absolutely. Some i.t body shoppers also control wages and passports but at least they don’t beat or drug the i.t worker, right?

    Rakhi — A person should be free to work in their industry of choice. Why should sex work be any less demeaning than making and selling papads or pickles? No one grows up saying I really want to be a hooker. So imagine the despair when someone is forced into this work — but if there is no compulsion then what is the issue?

    TW — the sex industry needs to be legal because it is a transaction that involves exchange of services for money where all parties know exactly what they are getting….unlike say me selling you a box of bricks by saying it is a flat screen tv. In this case your stupidity is my profit but you are left breaking your head on those bricks.

  • Rakhi Pande

    Somehow exploring my own thought process, I don’t think I’ll ever be sold on the idea that prostitution is a respectable profession to hold. It will take some time before that happens. But these are my views too:
    1. Should we ignore those who were forced into it – either by circumstance or illegal elements? – No! They should get equal rights & we must fight for that.
    2. Should we legalize prostitution? – I know you all feel that the answer is yes, as it will stop the exploitation they face, from police officers and others. And I largely agree. However, the only thing that strikes me here is – what happened in Amsterdam? Isn’t that a good example worth studying? We need to refine our laws after seeing what is happening there. It did solve some problems – but increased some others – like attracting criminal elements from the rest of the world, which they acknowledge themselves. Do we want India to be known for sex tourism alone? Isn’t that primarily why ppl head to Amsterdam? Who are we kidding here. Though we envisage an ideal scenario where everyone gets whatever they want by paying a price, is that what will happen? The ramifications worry me, that’s all. It will be reassuring if we have thought of all possible consequences and then implement the law after having a mechanism in place to deal with it. Will it solve the problem of child trafficking? Or only increase it? Will the corruption of law enforcement officers make any difference to whether it’s legal or illegal?

    What I like about this forum is we’re discussing implementable solutions rather than simply expounding our opinions. Ofcourse, I’ve conducted no adequate research and am simply going by the examples available in media. The solution to end their discrimination/ exploitation requires that there is a system in place to deal with what happens next. Who doesn’t want happy coexistence in society? We all do! And please, I’m not some rabid, foaming at the mouth dissenter, I believe in equal rights for all.

  • Parinita

    The Netherlands and all of EU has been attracting criminals since the borders opened– nothing to do with legal sex trade. In fact Amsterdam is known more for the liberal drug policies than the red light district to point out your ignorance. Perhaps you confused it with Thailand ?
    Legal sex trade in some U.S states means the workers are tested constantly, declare all income and pay taxes.
    Any activity that is driven underground becomes dangerous — like booze in Gujarat. Why do you think the forced and enslaved workers can’t escape? The police are complicit in the illegal trade. The cops will have no reason to harass sex workers if the trade was legal — now they probably raid a brothel and blackmail everyone including the customers. Street walkers pay hafta to the bosses and cops. Why should they pay protection money to criminals? When a pimp/ customer beats or robs them they have no way to get justice.

    If we give the sex workers legal rights , they will be safer.The tragedy is the holier than thou attitude of majority. No one is asking for your approval to validate their lifestyle choices. No one should judge others.

  • Parinita, yours is truly the voice of reason. The tragedy is that most policymakers are as muddleheaded as Rakhi Pande and prefer junkets to Amsterdam or Thailand to study the sex trade while status quo continues in India.

  • Santos Strazzullo

    You haven’t see it all untill you see what this clown came up with lmao!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>