Shades of Grey: Selling Sex - Work, Business, or a Profession? - Meena Seshu & Shohini Ghosh

All is not black and white… and we want to explore the shades of grey. Feminism is diverse and we don't always agree totally with one another, though we may share a similar perspective. While we don't want to silence other viewpoints, we want to focus on the finer distinctions between arguments used by people who are on the same side of the table.

Sex work is an extremely sensitive and contested debate throughout South and Southeast Asia. The number of proposed solutions and debates surrounding 'choice', the ending of exploitation and violence, eliminating stigma and discrimination, and securing health, state protection, and other rights for those who sell sex is endless. We are aware of the arguments used to push for eliminating sex work as well as those for decriminalising it. The for and against arguments will continue, and that is not the purpose of this column. 

Within the debate on decriminalisation, there are differences in the ways sex work is conceptualised and spoken about. Let’s examine the shades of grey...

Selling Sex - Work, Business, or a Profession?


Meena Seshu and Shohini Ghosh give us their analysis of a specific cross-section of the feminist debate on sex work. Here's what we asked them: Is selling sex, work, a profession, a business? Does making this differentiation matter? And, how does this connect with the rights discourse?

Meena Seshu

Is Business Work? Many of the debates around prostitution have been centered on the dichotomy of prostitution either as a human rights violation – a modern form of slavery – or as the exercise of the right to work. This debate is basically problematic because of the binary understanding of prostitution as either an act of slavery or as work. This understanding also pits two human rights against each other: freedom from slavery and victimhood on the one hand versus choice and the right to work on the other. The present discourse fails to recognise the dynamics of an institution that encompasses a wide spectrum of elements from violence and exploitation on one end to autonomy and agency to choose the best possible options, on the other. Prostitution is a way of life. While it is true that all women are not victims, to believe that all women are there out of free choice is also utopian.

But the grey area is not in this external, obvious, and moral discussion. The difficult and thin space of the politics of the female body, female sexual conditioning, and sexual control needs to be broadened, and its complexities teased out and dealt with.

Female Sexual Conditioning. The moral value of‘chaste womanhood’ is centered on monogamous hetero-sexual relationships within marriage for the sole purpose of reproduction. Such reproduction being sacred in so far as the continuation of the species is concerned.  Female sexual conditioning is ‘pure and sacred womanhood’ wherein the acceptance of female passion is also vehemently denied expression. Such passion acquires the status of ‘impure desires’. This thinking also frowns upon the explicit use of sexual parts of the female body and the overt use of the sexual self, deeming it cheap and immoral. But all of this is still considered good if the motive is love and male-centred monogamy. Any deviations from this theme push the limits of acceptable female sexual behaviour.

The resistance to accept prostitution also comes from this deep-seated conditioning that finds it difficult to accept that the sexual self is used in a purposeless (any use other than reproduction) manner. Women therefore cannot, will not and must not use their sexual organs to make money or as a site of work. Women have to be pure – in their ideals, their understanding and use of self, and the use of their bodies.

Providing Sexual Services. Prostitution in India has always been known as dhanda, meaning business. Women in prostitution refer to the exchange of money for the sexual service provided as ‘business’. It is a sexual service provided for a price that is agreed upon and transacted before the service is provided. The service is well defined and is very specific.

Within the brothel context and especially where brothels are demarcated by caste and geography the atmosphere is of a close knit community. Allied services of serving alcohol, or creating an ambience are all services paid for and specifically defined by components of this community rather than the woman who actually offers the sexual service. Women who walk the streets and provide services are also governed by the same rule of specific service for a specific price. Their historical proximity to the entertainment industry has also influenced this way of thinking among the women. This also plays out when women become pregnant. Women will not accept the customer as the father of their children. The service to the customer is over and the relationship with him is also over once the terms of the service provided are over.

Two Distinct Worlds. One the world of those who would like to control sexuality couching it in moral terms or even in terms of societal norms or the good of the species, and the other the world of the resistors who break the norm and try to live by rules unacceptable to the do-good moralists or savers of ‘norms’.

Life is dynamic and takes its own course and therein lies the grey. Women move in and out of these spaces sometimes adhering to one or the other. The dignity and respect with which they face life comes from a lived experience that is unique to them at a particular time in their lives.

Meena Seshu, a Human Rights Watch award winner, works with VAMP, a collective of people in prostitution in Sangli, India.

Shohini Ghosh

My regular encounter with popular perceptions around sex work comes from attending the screenings of my film Tales of the Night Fairies on the sex workers of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), Calcutta. One of the most commonly asked questions is “Would sex workers like their children to become sex workers when they grow up?” I always start by quoting Shikha Das, a sexworker from Shonagachi who is also one of my central protagonists. In a sequence that never made it to the final version, she says: “I want to give my daughter a good education so that when she grows up, she has many more choices available to her. If after considering all options, she chooses to join the profession, I will have no problems.”

After one screening, I was asked whether I would like my own child to become a sexworker? To this I replied that a more relevant question would ask why I chose not to have a child in the first place, as it would then allow us to discuss the diversity of women’s sexual lives and desires.

The biggest challenge of the sex workers movement is to persuade an economic recognition of sex work as a legitimate means of earning a livelihood. To this end, different sex workers organisations will (and should) deploy different strategies of self and public mobilisation. The sex workers from VAMP (Veshya Anyaya Mukti Parishad) call themselves ‘women in prostitution’ and see themselves engaged in an ‘occupation’ (dhanda) and not a profession. The most useful part of this distinction is that it compels people to recognise that women may move in and out of prostitution, which is no different from any other occupation. Of course, we can argue that many professions, like modelling and professional sports, are short and time bound and yet we would not call them occupations.

The women of DMSC prefer to call themselves sexworkers in order to challenge the term prostitute which, as their flyer explains, “is rarely used to refer to an occupational group who earn their livelihood through providing sexual services [but] is deployed as a descriptive term denoting a homogenized category, usually of women, who pose threats to public health, sexual morality and civic order”. In order to foreground the notion of sex work as labour, they have been demanding the right to form a trade union. One of their popular slogan states, “We Labour with Our Bodies to Earn; We Therefore Demand Labour Rights”.

Whether or not DMSC eventually succeeds in forming a trade union, their campaigns have already transformed the public discourse around prostitution. The term sex worker instantly reconfigures the constellation of ideas that gather around the imaginary of the prostitute thereby effecting a semantic shift from a moral to an economic register. This is only the first important step because stripping sex work of its moral connotations and social stigma is a harder and much longer battle concerning the hearts and minds of people.

The history of movements and language of sexuality reveal that terms of self-identification mutate with contextual shifts and historical contingencies. For instance, the term queer has had a complex history in that it first emerged as a term of social opprobrium and subcultural self-description. In the 1970's the gay liberationists abandoned it because of its connotations of self-loathing. In the 1990's it has been reclaimed to suggest a diverse range of non-heteronormative sexual behaviour. Therefore, the discursive struggle around identity, work and a struggle for rights will inevitably witness the emergence of a variety of self-descriptive terms by different groups and collectives in their endeavour to secure the right to work, safe conditions of work, collective mobilisation and the right to form societies, cooperatives and unions.

To my mind, the more decentralised the struggles and more culturally specific the strategies, the more effective they are likely to be. Both VAMP and DMSC, while using different strategies, have succeeded in popularising the idea of sex work as earning a livelihood in exchange for sexual services. That's why when a disapproving member of the audience once asked, “Are you advocating free sex?”, I said, “On the contrary, you pay for it.”

Shohini Ghosh is a feminist media scholar and academic who teaches at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India and has made the film Tales of the Night Fairies.