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  • Writer's pictureJSIA Bulletin


Updated: Feb 2, 2022


Prostitution, the exchange for sexual favours for material gains, is something more often than not arouses sentiments of revulsion.

“The hatred of sex workers is rooted in very old and misogynist ideas about sex.”[1] The ‘sex work' industry has managed to capture the popular imagination of people in two contradictory yet concurrent manners. Sex workers were once considered as a manifestation of evil; at the same time, they were considered as victims of patriarchy. This vision of sex workers is what feminist writer Melissa Gira Grant calls ‘prostitute imaginary. “During World War II, the disease-ridden prostitute was imagined as the enemy’s secret biological weapon. Posters depicted her as an archetypal femme fatale with a cigarette between her red lips, a tight dress, and a wicked smile, above slogans, warning that she and other ‘pickups’ were Axis agents, enemies of the Allied forces, and friends of Hitler”. [2] Then there is this idea of prostitution as the manifestation of patriarchal domination and sexual subjugation of women. It negatively impacts not only the women and girls in prostitution but women as a community primarily because prostitution continually affirms and reinforces patriarchal definitions of women as having a primary function to serve men sexually.

Both ideas of prostitution articulate the eradication of the phenomenon in its entirety, albeit for distinctive reasons. The notion that prostitution is somehow a disease for society, encourages its eradication for the ‘good’ of society. The notion that it is a means of sexual superiority encourages its eradication for the good of the sex worker. Both these notions of prostitution, surprisingly, do not tend to work in the interest of the prostitute or the society.


It is important to remember that sex workers are just ordinary women who are doing a job they may like or dislike to various degrees for ordinary reasons, like, to pay their rent, or support their children, or save up money for future goals and aspirations. [1] If they, by virtue of their own choice, want to indulge in sexual activities for monetary purposes, they are enshrined by the constitution to do so. Technically prostitution is legal in India. Though, practically, it is, by all means, not.

The SITA (Suppression of immoral trafficking act), now amended to the PITA (Prevention of immoral trafficking act) prohibits the public solicitation of customers, involvement of procurers, and the establishment of brothels. The law is aimed at protecting the right against exploitation, a fundamental right enshrined in the Indian Constitution (Article 23 and 24). This, however, in practice leads to exploitation. It is virtually impossible to work as a sex worker without soliciting, involving procurers or using brothels. It implies that anyone working as a prostitute becomes, by default, a criminal. This has major implications for a sex worker. This means that a sex worker would be very reluctant to seek help from the law enforcement agencies in case of an assault, which essentially immunises violent customers from prosecution. Law enforcement becomes a threat to sex workers. It is not uncommon to hear stories of sexual assault of sex workers by the police officers themselves, rendering the sex workers helpless. In such a case, they have nowhere to go.

It is not only the case in India but in other countries as well. Sex workers in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Siberia, Lithuania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria all view the police as more of a threat to their safety than any other group, according to research by the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN).[2]

It is often argued that not all people enter prostitution by choice. Many are forced into the industry, and the PITA works to protect these people from exploitation. On the surface, this may seem like a very sound argument. In reality, the formalisation of the prostitution industry would protect people who are trafficked. Once the government accepts sex work as a formal profession, it can regulate it. It can issue Registration certificates for sex workers who are of age and are willingly indulging in the profession. The customers can be advised to buy sex from only registered prostitutes. This will mean that there will be less incentive for procurers to traffic people.

A parallel can be drawn with the Kimberley process aimed at preventing the flow of conflict diamonds into the market. Before its establishment, a huge amount of diamonds mined by rebel forces in conflict zones made their way into the markets. These diamonds financed the war effort of these rebel forces and kept the conflict going. This was especially relevant in the case of the RPF in Sierra Leone in the late 90s. After the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) came into effect. It became necessary for merchants to prove that their diamonds were conflict-free to sell them. This led to a massive decrease in the sale of conflict diamonds.

The analogy does not aim to objectify sex workers by comparing them to diamonds but only to show how the formalization of the industry would help to protect people from being trafficked. Sex workers are also at an immense loss, economically because that their work is not recognised by the law. It prevents them from going to banks in case of an emergency and are forced to borrow from procurers who more often than not, charge them ridiculously high-interest rates, which leads to their exploitation.

Additionally, formalisation of the industry means that sex workers would be able to establish unions to whom they could turn, in case they are exploited by the customers or even by law enforcement.

It also helps to compare the sex industry with the mining industry. Both industries involve exhausting jobs, a considerable amount of risk to one’s life These are not jobs one is likely to deliberately choose. Now, consider if the miners can only work discreetly, are unable to organise themselves into unions against exploitative industrialists, and are unable to even borrow money from banks. This is the unfortunate reality of the sex industry.

Furthermore, the argument for the formalisation of the industry is not just a theoretical one. It has been tried and has produced the desired results.

The Netherlands legalised and formalised prostitution about two decades ago. Bringing the industry out of the black market and imposing strict regulations has improved the safety of sex workers[3]. Brothels are required to obtain and renew safety and hygiene licenses in order to operate, and street prostitution is legal and heavily regulated in places like the Red-Light District. Also, sex workers are not branded as criminals, so they have better access to the legal system and are encouraged to report behaviours that put themselves and other women at risk.[4]

The results of the Prostitution Reform Act have been beneficial for sex workers. A study from the Christchurch School of Medicine found that “90 per cent of sex workers believed the PRA gave them employment, legal, health, and safety rights. A substantial 64 per cent found it easier to refuse clients. Significantly, 57 per cent said police attitudes to sex workers changed for the better.” Prostitutes are also reported as being able to go to the police when they were hurt or threatened, and one sex worker successfully sued a brothel owner for sexual harassment.[5]


At first glance, it may seem that the feminist movement would be supportive of the movement for the rights of sex workers. However, prostitutes' relationship with the wider feminist movement has always been fraught.

The radical-feminist perspective on sex work holds that it reproduces (and is itself a product of) patriarchal violence against women.[1] Therefore, it should be completely eradicated by criminalisation and incarceration of the perpetrators if necessary. This argument is naive in the sense that it does not consider its implications on the very people it is trying to uplift.

'Pro-sex' or 'sex radical feminists are more accommodative of the sex workers' concerns. But they too were not in coherence with the demands of the sex workers' rights movement.

Rather than focusing on the ‘work’ of sex work, both pro-sex feminists and anti-prostitution feminists view their respective standings of ‘sex’ as a symbol.[2]

“Both groups questioned what the existence of the sex industry implied for their positions as women; both groups prioritized those questions over what material improvements could be made in the lives of the sex workers in their communities. Stuck in the domain of sex and whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for women (and adamant that it could only be one or the other) it was all too easy for feminists to think of The Prostitute only in terms of what she represented to them”[3]


To this point, the arguments have made it indisputably clear that the formalisation of prostitution is good for the people involved. But the people involved in sex work constitute an alienated minority. It is unfair but unsurprising for someone who has nothing to do with the sex industry to say that formalisation may help the workers. One might also wonder how it would help them individually. Therefore, it becomes imperative to understand how the formalisation of prostitution affects society as a whole. An argument that is excessively used by people against the formalisation of the industry is that it will lead to the growth of the industry and would lure more women into the dangerous profession.

This fear has been debunked by the seminal case of New Zealand. There has been little impact on the number of people entering the industry post-decriminalisation[4]. The sex industry is not a market that is under-utilised due to its partial criminalization. The economic and social factors that motivate people to join the sex work industry have already saturated the market. Since the number of sex workers has not risen, it is safe to assume that the demand for sex work has also not risen, contrary to widespread fears that the legalisation of the industry would lead to overcrowded brothels. The stigma involved with indulging in prostitution means that most people would not be willing to pay for sex, even if it is seen as a legitimate occupation.

Regulation of the industry can also help protect customers of the industry. In this regard, one can learn from the example of Thailand, which requires prostitutes to undergo a regular medical examination which will result in a reduction in the spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. In the current state of the industry, it is almost impossible for a sex worker to refuse service if the customer refuses to use contraception. This leads to the spread of STDs. Post regulation, the workers would be in a better position to refuse one’s service without the use of contraception. It will also help slow down the spread of STDs. It has also happened elsewhere. When the state of Rhode Island in the United States decriminalised sex work for six years from 2003 to 2009, a study by UCLA found there was a dramatic drop in STDs and rape. The study’s authors remarked that “decriminalisation could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large—not just sex market participants.[5]

Besides these obvious benefits, the government could potentially collect taxes from this billion-dollar industry.


The formalization and legalization of the sex industry would be in almost everyone’s favour, it does not matter if you are a sex worker or a student, a doctor or an engineer, a businessman or politician. It is high time we move away from misogynistic notions of sexual activity towards a more pragmatic understanding and an inclusive perspective.

Cover image: Source

About the author: Aayush Maniktalia is a third-year student of international relations at O.P. Jindal Global University. He uses the pronouns he/him and has an avid interest in the field of organised crime and peace and conflict studies. Regionally he is inclined towards Latin America and Africa as an area of study. Besides being interested in global geopolitics he loves to do standup comedy and play badminton.

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