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Choice in the labour market – sex work as “work”

May 6, 2011

The summary of preliminary findings of the first pan-India survey of sex-workers is now available on-line.  3000 women from 14 states and 1 UT were surveyed, all of them from outside collectivised/organised and therefore politically active spaces, precisely  “in order to bring forth the voices of a hitherto silent section of sex workers.”

The significant finding is this: About 71 percent of them said they had entered the profession willingly.

(The data on male and transgender sex workers has not been processed yet).

The study was conducted by Rohini Sahni and  V Kalyan Shankar under the aegis of the Center for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation (CASAM),  supported by Paulo Longo Research Initiative (“a collaboration of scholars, policy analysts and sex workers that aims to develop and consolidate ethical, interdisciplinary scholarship on sex work to improve the human rights, health and well being of women, men and transgenders who sell sex.”). The study was supported by a large number of groups, organizations and individuals in each state, who helped to conduct the surveys.

This background is important, because it appears to be a study that is well grounded, and drawing on large networks of local interconnections.

Women had to be 18 years old at least, to be part of the survey but 0.53 of the sample was 15-17 years of age. These young women

“demanded to be included in the analysis. It was judged that since these adolescents had been self supporting, and had an understanding of what was being asked of them and the consequences of participation, that they had achieved sufficient maturity to justify inclusion. In addition because of the widespread participation of adolescents in a range of occupations and the right of adolescents to be heard on these matters – it was deemed appropriate to retain the responses offered by these adolescents in the analysis.”

This study establishes what feminist research on sex work has been tending increasingly to show,  that the model of choice versus force is utterly inadequate in understanding the motivations of women in sex work. In fact, most sex-workers have  “multiple work identities”. By bringing to the surface the non sex-work histories of the women surveyed, either alongside or prior to engaging with sex work,  the study found that

“a significant number of females move quite fluidly between other occupations and sex work. For example, a street vendor may search for customers while selling vegetables and a dancer at marriages may also take clients. It is not easy to demarcate women’s work into neatly segregated compartments. Sex work and other work come together in ways that challenge the differentiation of sex work as an unusual and isolated activity.”

Poverty and limited education are conditions that push women into labour markets at early ages, and sex work was found to be one among several options available to women in the labour market. This means that other occupations are often pursued before sex work emerges or is considered as an option. Sex work offers a significant supplementary income to other forms of labour. Many of those surveyed also worked in diverse occupations in the unskilled manufacturing or services sector for extremely poor wages.

“The survey found that there is a pattern to the sequential emergence of jobs over age. Agricultural labour and domestic work start at an early age, between 6-10 years. So do some activities like child minding and scrap collection, but on a smaller scale. These are either family-based occupations or remain parental occupations into which the girls may get drawn for assistance. Other girls enter the labour force at the turn of the teens, some of them in more labour-intensive activities like daily wage earning or construction labour while others start fitting into a host of low-end jobs such as cleaners, sweepers, helpers, and petty selling. The frequency of cases shows a steep surge in this phase. While some activities like agricultural work or baby-sitting show an early peaking, some of the more niche activities like tailoring, working in beauty parlours or nursing/patient care start at a later age. In the sample, the largest category of prior work was that of domestic workers, followed by daily wage earners and those in petty services in formal/informal establishment.”

Why did women either leave these other occupations or supplement their income from those occupations with sex work? The responses were:

“low pay, insufficient salary, no profit in business, no regular work, seasonal work, not getting money even after work, could not run home with that income, is kaam se pet nahi bharta.”

Quite simply, sex work is

“an economically attractive option. The modal incomes in sex work are in a higher bracket of Rs. 1000-3000, with substantial numbers in the range of Rs. 3000-5000 (which also forms the median value). These incomes persist in older age groups.”

The categories of forced/sold/cheated, or involving an element of abuse, are roughly similar across the two sets of direct entrants (22.1%) and those coming from other work (24.8%). But the study also suggests that “where choosing sex work carries a social stigma, it may be expected that being coerced or being cheated are modes of entry likely to be somewhat over-reported.”

In short:

“Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions, nor is it particularly prominent in terms of the employment of minors as compared to other sectors. For those coming to sex work from the other labour markets, they have often experienced equally harsh (or worse) conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low (and most often lower) incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.”

What this study does is force us to recognize that “choice” is severely limited in the labour market as a whole. If people find it possible to move to work that is less exhausting and better paying, they will do so. There is no more or less agency exercised in “choosing” to do slave labour as a domestic servant in multiple households for a pittance, or be exploited by contractors doing construction work, than there is in “choosing” to do sex work – whether as the sole occupation or alongside other work.

There is no option for feminists but to demystify this thing called sex, in which one puts some particular parts of one’s body to work rather than others. There is no  option for us but to be in solidarity with initiatives of sex workers to make their working conditions safe and dignified and well-paid.

A clarification – I am not arguing for legalizing sex-work, which only brings it into the ambit of the state’s control, but for decriminalizing it. Here’s a link to this debate in the context of Canada, but the arguments are pretty much the same everywhere.

Download THE FIRST PAN-INDIA SURVEY OF SEX WORKERS: A summary of preliminary findings by ROHINI SAHNI & V KALYAN SHANKAR from this link

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Amarendra permalink
    May 6, 2011 7:07 PM

    Very important points. I think we need to look at the history of stigmatization of sex work to understand it better. I strongly feel that this historical of delegitimization of sex work is nothing but another manifestation of strongly brahmanical ordering of indian society where the mind is accorded supreme importance and consequently, the thinking, education n other related concerns (all brahmanical) and all physical work n labour were looked down upon and sex was outlawed (eventhough it was very much an integral part of the society).

    • meenakshi puri permalink
      May 8, 2011 9:27 AM

      I agree that sex was ordered by brahmanical society, especially when it came to women. But here the question is about commodifying sex and the body.

      • meenakshi puri permalink
        May 9, 2011 5:33 PM

        nivedita i am awaiting your reply to my question

  2. saie permalink
    May 6, 2011 8:31 PM

    it is really commendable that the researchers interviewed 3000 women but i think there could be a bias in their view given that almost all of them were adults and it would have also been interesting to know the reasons ‘forcing’ the women to make this choice

    • Bishakha permalink
      May 16, 2011 11:25 PM

      A quote on ‘choice’ that made me think, from Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence:

      “The existence of choice, does not, of course, indicate that there are no constraints restricting choice. Indeed, choices are always made within the limits of what are seen as feasible…This, however, is not a remarkable fact. It is just the way every choice in any field is actually faced. Indeed, nothing can be more elementary and universal than the fact that choices of all kinds in every area are always made within particular limits. For example, when we decide what to buy at the market, we can hardly ignore the fact that there are limits on how much we can spend. The “budget constraint,” as economists call it, is omnipresent. The fact that every buyer has to make choices does not indicate that there is no budget constraint, but only that choices have to be made within the budget constraint the person faces. What is true in elementary economics is also true in complex political and social decisions.”

  3. May 6, 2011 8:51 PM

    A welcome debate which has long been overdue; nevertheless, many studies and debates that would touch a raw nerve in the dominant moral regime have also been condemned to oblivion thanks to a conspiracy of silence that would never allow sex workers to speak in first person, except as victims of coercion.

  4. May 6, 2011 11:07 PM

    Thanks for this. We had a similar take on the report:

  5. Aarti Sethi permalink*
    May 6, 2011 11:30 PM

    This is a really important and significant survey and hopefully it will become the catalyst for a series of urgent discussions that need to begin around decriminalizing sex work. The point on what constitutes ‘choice’ as regards labour is absolutely spot on. Under capitalism labour is ‘everywhere in chains’ :) In many instances sex work is possibly the safest option of ‘putting one’s body to work’.

  6. meenakshi puri permalink
    May 7, 2011 8:18 PM

    Hi Nivedita
    I would like to know the differnce between commodifying a woman’s body and sexuality in sports (i particularly have in mind your lovely and most welcome article titled ‘ modest, sexy or….’) and in sex work/ prostitution.
    Is it enough to justify the work as the women say they have entered the ‘profession’ willingly? The choice versus force argument remains valid, according to me.
    A lot of abuse and violence takes place with women’s consent or ignorance, within and outside marriage.Many times it is dictated by financial necessity.When we do not accept that, why should we accept this?
    While I accept that sex work is fluid and the women move from one area to another, it has little bearing on the need to see sex work as an alternative.
    I have another question. What is the difference in the usage od sex work/prostitution? Are they interchangeable?

  7. sanjeeb mukherjee permalink
    May 8, 2011 6:29 AM

    Sex work in India is not illegal; soliciting is.

  8. May 8, 2011 9:35 AM

    Commodity> Labor > Value> Socially Necessary Labor Time> Use Value> Exchange Value> Surplus Value> Accumulation ..
    We know that Marx deals with these in Capital. In his analysis, these categories are representations of dynamic processes taking place in a bourgeois society overall, rather than negotiated once and for all.
    I wonder why even Marxists often want to be DE- MARX-IZED while they discus gender, sexuality and marals..
    Would have liked to come back here.

  9. Nivedita Menon permalink
    May 10, 2011 3:10 PM

    Meenakshi, apologies, I am indeed not in Delhi, and not able to access internet regularly. You raise important queries. Let me try to address them. First of all, it is precisely because our old modes of thinking have proved to be inadequate in grasping our contemporary moment that such fundamental rethinking becomes necessary. So, yes, I agree with you that much violence takes place with women’s consent or due to their ignorance, and there has to be a way in which we can grasp that phenomenon. But it is one thing to analyse that phenomenon and another to politically intervene in order to transform (or attempt to transform) conditions of existence for all women in keeping with “our” principles. The latter mode of being can only hold in contempt, or pity women who choose ways of living that “we” see as exploitative of themselves – such choices can range from being housewives to models to sex workers. The former mode is more humble, it recognizes that there is NO such thing as unmediated free will or agency, for feminists or for anyone else. Feminists too, live lives that are circumscribed in various ways, and it would be a very dishonest feminist who said s/he has never compromised with his/her principles in their life. Given this, we must try to recognize modes of life that try to subvert existing norms of whatever kind as well as recognize, when it comes to the capitalist labour market in particular, that “choice” quite simply does not exist for the vast masses who already are (or are being relentlessly transformed into) wage labour. We do recognize this when it comes to hard, demeaning work like domestic labour, for instance, but we would not say, abolish that form of work. We would want that the conditions of work of people who do paid domestic labour should be dignified, that they should be paid the prevailing minimum wage at least, have regular weekly holidays etc. etc. This is all that many sex-workers are demanding. Politicized and unionized ones, that is. Others, like the women surveyed in this study, simply want to be let alone to do whatever they can to make their lives more financially comfortable. Remember, many of them had other kinds of employment, but moved to occasional or full-time sex work because they found conditions of work better, and the pay better. Why is it more demeaning to do sex-work than clean other people’s toilets? Why should feminists share the patriarchal disdain for women who choose the conditions in which they will have sex? In fact, from a feminist perspective, housewives are much more exploited than sex-workers, because they control not even a tiny aspect of their lives. Shouldn’t we be much more vociferous about a ban on marriage?
    Of course there are women and children who are trafficked, and I dont see why feminists worry that accepting that many women choose sex work willingly necessarily takes attention away from those who want out. There is bonded labour and there is “free” wage labour, and we do make the distinction between them.
    I would not like to use the term prostitute any more, jus as I do not use the terms Mrs/Miss any more. Or servant/maid rather than domestic labour.
    And thank you for making the connection to my sports post – what I say there is that most women athletes do not want to be dictated to about what they will wear, and that was the reason for my criticism of BWF’s policy, which will force women to dress in ways that impede the work they do, so that they fit what BWF thinks will bring the money in, i.e. “sexy” women defined in a particular way. I was not critical of Kournikova for fitting that profile because she seems to be doing that “of her own will” – to the extent that any kind of fitting in to dominant norms is free will, whether that means wearing few or more clothes!

  10. Sridip Nambiar permalink
    May 10, 2011 5:17 PM

    Under the ITPA, only visible representations of sex work are the subjects of law (like soliciting, renting out premises for the purpose and other ‘public nuisance’ issues etc.). Sex work per se cannot be called ‘illegal’ in India. But, the implementation of law, (where women who are caught during a raid are made out as accused instead of prosecution witnesses (this helps the pimps to take them out on bail and put them back in business)) etc. is the main issue.

    Wats wrong in having state control? give them labour cards, give them insurance schemes and the ability to start co-operative bodies. all this is possible only if there is a legal regime to cover the same. Because, otherwise there is a chance for more exploitation.

  11. May 10, 2011 7:01 PM

    Problematizing the moral norms of bourgeois monogamous heterosexual family may be as much needed as in any debate that would engage honestly with the moral phantoms mystifying sex work.

  12. meenakshi permalink
    May 10, 2011 7:56 PM

    Thanks Nivedita for some very convincing arguments.
    I know that a lot of your thoughts are about living and letting live, all towards a hopefully more tolerant world.
    I agree completely that unpaid,unrecognised, invisibilised work done by a wife is exploitative.While I believe that she has the right to choose whether she wants to stay on in such a relationship(sometimes for financial reasons), I also believe that she would be happier if she were to come out of something that is damaging.But I say this from the distance that an urban, educated, woman from a privileged background would.
    I would not take away another’s livelihood. I don’t want that responsibility. It would be arrogant and patronizing of me to do so.
    I realise that you were not indicting Anna Kournikova for her showing her panties.
    There is a lot in your reply that i need to understand,so let me take just one doubt!
    Am I to understand then, that the essay did not criticise commodification of sports and women’s sexuality, but was largely concerned that the dictat would impede sportswomen’s movements?
    Does it imply that in your public role you do not condemn commodification of sports and women’s bodies?

  13. May 24, 2011 5:50 PM

    Niveditha, We were discussing this in another discussion forum and would like to share some of the alternative views that came there.
    1. Is selling sex the same as domestic labour? Do the women view it as such? Of course, it does pay them more, but are the conditions less oppressive than in other routine jobs.
    Someone posted this article to state that it is not so.

    More importantly what are the sex workers themselves saying? Choice of working as sex workers does not necessarily mean, that if it was a more lucrative option, would they choose domestic labour/ petty businesses over sex work?

    2. Some members also posted experiences from other countries, and I quote “The legalization of prostitution in Netherlands was supposed to put an end to prostitution of minors. However, the Organization for the Rights of the Child, the headquarters of which is in Amsterdam, estimates that the number of minors who are prostituted in the Netherlands has increased from 4,000 in 1996 to 15,000 in 2001, including at least 5,000 who are of foreign origin.”

    If legalisation of sex work is actually increasing trafficking rather than regulating conditions, why would one argue for that?
    Moreover, decriminalising clients rather than the sex workers as done in Sweden has resulted in much lesser number of prostituted women.
    By arguing for legitimising sex work, are we just prolonging their oppression?

  14. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    May 27, 2011 5:40 PM

    Sorry for the long silence, Meenakshi, after your tough questions! And apologies to BD too. My response, touching on issues raised by both your comments: My feminist politics is not really (or at all) about ‘living and let live’ in the interests of a ‘more tolerant world’ (M). It is (still) about transformation and justice, about exposing and condemning the practices of power. However, what has changed since the 1980’s for me and for many other feminists all over the globe, is the recognition that normative feminism with its unitary vision is as much a practice of power as are patriarchal practices. ‘Tolerance’ is not, in my opinion, a productive value, for it implies turning a benign blind eye to odd and varied ways of living from a position of normative and normalizing power, while my politics is about destabilizing that very position from which tolerance emanates. Can there be minority tolerance towards the majority? Tolerance of the rich by the poor? You can see how problematic a value this is.
    So if our politics is about transformation, then it implies transformation as much of our own (feminist) normalizing practices as of other practices of power – class, caste, etc. Given this, I have been rethinking the very idea of “commodification of the female body” that we used as feminists for so long. (And still do). The idea, derived from Marx,refers to objects produced by human beings, and to apply this critique to human bodies is to lose sight of human agency, will, volition, or whatever one may term the fact that human beings think and make choices while objects produced by them do not.
    This is where we come to the problem with extending the critique of commodification to women’s bodies. To think of advertising, pornography or sex work as commodification is to think of the women participating in this work as ‘commodities’, that is, as objects owned by others, men, who are the real parties to the contract. But it is in fact the women who are parties to the contract. Are they exploited? Yes of course. But all work under capitalism is ‘exploitation’, that is, the extraction of surplus value from labour. Under capitalism, the labour market offers the ‘choice’ between more and less arduous, more and less meagerly paid work.
    If women choose then, to take up professions like modeling, or sex work, or any other profession in which they commodify some specific body parts rather than others, feminists must stand by them in demanding better conditions of work, more pay and dignity in their professions rather than go along with misogynist values that demean certain kinds of work altogether.
    What this means is that we need to demystify ‘sex’ altogether.

    BD – you ask – “More importantly what are the sex workers themselves saying?” I think it is quite clear that what emerges from the responses of the non-unionized sex workers in the survey cited, as well as from various public statements from unions of sex workers, is that they do not view sex work as more oppressive than domestic labour, either for a wage or for free in a marriage. It’s only when feminists continue to mystify sex (as patriarchy does too), that sex work appears to be ‘a fate worse than death.’The article you have linked to is an anti-trafficking position that emanates from a certain white globalizing feminism that refuses precisely to recognize that non-white women make choices within the conditions they are placed in, just as they themselves (white feminists) do. The anti-trafficking position feeds in very well into anti-non-white immigration trends in the West, and has been thoroughly critiqued by feminists of colour. Here’s a link to an article that brings the question of migration to bear on the anti-trafficking position.
    As for legalization of prostitution – I am opposed to it, and do not expect any positive benefits for sex workers themselves, or for trends in forced sex work from the state entering this field of work. Decriminalization of various aspects of the work, including of “soliciting” which is the crime in India, is what sex workers’unions have demanded.
    AS for forced sex work, that is precisely like bonded labour, and of course as feminists we should support women who want to leave the profession. Just as we should support women who do not want to get married or want to leave marriages they are in. But if you ask me, marriage is far more of a compulsory insitution (and compulsory form of work for women) than any other, and it is often as arduous, undignifed,and inescapable as sex work is assumed to be – and unpaid on top of it all!


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