The Supreme Court of India has passed an order that recognises sex work by consenting adults as a profession, effectively creating a legal safeguard from harassment, police and client brutality, arbitrary arrests and so on. Rehabilitation programmes will thereby only be for those who were trafficked, minors or those who want to voluntarily participate in them. Operating brothels remains illegal, thus affording sex workers protection that does not extend to those who profit from them. This order came after long-term lobbying by those within the industry.
Consent to being in sex work is not straightforward, and mostly only means that one has not been trafficked. It is true that a range of socio-political and socio-cultural variables, from economic issues to caste, partially diminish the ability to knowledgably and freely consent to entering or remaining in the profession. This problematic factor has resulted in critique from quarters who believe that decriminalisation will lead to further exploitation rather than empowerment, and may create acceptance for an industry that is fundamentally inequitable and unsafe. However, associations within the industry have actively campaigned for legal changes that may create better labour or living conditions for them. Their experiences, and the mandates that emerge from them, must be treated with more importance than the well-meaning but incomplete ideas of those of us who do not know the on-ground reality.
It helps to remember that whether or not one falls on the right side of history is not always likely to be known in one’s lifetime. To understand this, we could look to a set of significant 20th century legal changes in particular – which also had public opinion on sexuality in their moral and ideological underpinnings – that look very different now than they must have then. These were the Devadasi Acts in various states and territories of India, which criminalised hereditary artistic communities.
In Tamil Nadu, renowned changemakers like Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and Periyar campaigned for the abolition of hereditary arts systems (in Dr. Reddy’s case, her proximity to the subject was closer, as her mother was from one such community). At the time, this was viewed as a welcome development that would free people from bondage and sexual exploitation within temples. Its actual corollary was major cultural erasure, appropriation, stigma and penury that affected many – with repercussions for generations. The Bharatanatyam dancer Nrithya Pillai, who is from a hereditary arts lineage, writes and speaks extensively on this subject.
The recognition of sex work as a profession in India in 2022 is fundamentally about human dignity and human rights, and is a labour reform issue. In that sense, it is functionally ethical in a way that lofty but unlived ideas are not. This applies whether objections come from conservative quarters uncomfortable with sexuality or from liberal quarters who believe the industry’s eradication on feminist, anti-caste and overall progressive grounds is possible. It isn’t – not any time soon. Sex work is commonly known as the world’s oldest profession for a reason: it has always been a reality. This being a fact, making lived experiences safer for those within the field is more important than making comfortable those who are not in it.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in June 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.