I am really honoured by the seriousness with which Manushi friends have responded to the debate on legalization of prostitution. You have raised important issues for which I do not have readymade answers. I too am grappling with this issue and therefore welcome your critiques and inputs. My main concern is that the ground realities in each society be taken into account while we propose solutions. What works in Sweden may not be practical in India. I hope this debate will enable us to work towards a more rational, humane and practical approach and legislation on this issue. Madhu Kishwar
Very well argued. I am not sure though of the validity of the argument against legalization, which is a prerequisite of the regulation of any profession.
Dear Madhu: I read it in the IE yesterday with great interest. Thanks also for sending me the recommendations of your seminar.
Great to see you write on this issue. We had discussed this in person once, but I do not really get the differentiation you are trying to make between decriminalization and legalization-how can something be decriminalized without being legalized?-either the it violates the law or it does not. To legalize does not mean that it automatically becomes socially respectable either-the respect we accord to different professions varies among all the activities that are perfectly legal even now. However, rather than get into a dispute over terms, it may be easier to find common ground on specific issues on policies.
Some women (and men) may choose to sell their bodies for money and others men (and women) may choose to buy this. At some level this is a transaction between consenting adults, one that has existed in various forms in different societies. If we agree that criminalizing this transaction is neither useful nor effective, then we can focus on the other issues that this brings up:
1. Are the parties involved "consenting"? Rather than become a moral police, which is a dubious idea at best when used for the Indian police force, law enforcement can focus their energy on cases of coercion and trafficking and on those below the age of consent. In the absence of this, the legitimate parts of the trade just become an additional bribery stream for the police force. Allowing consensual sex transactions will help the protection and emancipation of women who are being coerced against their will as well as provide recourse to women who are practicing willingly where they are currently at the mercy of the criminal mafia for enforcement of their rights, including the right to get paid for their work and for medical and legal services.
2. How should the marketing and availability of the services be regulated? Just like advertising for cigarette smoking or alcohol is regulated, it would make sense to heavily regulate the marketing of these services.
3. How should establishments that ply this trade be regulated? Here we are going beyond consenting adults to a commercial setup where many such sex-workers may be employed. Other than the regulation on marketing and solicitation, as in (2), there should be regulations on where they may open "parlors" and what kind of medical services and screening must be provided to the workers. Perhaps we can also propose that the establishments that employ these women be women-owned and managed; similarly for their male counterparts.
4. Make it illegal for foreigners to avail of these services. This may seem bizarre, but given that prostitution is legal only in certain countries, these place end up being a magnet for sex-tourists. Keeping it illegal for foreigners would keep a lid on the influx of sex-tourism.
The question whether this trade demeans men or women more is not something that has any objective answer. Whether trading money for sex is more or less moral than, say, trading money for other menial work on the one hand, or say, religious conversion, on the other, can be debate for the philosophers. (Is it more morally culpable to sell one's soul, than to sell one's body?) In the meantime it is better to deal with reality, and human nature, as it exists.
Shamita Das Dasgupta
Thanks for an interesting article. I have made very similar arguments in my book with Indrani Sinha. It is about mothers who are involved in the sex trade. May I draw your attention to it?
Indrani Sinha & Shamita Das Dasgupta. (2009). Mothers for sale: Women in Kolkata's sex trade. Kolkata: DasGupta Alliance (boiwala.dasgu...@gmail.com).
I hope you will get a chance to read it and let me know what you think of it.
Answer by Madhu Kishwar
Many thanks for your feedback and critique of my article on legalizing prostitution. I agree that my attempt to differentiate between decriminalization and legalization is confusing and may even seem fuzzy. But I am not convinced that brothels of the kind one sees in Bangkok or Amsterdam are the best way to deal with this problem. I am not the kind who wants to meddle in matters of consensual sex for money if the transaction takes place under conditions of free choica. The real issue is that the vast majority of women are trapped into the flesh trade under the most inhuman circumstances. Even in countries where sex trade is legalized, the entire trade is dominated by criminal mafias. In such countries, there is enormous amount of trafficking of women across national boundaries--with most women brought in from poorer countries on false pretexts. I would hate to live in a world where men dont even feel guilty about buying the services of such victims. Sex is not just a biological urge or a mechanical act --it is also a sacred trust between two human beings. Even at the risk of sounding prudish, I have no hesitation in saying that I m unable to accept it as just another transaction--like selling your services as a taxi driver. Those who think it should be treated at par with any other transaction--should answer the question: Would they be as cool about it if their daughter or sister took to this profession? Would you be able to accept her 'choice" openly and introduce her to your friends and colleagues as a sex worker with as much ease as you do when introducing a member of your family as a school teacher or doctor?
I am sorry I have only just joined the thread of the conversation and hope that I am not repeating what has already been discussed. What I would say is this:
Parents have very high career aspirations for their children and are often disappointed by the choices that their children make. My mother, for example, told me in front of a female doctor how she was disappointed that her daughter had chosen to be a university professor rather than a doctor. So in her eyes, I had failed.
The key is to figure out the extent to which parents should determine what their daughters / sisters choose for their career. What if tomorrow I decide that I am a lesbian / bisexual after all (I am not) - will I worry about my parent's disappointment? In Iran I can be publicly executed for this. Also, why blame the children for making these choices. And choice is the wrong word here as they are not free agents if freedom is what we are talking about. Aren't they products of their environment? I am sure even though some women may choose to prostitute their bodies, it must have been a difficult decision for them. We need to find out who failed them, how, and where. What role did parents play in raising them? What was their moral framework? Did they not teach their daughters the right from wrong (if we are dividing the world in these black and white categories). Did they not lay emphasis on education? We have also heard about parents who sell their daughters to men from the middle east to pay off debts etc. What role did the society play? Why did it lose its civic responsibilities?
I think by referring to prostitution as a shameful profession, we are once again blaming sex workers rather than ask difficult questions.
K.V. Bapa Rao
Some of the abortion debate in the US might provide parallel clues on the matter of decriminalization / legalization. Even those who favour criminalizing abortion don't (usually) talk about penalties for the woman who undergoes the procedure; their focus is more on the providers. Technically abortion is legal in the US, but there is a steady stream of limiting laws being passed that regulate the procedure without necessarily making it criminal.
Also instructive is the debate about homosexuality vs. pedophilia in India. The two are often confused, but one can be made legal or decriminalized without sanctioning the other.
I think we need to be creative about situating the prostitution problem in the gray area between "decriminalized" and "not legalized". Perhaps in communicating the issue, more emphasis can be given to the perversity of the way in which criminalization of prostitution is enforced in India--exploitation, harassment by police etc. The crux of the matter is, we want crimes like kidnapping, imprisonment, exploitation etc. in the context of prostitution punished, but not the prostitute herself / himself. What to do with the customer is another matter. I don't think it is correct to argue that, kidnapping etc. can only be prosecuted in the context of a fully legalized activity (mafia boss Al Capone was prosecuted and convicted for tax evasion--not paying taxes on his criminally received income, but he was never prosecuted for the criminal activity itself, clearly it didn't mean that the crimes were not crimes or they were condoned; for some good reason (inability to find witnesses etc.) it was decided to not prosecute those crimes.).
The easing of pressure of the law on prostitutes themselves can be a matter of policy, or it can be written into law carefully incorporating these kinds of nuances. Question is, does it make more sense to push for a policy change (is that reliable?) or is a change law the only course to pursue?
By the way, I hope it won't be considered contempt of court, but I thought the court's remark on legalizing prostitution was facile, there seem to be a spate of such remarks from the apex court these days.
K.V. Bapa Rao to Alka Kurian
Hi Alka, my guess is that the proportion of women who freely choose to become prostitutes is relatively low in India. So, it is probably ok to see the prostitute generally as a victim, lacking in autonomy, at least at the point of entering the profession. So, then, the focus could be placed on how to prevent the victims from being victimized even further by the legal system as is happening now. I feel that some such framing would have the maximum appeal, without getting into moral judgments about the act of prostitution or philosophical debate about free choice etc. about which there can be a lot of view points, few of them relevant to the reality of a girl sold into prostitution, who needs urgent relief as a first step.
Maybe a practical way to "decriminalize but not legalize" is to do something along the lines of what Sweden has done. In Sweden it is a crime to pay for sex, but it is not a crime to sell sex. The idea is that the prostitute, who is often a victim in this situation, should not be further victimized by the law. But since buying sex is illegal, the prostitution business itself is illegal.
This law has received mixed reviews. See this, for example
As Oliver Goldsmith said: That *virtue* which requires to be *ever guarded*is scarcely *worth the sentinel*. I have worked and visited tawa'ifs in Lucknow and published a scholarly piece on them. It certainly speaks of the respect that society, and the court--for they were courtesans--received from the public at large. This was true of Hindu and Muslim courts. Prostitution really came into our cities via the colonial government--who needed every cantonment, there were 110 of these purpose-built spaces in the major cities of colonial India. (vide, my *Afternoons at the Kotah* in Shaam e Avadh: Writings on Lucknow, Penguin, 2007). A prostitute was the debased version of the tawa'if, with none of her control over her own body, her earnings and her property. They were also the only educated women who weiled influence in the court. The kothas were owned and run by women--not mafia dons and the pimps we see today, abducting and brutalizing women.
I think the high class call girl is a return to some of the older traditions of this social institution. (*Laga Chunari Mein Daag* has Bollywooed's fairly enlightened take on this that leaves us in utter sympathy and even identification with the woman who has had to prostitute herself. Films like Benazir and Pakeezah are also respectful of their prostitute/singer/dancer women. I think the root cause of not respecting a prostitute goes along with men and even not respecting women. Women have been so socially and legally constructed to be the dependents of men that the respect for a woman trying to make her own way in life without becoming the wife or रखैल of one man. I know this is changing in very small ways in cities, but the the prejudice against single women is enormous. Given the mainly sexual nature of a prostitutes livelihood--prudish and prurient societies have no place for such women. For this reason it is imperative to legalize the trade--which will allow prostitutes to seek justice in law courts and from exploitation from pimps and gun-toting politicians/clients. I think a couple of very shabby and unhygienic kothas in Lucknow might bloom again. De-criminalization is only a half-hearted gesture.
Hello Madhuji and all,
Madhuji, as always I've enjoyed reading and understanding your perspective. I clearly see why you have taken the views you've shared.
I also want to add that in western European nations where prostitution is legal, most of the women prostituting themselves are from poorer eastern European nations or women of color who've been trafficked or immigrated into the country in hopes of having a better life. If these nations saw prostitution as a truly ‘respectable choice’ than how come the profession has been reserved only for the most oppressed women within these countries? Clearly western European nations (Sweden and Amsterdam specifically) lack a class and race analysis of their laws, of the men who travel to their nations specifically for sex, and of the women in the sex trade. Legalizing the profession had nothing to do with 'respectability' and supporting women's sexual 'choices.' Rather it was done for capitalistic reasons (to amp up tourism and increase taxes of sorts) and to show the rest of the world that these nations are more ‘liberated’ than other places. What great things has legalizing prostitution done for the women? White western countries are very good at displaying a liberal message without truly following it, as we already know, and this is just one more tactic. I don't understand why Indian and other feminists, or for that matter other nations, look up to these European countries on most things but especially on the topic of prostitution when their analysis is weak and the motivation has an awful hidden agenda.
Questions for Sankrant Sanu: In your response you said, “Perhaps we can also propose that the establishments that employ these women be women-owned and managed" and "Make it illegal for foreigners to avail of these services."
1.) What difference would it make to have ‘prostitution establishments’ as woman-owned and run businesses? Is this suggestion made to ensure that only women will profit from the profession? Why open up this specific profession to just women when there is little effort to include women in professions from which we are currently being excluded? Is the underlying assumption here that women will be more humane than men at running the show because women are inherently more humane? I think it would place an unnecessary expectation on women to humanize an inhumane profession (an impossible task). There are many brothels that are owned and operated by women where you can see the same atrocities as in those run by men. Even in other areas of life we see women committing similar abuses onto women that men commit. Do we want to legally embolden this under the guise of economic empowerment of women? If women’s economic empowerment is the central goal of this suggestion than it needs to be recognized that it is every society’s responsibility to create livable wage employment for all women and not doing so is the reason many women resort to prostitution in the first place. Legalizing prostitution is a cheap and easy way to absolves countries from taking any responsibility of educating women and creating jobs for them.
After all, why bother providing subsidized education and vocational training for poor women, why bother strengthening employment equality laws for all women, why bother leveling the pay gap between men and women in general when omen have their ‘natural assets’ to follow back on? I believe we can do better then legalizing prostitution to help economically empower women and in many ways we have done so in the past. We need not aspire to follow in the footsteps of western countries for when it comes to respecting and protecting women, they lost their way a long time ago (some may even argue that these countries were never on the right track to begin with).
2.) I completely understand the desire to protect Indian women from being exploited by foreign men but making it illegal only for foreign men to solicit prostitutes has many problematic implications. First, this would imply that the Indian female body (prostitute or not) is reserved only for Indian men (to exploit or not). And second, this notion sends the message that the real threat to Indian women is solely foreign men (the stranger danger rhetoric). Similar arguments have been made when discussing sexual assault and sexual abuse scaring women from strangers when the real threat is closer to home. Furthermore, this law would be difficult to regulate and the only people who will lose money are the poorer prostitutes since slightly more privileged call girls will continue to have rich foreign clients. Also, how will we determine who is considered a foreigner? Will NRIs, who have foreign $ and live outside of India, be considered in this category? I foresee the strengthening of militant nationhood through “protected womanhood” here and we know that this has taken a dangerous turn in many parts of the world including India.
I agree and understand that legalizing prostitution has many pros, including those mentioned by others. However, rather than wasting energy and legislative time to legitimize prostitution we should be creatively working to educate and employ women in other fields. We know that exploitive measures can be curtailed when alternative viable options are given to marginalized women. This has been the argument from transgender activists who are working to end employment and housing discrimination for transwomen so that they can find work other than prostitution. There are better ways to empower all women and we will surely find them when we stop wasting energy on things that ultimately divide us. Thanks for reading, responding, and engaging.
It seems that Madhu Kishwar has now jumped on to the prostitution bandwagon - from the failed Dialogue on Kashmir! Does this mean that these NGO types will now move directly into the Brothel Business? Certainly there will be more money here than in just distributing condoms. I do not know about 'Respect' though. May you will all like to send your comments to Shekhar Gupta, Editor, Indian Express.
Response of Aalok Aima to Sandhya Jain
Dear Sandhya Ji
You obviously have not read the article by Madhu Kishwar otherwise you would not have commented in the manner you have.
Madhu Kishwar has written AGAINST legalising prostitution:" no self respecting society can afford to "legalise" the dehumanisation of millions of those who have been coerced into flesh trade through force, fraud, abduction or violence."
" While there is need to decriminalise this activity and free sex workers from the terror and the extortionist grip of the police, to make it respectable and socially acceptable would mean turning a blind eye to the dehumanising circumstances through which the vast majority of children and women are trapped into trading their bodies "
You might have reservations about Madhu Kishwar's attempt at organising the "Dialogue on Kashmir". That does not mean that everything she writes has to be viewed with suspicion and worse still that her views should be misrepresented/misquoted.
PS. 1. Above is not to be construed as either my agreement or my disagreement with Madhu Kishwar's views on legalising prostitution.
PS. 2. Your language is shockingly intemperate.