WORKERS' MANIFESTO, Calcutta, 1997
A new spectre seems to be haunting the
society. Or maybe those phantom creatures who have been pushed into
the shades for ages are taking on human form - and that is why there
is so much fear. The sex workers' movement for last few years have
made us confront many fundamental questions about social structures,
life, sexuality, moral rights and wrongs. We think an intrinsic component
of our movement is to go on searching for the answers to these questions
and raise newer ones.
What is the sex workers' movement all about?
We came together as a collective community through our active involvement
as health workers, the Peer Educators, in a HIV/STD Control Project
which has been running in Sonagachhi since 1992. The Project provided
the initial space for building mutual support, facilitating reflection
and initiating collective action among us, sex workers. Very early
in the life of the Sonagachhi Project, we, with the empathetic support
of those who had started the Project, clearly recognised that even
to realise the very basic Project objectives of controlling transmission
of HIV and STD it was crucial to view us in our totality - as complete
persons with a range of emotional and material needs, living within
a concrete and specific social, political and ideological context
which determine the quality of our lives and our health, and not see
us merely in terms of our sexual behaviour.
To give an example, while promoting the use of condoms, we soon realised
that in order to change the sexual behaviour of sex workers it was
not enough to enlighten them about the risks of unprotected sex or
to improve their communication and negotiation skills. How will a
sex worker who does not value herself at all think of taking steps
to protect her health and her life? Even when fully aware of the necessity
of using condoms to prevent disease transmission, may not an individual
sex worker feel compelled to jeopardise her health in fear of losing
her clients to other sex workers in the area unless it was ensured
that all sex workers were able to persuade their clients to use condoms
for every sexual act? Some sex workers may not even be in a position
to try negotiate safer sex with a client as they may be too closely
controlled by exploitative madams or pimps. If a sex worker is starving,
either because she does not have enough custom or because most of
her income goes towards maintaining a room or meeting the demands
of madams, local power-brokers or the police, can she be really in
a position to refuse a client who can not be persuaded to use condoms?
And what about the client? Is a man likely to be amenable to learn
anything from a woman, particularly an uneducated 'fallen' woman?
For him does not coming to a prostitute necessarily involve an inherent
element of taking risk and behaving irresponsibly? In which case are
not notions of responsibility and safety completely contradict his
attitude towards his relationship with a prostitute? Does not a condom
represent an unnecessary impediment in his way to 'total' pleasure?
In most case this male client himself may be a poor, displaced man.
Is he in a position to value his own life or protect his health?
Then again why does not a sex worker who is ready to use condom with
her client, would never have protected sex with her lover or husband?
What fine balance between commercial transaction and love, caution
and trust, safety and intimacy engender such behaviour? How do ideologies
of love, family, motherhood influence our every sexual gesture?
Thus, thinking about such an apparently uncomplicated question - whether
a sex worker can insist on having safe sex, made us realise that the
issue is not at all simple. Sexuality and the lives and the movement
of sex workers are intrinsically enmeshed in the social structure
we live within and dominant ideology which shapes our values.
Like many other occupations, sex work is also an occupation, and it
is probably one of the'oldest' profession' in the world because it
meets an important social demand. But theterm 'prostitute' is rarely
used to refer to an occupational group who earn their livelihood through
providing sexual services, rather it is deployed as a descriptive
term denoting a homogenised category, usually of women, who poses
threats to public health, sexual morality, social stability and civic
order. Within this discursive boundary we systematically find ourselves
to be targets of moralising impulses of dominant social groups, through
missions of cleansing and sanitising, both materially and symbolically.
If and when we figure in political or developmental agenda, we are
enmeshed in discursive practices and practical projects which aim
to rescue, rehabilitate, improve, discipline, control or police us.
Charity organisations are prone to rescue us and put us in 'safe'
homes, developmental organisations are likely to 'rehabilitate' us
through meagre income generation activities, and the police seem bent
upon to regularly raid our quarters in the name of controlling 'immoral'
trafficking. Even when we are inscribed less negatively or even sympathetically
within dominant discourses we are not exempt from stigmatisation or
social exclusion. As powerless, abused victims with no resources,
we are seen as objects of pity. Otherwise we appear as self-sacrificing
and nurturing supporting cast of characters in popular literature
and cinema, ceaselessly ready to give up our hard earned income, our
clients, our 'sinful' ways and finally our lives to ensure the well-being
of the hero or the society he represents. In either case we are refused
enfranchisement as legitimate citizens or workers, and are banished
to the margins of society and history.
The kind of oppression that can be meted out to a sex worker can never
be perpetrated against a regular worker. The justification given is
that sex work is not real work - it is morally sinful. As prostitution
is kept hidden behind the facade of sexual morality and social order,
unlike other professions there is no legitimacy or scope for any discussion
about the demands and needs of the workers of the sex industry.
People who are interested in our welfare, and many are genuinely concerned,
often can not think beyond rehabilitating us or abolishing prostitution
altogether. However, we know that in reality it is perhaps impossible
to 'rehabilitate' a sex worker because the society never allows to
erase our identity as prostitutes. Is rehabilitation feasible or even
In a country where unemployment is in such gigantic proportions, where
does the compulsion of displacing millions of women and men who are
already engaged in an income earning occupation which supports themselves
and their extended families, come from? If other workers in similarly
exploitative occupations can work within the structures of their profession
to improve their working conditions, why can not sex workers remain
in the sex industry and demand a better deal in their life and work?
What is the history of sexual morality?
Like other human propensities and desires, sexuality and sexual need
are fundamental and necessary to the human condition. Ethical and
political ideas about sexuality and sexual practices are socially
conditioned and historically and contexually specific. In the society
as we know it now, ideologies about sexuality are deeply entrenched
within structures of patriarchy and largely misogynist mores. The
state and social structures only acknowledges a limited and narrow
aspect of our sexuality. Pleasure, happiness, comfort and intimacy
find expression through sexuality. On one hand we weave narratives
around these in our literature and art. But on the other hand our
societal norms and regulations allow for sexual expression only between
men and women within the strict boundaries of marital relations within
the institution of the family.
Why have we circumscribed sexuality within such a narrow confine,
ignoring its many other expressions, experiences and manifestations?
Ownership of private property and maintenance of patriarchy necessitates
a control over women's reproduction. Since property lines are maintained
through legitimate heirs, and sexual intercourse between men and women
alone carry the potential for procreation, capitalist patriarchy sanctions
only such couplings. Sex is seen primarily, and almost exclusively,
as an instrument for reproduction, negating all aspects of pleasure
and desire intrinsic to it. Privileging heterosexuality, homosexuality
is not only denied legitimacy, it is considered to be undesirable,
unnatural, and deviant. Thus sex and sexuality are given no social
sanction beyond their reproductive purpose.
Do we then not value motherhood? Just because our profession or our
social situation does not allow for legitimate parenthood, are we
trying to claim motherhood and bearing children is unworthy and unimportant
for women? That is not the case. We feel that every woman has the
right to bear children with if she so wishes. But we also think that
through trying to establish motherhood as the only and primary goal
for a woman the patriarchal structures try to control women's reproductive
functions and curb their social and sexual autonomy. Many of us sex
workers are mothers - our children are very precious to us. By social
standards these children are illegitimate - bastards. But at least
they are ours and not mere instruments for maintaining some man's
property or continuing his genealogy. However, we too are not exempt
from the ideologies of the society we live in. For many of us the
impossible desire for family, home and togetherness is a permanent
source of pain.
Do men and women have equal claims to sexuality?
Societal norms about sex and sexuality do not apply similarly to men
and women. If sexual needs are at all acknowledged beyond procreation,
it is only for men. Even if there are minor variations from community
to community and if in the name of modernity certain mores have changed
in some place, it is largely men who have had enjoyed the right to
be polygamous or seek multiple sexual partners. Women have always
been expected to be faithful to a single man. Beyond scriptural prohibitions
too, social practices severely restricts the expression of female
sexuality. As soon as a girl reaches her puberty her behaviour is
strictly controlled and monitored so as not to provoke the lust of
men. In the name of 'decency' and 'tradition' a woman teacher is prohibited
from wearing the clothes of her choice to the University. While selecting
a bride for the son, the men of the family scrutinise the physical
attributes of a potential bride. Pornographic representations of women
satisfy the voyeuristic pleasures of millions of men. From shaving
cream to bathroom fittings are sold through attracting men by advertisements
depicting women as sex objects.
In this political economy of sexuality there is no space for expression
of women's own sexuality and desires. Women have to cover up their
bodies from men and at the same time bare themselves for male gratification.
Even when women are granted some amount of subjecthood by being represented
as consumers in commercial media, that role is defined by their ability
to buy and normed by capitalist and patriarchal strictures.
Is our movement anti-men?
Our movement is definitely against patriarchy, but not against all
individual men. As it so happens, apart from the madams and landladies
almost all people who profit from the sex trade are men. But what
is more important is that their attitudes towards women and prostitution
are biased with strong patriarchal values. They generally think of
women as weak, dependent, immoral or irrational - who need to be directed
and disciplined. Conditioned by patriarchal gender ideologies, both
men and women in general approve of the control of sex trade and oppression
of sex workers as necessary for maintaining social order. The power
of this moral discourse is so strong that we prostitutes too tend
to think of ourselves as morally corrupt and shameless. The men who
come to us as clients are victims of the same ideology too. Sometimes
the sense of sin adds to their thrill, sometimes it leads to perversion
and almost always it creates a feeling of self loathing among them.
Never does it allow for confident, honest sexual interchange.
It is important to remember that there is no uniform category as 'men'.
Men, like women are differentiated by their class, caste, race and
other social relations. For many men adherence to the dominant sexual
norm is not only impracticable but also unreal. The young men who
look for sexual initiation, the married men who seek the company of
'other' women, the migrant labourers separated from their wives who
try to find warmth and companionship in the red light area can not
all be dismissed as wicked and perverted. To do that will amount to
dismissing a whole history of human search for desire, intimacy and
need. Such dismissal creates an unfulfilled demand for sexual pleasure,
the burden of which though shared by men and women alike, ultimately
weighs more heavily on women. Sexuality - which can be a basis of
an equal, healthy relationship between men and women, between people,
becomes the source of further inequality and stringent control. This
is what we oppose.
Next to any factory, truckers check points, market there has always
been red light areas. The same system of productive relations and
logic of profit maximisation, which drivesmen from their homes in
villages to towns and cities, make women into sex workers for these
What is deplorable is that this patriarchal ideology is so deeply
entrenched, and the interest of men as a group is so solidly vested
in it, that women's question hardly ever find a place in mainstream
political or social l movements. The male workers who organise themselves
against exploitation rarely address the issues of gender oppression,
let alone the oppression of sex workers. Against the interest of women
these radical men too defend the ideology of the family and patriarchy.
Are we against the institution of family?
In the perception of society we sex workers and in fact all women
outside the relation of conjugality are seen as threats to the institution
of family. It is said that enticed by us, men stray from the straight
and narrow, destroy the family. All institutions from religion to
formal education reiterate and perpetuate this fear about us. Women
and men too, are the victims of this all pervasive misogyny.
We would like to stress strongly that the sex workers movement is
not against the institution of family. What we challenge is the inequity
and oppression within the dominant notions of an 'ideal' family which
support and justify unequal distribution of power and resources within
the structures of the family. What our movement aims at is working
towards a really humanitarian, just and equitable structure of the
family which is perhaps yet to exist.
Like other social institutions the family too is situated within the
material and ideological structures of the state and society. The
basis of a normative ideal family is inheritance through legitimate
heirs and therefore sexual fidelity. Historically, the structures
of families in reality have gone through many changes. In our country,
by and large joint families are being replaced by nuclear ones as
a norm. In fact, in all societies people actually live their lives
in many different ways, through various social and cultural relations
- which deviate from this norm, but are still not recognised as the
ideal by the dominant discourses.
If two persons love each other, want to be together, want to raise
children together, relateto the social world it can be a happy, egalitarian,
democratic arrangement. But does it really happen like that within
families we see, between couple we know? Do not we know 0f many, many
families where there is no love, but relations are based on inequality
and oppression. Do not many legal wives virtually live the life of
sex slaves in exchange for food and shelter? In most cases women do
not have the power or the resources to opt out of such marriages and
families. Sometimes men and women both remain trapped in empty relations
by social pressure. Is this situation desirable? Is it healthy?
The whore and the Madonna - divide and rule
Within the oppressive family ideology it is women's sexuality that
is identified as the main threat to conjugal relationship of a couple.
Women are pitted against each other as wife against the prostitute,
against the chaste and the immoral - both represented as fighting
over the attention and lust of men. A chaste wife is granted no sexuality,
only a de-sexed motherhood and domesticity. At the other end of the
spectrum is the 'fallen' woman - a sex machine, unfettered by any
domestic inclination or 'feminine' emotion. A woman's goodness is
judged on the basis of her desire and ability to control and disguise
her sexuality. The neighbourhood girl who dresses up can not be good,
models and actresses are morally corrupt. In all cases female sexuality
is controlled and shaped by patriarchy to reproduce the existing political
economy of sexuality and safeguard the interest of men. A man has
access to his docile home-maker wife, the mother of his children and
the prostitute who sustain his wildest sexual fantasies. Women's sexual
needs are not only considered to be important enough, in most cases
its autonomy is denied or even its existence is erased.
Probably no one other than a prostitute really realises the extent
of loneliness, alienation, desire and yearning for intimacy that brings
men to us. The sexual need we meet for these men is not just about
mechanical sexual act, not an momentary gratification of 'base' instincts.
Beyond the sex act, we provide a much wider range of sexual pleasure
which is to with intimacy, touch and companiability - a service which
we render without any social recognition of its significance. At least
men can come to us for their sexual needs - however prurient or shameful
the system of prostitution may be seen as. Women hardly have such
recourse. The autonomy of women's sexuality is completely denied.
The only option they have is to be prostitutes in the sex industry.
Why do women come to prostitution?
Women take up prostitution for the same reason as they may take up
any other livelihood option available to them. Our stories are not
fundamentally different from the labourer from Bihar who pulls a rickshaw
in Calcutta, or the worker from Calcutta who works part time in a
factory in Bombay. Some of us get sold into the industry. After being
bonded to the madam who has bough us for some years we gain a degree
of independence within the sex industry. A whole of us end up in the
sex trade after going through many experiences in life, - often unwillingly,
without understanding all the implications of being a prostitute fully.
But when do most of us women have access to choice within or outside
the family? Do we become casual domestic labourer willingly? Do we
have a choice about who we want to marry and when? The choice' is
rarely real for most women, particularly poor women.
Why do we end up staying in prostitution? It is after all a very tough
occupation. The physical labour involved in providing sexual services
to multiple clients in a working day is no less intense or rigorous
than ploughing or working in a factory. It is definitely not fun and
frolic. Then there are occupational hazards like unwanted pregnancy,
painful abortions, risk of sexually transmitted diseases. In almost
all red light areas housing and sanitation facilities are abysmal,
the localities are crowded, most sex workers quite poor, and on top
of it there is police harassment and violence from local thugs. Moreover,
to add to the material condition of deprivation and distress, we have
to take on stigmatisation and marginalisation, - the social indignity
of being 'sinful', being mothers of illegitimate children, being the
target of those children's frustrations and anger.
Do we advocate 'free sex'?
What we advocate and desire is independent, democratic, non-coercive,
mutually pleasurable and safe sex. Somehow 'free sex' seems to imply
irresponsibility and lack of concern for other's well-being, which
is not what we are working towards. Freedom of speech, expression
or politics all come with obligations and need to acknowledge and
accommodate other's freedom too. Freedom of sexuality should also
come with responsibility and respect for other's needs and desires.
We do want the freedom to explore and shape a healthy and mature attitude
and practice about sex and sexuality - free from obscenity and vulgarity.
We do not yet know what this autonomous sexuality will be like in
practice - we do not have the complete picture as yet. We are working
people not soothsayers or prophets. When for the first time in history
when workers agitated for class equity and freedom from capitalist
exploitation, when the blacks protested against white hegemony, when
feminist rejected the subordination of women they too did not know
fully what the new system they were striving for would exactly be
like. There is no exact picture of the 'ideal' future - it can only
emerge and be shaped through the process of the movement.
All we can say in our imagination of autonomous sexuality men and
women will have equal access, will participate equally, will have
the right to say 'yes' or 'no', and there will be no space for guilt
We do not live in an ideal social world today. We do not know when
and if ever an idea social order will come into place. In our less
than ideal world if we can accept the immorality of commercial transaction
over food, or health why is sex for money so unethical and unacceptable.
Maybe in an ideal world there will be no need for any such transactions
- where material, emotional, intellectual and sexual needs of all
will be met equitably and with pleasure and happiness. We do not know.
All we can do now is to explore the current inequalities and injustices,
question their basis and confront, challenge and change them.
Which way is our movement going?
The process of struggle that we, the members of Mahila Samanwaya Committee
are currently engaged in has only just begun. We think our movement
has two principal aspects. The first one is to debate, define and
re-define the whole host of issues about gender, poverty, sexuality
that are being thrown up within the process of the struggle itself
. Our experience of Mahila Samanwaya Committee shows that for a marginalised
group to achieve the smallest of gains, it becomes imperative to challenge
an all encompassing material and symbolic order that not only shapes
the dominant discourses outside but, and perhaps more importantly,
historically conditions the way we negotiate our own locations as
workers within the sex industry. This long term and complex process
will have to continue.
Secondly, the daily oppression that is practised on us with the support
of the dominant ideologies, have to be urgently and consistently confronted
and resisted. We have to struggle to improve the conditions of our
work and material quality of our lives, and that can happen through
our efforts towards us, sex workers, gaining control over the sex
industry itself. We have started the process - today in many red light
areas in cities, towns and villages, we sex workers have come to organise
our own forums to create solidarity and collective strength among
a larger community of prostitutes, forge a positive identity for ourselves
as prostitutes and mark out a space for acting on our own behalf.
Male prostitutes are with us too
The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee was originally formed by women
sex workers of Sonagachhi and neighbouring red light areas, and initially
for women prostitutes. However, within two years of our coming into
existence male sex workers have come and joined as at their own initiative.
These male sex workers provide sexual services to homosexual men primarily.
As our society is strongly homophobic, and in fact, penetrative sexual
act even between consenting adult men can still be legally penalised,
the material and ideological status of male sex workers is even more
precarious. We therefore had welcomed them in our midst as comrades
in arms and strongly believe that their participation will make the
sex workers' movement truly representative and robust.
Sex workers movement is going on - it has to go on. We believe the
questions about sexuality that we are raising are relevant not only
to us sex workers but to every men and women who question subordination
of all kinds - within the society at large and also within themselves.
This movement is for everyone who strives for an equal, just, equitable,
oppression free and above all a happy social world. Sexuality, like
class and gender after all makes us what we are. To deny its importance
is to accept an incomplete existence as human beings. Sexual inequality
and control of sexuality engender and perpetuate many other inequalities
and exploitation too. We're faced with situation to shake the roots
of all such injustice through our movement. We have to win this battle
and the war too - for a gender just, socially equitable, emotionally
fulfilling, intellectually stimulating and exhilarating future for
men, women and children.
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