Regulations brought in related to sex work need to go beyond people who are forced into the profession to also be inclusive of the people who enter the profession of their own volition.
With an increase in data dependence and state surveillance, the outcomes for sex workers are not improving as of now. Sex work, in its fundamental existence, requires access to the internet or physical location for practice, health insurance or at the least access to healthcare. These laws on solicitation and pimping are created as sex work in itself is deemed to be “immoral” and the overarching view of the Indian law is to rehabilitate sex workers in “moral” professions. Closing brothels and running down the housing of sex workers which arises from the assumption that they are being forced to live/work in such areas usually leads to displacement. While it is true that human trafficking is a serious issue that targets women and children disproportionately, however, assuming all sex workers are forced into the profession disempowers those who have joined of their own volition. Further, the regulations based on this assumption disempower even those who may have been forced and have escaped the industry but are unable to return to “formal” and socially acceptable professions or regain access to mainstream society and family. These considerations often disregard women and transsexual people who enter the profession of their own volition and require the same protections accorded to those who are forced and trafficked. One major field of protection, aside from police brutality, is access to state identification. The Aadhar card has remained controversial in its use, yet still become embedded in everyday life for all Indian citizens, especially sex workers. With a strong push from the government, an Aadhar number is now required for digital payment services, formal banking, applying for services like hospital care, health insurance, purchasing housing, etc.
Sex work, in its fundamental existence, requires access to the internet or physical location for practice, health insurance or at the least access to healthcare.
For sex workers, especially transsexual sex workers, who may not identify with their biological data, or may not have the documentation to prove their identity, accessing these basics of functioning often limit their ability to gain autonomy in this “legalised” profession. Further, though the Aadhaar registration process does allow for three gender possibilities, and this is a commendable move forward, it often outs those who are transsexual as sex workers (since this profession is often resorted to by the community due to the Guru-Chela system or lack of opportunities elsewhere) in other fields where identification is required, such as banking or health care. This limitation when it comes to banking is also augmented by banking services that create internal policies around accepting transactions from websites that are marked as “obscene” or “pornographic”. Sex work is often also associated with localities within cities, where people under this profession come to find housing, as they have often been outcasts or cannot find housing in other “upper class” dominated localities due to many layers of discrimination (from their marital status, caste, lack of finances to the stigmatized profession). These localities face many economic discrepancies since they are usually informal settlements, like electricity, sanitation, and access to water, and are often blacklisted by schooling and banking authorities. If there is an effort made by sex workers to move into areas where there is access to such social infrastructure this usually results in them being monitored by surveillance systems (if permitted access at all) in more urbanised areas of cities via CCTV for assumed safety of women and urban residents. In the attempt for transparency, safety, and security, state surveillance often treats its citizens, especially the disempowered, as though they cannot autonomously manage their existence. This is a challenge not only to the profession but the agency under surveillance and the humiliation that is associated with it is an issue that is yet to be tackled under the Acts that discuss sex work, specifically, prostitution. In many cases, especially in Tier 1 cities, these locations eventually get bought over by builders and gentrified, thus displacing not only the sex workers but any children they may have and families they may support.
The Aadhar card has remained controversial in its use, yet still become embedded in everyday life for all Indian citizens, especially sex workers.
With the vague policies surrounding the existence of sex workers in brothels, housing and locations of practice, access to online platforms seemed like a safe haven at one point. However, this was short-lived protection, as the IT Act and Indian Penal Code, both prohibit sexual content online in all forms, especially recording and publishing pornographic material. Solicitation on all platforms is already illegal. Though these laws were created to protect disempowered sex workers from abusive and exploitative brothel owners or human traffickers, the impact has also caused sex workers empowered enough to access technology and online platforms to come under the state’s eye and be held accountable for solicitation. These acts do consider the consent of women but limit the concept of consent only to passive participation, i.e., it is only mentioned to protect those who are shown pornographic material against their will. The acts remain silent on online versions of sex work. This is a clear indication that the acts that govern sex work, and those who are often in the field, do not treat the profession as a profession that is willing chosen. The challenges faced by the sex work community are systematic and discriminatory. It is important to consider that acts related to this profession should create not only protections for those forced into it, but an equitable environment for those who wish to participate, to truly represent the words of the Indian Supreme Court on how sex work is a legal profession. Further, it needs to be understood not only by law enforcement agencies but also by social infrastructure authorities that sex work depends on free movement in both the digital space and urban spaces and cannot be treated as an equal profession without considering it in both technology policies and urbanisation outcomes.
These localities face many economic discrepancies since they are usually informal settlements, like electricity, sanitation, and access to water, and are often blacklisted by schooling and banking authorities.
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Shravishtha Ajaykumar is Associate Fellow at the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology. Her fields of research include geospatial technology, data privacy, cybersecurity, and strategic ...Read More +