ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Legalise Sex Work, But How?

The editorial on sex work, “The World’s Oldest Debate” (EPW, 22 November 2014), mentions that “in countries like India, it is impossible to determine whether the sex worker is in it out of ‘choice’ or has been trafficked and forced into it”. A survey of sex workers (Rohini Sahni and V Kalyan Shankar, “Sex Work and Its Linkages with Informal Labour Markets in India: Findings from the First Pan-India Survey of Female Sex Workers”, IDS Working Paper 416, 2013) showed that female sex work has a substantial interface with informal labour markets. The study of 3,000 sex workers across 14 states revealed that a large proportion of women had prior experience of working in extremely heterogeneous informal labour activities; in several cases these activities continued alongside sex work. Exercising choice to engage with sex work therefore cannot be viewed independently. It remains a carefully negotiated economic decision, given the sex workers’ own experiences with low-paid jobs, appalling working conditions and lack of job security. Sex work for them offered a significant income premium compared to other activities in unorganised labour markets.

As mentioned in the editorial, paid sex is not illegal in India per se while a range of allied activities are. How does one differentiate and filter through these activities in the quest for legalisation? One component of legalisation would deal with the spaces from where sex workers function, which are split into sites of soliciting and sites of service. Would legalisation amount to zoning or segregation of spaces where the activity would be termed legal and those outside as illegal? This would be a case of history repeating itself, getting aligned with the lal bazaars from colonial times.

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