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

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Has the Dial Moved on the Indian Sex Work Debate?

The politics of sex work has exercised civil society, feminists, governments and, of course, sex workers and the latter’s organisations. This trajectory is examined in the context of the last two decades in India and taking into consideration the relevant laws.

Over the past 20 years, the politics of sex work has been shaped by the ascendance of the global anti-trafficking legal order. This order understands trafficking as a problem of organised crime whereby bad actors coerce and dupe innocent young women into highly exploitative labour, particularly sex work. Although trafficking is not restricted to the sex sector, in reality, anti-trafficking laws are routinely enforced disproportionately against the sex sector and therefore, sex workers. In effect, anti-trafficking discourse today drives how governments, civil society, feminists and sex workers approach sex work. Indeed, the recent passage of the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 (the bill) by the 16th Lok Sabha, but which eventually lapsed, provides an occasion for evaluating the sex work debate in India.

Across the world, two distinct camps exist on sex work. Radical feminists view sex work as patriarchal violence and any claim to sexual agency as false consciousness. Sex workers, meanwhile, claim constrained economic and sexual agency under capitalist patriarchy. Over the past 20 years, both camps have been heavily invested in policy reform. Radical feminists are in governance mode (Halley et al 2018, 2019) pursuing “carceral” projects (Bernstein 2019) whereby governments adopt the Swedish model of criminalising customers to reduce demand and thereby eliminate sex work. They draw on the anti-slavery legacy and are modern-day abolitionists. They are joined by evangelical Christian non-governmental 0rganisations (NGOs) (Bernstein 2019), and the international rescue industry (Agustín 2007) whose missions to save third world women are described as militarised humanitarianism (Bernstein 2019) and sexual humanitarianism (Mai 2014). The international sex workers’ movement has also gained strength. By consistently documenting the extraordinary harm caused by anti-sex work criminal laws, it has made inroads into the liberal human rights establishment whether in courts (for example, the Canadian case of Bedford) or in civil society (like Amnesty International’s call for decriminalisation). Sex workers are at the forefront of protests against harmful anti-trafficking laws that are enacted in the guise of countering trafficking, but used against voluntary sex workers.

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Updated On : 19th May, 2020

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