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

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Sex Work, Sex Trafficking, and Myopia of the State

Why does the state fail to notice that a girl/woman entering prostitution, either through coercion or choice, is the same one who got married early, never went to school, or struggled in informal labour markets from an early age? From being consistently invisible in the pre-sex work phase of her life, what makes a sex worker so visible in the eyes of the state? What does this reveal of the state rather than the sex worker? The answers to these questions could help us think of sex workers’ lives beyond the narrow debates of trafficking versus sex work, making them part of more mainstream development concerns.

The authors would like to thank all the sex worker respondents, who were liberal with their time and gave the authors more than a glimpse of their lives. This study would not have been possible without them. The authors’ interactions with sex workers were facilitated by Saheli and the protection homes of Mazhe Maher and Rescue Foundation, with the permissions of the office of Women and Child Development Commissionerate, Government of Maharashtra. A previous version of this draft was read by Sujata Patel, Sujata Gothoskar, and Manisha Gupte. Their help is graciously acknowledged without implicating them in any way. The authors acknowledge and thank the anonymous referee for raising an insightful set of queries, which have helped improve the paper.

Consider a young girl, seven or eight years of age, one of five children in a household. She is from rural Karnataka. But she might as well be from anywhere in rural India. Her parents are daily wage earners and the family is eking out a subsistence living. The children have no schooling. They have grown up contributing to family labour, lending a helping hand to their parents at home and work. Going further, what can they aspire for—especially the girls? The girl under consideration had several stints as daily wage earners—working in fields and brick kilns, gathering firewood, doing household chores—before the family migrated to the city as construction labourers. The intermediate details are not fully clear but eventually, at some 20 years of age, she became a part-time sex worker. A few years later, she turned into a full-time one. She was found operating in a brothel in the red-light area of the city, when caught in a police raid. She had been caught in raids before. A little exchange of money with the police would usually suffice to set her free. This time though, she was taken to a rescue home, where she has been lodged for almost a year.

How does one make sense of this life trajectory? On the face of it, the narrative is of the girl and her transitions into, and within, sex work. But when rearranging the pieces, it can equally be about the state and how it featured in her life. Viewed from this lens, several disturbing subtexts emerge. The one occasion where the state appears to have actively intervened in her life is through the act of raid and rescue. It provokes several lines of enquiry. What was the rationale in taking the girl into custody? Was the state justified in doing so? What could be the unintended consequences of this action? In the aftermath of the raid, these are pressing questions. But casting them aside for a moment, and taking a more sweeping account, was this the only way the state could have intervened in her life?

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Updated On : 23rd Oct, 2021
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