Cutting Edge Debate: Is Sex work, Work?

There has been very little public discussion about sex work in India. SIAAP conducts a series of such debates among students and several citizens concerned about gendered and human rights to move toward an informed position on sex work and sex worker rights to healthy and safe livelihoods and lives. Most people believe it is illegal, and even more consider it immoral and intrinsically exploitative.

There has been very little public discussion about sex work in India. Most people believe it is illegal, and even more consider it immoral and intrinsically exploitative. Among policy makers and the public at large, sex work is often conflated with trafficking. Feminist critique has questioned this but this critique has not percolated in the Indian context.

Yet sex work is not illegal in India. There are hundreds of thousands of women, men and transgender people who sell sex, usually surreptitiously, to make a living. A great many do so voluntarily. Hundreds of thousands more enter sex work every day, after leaving exploitative conditions in domestic, construction, and retail work. The lack of safe, remunerative livelihood options is the main push factor and there are many others.

The Supreme Court of India (SC) has affirmed the right of sex workers to “live with dignity, in accordance with the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution of India”. An expert panel mandated by the SC has recommended that the rights of voluntary sex workers to sell sex should be recognised.  Yet the Bill about to be passed on sex work (Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2016) does not take this into account at all and characterises all sex work as trafficking.

SIAAP and Sex work

SIAAP’s 25-year long engagement with sex workers and other marginalised communities is grounded in an explicit human rights and gendered framework. We use the capabilities approach to build agency and strengthen capacities for self-determination and action by people to achieve the rights they value.


SIAAP facilitated the discussion Is sex work, work? : A platform to discuss, debate, and reflect on sex work on 23rd Sept 2017 from 4-6 pm at Spaces Cultural Centre, No.1, Elliots Beach, Besant Nagar, Chennai.


  • Sensitize cross sections of students and general population about issues related to Sex Work and to openly discuss about their views with respect to sex work.


  • The nature of the event was to generate discussion and debate to move toward an informed position on sex work and sex worker rights to healthy and safe livelihoods and lives so that they can contribute meaningfully to shape policies with respect to Sex Work.


The discussion started on a note that there is need to differentiate voluntary sex workers from trafficked sex workers. There was an overview of the legal provisions including sections of Indian Penal Code, The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA) 1956 and Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) 1986.  Although anti-trafficking bill was being debated in the parliament, the major drawback is that, like all other laws, it conflates voluntary sex work with trafficking. It was reiterated that all were against trafficking but with respect to sex work, the sex workers decisions surrounds the major domains, choice, exploitation, morality, and aspects of pleasure and livelihood in sex work. The discussion included first person narratives from sex workers.


Three sex workers shared their experiences and positions as sex workers on four domains (Choice, Exploitation, Morality and Sexuality and its contradictions: Pleasure & Danger) on which there remains little clarity in debates around sex work.

Laxmi said she entered sex work as her husband was an alcoholic and not earning enough money. She had to earn money to support her children and family. At that time, she resorted to sex work purely out of necessity. Her first customer was a truck driver who paid her Rs. 50. However, now she says she has a choice and is doing sex work as she feels it is the right option for her.

Banu also said she entered into sex work because her husband abandoned her and she had to take care of children. A women friend offered to take her to someone who would pay money for sex. For her first assignment, although she was promised Rs. 4000, she was actually paid only Rs. 300.

Sankari said at the time of entering sex work, she also thought sex work is wrong although she enjoyed it. However, now she understands that there is nothing wrong with sex work. Those who say that sex is wrong have a lot of sex anyway. She says, “my understanding is men don’t want to pay for sex. They feel that if we recognize sex work as work, men will be forced to pay for sexual services and that is something they don’t want to do. We use our body as our capital and we are not ashamed of what we do. I would like to proudly say that I am a sex worker.”


Dr. Shyamala Nataraj (Executive Director, SIAAP) explained about the sex work continuum and explained the various stages in a sex worker’s life and where the interventions should focus.

She shared that people enter sex work for various reasons. Sexual abuse, violence, love failure, desertion, etc are few reasons that push women to enter sex work. For some, it was economic necessity, for a few others it is due to the social exclusion and the need for survival. Sometimes it could be due to being sexually abused. Some older women and men also get into sex work because they value sexual relationship but also seek to make money out of it. For most of the sex workers, there is fear, helplessness, uncertainty, and shame at the point of entry. Some people have also been deceived, abducted, and sold – forcefully trafficked – into sex work.

The vast majority of sex workers continue to experience violence, abuse, sexual assault, shame, guilt, confusion and uncertainty during the initial phase of sex work no matter if they entered voluntarily or due to trafficking.

In the next phase, sex workers come to terms with the fact that they are in sex work and continue with sex work voluntarily. This is also reflected in the language used by them: Banu said she is now confident about herself, and Laxmi said it is her choice to continue with sex work.

Some people can continue to sell sex for a long time, even into 70s or 80s. However, for various reasons including health, most sex workers wish to discontinue the profession at some point. Often they lack financial stability even if they have spent a lot of money on their children. In many instances children do not want to live with the sex worker due to stigma and discrimination in society.

Our current laws fail to address the voluntary sex work phase although it is the most visible phase, the longest one and the majority of sex workers are in this phase. Unfortunately, women in voluntary sex work are often forcefully taken to remand homes while we hardly see anyone who has been just trafficked or an old woman who wants to leave sex work in the rehabilitation centers.