Legalization of Sex Workers in India: A Thought

Prostitution is said to be the oldest profession of the world. But prostitution or sex for money is not legalized due to other harmful effects like child abuse, human trafficking and lack of proper regulation. India does not have a comprehensive legislation but has sufficient law to deem prostitution unlawful and criminal. Read along to know more!

Prostitution is the business or practice of engaging in sexual activity in exchange for payment either as money, goods, services, or some other benefit agreed upon by the transacting parties. Prostitution is sometimes described as commercial sex or hooking. Depending on the jurisdiction, prostitution law may deem commercial sex to be legal or illegal. A person who works in this field is called a prostitute and is a type of sex workers in India. Prostitution is one branch of the sex industry, along with pornography, stripping, and erotic dancing. The legal status of sex workers varies from country to country and sometimes from region to region within a given country, ranging from being permissible but unregulated to an enforced or unenforced crime, or a regulated profession. It is sometimes referred to euphemistically as “the world’s oldest profession” in the English-speaking world.

Topics Covered in this article

Forms and Figures

Prostitution occurs in a variety of forms. Brothels are establishments specifically dedicated to prostitution. In escort prostitution, the act may take place at the client’s residence or hotel room, referred to as out-call, or at the escort’s residence or a hotel room rented for the occasion by the escort which is in-call. Another form is street prostitution. Although the majority of prostitutes are female and have male clients, a prostitute can be and have clients, of any gender or sexual orientation. Some view prostitution as a form of exploitation of or violence against women and children that helps to create a supply of victims for human trafficking. In the Indian Constitution, Article 23 provides for prohibition of traffic in humans and forced labor, making it a punishable offense in accordance with the law.

The majority of countries in Africa and Asia legally prohibit prostitution and any activities associated with it, including the running of brothels and pimping. Prostitution is also illegal in the United States, except in some parts of Nevada. The spread of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, and increased risk of sexual exploitation, violence, and trafficking are the most disconcerting issues why some countries choose to keep it illegal. However, countries, like the Netherlands, Germany, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Canada, legally accept the exchange of money for sex. Countries like Mexico, Argentina, Austria, France, and Italy also allow prostitution but do not allow the pimping and running of brothels. Some critics believe that legalizing prostitution is not only beneficial for sex workers in India but also for the entire economy as well.

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In places, where prostitution is illegal, sex workers are, in fact, more susceptible to sexually transmitted disease (STD) because of lack of access to health care and other social services. This is not to mention that sex workers face discrimination, stigma, and harassment, which drive them more to less likely practice safe sex. Furthermore, sex workers usually experience panicky situations, wherein they are forced to forgo wearing protection, such as the pressure from their pimps and clients, and the fear of using their condoms as evidence against them when law officials caught them.

The World Figures

There have already been lots of studies performed and evidence gathered proving that legal prostitution reduces rape, sexual violence, and other sex crimes. One study that shows the correlation between legalizing prostitution and declining rape cases comes from Rhode Island, wherein they accidentally legalized prostitution. In 1980, lawmakers accidentally removed the section that defined prostitution as a crime, and it went unnoticed until 2003. Technically, it had been in effect for almost 3 decades, from 1980-2009. During those years, the number of women involved in prostitution and size of the indoor sex market largely increased. But surprisingly, rape cases declined by 31 percent. Researchers have also found a 39 percent decrease in the incidence of gonorrhea.

Aside from the profit, another primary reason why the market for child sex slaves exists is due to the criminalization of adult prostitution. When a man cannot find an adult sex worker, he would definitely turn to pimps, who mostly use underage sex workers, to satisfy his sexual urges. A lot of pro-decriminalization of prostitution believe that if people can legally buy sex from women 18 years or older, it will significantly reduce child exploitation. Since no one would want to be prosecuted and pay fines, those who are in the commercial sex market will only legally employ willing adults, rather than struggle to operate in secrecy. By legalizing prostitution and implementing more strict laws regarding it, we can abolish child sex slavery.

In countries where prostitution is illegal, billions of dollars are spent on dealing with it. In the U.S. law enforcement agencies spend at least $2,000 for each arrest of a sex worker – that includes the arrest, court, and imprisonment costs. And with the vast number of sex workers in the country, it costs the government more than $120 million a year on prostitution control. Just like in any other industry, legalization of prostitution could lead to a chain effect that would significantly benefit a country – primarily through tax revenue. Once the sex workers and brothel owners obtained a license, they may participate in the business and enjoy their legal income that is taxable.

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Everyone who is legally employed, has minimum rights and entitlements given by law, such as safety rights, minimum wage, health benefits, vacation pay, and protection against unlawful discrimination. And since sex workers don’t work legally, especially in countries that do not consider prostitution as a legitimate work, they don’t get any of these rights. So, if an illegal sex worker is abused by her pimp or client and not paid accordingly, she can’t complain to the law officials because she is excluded from federal employment standard legislation. And even if she is forced to conduct the sexual activity in an unsafe place and the client demands an unprotected sex, she can’t afford to resist. And worse, sex workers with HIV/AIDS are denied to get health treatment, which they terribly need in order to survive.

Every human being has the right to use their body according to their will. If a sex worker would want to rent out her body in exchange for money, then fine. That’s her right. And no one has the right to tell anyone what to do with her own body and life, especially just because it doesn’t adhere to other people’s moral principles or beliefs.

Position in India

As far as laws are concerned, sex workers in India are not illegal per se. However, the Indian penal code states that certain activities related to prostitution are contraventions of the law. They may be enumerated as below:

  • Soliciting such services at public places
  • Carrying out such activities in hotels
  • Kerb crawling
  • Pandering
  • Being an owner of a brothel or even running one
  • Pimping

Now the situation is such that the aforementioned activities are integral to the profession itself. So by outlawing them does the Indian legal system say that prostitution is effectively illegal? That is a question that needs to be pondered seriously.

Laws in relation

The most basic law regarding the sex workers’ status The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act was passed in 1956. It is also referred to as SITA. This law states that prostitutes are allowed to ply their trade in private but they cannot carry out their business in the open. An article published in BBC states that prostitution is illegal in India. Indian laws, however, do not regard sex in exchange for money as prostitution. As per laws, clients can be arrested if they indulge in any sexual activity in public. Even though the exchange of sex for money is permissible on individual capacity, a lady cannot do it within a span of 200 yards of a public place. Sex workers are not within the ambit of normal labor laws. However, they have all the rights that would be enjoyed by a citizen and are entitled to be rescued and rehabilitated if they want to do so.

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However, SITA is not used as such. At times, different sections of the IPC are employed to bring charges of supposed-criminal acts like public indecency against sex workers. They can also be accused of being a public nuisance. The problem is there is no clear definition of what these crimes constitute and sex workers in India are basically left to the whims of the officials who bring the charges against them. SITA has recently been changed to become PITA or The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. There have been several attempts to change this law so that a bigger slice of the blame can be placed on the clients. However, the Union Health Ministry has opposed such developments. These days, insurance companies are coming forward and ensuring sex workers in India.

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act was passed in 1986 and is an amendment of the SITA. As per this law prostitutes will be arrested for soliciting their services or seducing others. In the same vein, call girls are not allowed to make their phone numbers public. They can be imprisoned for a maximum of 6 months along with financial penalties if they are caught doing so.

Clients who consort with prostitutes or indulge in such activities within 200 yards of a designated area can be imprisoned for a maximum of 3 months and they need to pay fines for the same as well. In case, someone indulges in such activities with someone under 18 years old, he or she can be jailed between 7-10 years. Pimps and similar people who live from the income made by a prostitute are guilty as well. For that matter, if an adult man lives with a prostitute he can be regarded as guilty. If he cannot prove himself to be innocent, he can face imprisonment between 2-4 years.

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