There is something unethical and pornographic about the way the media announced the arrest of a young National-Award-winning actress for prostitution this week. The media was mean-spirited when it divulged racy details about the way the West Zone police (presumably from Mumbai as the 23-year-old actress lives in the city, according to sketchy media reports) along with Hyderabad police, swooped into a Banjara Hills hotel to arrest the actress and her "pimp" after setting up a decoy client.

The media didn’t care to conceal the name of the actress and but lasciviously disclosed every possible detail about her. This despite the fact that the law clearly says that the practice of selling one’s own sexual service is permissible, that sexual activity in exchange for a fee, between two consenting adults and in private is not a crime. What is illegal is pimping, soliciting openly in a public place, operating a brothel, or a third party benefitting financially from prostitution. The so-called pimp, a friendly accomplice perhaps, can be detained, even though the actress admitted she sold sexual favours as she was broke and in dire need of money for herself.

Clearly, the actress was a sex worker, who was performing her services voluntarily. She had not been coerced, kidnapped or tricked into staying in the business but had chosen this from among the options available to her to make a living. The state has no business arresting the actress, sending her to a remand home, where destitute women rescued by police and those facing trial are given shelter during the trial period.

The actress said she was earning up to Rs 1 lakh per client, and gave 15% to her accomplice, so she clearly enjoyed having the good things of life. To put her in an enforced, state-imposed virtuous cage is completely uncalled for.

There's a crucial question here: who is to make decisions about the morality of acts conducted in the privacy of a home or a hotel room? Certainly not the state, the police, or other do-gooders like NGOs, who have often crashed through doors to “rescue and rehabilitate” sex workers, unmindful of the fact that it is illegal to do so if the trade is voluntary.  It is wrong to treat trafficking and prostitution as if they were the same thing,  a difference that the media must learn about. Viewing sex work as if it is the same as sex trafficking puts sex workers at risk of illegal confinement, criminal proceedings and forces them into a dangerous working environment.

Already, sex workers are standing up for their rights. In March, The All India Network of Sex Workers, which represents 90 sex worker organisations across 16 Indian states, submitted a letter to the government demanding equal rights and social security like any other part of the work force. "Sex workers, including their family members, can't access various social entitlements which are offered to citizens in general," the letter said. "We consider sex work like any other occupation belonging to the unorganised sector and we should be brought under the universal pension scheme. We urge you to provide us with the minimum grounds for social inclusion. We are rather surprised to note that every category of worker is free to work in our society with rights and dignity, no space is allowed for sex workers."

For their campaign to make headway, it would help if the media were to refrain from gleefully jumping in with police stings that are unauthorised and illegal. Instead of branding the actress a criminal, the media should instead have castigated the police for their overzealous arrests. As anyone familiar with the law should know, it wasn't the activities of the actress that were illegal but the actions of the police that were.