Meet the editor

‘Society accepts prostitution as inevitable instead of recognising it as an absence of choice’

An interview with Ruchira Gupta, the editor of an anthology of Indian stories on ‘the prostituted woman’.

Ruchira Gupta is an activist in the international movement to stop prostitution and trafficking of persons. She is the founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide. She was interviewed recently in New York.

Let’s start out with you describing your new book, River of Flesh: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction, before going into the ideas behind bringing a volume like this to readers. Later in the interview we can talk about your first US launch that took place here in New York.
River of Flesh is a collection of 21 stories by modern Indian writers around one common theme – prostitution. Translated from 12 languages still commonly used, they span a century and a subcontinent, reflecting India’s great experiment with modernity and diversity.

When I started collecting the stories I began to realise how unique this was. Many of these writers never met, did not speak the same language, had not read each other and yet felt the same way about the status of women and prostitution systems in our society.

The writers are obviously influenced by the same value system – a value system unleashed during India’s struggle for Independence from British colonialism. Along with freedom from British Rule, the writers are challenging control of caste, class and gender hierarchies in all spheres. They are trying to empathise with the most disempowered or weakest human being they know – in this case the prostituted woman. Men are writing with insight on a woman’s feelings, women are writing sensitively on men’s feelings.

Kamleshwar, a man, writes in River of Flesh of a woman in a brothel who cannot stand the smell of her customer’s feet, an occupational hazard that no one who was not prostituted could imagine, let alone a man. Manto, another male writer, imagines a prostituted woman’s desire to sleep.

Manisha Kulshreshtha, a woman, writes of a mother who understands her son’s anger that his mother is a nude model. The female writers even understand the loss of identity of the male buyer, pimps and Johns.

In Amrita Pritam’s story Shah Di Kanjari, the kept woman and the wife strike a bond. Kamla Das, a woman writer famous for her erotic writing, depicts a male constable who buys a doll for the prostituted child and can no longer use her sexually when he sees her playing with the doll.

In these stories, prostitution is portrayed as system of inequality that is an outcome of the entrenched poverty and utter destitution left behind by British colonialism, old feudal zamindari cultures, and Brahminical caste systems. Prostitution is not romanticised. Nor are unequal marriages. Women in prostitution are humanised. They love, lust, get angry, and are betrayed. Their exploitation is unflinchingly revealed through their feelings.

Men are dehumanised – caught in their ego and deeply entrenched gender roles. They control female sexuality as a last resort to hold on to their masculinity even when they can no longer play the role of breadwinner. Premchand’s story A Matter of Honour, in which the man beats his wife, ties her up, brings a prostituted woman home and commits suicide when his wife decides to prostitute herself, is exactly about that.

Some of the stories take place before the Partition of India and date to the 1930s; other stories are post-Partition. There is a story by Saadat Hasan Manto, one of India and Pakistan’s most famous modern Urdu authors. Manto wrote extensively about prostituted women in Delhi, Bombay, and Lahore. He moved to Lahore after Partition, where he died before he turned 50. His customer travels to Lahore from Kolkata after the partition. Lahore looks different, shabbier and with more poor disenfranchised people – in this case a pimp and the woman he is prostituting.

In the Hindustani story, A Prostitute’s Letter by Krishan Chander, a woman writes to Jinnah and Nehru on behalf of two girls – one Hindu and one Muslim – who ended up homeless after the Partition and then in her brothel in Mumbai.

The stories in River of Flesh explore the futility of prostitution as a system for pulling women out of poverty and inequality. They also show with great empathy that women in prostitution are not crazy. The system is crazy.

What do you mean by crazy?
I mean that the women are victims of an unequal system. They are not sex-starved females or lazy people who do not want to work. They are not happy hookers like in the Hollywood movie Pretty Women. They are not crazy women who allow their own rape because they want to buy bags, shoes, lipsticks etc. and don’t want to work to buy them.

In fact, they work harder than their sisters. They’re subject to extreme body invasion, violence, stigma, betrayal and dehumanisation. And with more experience they earn less. The system simply chews them up and spits them out when they are no longer commercially viable. Their shelf life is five to ten years. They are thrown out with multiple diseases and a mountain of debt.

Prostitution is an outcome of their inequality. They are poor, female, low-caste and often teenagers. Their choices are really absence of choices. For example, in the English story, A Doll for the Child Prostitute by Kamla Das, a little girl is deposited in a brothel by her mother after being raped by her stepfather.

In the Marathi story, Woman of the Street, Dalit writer Baburao Bagul writes about a prostituted woman who is duped twice: first by a shopkeeper who does not tell her that the sick son she is trying to raise money for is already dead; and then by the customer who has sex with her, steals her money, beats her, and leaves her for dead.

The system only deepens the prostituted woman’s inequality.

No woman can even eke out an existence through prostitution. It’s a dead end. For example, in the Kannada story The Last Customer, the woman is so terribly weak that she collapses on the edge of a field. A vulture circles overhead – perhaps her last customer.

In Kamleshwar’s River of Flesh, customers keep demanding the prostituted woman even when her boils burst and the pus oozes onto them.

In these stories, we see and feel prostitution from the woman’s point of view. Readers are faced with a woman feeling revulsion at the smell of customers’ feet or a young girl looking through the bars of a brothel window as her mother becomes a dot on the horizon.

Occasionally male characters have reversals that suggest that men who buy sex are capable of transformation as in A Doll for the Child Prostitute.

How does River of Flesh relate to your work as a feminist and anti-trafficking activist? What are the ideas and motivations behind publishing it?
I need more support in the fight against trafficking and prostitution. I want to tip the balance. Just like people think it’s not okay to buy and own a slave, I want people to think it’s not okay to buy sex. When buying sex is no longer tolerated, the demand for the purchase of sex will end, which in turn will end prostitution and the trafficking of girls and woman.

One of the challenges I still face after 20 years working as an activist to end trafficking is that people don’t realise the urgency. People don’t realise the immensity either in terms of numbers or in terms of the depth of exploitation.

The view of prostitution is typically from the outside. People think it’s about a poor person getting money for sex; some assume that prostitution is better than a bad marriage or even believe there’s such a thing as a happy hooker. They don’t know anything about the woman or the reality of her daily life.

The other challenge comes from those who accept the inevitability of women’s unequal choices. They feel that prostitution is one choice, among other unequal choices like bad marriage, domestic servitude , rag picking, etc. that women can choose from. They think, given the alternatives, why not chose prostitution? They say there is agency within prostitution.

It’s like saying a slave had agency and would not know what to do when free. In these conditions agency is so limited and so inherently harmful. If only people would understand that it is an unethical compromise to settle for agency on behalf of the exploited while we struggle for freedom for the privileged and entitled.

I wanted to compile these stories to challenge those who claim that women choose prostitution over marriage. They say prostitution allows women to choose who they will have sex with, when they have sex, and to control their own earnings. The women in the stories I have chosen cannot sleep when they want to, cannot eat when they want to, cannot turn away disease-ridden or even brutal customers.

Prostituted women do not control their earnings. The pimps and brothel managers control both them and their money.

As I communicate about trafficking and prostitution, I keep looking for ways to get under the skin of people to make them empathise. I’m an avid reader. The closest I came to understanding the prostituted woman before I began working in red light districts was through stories. They sparked an insight into a far-removed life. So I thought a collection of stories by writers that we know and respect would be a way to help people imagine and empathise with the absence of choices in the lives of these women.

That’s the power of writing isn’t it? Reading literature engaged your imagination and made the lives of prostituted women real to you.
Yes, the story is always more real than data.

I’d say that’s partly true. My work as a researcher on social justice and public policy has taught me that there are people who find data more real or convincing than stories.
I suppose so. Once, a colleague from my anti-trafficking organisation, Apne Aap, did not mention the number of girls from red-light areas that Apne Aap was putting through college in a presentation he made.

I was a bit surprised. I asked him why. We had only recently met five of them in their colleges. In fact, he had later visited their home-based brothels in Bihar, talked to them, photographed them, and met their teachers. His response was, “The data does not say so.” Basically he meant that somebody had not entered them into the excel spreadsheet.

I was aghast. He was so programmed that he did not believe his own five senses – only what he saw on the computer screen. His power of reasoning was so numbed that he could not challenge faulty data entry despite of meeting real girls in college. The computer had become more real to him than reality.

I have noticed another frightening outcome of this dependence on data. Collection of data and numbers become ends in themselves and the human being is lost sight of. I call it the tyranny of the spreadsheet.

For example look at the Gates programme to prevent AIDS in India. They used a matrix called SMART to design their programme. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound. To be SMART they focused on providing condoms to customers in brothels in the red-light areas of India.

The desire to be specific made them focus only on protecting male customers from AIDS. They left women and girls out of the equation. To be measurable they focused on a product they could count – condoms – and not intangible changes like empowerment of women and girls. To be achievable they hired pimps and brothel keepers on staff to provide access to the brothels for condom distribution, ending up making the sex-industry more powerful.

To be results-oriented they refused to be distracted by the fact that women and girls were getting AIDS anyway since they had to have sex with a customer with or without a condom. To be time-bound they chose “the low hanging fruit’ of condom distribution as their solution rather than a chain of basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, education.

Their entire programme was geared toqards protecting sex buyers from AIDS rather than protecting the women and girls from the sex-buyers.

Today there is no evidence to prove whether they have reduced AIDS, or not but the sex industry has increased 17 times with pimps protected as peer educators, and more women and girls being sexually abused.

The programme also created a false notion of “ethical” demand, where it was all right to buy a girl for sex if you used a condom. Ads like: “It does not matter what ‘sex-worker’ you chose, chose the right condom,” cropped up.

Interventions dealing with human beings very often need holistic not specific, experienced not measurable, idealistic not only achievable, visionary not just results-oriented and sustainable not time bound solutions. The many dimensions of human change cannot be numbered, counted and catalogued into excel spreadsheet. We are living breathing creatures with multiple needs and feelings. The stories are about feelings, not products.

Driven by limited matrixes and data, we keep tackling the symptoms without tackling the root cause, so the problem never goes away. In fact we end up skimming the top of the bottom. Look at the micro-credit credit disaster. More than 75,000 farmers in India have committed suicide because they could not repay the small loans.

The creditors were so intent on collecting the interest that they forgot to consider the needs of the farmers for improved seeds and fertilisers, etc. After all wasn’t the micro-credit programme set up to help the poor farmer, not drive him to suicide?

We have to ask ourselves why we have lost the ability to imagine the needs of the last, most marginalised person? We can only think of what we can produce.

Another example is Childline, a helpline that children in need can call. How can a child in a brothel have access to a phone?

Should a prostitute who cannot get a customer start selling her body parts to repay a loan?

Yes, my point is that stories and quantitative data both can be used to illuminate conditions and motivate action. And both can ignore, misconstrue, or minimise the human experience of exploitation – as your examples of Pretty Woman, the agency of prostituted women, and project frameworks like SMART indicate. In fact there are a lot of false assumptions about prostitution that need to be addressed and they vary from one place to the next.
Yes, the myth of the happy hooker depicted in Pretty Woman is one of them, or the empowered “sex worker” in Holland is another.

In the stories I have collected women are forced to pretend to be happy to attract customers. They are never empowered through prostitution, they lose their power to disease, drugs, poverty, and violence.

In one story, the woman is exhausted but the pimp demands that she take another customer. No matter how fat, smelly, diseased, or violent, the system demands that a paying customer is not refused. She has to say yes to all of them because they paid for it. She suffers repeated body invasion.

I found that prostituted women have little agency. Their income is controlled by brothel owners and pimps. Instead of controlling their income, they fall into debt to landlords, corrupt police, brothel owners, and pimps. Instead of having agency they had to submit to repeated body invasion to survive and put food on the table for themselves and their children.

Body invasion is a visceral term. How are you using it in the context of prostituted women and girls?
I’ve talked a lot with Gloria Steinem over the years about these issues. I’m not sure exactly where the term comes from. Body invasion differentiates prostitution from trafficked labour and sweatshop work. Body penetration is inherent to prostitution. It cannot be legislated away. That is what customers are buying. It has both physical and mental health consequences different from cheap labour and sweatshop work.

The modern writers in River of Flesh understand this.

You mean these writers understood and portrayed in their stories how prostitution cannot be equated with paid work – that the effects of body invasion or penetration make prostitution incommensurable with labour.
They were looking at the impact of inequalities on the human being. They criticised social inequality and exploitation. Those looking at the impact of prostitution who said it’s work and not exploitation assumed that if it were properly regulated then the harm caused to prostituted women would go away. How can body penetration be regulated out when that is what men are buying?

But these writers show the dehumanising effects of buying sex. The effects are alienation from one’s own body and dissociation from oneself.

In your view, then, defining prostitution as paid work denies the fact that body invasion is inherently dehumanising and exploitative?
Being paid money doesn’t make it okay for someone to shove a bottle up a woman or girl’s vagina. These stories make us see the violence: a customer holds a prostituted woman by the throat while ripping the money out of her blouse; a young girl whose body is split apart because a grown man paid to rape he, why should payment of money make it okay?

So you’re saying that in the course of your work over the past twenty years, you haven’t seen evidence for claims that prostitution empowers women with agency. Instead you see prostitution a system that denies agency in the lives of women.
I think we need to get away from academic jargon and look at the lived reality of the prostitution system. Sometimes we look for ways to reduce the harm rather than eliminate it. This approach can normalise the status quo. Modernity was about questioning injustice with a view to ending it.

I agree that it’s necessary to challenge academic arguments that support the status quo. Especially when these arguments are based on dubious claims about individual choice.
Society accepts prostitution as inevitable with arguments about agency instead of recognising that prostitution is an absence of choice. It’s sad that those who want to use the term “sex worker” have as their goal regulating an exploitative system instead of ending it.

I worry that something inherently exploitative is being defined as work. It will eventually dilute all labour struggles.

Inequality is so normalised in our hearts and minds that we accept the exploitation of certain classes of human beings. In India this means poor, female, low caste, and young. We are willing to settle for agency for the less powerful and let them live within a system of exploitation.

At the same time, persons from more powerful sectors of society strive for freedom and full equality. Rape is a punishable offence. But if a low-caste, poor woman is being raped commercially, it is called sex work.

When prostitution is looked at as a system of exploitation within a larger system of inequality, then it’s fallacious to regard agency in the sense of choosing prostitution as a positive outcome.
The stories and my experiences show that a woman doesn’t chose prostitution. She is choosing survival. Prostitution isn’t a choice. It is the absence of choice. Nobody makes the choice to be poor, low caste, or female. River of Flesh shows that society and individuals take advantage of this lack of choice. Language is politics. I use the term “prostituted woman.” People read the book’s title and wonder, “Who prostituted her?” The system of inequality is what prostitutes women and girls.

No woman wants her daughter to be prostituted. No 14-year-old says she wants to grow up and be prostitute. If we see a smiling 20-year-old-woman in prostitution, we take it at face value. We don’t take the time to dig more deeply – and we don’t want to see or know what lies behind her smile. River of Flesh makes us see what’s behind the smile. This book is my way to dialogue with society, to create more empathy, to touch hearts along with minds.

You’ve had launches in India and Pakistan. I’m glad I was able to attend the launch here in New York City because it was also an event honouring 20 years of your activism. Can you tell us how this was an important occasion for the movement to end trafficking and prostitution as well as for you personally?
The UN’s Commission on the Status of Women holds sessions in New York throughout the month of March, with government and NGO delegates from all over the world participating in them. This year anti-trafficking groups from New York and Europe organised an event on March 17 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the CSW and to celebrate my book and work to end trafficking.

One of the sponsors was the New York State Anti-trafficking Coalition. Its sponsorship meant a lot to me because when we lobbied the New York state legislature to pass a law to end trafficking, our lobbying led to the formation of the Coalition. Other sponsors of the event were the Coalition against Trafficking in Women, Equality Now, the European’s Women’s Lobby, SPACE International, Sanctuary for Families, and Apne Aap Women Worldwide.

Some of these organisations are made up of a network of member NGOs. All of them are leaders in the international women’s movement and anti-trafficking movement. SPACE is an organisation of survivors of prostitution. Their support meant the world to me.

As someone who’s known you for nearly twenty-five years, it was thrilling to be among activists from all over the world at an event honoring you. I can only imagine how fulfilling it was for you to be celebrated in this way by your colleagues.
It was gratifying to look out and see representatives from so many organizations in the audience. When I started this work there was no UN Protocol against trafficking, no law in the US. These are things we worked together to accomplish as we built the movement.

It was also satisfying to see how much the movement has grown. There were about 200 people in the audience. Literally every leader working in the global movement against sex trafficking was in the room. They were there in solidarity with me, our movement, to support the book and out of respect for my contribution to the movement.

The event also gave the audience a chance to listen to a few of the stories from River of Flesh. I found it very powerful to be sitting together in New York and listening to American women read stories from India about women and girls in prostitution.
Yes, I realised when I heard an American actor read an Indian story to a global audience how truly universal our movement is.

It was moving for me. Three of the readers were actors – Ashley Judd, Carey Lowell, and Jessica Minhas – and the fourth one, Yasmeen Hassan, is the Global Executive Director of Equality Now. Dorchen Leidholdt’s introduction was almost like a tribute. It felt good to be part of the movement.

The women’s and environment movement are the two global movements of our generation. This was evident at the event. An Indian film director in the audience said he was sceptical that an American woman could do a convincing reading. He was surprised what happened when he closed his eyes and listened to Ashley Judd read The Last Customer, a story translated from Kannada.

Even though the stories were written by Indian writers and set in India, even though they crossed two oceans and three continents and were read in American accents in New York, they could be understood by everyone in the room. After the readings the Irish activist and writer Rachel Moran commented on them. There was also affirmation from Latin American and African women. The universality of the language of our pain crossed continents. It’s also the universality of the language of our global struggle. It was a very authentic event.

The stories in River of Flesh are by accomplished literary writers who know how to engage their readers. At the same time they don’t aestheticise prostitution or the lives of prostituted women.
The event was a historic moment for the movement. Certain moments leave an imprint on our minds. The stories allowed us to use art to talk to each other, to celebrate, to remember, and to move forward. Very often movements have unsung heroes. It was very nice to be sung about. And many young women attended and talked about feeling inspired.

It’s important for movements to have moments like this. Movements need to move. The book gave us that opportunity to converse and move forward as abolitionists. A gathering like this gives us energy and helps us move forward with hope. The book and events like this get the conversation started and keep it moving.

Dr Lise McKean is an anthropologist.

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