Counterpoint

Yes, sexual exploitation and slavery exist. But they are not the same as sex work

Isn’t respecting the choices and autonomy of women at the core of what it means to be a feminist?

In her recent piece, Sex work or slavery?: Why human rights discourse is no longer a tool for liberation, Nandita Haksar bases her entire argument on the faulty premise that “almost all women who have been in prostitution call it slavery”.

Haksar has chosen to attack the open letter written by feminists who support the struggle for sex workers’ rights in India, but it is important to note that she ignores the National Network of Sex Workers Statement that was signed by more than 2,000 sex workers from seven states in India. She discounts their agency and contradicts the feminism that supposedly drives her arguments – isn’t a deep respect for the choices and autonomy of all women at the core of what it means to be a feminist?

The National Network statement calls for decriminalisation as a way to empower sex workers to combat the violence and discrimination they commonly face. Punitive laws that criminalise and punish sex work act as instruments through which sex workers are harassed and regularly have their human rights violated by law enforcement agencies, health authorities and non-paying clients. What Haksar fails to understand is that it is the State that is failing its citizens and not the discourse of human rights. The human rights discourse is not accountable for the failure of the State.

The health and safety of sex workers is undermined by the continued criminalisation of sex workers, their clients and the organisation of their work, as well as the repressive use of other kinds of laws. (For example, anti-trafficking and immigration laws that lead to raids, detention and deportation of sex workers ostensibly in the name of protection; administrative offences penalising sex work; vagrancy or loitering laws that target sex workers and/or their clients.) Such punitive legal environments and practices lead to multiple violations of sex workers’ rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person, safe working conditions, privacy, equality, freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and the highest attainable standard of health.

The Supreme Court of India in Budhadev Karmaskar v State of West Bengal stated that along with the recognition of prevention of trafficking and rehabilitation of sex workers who wish to leave sex work, it is essential that conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity in accordance with the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution, must also be recognised. The distinction between sexual exploitation and consensual adult sex work is crucial as it enables sex workers and their advocates to legally contest oppressive and forced sex work towards creation of safe and dignified work conditions for sex workers.

Work or slavery?

The fracture points in Haksar’s arguments arise from an unsteady oscillation between sex work and slavery. Is sex work, work? Is it slavery? Women who are part of the National Network of Sex Workers who signed the statement believe that sex work is work. They collectivise to root out slavery-like practices, force, deception, debt bondage, economic and social exploitation, violence both by state and non-state parties, and for safe working conditions. They do not ascribe to the understanding that sex work is, by itself, slavery. The struggle is to fight for safety and dignity.

Evidence-based research shows that the current criminalised environment also results in unsafe working conditions for sex workers, including exploitative practices by third parties and lack of access to nondiscriminatory health services. Decriminalisation will help sex workers organise and address all forms of exploitation, including abusive, sub-standard or unfair working conditions both within and outside the sex industry.

Agency and choice

The importance of avoiding the conflation of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and sex work cannot be over-emphasised. Such a conflation is inaccurate: trafficking of persons into forced or coerced labour (including sexual exploitation) cannot be equated with consensual sex work. Such a conflation also contributes to human rights violations against sex workers, who end up being further policed and abused despite being characterised as “victims” of trafficking. The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women regarding her 2013 mission to India noted “when sex workers are identified as victims of trafficking, the assistance that is provided to them is not targeted to their specific needs”. The Special Rapporteur included specific recommendations to review the country’s statute on “immoral traffic” that de facto criminalises sex work and to “ensure that measures to address trafficking in persons do not overshadow the need for effective measures to protect the human rights of sex workers”.

This recommendation was made after extensive consultations with sex workers across India. The open letter by feminists against abolition of prostitution was also a product of engagement with grassroots collectives of sex workers. It would have been appropriate if Haksar had also met with the collectives here in India, rather than basing her arguments solely on the “western” survivors she quotes in her article. She would have then been exposed to women who do not use arguments for or against human rights to justify their life choices, they would rather continue to fight for their right to live a life of dignity that abolitionists like her cannot take away from them.

Lastly, Ms. Haksar advises “one must feel outrage against injustice, and one must love deeply the people for whom one is fighting”. As a feminist who believes in the rights of marginalized persons to a voice of their own, I am deeply outraged against the injustice of the judgmental tone of Ms. Haksar’s arguments.

Meena Saraswathi Seshu is General Secretary, Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM).

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