The phenomenal worldwide spurt in prostitution, sex trafficking and sex
tourism particularly in the third world countries in the wake of
globalisation and economic liberalisation has generated increasing
interest and international debate on the question in the past two
decades or so. While some organisations activists and feminist groups
are demanding the abolition of prostitution and sex trade, some others
are aggressively campaigning for the legalisation and recognition of
prostitution as a profession. The advocates for legalisation demand that
it be give the status of an industry and the sex must be considered
similar to the any type of work and prostitutes be considered as sex
The issue has assumed importance in the context with even the ILO
calling for economic recognition of prostitution as legitimate work.
In India too, several NGOs had taken up the issue; some have held a
conference of sex workers as in Kolkata in 1997, ‘98 and again 2001 and
put forth arguments demanding legalisation. A few have opposed the
demand for legalisation as they felt it would only legitimise the
violence on women and the sale of human bodies.
What should be the standpoint of the proletariat with regard to the
question of legalisation of prostitution? Would legalisation of the
profession improve the position of the prostitutes? What are the root
causes behind the phenomena of prostitution? And why has it taken a
phenomenal leap in recent years? What is the correct solution to the
problem? Let us deal these questions.
A brief historical background
Historically, the origins of prostitution can be traced to the emergence
of the class society and the so-called civilisation when, for the first
time, woman become subordinated to man. Lack of property rights,
segregation from social production and division of labour along gender
lines have made the woman powerless and totally dependent on men from
childhood to old age. In a class-divided society, economic and social
power was naturally in the hands of the class that owned the chief means
The vast majority of the non-propertied classes had to live by selling
their labour. Their body has been the only asset these non-owning
classes possessed and it is only by pressing their body into service in
exchange for a wage or remuneration in kind that their very physical
survival could be ensured. Prostitution too arises from the compulsions
in a class divided society to sell one’s body for the sake of one’s
subsistence. Unlike men of the labouring classes women do not have the
opportunities to take part in similar productive activities due to
relations of patriarchy enforced by society. Thus, since each class is
internally divided along gender lines, and the power accrues to the man
of each class due to relations of patriarchy, women are rendered
powerless and socially and economically vulnerable.
Thus even when women enjoy the benefits and privileges, of the class
they belong to, they do not have an independent status of their own.
Their class status is accrued only by virtue of their attachments to the
men of that class, either as daughters, wives, sisters or mothers. Once
the support of the men of her family is withdrawn, she becomes
propertyless even if she belongs to the middle class, thereby leading to
a life of insecurity and even poverty. This social and economic
vulnerability of women arising out of gender inequalities in class
societies plays a significant role in sustaining prostitution.
Women with no assets and few options have to rely on the sale of their
bodies to maintain themselves and their dependents. Those who have been
forced into prostitution are generally the destitute, the deprived
sections of the society, belonging to the lower castes, and the tribals.
The simple fact that hardly 1%of the property in the world is owned by
women today shows the acute vulnerability and powerlessness of women.
Prostitution is created and sustained by the male dominated society
where male sexuality and masculinity are socially constructed by
patriarchy and female sexuality is controlled and denigrated.
Masculinity is proved by man’s ability to access several women. Within
feudal society, prostitution was restricted, to be found for example
around temples, institutionalised in the form of the devadasi system.
The development of market forces transformed prostitution into a trade.
Prostitution centres grew in port cities; around the colonies of migrant
male workers; and around cantonment and military barracks.
Natural calamities such as famines, floods, earthquakes and epidemics or
social and political upheavals such as wars led to large-scale
displacement of populations and to a phenomenal increase in the number
of prostitutes as more and more uprooted, hapless women were left with
no other options of livelihood.
Thus the colonial era gave an impetus to the sex trade by pushing
millions of women to sell their bodies in the areas where migrant male
work force or military troops were located. But it is the development
strategies pursued by the various governments of the Third World
countries in the neo-colonial phase that has seen it grow by heaps and
bounds. Big dams and mining and industrial projects, break up of
subsistence economies by modern technology leading to pauperisation of
entire communities, cyclones, floods and families resulting from
indiscriminate deforestation and so on, has uprooted millions of people
from their homes and a large number of women have been forced to seek a
refuge in prostitution to eke out a living.
For instance, there are 2-3 million prostitutes in 400 red light areas
in India (Indian Express 6/10/2000). 30% of prostitutes in the country
are children whose numbers are increasing by 8 to 10% annually. Almost
80% of the prostitutes belong to the lower castes and tribals who are
forced into the profession for sheer survival. Among others a
considerable section of women are forced into prostitution due to
patriarchal oppression in the family and society victims of rape by the
male chauvinists, deception by lovers, victims of rape in communal riots
and atrocities by the police and the state’s armed forces and so on. It
is estimated that every year the sex traffickers in connivance with the
police bring around 100,000 poverty stricken Nepalese women and children
to Indian brothels from Nepalese villages.
Globalisation and Sex Tourism
The single most important factor, however, is the promotion of the
sex-tourism in Third World countries. Tourism in Third World countries,
particularly in Asia, become a growth industry in the 1970s and in
vigorously promoted as a development strategy by international aid
agents like the World Bank, IMF and USAID. Between 1960 and 1979,
tourist arrivals in South East Asia increased 25-fold. The revenues
accrued to these countries on account of tourism was $4 billion in 1979.
Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore of South East Asia and
Kenya, Tunisia, Mexico, Srilanka, Peru, countries of the Caribbean etc.,
have made tourism one of their main areas of production. Asian, African
and Latin American women are the main export product who attract male
tourists from Japan, the US and Europe. For instance, as many as 50,000
women and children from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are
brought to the US under false pretexts and are forced to work as
prostitutes or abused labourers or servants, according to a CIA report.
According to a report about 2 to 3 lakh women are working in the sex
trade in Bangkok, camouflaged as massage parlours and hotels. Another
estimate puts the figure even higher – about 10% of Bangkok’s women are
believed to be engaged in sex trade despite the official ban on
prostitution. In Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, the number
of prostitutes is estimated to be around 1,00,000.
Burgeoning flesh trade leading to a veritable explosion in numbers
worldwide in the past two decades is the fall out of the policies of
globalisation and economic liberalisation adopted by most countries of
the world. The development strategies pursued by the South East Asian
countries during the 1970s have been repeated in India during the 1990s.
Three major reasons can be cited for the quantitative and qualitative
jump in the sex trade.
Firstly, the sex trade is now organised on a global basis just as any
other multinational enterprise. It has become a transnational industry.
It is one of the most developed and specialised industries that offers a
wide range of services to the customers, and has most innovative market
strategies to attract clients all over the world. The principal players
and beneficiaries of the sex industry are cohesive and organised. The
intricate web of actors involved in the sex trade today includes nor
just the prostitutes and the client, but an entire syndicate consisting
of the pimps, the brothel owners, the police, the politicians and the
local doctors. The principal actors connected to the sex trade are not
confined by narrow national or territorial boundaries in the context of
a globalised world. They operate both legally as well as clandestinely
and it is believed that the profits according to the organisations of
sex-industry currently equal those flowing out of the global illegal
trade in arms and narcotics.Moreover like any other multinational
enterprises, such as the tourism industry, entertainment industry,
travel and transportation industry, international media industry, under
ground narcotics and crime industry and so on.
Thus the magnitude, expanse, organisation, role of capital accumulation
and range of market strategies employed to sell sexual services make the
contemporary global sex industry qualitatively different from the old
practice of prostitution and sex trade.
The second factor, which makes sex trade qualitatively different today,
is that it has become a chosen development strategy by several Third
World countries. The World Bank, the IMF, the Asian Development Bank and
several other imperialist aid agencies have encouraged the development
of tourism and entertainment industry in Third World countries with the
aim of meeting their balance of payments and debit deficits. As a
result, sex tourism and sex entertainment have developed at an amazing
speed and have acquired national and international legitimacy under
globalisation as never before.
The third factor that has led to the burgeoning of the flesh trade is
the neo-colonial exploitation of the cheap raw materials and resources
of Third World by imperialist capital. The countries, which have
undergone structural adjustments under the dictates of World Bank and
the IMF, are forced to export their raw materials and cheap resources.
Women and children constitute an important component of the resources of
Third World countries and hence are considered a prime export item for
the "development" of these countries. Women and children, whose labour
is exploited beyond acceptable human rights standards, have become one
of the prime tools for capitalist accumulation. The migration and
traffic in women from areas of low concentration of capital to high
concentration areas i.e., from rural to urban and from the less
developed areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America (and now Eastern
Europe in) to the industrial countries.
This has become possible due to massive population and development of
large sections of the population in the Third World countries who are
left with no other options than to sell their bodies and labour in order
to eke out a living. And it is the women and children who form the
principal composite of these newly deprived and dispossessed sections
due to globalisation. International capital through the vast media
network at its disposal – the print and electronic media, the internet
etc – is able to mould the minds of the people living in an already
patriarchal, male-dominated world in favour of commodification of the
female body from the crudest to the most sophisticated of ways.
Capitalism had transformed relations between human beings into callous
cash relationships; it had commodified every aspect of human life
including human body parts, female reproductive work and virtually every
thing on the earth. Capitalism has no ethics other than amassing
profits. It had converted woman into a sex object and placed her in the
market for sale. Under globalisation, this had reached levels unknown in
human history due to the sheer magnitude and power of the principal
players and wrought havoc on the lives of the vast majority of the
wretched of the earth.
We thus find from the foregoing that today prostitution has been
transformed into global flesh trade – a multinational or transnational
enterprise that fetches enormous profits to the governments of several
countries, to the multinational syndicate of capitalists, pimps, mafia
gangsters, politicians and the police while the women are helpless
victims in this bizarre drama. The annual turnover of prostitution
business worldwide runs to billions of dollars. No wonder, the
imperialist agencies, the NGOs funded by these agencies, the governments
of some of the countries, and the media controlled by the imperialist
sharks, have begun canvassing for legalisation of prostitution. Of
course, all in the name of the welfare of the prostitutes. Quite a few
progressive and liberal democratic organisations and individuals also
sincerely endorse the stand for legalisation from a humanitarian
standpoint. . Seeing the way the existing laws in India, the Immoral
Traffic Prevention Act, 1986 and provisions of the IPC (1860) are framed
and utilised they argue that the oppression of prostitutes can be done
away with. They think that by legalising prostitution, women professing
the trade will have all the legal rights like any other industrial
workers and will be free from the harassment of the pimps, police and
Let us now analyse the arguments put forth for the legalisation of
prostitution and whose interests these actually serve.
Arguments in favour of legalisation
Vesya Anyay Mukti Parishad (Kolkata) which is an association of
prostitutes that had come into existence during the latter half of the
90s, is among the most vocal proponents of legalisation. The following
are a few of its arguments. "Prostitution is a way of life like any
other. It is not created for the benefit of the men rather it is
primarily for the women who live off it. Women in prostitution make
money out of the sex and are the breadwinners of their families.
"We believe that we are more empowered than most women within
male-dominated patriarchal structure. The relationships we share with
the men from our families are more honest and equal because the purdah
of double standards is not necessary.
"Economic independence from men is a reality that we enjoy with pride
and dignity. Brothel owners, goons, the police and the self-appointed
crusaders of morality in society harass us, try to curb our independence
and are forever trying to douse our spirit.
"We demand the eradication of all laws concerning prostitution which are
oppressive and help in further criminalizing the trade.
"We believe that we challenge and undermine structures of power by using
a part of our womanhood – our sexuality as a source of our power and
It wants to distinguish between "trafficking, which is criminal issue
and adult prostitution."
"We believe that making money from sex is not selling a part of our body
which is in no way different from selling our brains or physical labour.
"We protest against a society that deems our work contribution as less
prestigious than other traditional forms of work.
"We believe that despite living within a capitalist patriarchal society
and having the experienced the freedom of living outside the patriarchal
system, it is almost impossible for us to contemplate enterin such a
system with its inherent double standard, lopsided value system and
One would be surprised to see the above statements coming from an
organisation of the prostitutes themselves. It appears as if the
prostitutes have chosen to be what they are by free choice, that
choosing is a form of rebellion against the patriarchal system and
oppression in the family and society at large. Through these arguments
not only are they juxtaposing the individual right with the structural
circumstances but they are also reducing human rights to the rights of
the individual. The arguments not only justify the profession but also
try to lure more and more women into the flesh trade in the name of
women’s liberation. These so-called associations of sex-workers are
obviously organised by NGOs or individuals with imperative trends and
seek to give the sex trade a further boost in the name of voluntary
The stark reality is that the overwhelming majority of the prostitutes
are there not by choice but due to destitution, deprivation,
displacement ostracisation and deception; that many have been victims of
sexual assault either at home or work place or in the street;that quite
a few of them have been bought from starving parents by unscrupulous
pimps even before they reach their puberty, administered steroids like
Benetradin to make malnourished children artificially plumpy just as
they fatten cattle and chicken to yield more meat; that some of them are
made into ‘servants of god’ (devadasi) against the law and the will of
the young girls and packed off to brothels to serve as slaves to
sex-starved, sadistic clients; that given an alternative option for
decent livelihood there would be hardly any one left in the profession.
The question for free choice does not arise. Here it is to be noted that
the emphasis is being given to free choice because they want to make a
distinction between becoming a prostitute willingly and trafficking. The
main campaign against trafficking is being led by the needs of the
imperialist western countries where there is a shortage of white
prostitutes. In the US for example too, over 70 % of the prostitutes are
In fact this argument is being promoted to make it easy to legalise the
import of prostitutes to the imperialist countries and other centres of
Sangram (Sangli-Maharashtra), a voluntary organisation working among
prostitutes, is even more aggressive in championing the cause of the
"In the work place, she is more than equal to the male client and very
often controls the conditions of the transaction. Women ‘keep’ many
malaks and refuse to be treated as the exclusive property of the man.
Here, women in prostitution are shown to "liberated" and as working
independently on her own terms. It is shown as an alternative for women
to free themselves from patriarchal stranglehold.
Citing the powerlessness of women to even retain their names after
marriage, Sangram glorifies the ‘Freedom’ that is supposed to be
inherent in prostitution.
"In class based and male dominated society, women are forced to occupy a
secondary status that is totally male-centred, even the power to name
herself is denied to her as, in several parts of the country, she is
even given a new first name of her marriage, forcing her to discard her
old identity and adopt a new one.
"Women in prostitution are in different position. Even if a woman in
prostitution opts to stay with one man and conduct her ‘dhandha’
(profession) she does not change her name. She continues to occupy her
own residence and in fact, it is the man who comes to stay with her. In
this case, the tables are reversed: it is done on her terms. "Women in
prostitution pose tremendous challenge to the family structure, system
and its values. They actually challenge patriarchal ‘values’ that govern
The perverted logic of these opologists for sex trade sees the
prostitute as a free and independent agent who controls her body and
sexuality and challenges the family and patriarchal values. Contrary to
their argument the institution of prostitution is as much a creation of
patriarchy as the present-day family and co-exists with it. It is based
on the freedom socially available to men but denied to women.
As Engels succinctly put it, it is "the absolute domination of the male
over the female sex as the fundamental law of society". She is a victim
of patriarchal oppression within the profession. Once a woman enters the
trade, there is no way out. She is completely at the mercy of the
sex-starved customer, the pimp and the police. Physical assaults and
rapes are a daily occurrence. More than half of the prostituted women in
the Third World countries had contracted HIV/AIDs. A 1985 Canadian
report on the sex industry reported that the women in prostitution in
that country suffer mortality rate 40 times the national average. It
could be even worse in countries like India. All this proves that the
argument that once prostitution is legalized it can be more effectively
regulated making it safe for all those involved, that the spread of HIV
can be slowed, that sex workers can have access to health and so on, are
sheer fraud. The fact is that all forms of sexual commodification,
whether legalised or not, lead to an increase in the level of abusive
and exploitative activity.
The interest of the State in permitting legalisation is not the
prostitute and her rights but to check the spread of sexually
transmitted deceases. It involves heavy regulation of prostitution
through a whole host of zoning and licensing laws. Zoning segregates the
prostitutes into a separate locality and their civil liberties are
restricted outside the specified zone. Licensing means issue of
licenses, registration and the disbursement of health cards to the
women. Legalisation makes it mandatory for the women to undergo medical
check-ups regularly or face imprisonment.
Legalising prostitution is legalising violence:To describe prostitution
as sex work and a prostitute as a sex worker means to give legitimacy to
sexual exploitation of helpless women and children. It means ignoring
the basic factors, which push women and children into prostitution such
as poverty, violence and inequalities. It tries to make the profession
look dignified and as a ‘job like any other job’.
It is the organised commercial sex industry that is the staunchest
advocate for legalisation of prostitution on the plea that ‘sex work’ is
viable work – a job like any other job. Creating the nation that sexual
exploitation and abuse are ‘work’ createsa shield to the industry from
the critics and will multiply their profits by boosting the sex trade
By considering women in prostitution as workers, pimps as businessmen,
and the buyers as customers and thereby giving the entire sex industry
recognition as an economic sector, the governments are planning to
abdicate all responsibilities for providing decent employment to women.
They are thus pushing more and more women into sex trade by creating the
notion that sex work is like any other work.
Legalisation of prostitution is not a solution because legalisation
implies men’s self evident right to be customers. Accepting services
offered through a normal job is neither violent nor abusive. Legalising
it as a normal occupation would be an acceptance of the division of
labour, which men have created. A division, where women’s real
occupational choices are far narrower than men’s. Legalisation will not
remove the harmful effects suffered by the women. Women will still be
forced to protect themselves against a massive invasion of strange men,
as well as the physical violence.
Legalisation means position of regulation by the State to ensure the
continuation and perpetuation of prostitution. It implies that they have
to pay taxes, i.e., the prostitute needs to serve more customers to get
the money needed. Legalisation means that more men will become
customers, and more women are needed as prostitutes, and more women,
especially women in poverty, will be forced into prostitution.
Legalising prostitution will only increase the chances of exploitation.
The experiences of the countries where prostitution was legalised also
show how this had given big boost to the trade and had increased sexual
abuse. For instance, in Australia and in some states in the US where
legalisation was implemented, it was found that there was an alarming
increase in the number of illegal brothels too along with an increase in
the legal trade.
Commercial sexual exploitation devalues the lives of all women and girls
by promoting misogynistic beliefs and attitudes among the males. It
teaches the males that female bodies are sexual merchandise to be
traded, used and discarded, and consequently, it aggravates gender
inequality in all areas of society. It leads to a spurt in acts of
sexual violence and harassment against women in the work place and in
the domestic life. It violates human rights of all women and children
whose bodies are reduced to sexual commodities to be bought and sold in
The so-called safe sex that is said to emanate from legalisation and
guaranteeing the rights of the prostitutes is a myth. It ignores the
inherent power dynamics of sexual exploitation and that the sexually
exploited women or child has no other option than to acquiese to the
customer’s demands since she is not in a position to demand the usage of
condoms by the customer. Any resistance means more violence.
Trying to make a distinction between prostitutions by choice or consent
and forced prostitution or trafficking which all the champions of
porstitutes’ cause have been trying to do, is an exercise in futility
since in practice it is extremely difficult to prove cases of forced
prostitution. The traffickers and pimps can easily conceal evidence of
coercion and manufacture evidence of consent from the prostitutes
themselves.There are two important international human rights
conventions that address the question of prostitutes and trafficking in
women: the convention on the Traffic in persons and the exploitation of
the prostitution and of others, and the Convention for the Elimination
of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1949. But these
conventions, despite the stringent clauses against pimps, procurers and
traffickers, have no enforcement mechanisms and have not been ratified
by many countries. And as we have seen, it is almost impossible to get
evidence from the sexually abused women and children given the power of
the sex industry managers.
And now, burying these conventions, the ILO has called for the economic
recognition of prostitutes as legitimate work in its controversial
report of 1998.
We must reject all arguments for legalisation of prostitution and the
notion that engaging in sex trade and selling town’s body for the sexual
gratification of others in exchange for money is work.
Legalisation of the sex trade is vigorously advocated by the
imperialists, by imperialist sponsored NGOs and individuals and by the
Third World governments, only in order to preserve the institutions of
prostitution and thereby serve the imperialist interests in
commodification of women.
Prostitution is violence against women. It is an insult to the
self-respect of women, violation of their basic human rights. It is
criminal to call violence and sexual abuse against women as work. It is
criminal to call the sale of one’s body for the sexual gratification of
others as work. It is criminal and callous on the part of governments to
abdicate responsibility of providing decent employment to women and
children and pushing them into the sex trade in the name of legalisation
Our demands should be to abolish prostitution and trafficking in women
and children, provide gainful employment to all those engaged in the sex
trade and punish those responsible for encouraging the sex trade and
indulging in any form of discrimination against women.
We must mobilise the women who are engaged in Prostitution against the
State demanding employment while fighting against all forms of
oppression and harassment by pimps, traffickers and the police.
We must educate the women caught in the vicious web of Prostitution that
it is only by dismantling this exploitative system based on class and
gender inequalities and the worst form of patriarchal control that they
can be free, independent and in a position to determine their destiny.