Woman uninterrupted: bodies for sale, anyone?

We have seen a lot of reports last week of the former child actress sent to a remand home after the police rounded up a prostitution racket in a Hyderabad hotel. There are the usual stock emotions of shock, pity and censure doing the rounds. She said she did it for the money, and one does not know the pressures she faced. What the story did for me was to raise uncomfortable political questions about prostitution itself.

About two weeks ago, the UK’s Guardian ran a feature on Josh Brandon, 21, expensive male escort, who insisted that his moneyed life in London is neither dark nor dangerous but vastly preferable to a lifetime of dreariness in a Welsh mining town. Some years ago, British tabloids were talking of an Asian-origin Maths student who ran away from Oxford to become a sex worker earning £130 an hour. Bollywood and Kollywood insiders talk of the small fortunes that top models or stars come for.

One school of feminism believes that selling one’s body is a legitimate economic choice, with the only caveat that voluntary prostitution must be differentiated from forced prostitution. If the sex trade is legalised, they argue, and the health and safety of workers ensured, there is no reason it can't be like any other trade. Making it illegal increases the danger for sex workers. They cannot work safely in the open, get police protection, or prosecute violent customers.

In the opposing camp, we can ignore the moralist brigade, but the strongest political objection is that prostitution is per se exploitative, a patriarchal construct that assumes men will have uncontrollable urges that must be met. In other words, if it is not to be had for money, they will rape and pillage for it. Prostitution, thus, is not truly a ‘free choice’ but a cultivated industry. This view inspires the ‘Swedish model’ of legislation, which makes the purchase of sex illegal, not its sale.  

It is tempting to support the argument that sees the sale of one’s body as a pure choice of will. And it is indeed so for the Josh Brandons and others who use it intelligently to earn high incomes. But they are a privileged minority.

The vast majority of sex workers are children, widows, divorcees, single mothers, transgenders — all classes without political or economic power. Or the freedom to choose. When society is so deeply patriarchal, and women’s bodies so fully owned, commoditised and exploited by agencies other than the woman, it becomes impossible to argue that prostitution functions as a ‘free industry’. It is more like the ivory trade. Children and adolescents are drugged and groomed into it, women tortured and pimped into it.

But here’s the thing: whichever side of the feminist argument we take, the sex worker is not the criminal. So it's unconscionable that the actor has been named and discussed publicly while her clients are anonymously home. Just as it is unacceptable that the average sex worker should be harassed everyday, even as customers walk safely home.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 2:57:23 AM |

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