Choice in the labour market – sex work as “work”

A blog post by Nivedita Menon on Kafila, 6 May 2011.

The summary of preliminary findings of the first pan-India survey of sex-workers is now available on-line.  3000 women from 14 states and 1 UT were surveyed, all of them from outside collectivised/organised and therefore politically active spaces, precisely  “in order to bring forth the voices of a hitherto silent section of sex workers.”

The significant finding is this: About 71 percent of them said they had entered the profession willingly.

(The data on male and transgender sex workers has not been processed yet).

The study was conducted by Rohini Sahni and  V Kalyan Shankar under the aegis of the Center for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation (CASAM),  supported by Paulo Longo Research Initiative (“a collaboration of scholars, policy analysts and sex workers that aims to develop and consolidate ethical, interdisciplinary scholarship on sex work to improve the human rights, health and well being of women, men and transgenders who sell sex.”). The study was supported by a large number of groups, organizations and individuals in each state, who helped to conduct the surveys.

This background is important, because it appears to be a study that is well grounded, and drawing on large networks of local interconnections.

Women had to be 18 years old at least, to be part of the survey but 0.53 of the sample was 15-17 years of age. These young women

“demanded to be included in the analysis. It was judged that since these adolescents had been self supporting, and had an understanding of what was being asked of them and the consequences of participation, that they had achieved sufficient maturity to justify inclusion. In addition because of the widespread participation of adolescents in a range of occupations and the right of adolescents to be heard on these matters – it was deemed appropriate to retain the responses offered by these adolescents in the analysis.”

This study establishes what feminist research on sex work has been tending increasingly to show,  that the model of choice versus force is utterly inadequate in understanding the motivations of women in sex work. In fact, most sex-workers have  ”multiple work identities”. By bringing to the surface the non sex-work histories of the women surveyed, either alongside or prior to engaging with sex work,  the study found that

“a significant number of females move quite fluidly between other occupations and sex work. For example, a street vendor may search for customers while selling vegetables and a dancer at marriages may also take clients. It is not easy to demarcate women’s work into neatly segregated compartments. Sex work and other work come together in ways that challenge the differentiation of sex work as an unusual and isolated activity.”

Poverty and limited education are conditions that push women into labour markets at early ages, and sex work was found to be one among several options available to women in the labour market. This means that other occupations are often pursued before sex work emerges or is considered as an option. Sex work offers a significant supplementary income to other forms of labour. Many of those surveyed also worked in diverse occupations in the unskilled manufacturing or services sector for extremely poor wages.

“The survey found that there is a pattern to the sequential emergence of jobs over age. Agricultural labour and domestic work start at an early age, between 6-10 years. So do some activities like child minding and scrap collection, but on a smaller scale. These are either family-based occupations or remain parental occupations into which the girls may get drawn for assistance. Other girls enter the labour force at the turn of the teens, some of them in more labour-intensive activities like daily wage earning or construction labour while others start fitting into a host of low-end jobs such as cleaners, sweepers, helpers, and petty selling. The frequency of cases shows a steep surge in this phase. While some activities like agricultural work or baby-sitting show an early peaking, some of the more niche activities like tailoring, working in beauty parlours or nursing/patient care start at a later age. In the sample, the largest category of prior work was that of domestic workers, followed by daily wage earners and those in petty services in formal/informal establishment.”

Why did women either leave these other occupations or supplement their income from those occupations with sex work? The responses were:

“low pay, insufficient salary, no profit in business, no regular work, seasonal work, not getting money even after work, could not run home with that income, is kaam se pet nahi bharta.”

Quite simply, sex work is

“an economically attractive option. The modal incomes in sex work are in a higher bracket of Rs. 1000-3000, with substantial numbers in the range of Rs. 3000-5000 (which also forms the median value). These incomes persist in older age groups.”

The categories of forced/sold/cheated, or involving an element of abuse, are roughly similar across the two sets of direct entrants (22.1%) and those coming from other work (24.8%). But the study also suggests that “where choosing sex work carries a social stigma, it may be expected that being coerced or being cheated are modes of entry likely to be somewhat over-reported.”

In short:

“Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions, nor is it particularly prominent in terms of the employment of minors as compared to other sectors. For those coming to sex work from the other labour markets, they have often experienced equally harsh (or worse) conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low (and most often lower) incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.”

What this study does is force us to recognize that “choice” is severely limited in the labour market as a whole. If people find it possible to move to work that is less exhausting and better paying, they will do so. There is no more or less agency exercised in “choosing” to do slave labour as a domestic servant in multiple households for a pittance, or be exploited by contractors doing construction work, than there is in “choosing” to do sex work – whether as the sole occupation or alongside other work.

There is no option for feminists but to demystify this thing called sex, in which one puts some particular parts of one’s body to work rather than others. There is no  option for us but to be in solidarity with initiatives of sex workers to make their working conditions safe and dignified and well-paid.

A clarification – I am not arguing for legalizing sex-work, which only brings it into the ambit of the state’s control, but for decriminalizing it. Here’s a link to this debate in the context of Canada, but the arguments are pretty much the same everywhere.

Download THE FIRST PAN-INDIA SURVEY OF SEX WORKERS: A summary of preliminary findings by ROHINI SAHNI & V KALYAN SHANKAR from this link

Year of publication: 
Nivedita Menon