This last month, two news items regarding women came into the public notice. One is the ruling that women workers will be allowed to work night shifts. I think it was also suggested that proper security be provided to these women labourers. And protests followed. An outraged group asked how could women be allowed to work the night shift? The other is that all dance bars were closed down in Mumbai this month. Thousands and thousands of bar dancers went out of job. They protested but no one heard. The reason being that these sleazy joints were a cover for prostitution.
Women working night shifts? Probably the first thing that would go through the worried father, or husband’s mind is sexual harassment. Some others could say it is a step towards professional equality, some others could argue that it is unfair to treat men and women equally since they come from different social structure even while living in the same society. And of course the one about the break down of the family because the women of the house would be out at night.
While the Mumbai dance girls are out of job. But will the government really care about their woes. They were probably prostitutes anyway.
This society (as most others) makes a definite distinction between the good girl and the bad. The good girl who can get sexually harassed at work place and should be thus protected, and the bad girl, who provide sexual favours in exchange of money, and who cry for their old jobs even when the state has put an end to their exploitation.
In reality, the thin line between these two kinds in so thin, that it can be crossed very easily by any girl, no matter what class or caste.
Woman or Whore?
The legal definition provided by court is as follows: ‘sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or implied) as: physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature where such conduct would constitute discrimination if a woman has reasonable grounds to believe that objecting to the conduct would be disadvantage to her recruitment or promotion or when it creates a hostile work environment.
The core of this definition is the word ‘unwelcome’. The sexual conduct must be unwelcome and the onus of proving that it is so, lays with the complainant, the woman. This means that the complainants sexual past, mode of dress and conduct can be used to show that the harasser was incited and that the blame also lies with the complainant herself. Even her profession can be used as sufficient evidence to disqualify her claim of sexual harassment. Bar room dancers, waitresses, performers, are all vulnerable to such claims.
These are similar to the experiences women had had with the rape laws. A rape victim’s dress, speech, sexual history, chastity have all been deployed to undermine her claim that she was forced to have sexual intercourse against her will or without her consent. She could have asked for it.
This is another of numerous examples of how laws, originally drafted to help women protect themselves, take on the role of protector and champion of chastity.
In a society like India’s, there is a clear distinction made between women who are prostitutes and women who are not. But both in practice and in discourse, slippages are being made between these two types of women.
In India, women from all the classes marry for financial security. Women stay in bad marriages for the same reason. They have no choice than to stay with their husband and carry on their ‘wifely’ chores.
Many women confess to having had sex for ‘favours’.
A lot of college students have sex in exchange for expensive gifts.
And of course the description of women accused of promiscuity as whores.
Thus distinctions between the two categories of the respectable bourgeois and the prostitute are continuously blurred.
Evelina Giobbe, a prostitute activist, observed, “prostitution isn’t like anything else. Rather everything else is like prostitution because it is the model for women’s condition.”
In India, women’s groups and prostitutes who represent the prostitutes or parties who are taking a step on behalf of the prostitutes, everyone agrees that the prostitute has to be decriminilised. Either because it is the right of the individual to engage in sexual transaction with mutual consent, or because of the recognition of the double standard at work when the prostitute is penalized but not her client.
One group lobbies for stricter regulation of prostitution because it is usually steeped in the criminal system. Prostitution can exist only with the support of pimps, brothels, crime-mafias, sex-tourism operators and other 0rganisational middlemen. In order for the state to take part, in any way, in the question of prostitution will be to recognise it. And that makes prostitution closer to legalisation. ------------(1)
The other group says that though now prostitution is immersed in criminal activities, legalisation will only improve these activities. They do not want state intervention in the form of police control or health checks. They contend that prostitutes themselves can organise amongst themselves and look after the collective right of the prostitute. ------------(2)
While (1) take on the human rights approach, (2) prefer to focus on the legal right of the woman in prostitution. Rajeshwari sunder rajan calls them radicals and liberals respectively in her article, ‘The Prostitution Question(s)’.
Even in the west, it took some time before prostitutes could speak on their own behalf. In 1983, a workshop was held in Rotterdam, called ‘International Feminist Networking against the Traffic in Women: Organising against Female Sexual Slavery’, whose agenda was to insist on the forced nature of all prostitution, and organise a campaign against its removal. All participants were activists and researchers from all over the world.
There was only one prostitute, Margo St James, who was there as a “resource person” and was to share her experiences with all the participants. Kathleen Barry, the chief organiser, refused to appear on a television programme with Margo St James, stating, “The conference was feminist and did not support the institution of prostitution.”
Feminists have been accused of choosing to ignore the realities of sex-trade workers’ lives and experiences. It has been said that women who work as strippers, hookers, and porn artists feel isolated not only from the society but also from the women’s movement, that has ignored or dissociated itself from them.
It is indeed true that campaigns on behalf of prostitutes have never asked them to participate. Prostitute conferences now point out that feminists have maintained a distance from whores. Margaret Baldwin recognises this as not only a matter of feminists claiming high moral ground, but also the tacit recognition that “a woman’s claim on justice, crucially depends on her success in proving that she is not and has never been a prostitute.” It is easy to see how accepting prostitution could be a problem for feminists. Prostitution is based on the acceptance and support of the man’s right to vent his sexual need.
In the film ‘tale of night fairies’, a movie about lives of sex-worker-activist, a feminist asks the question of a prostitute about how she feels being exploited by men. To which she replies that she is doing her work and having sleeping with only those men she likes, and getting money for it and that nobody is forcing her, so how is she exploited? Another sex-worker states that her mother was a prostitute too because she had to sleep with her husband in order to receive monetary support.
The feminists are still divided. Those who want to reform the prostitutes, end up sounding like moralists. Those who talk of legalizing prostitution, face the charge that they are in this process supporting those with vested interest in it like those of sex-tourism operators, crime mafia, pimps, etc.
Radical feminist activists concentrate on promoting welfare, rehabilitation, legal assistance, job training, and pushing for more stringent laws against prostitution.
Liberal feminists and prostitute activists oppose police excesses, social pressures, and discriminatory legal decisions, agitating for improved conditions, benefits and protection for those in sex- trade.
Human rights groups, feminists and political activists need to focus their energy on promoting the idea of sexual rights. In our society, such a strategy might be faced with suspicion and be declared anti-cultural. But it is important to do so because the focus is constantly on sexual wrongs (in rape cases, child sexual abuse cases, sexual harassment cases), which promotes the idea that sex is bad per se, and that all good people must be protected from the stigma of sex, whether consensual or not.
Sex-workers and other sexual minorities are the only ones who are claiming sexual rights. They have to be supported and this movement has to be mainstream, because after all there is a very thin line between good women and whores.