Sex Workers in the City of Joy

Alex Stonehill Jun 30, 2006

Sex WorkersKOLKATA, India—The smells of jasmine perfume, fried food, bidi smoke, and liquored breath mingle in the thick humid air. Watery pink and white neon lights from the Hotel Welcome, Dream House and Love Lotus shine in the eyes of women lined up in turquoise saris or red miniskirts and the customers jostling to admire them. Backlit in shadowy doorways, young girls beckon into the night with childish voices that betray their pre-pubescence, despite alluring gestures and deep purple lipstick.

Suddenly the mood shifts here in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest red-light district, as an angry chant rises from the far end of the narrow street. The girls scramble to cover their faces with flimsy scarves and pimps in lungis and tank tops rush to their sides as thousands of women round the corner. Illuminated by torches that billow black smoke into the inky sky, the women stride forward with arms linked and scream, “We demand sex workers’ rights!” and “George Bush, you can take our funds but you cannot take our fight,” as they hold high a straw effigy of Bush.


The tradition of Kolkata sex workers taking control of their lives is as old as its first redlight district. Five miles away, in the slums surrounding the Kalighat temple, one of the holiest sites in Hinduism, lies the birthplace of the city’s sex industry. Hundreds of years ago, widows and other socially outcast women would migrate here hoping for room and board from temple priests. While they were given a little food and a place on the floor to sleep, resident priests and upper-caste men who visited the temple often required sex as payment. Recognizing that demand for sex far exceeded the returns they received, these women began a community alongside the temple and started charging for their services, and organized prostitution was born.

While media attention on sex work in Asia often focuses on underage trafficking and slavery, it is more subtle social factors that push many women into the trade. The fight for legalization of prostitution as a means to expose trafficking, as well as improve the lives of sex workers, is usually ignored.

“It’s better to have a bad reputation than to be considered virtuous and be beaten every day,” says Arti Pandey, 22 (name changed on request). Her story illustrates how prostitution can be a refuge from abusive families and limited economic options.


At 14, Pandey was married off to a man 20 years her senior who had designs on inheriting her ailing father’s government job and a cut of his pension. When another sister’s husband got the position instead, the abuse began. After learning that her husband was plotting to tie her up and feed her into a fan as retribution, Pandey ran away and began to support herself through a series of nursing and housekeeping jobs. But everywhere she went threats and demands for money followed, and her angry in-laws succeeded in getting her fired from every stable situation she found in Kolkata.

A trip to Mumbai changed the course of her life. There she met a friend who was working in a brothel and encouraged her to do the same. The wages the friend earned along with the promise of meeting interesting foreign men enticed her, and within months she was making a decent living. When a police raid returned her to Kolkata 18 months later, she attempted to resume “legitimate” work in a low-paying garment factory. But her in-laws soon found her out and began insisting that she return to them, for what Pandey saw as a life of further abuse and slavery.

“I realized that if I was going to live on my own I would have to return to the trade,” a move that would sever her ties to mainstream society and by extension the in-laws. “This is one way you can choose to live your life, if you don’t mind the work you can make a good living.”

Last summer Pandey met a former sex worker turned peer educator for New Light, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides support for sex workers and their families. The woman helped her find a room, set her up as an independent operator in Kalighat and introduced Pandey to the organization. At New Light’s office in the heart of the Kalighat red-light district, she receives regular check-ups, learns about safe sex practices, gets free condoms and has access to counselors and childcare. Even more important is the sense of non-judgmental support that the community of sex workers centered around New Light provides.


Back in Sonagachi, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Unstoppable Women’s Alliance Committee) is taking a more militant approach to the problems facing sex workers. The organization is made up of current or former sex workers and their families and lobbies aggressively for the legalization of prostitution.

Current law does not explicitly state that prostitution is illegal, but criminalizes solicitation and the running of brothels or renting rooms to sex workers. The Women’s Alliance maintains that any criminalization of sex work reinforces harmful stigmas, creates a black market where child prostitution and trafficking can thrive and promotes a climate where the protection of women who work within the industry cannot be ensured.

A new Indian law under consideration as an amendment to the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act seeks to prosecute the customers of prostitutes. Such criminalization and localized police raids in red-light districts have been linked to a decrease in condom use as the resulting scarcity of customers forces impoverished sex workers to agree to abusive or unsafe sex in order to support themselves.

Another concern is the insistence on language that equates prostitution with trafficking, denying the important role that of-age and by-choice sex workers can play in its eradication. The Women’s Alliance has organized sex workers in red-light districts throughout the state of West Bengal and set up self-regulatory boards to oversee conditions in these communities in an attempt to improve wages and root out child prostitution and trafficking.

The Women’s Alliance is not immune to criticism, and visible child prostitution on the streets that surround its main office is an obvious indicator of the limitations of self-regulation. It is estimated that onethird of the 9,000 prostitutes in Sonagachi are under 18.

The lack of programs to provide exit strategies from the trade does not address the socio-economic forces that lead women into sex work, and an unsettling conflict of interest is presented when the leadership of an organization profits from the business it is attempting to reform and regulate.

Despite these concerns, the Women’s Alliance is the most active and influential sex workers’ organization in West Bengal. The loyalty it inspires is clear in the family-like atmosphere of its offices and the banners and signs carrying its logo that are displayed throughout Sonagachi. Its ability to mobilize thousands of women from one of the most vulnerable sectors of Indian society to march proudly through the streets to demand their rights is proof of the trust the group has earned and the movement it has ignited.

As dynamic as the movement for sex workers rights in Kolkata has become, its success still may rest on outside forces.


The Bush administration has begun to cut funding from international organizations that condone prostitution and don’t promote abstinence as a first defense against HIV and AIDS. The strengthening alliance between the U.S. and Indian governments has sparked fears that Indian laws will move to further criminalize prostitution, and the possibility of diminished international aid looms over projects like the Women’s Alliance and New Light. Now it is not only the stigma of family and social disapproval sex workers must endure, but also the moralizing of a government and people that they will never meet.

For those working on the ground in places like Sonagachi or Kalighat, the first concern is that funding cuts and further criminalization will simply drive the sex trade deeper underground. While the Bush administration has been lauded for its efforts to abolish sex trafficking, organizations like the Women’s Alliance and New Light often provide the only oversight in communities where women and children are being trafficked.

Furthermore, these programs have proven effective in promoting safe sex and slowing the spread of HIV and AIDS. Women’s Alliance statistics report current condom use in Sonagachi at 89 percent and HIV infection rates among sex workers has stabilized at around 5 percent.

“We are the gatekeepers,” says Roma Devnath, supervisor for the Women’s Alliance Anti-Trafficking Project and a second-generation sex worker, “If you eliminate us, then HIV and AIDS will spread to the whole of society. Eventually it will even spread to the society of George Bush himself.”

A longer version of this article appears at commonlanguageproject. net and

11 Responses

  1. Ms. T says:

    What’s with this whitewashing of prostitution in India being pushed by the Indypendent? Heavy on agenda and light on facts, this is shoddy. Not one mention of the millions of men who use the bodies of girls and women to masturbate themselves is nothing less than the protection of men’s supposed right to demand sex from women anytime and any way they want it dressed up as “empowerment for women.”

    No mention of the pimps and organized criminals who control prostitution in India and who have emptied whole villages in nearby Nepal of girls aged 15 to 50 in order to contantly replace the short-lived girls who don’t survive long in prostitution. Where are the men who create the demand for runaway teen girls to consider the rental of their reproductive organs a better option than outright slavery? Looks to me like they’re hiding behind racist liberals who themselves can envision no better for brownskinned girls than a life of sexual submission and utter dependence on the very pimps and johns who abuse them sexually with impunity. The Indian prostitutes collective is the only union in India that has never filed one complaint with the government, because why would the pimps who run it and who are cleaning up big time on prostitution make a complaint?

    It sounds like you’re giving the thumbs up to 14-year old poor girls becoming prostitutes just because there’s no better option…and that’s okay. It is NOT okay, and if Pandey was a girl you cared about you would not think it was okay for her either. Do you really think men’s payment of money to fuck poor Indian homeless youth absolves men of responsibility and washes the “transaction” clean of harm?

    With misleading comments like, “It’s better to have a bad reputation than to be considered virtuous and be beaten every day” and “Now it is not only the stigma of family and social disapproval sex workers must endure, but also the moralizing of a government” one could draw the false conclusion that the worst thing Indian prostitutes face is bad reputations and stigma. What an irresponsible lie to tell about the lives of prostitutes in India’s cities! The incredible amounts of abuse pimps and men who use prostitutes dole out to sex workers is well known to anyone who has ever seen bouncers in strip clubs or knows that Amsterdam’s legal brothels are built with “panic buttons” in anticipation of the frequent attacks johns commit.

    The diseases, physical abuse, and post-tramautic stress disorders among prostitutes around the world call out the abject lie that what sex workers fear most is “bad reputations” and “stigma”. They fear getting raped daily, keeping pimps happy lest they face the consequences of their unhappiness, and other day-to-day survival tactics. They want out of prostitution, not help being better prostitutes as this terrible article implies with its curious lack of fact-based information. The writers surely must know that when asked 92% of prostitutes say they do not want to be prostitutes and they want out of prostitution immediately.

    “Furthermore, these programs have proven effective in promoting safe sex and slowing the spread of HIV and AIDS.”

    As the failed experiment in Thailand proved with the recent surge in AIDS despite millions of dollars poured into building better whores for the male tourists to (ab)use, this is just not true.

    The truth is that AIDS in India is more widespread problem than ever before and prostitution is also more widespread than ever before, not a coincidental link. The alarming rise in married Indian women getting AIDS from prostitute-using husbands undercuts the article’s assertion that building better prostitutes is the answer to stemming AIDS instead of educating sexually predatory men that their reckless sense of entitlement to women’s bodies destroys their lives as well as the lives of their family members. But in order to see that the writers would have to stop making it seem as if prostitution exists because abused runaway teens want it to and they would have to stop using poor, brown women as sheilds against criticisms of the men who selfishly think they have a right to control the sexuality of girl teen runaways. Seeing as the authors can’t even MENTION men, that day of placing responsibility where it belongs is a long way off for white Western liberals.

    Prostitution, human trafficking, sexual slavery, and the sexual exploitation of homeless, poor darkskinned girls have fuck-all to do with George W. Bush and everything to do with men’s sense of ownership of women’s sexuality and sense of entitlement to unlimited sex on demand. Be radical, go to the root of the problem, and that isn’t codifying into law men’s right to wet their dicks with an impoverished girl’s body holes and use their female bodies as semen spitoons to catch their squirting fluids.

    “an unsettling conflict of interest is presented when the leadership of an organization profits from the business it is attempting to reform and regulate.”

    That’s why I hope never to see the Indypendent publish another article penned by the pimps and other privileged prostitution profiteers at Spread Magazine. Also because the information about AIDS prevention trials among prostitutes internationally is incorrect and the rationale for legitimizing into law men’s right to fuck abused teen runaway girls is spurious, but the conflict of financial interest only compounds the problem.

  2. Malaya says:

    Yo, props to the comrade Ms. T for speaking some truth to white liberal re-writings of our histories and futures as women of South and Southeast Asia in particular, but of all women and men who are descendants of the enslaved and colonized, who are actively being sold into sex slavery.

    And yet again another white liberal institution shows its true interests. This is why WE have to create our own media. It amazes me how many degrees of exoticization exist in the white consciousness, that even self-dubbed radicals just paint the same Miss Saigon mask onto different situation, by simply varying the hues.

  3. denise says:

    Excellent response-writing Ms. T.
    So many times persons blast white people when what seems to be meant is power-grasping, entitled white males. A lot of them have no incencitve to see anyone else’s point of view–they don’t even recognize an other point of view…if you you don’t view reality in terms of hierarchies of an anthropomorphic male god->white males->animals->everyone else, they can’t see it.
    Please clarify this: white women aren’t all bitches–some, as people of all types sell out any and all integrity as human beings to latch onto temporal-power-holders, but not all.
    Go Ms. T for telling what it is.
    There is a lot more to say–I hope you write a book and get your voice further out there, you are so articulate…

  4. marie says:

    So what is the answer for protecting those who turn to prostitution because they have to, and at the same time addressing the women who embrace, even glorify sex work? I am not a sex worker and only know of prostitutes’ experiences from my friends’ experiences, and reading memoirs, essays, police reports…etc. Maybe I am misinformed, but some women seem to enjoy fucking for money – I also realize that many, many more girls and women are exploited, forced into the sex trade out of need for money. I want to know what ideas are out there for accomodating the “empowered” sex worker who wants to ply her trade, while simultaneously protecting those who are forced into it. My question to this group: How to stop the exploitation of the unwilling participants without outlawing the marketplace for the willing. Please, inform and educate me.

  5. Dave says:

    I generally would agree with you folx. I think you’re probably right about the issues you raise. I have friends who do sex work. They generally don’t seem ashamed of it, aside from trying to hide it from their parents.

    My question is: How do you end demand for young prostitutes and end sexual abuse of them? I think SPREAD avoids this question, but, Ms. T, I think you do as well. You have no plan for ending the demand for prostitutes.

    I think most prostitutes look at their situation and instead of asking how they can end this demand, they ask how can they get respect as prostitutes. It seems like an easier fight.

    I also agree that the article is short on facts.

  6. radical feminist says:

    Marie and Dave:

    The solution to ending sexual slavery lies in the Swedish model of decriminalizing being a prostitute but upping the penalties for johns and pimps and madams. A good article summarizing the immense success Sweden has had can be found here.

    Personally I don’t see why making sure a handful of privileged capitalists cashing in on having been born fuckably attractive to men willing to pay for sex is mine or any other social reformer’s concern, especially when compared to all women’s human rights and freedom for millions of sexually enslaved women and girls. But if defending the rights of the miniscule number of capitalists to make money for themselves is what you’re concerned about then consider that the Swedish model of prostitution decriminalization doesn’t focus on “trapping” prostitutes who aren’t ready to leave prostitution yet for whatever reasons they give, it focuses on men who abuse prostitutes. I don’t see men changing their femicidal ways anythime soon but if men didn’t routinely kick the living shit out of prostitutes as either their pimps or their johns then sex workers would have no good reasons to go to the cops and they could hypothetically continue turning tricks to their heart’s content.

    However, that’s not the reality of prostitution for the vast majority of prostitutes and that’s why 60% of Sweden’s prostitutes have already taken advantage of new social programs to help them leave prostitution.

  7. Sarah says:

    I’m sorry that I did not catch this conversation sooner, before this issue was archived, and hope that I still have the chance to hear some more responses. As the author of this article I am thrilled that it generated the conversation that it did. Many of the issues raised here are ones that I thought about the entire time I was in Calcutta.

    Let me start by saying that I also consider prostitution to be a function of a misogynistic society that sees women’s bodies as commodities and their lives as disposable, and I hope it goes without saying that child prostitution is a horrific phenomenon in India and many other parts of the world that shouldn’t be tolerated in any form. I acknowlege criticisms that accuse the piece as being “light on facts” regarding how successful (or unsuccessful) safe sex programs (dealing with sex workers) in India have been in dealing with the growing AIDS crisis, and if I had it to write again I think the article should include broader statistics on that issue.

    What I would like to ask people still interested in furthering this conversation is what your opinions are of the programs I visited that were largely founded and run by prostitutes in the community? No matter how many times I tried to encourage my own feminist perspective regarding the roots of prostitution and future plans to eradicate it, the women I talked to asserted that:

    1) Prostitution was a reality that they lived with and did not feel ashamed of 2) That because of that reality they wanted the power to improve the quality of their lives and the breadth of their rights and felt that legalization, support, and unionization were their most hopeful avenues in doing so 3) That they felt that sex workers were in the best position to try and address issues of AIDS and child prostitution in their communities.

    I did not go into this story persuing a pro-prostitution perspective and frankly would have been more comfortable writing purely about the inhumane realities of sex work and the economically unjust and sexist systems that intersect with prostitution, but it would have been an untruthful representation of the women and organizations I spoke with.

  8. Sarah says:

    Also, if you’re interested in hearing about how personally confusing and disturbing the process of reporting this piece was you can listen to an audio piece one of my colleagues made about it:

  9. JJ says:

    Sarah, what source other than anecdotal evidence do you have that most prostituted women want “legalization, support and unionization”?

    All the facts I’ve seen reject this hypothesis in a big way:

    United States: 56% don’t want prostitution legal, 88% want out of prostitution immediately.

    South Africa: 62% don’t want prostitution legal, 89% want out of prostitution immediately

    Thailand: 72% don’t want prostitution legal, 94% want out of prostitution immediately

    Turkey: 96% don’t want prostitution legal, 90% want out of prostitution immediately

    Zambia: 92% don’t want prostitution legal, 99% want out of prostitution immediately

    Canada: 68% don’t want prostitution legal, 95% want out of prostitution immediately

    Colombia: 80% don’t want prostitution legal, 97% want out of prostitution immediately

    Mexico: 49% don’t want prostitution legal, 68% want out of prostitution immediately

    Germany: 65% don’t want prostitution legal, 85% want out of prostitution immediately

    Funny thing about Germany’s 65% not wanting it legal is that prostitution is already legal in Germany; 59% of the prostitutes interviewed in Germany did not think legalization made them safer from rape and physical assault.

  10. JJ says:

    “I hope it goes without saying that child prostitution is a horrific phenomenon in India and many other parts of the world that shouldn’t be tolerated in any form.”

    You do know that 14-year-olds are children, right? The article you wrote makes it seem like you’re just fine accepting Pandey’s prostitution and you make excuses for it.

  11. Jonathan says:

    My God, I can’t believe there are still people daring to LIE the way Melissa Farley and their “researcher” colleagues do at “Prostitutionresearch”!
    I’ve examined (and discussed in my site) what they say, I’ve examined what other nazi-feminist organizations like CWASU say and one thing is certain: THEY ALL LIE.
    ALL, EVER.
    As a new zealander researcher once said, speaking about similar anti-prostitution “researches” in New Zealand, they usually produce “unsubstantiated statistics were also sometimes produced literally out of thin air”.
    This is also the case of the “statistics” like those shown here by JJ.
    To get back to reality, sex workers organization, all around the worl, fight for legalization and against criminalization.
    This is true in Europe ( just like in Asia.
    Kudos to the Independent and to the authors for giving us a breath of fresh air amongst so many rotten lies.

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