India: Women in Red-Light Areas and the Working Class

Lalan Kishor Singh

Summary: A rank-and-file worker discusses organizing among sex workers in India and its implications for social transformation – Editors

When the system turns into money-bags’ heaven, when the moneyed class crosses all limits in pursuit of superprofits, and when helplessness, defenselessness and infirmity among the socially oppressed and exploited classes crosses all limits; when the spectre of joblessness and unemployment grows into a colossus, which begins to gobble up the entire society and goes on expanding its grip on the masses, a large number of exploited and oppressed women and children are forced to die of hunger. In such terrible times, a few women from among them are forced to light and hang the proverbial RED-LANTERN on their doors (hence the area is known as “Red light” area), so that at least her children do not starve and she also gets a square meal. This is how many women entered the arena of streetwalking by putting up their bodies for sale and became sex workers. The profession itself came into being as a direct consequence of patriarchy and private property.

To prevent such women from doing their business in public locality, they were shunted out from the common living places and localities and put in the so-called “Red light” zones. The story of the “red light areas” is quite interesting! Earlier, when sex workers used to live within the society, in cities, villages and towns, they used to hang a red lantern outside their houses on the street. People used to stealthily enter their houses in such places hiding from the public view. In order to let the business run without any hindrance, all such red-lanterns were brought together in a particularly secluded area of the town. That’s how the red light areas emerged in the past. Today, one can see red light areas in almost all cities and towns across the globe. Physical and financial exploitation of the women living in such areas continues unabated in the capitalist and imperialist era. These women are known with different names in different societies in India such as ‘Nowchee’, ‘Kaashmovie’, ’Kasvi’, Nauch girls, ‘Domnee’, ‘Saanis’, ‘Devadasi’, Call-girls etcetera.. All such women sell their sex-services in traditional as well as unorthodox ways for a living.

A European Parliament report from 2004 estimated the global sex industry to be worth $5,000 billion to $7,000 billion. There are 11 million sex workers across the planet. In reality, most of the money is not paid to the women but is usurped by the landlord/landlord lady, pimps, contractors, slave owners (sex workers are bought and sold like commodities in many countries) and even the government officials such as police and law enforcement officers. There is a perception that industrial workers, farmers and construction workers are the most exploited lot. But in reality, a sex worker’s exploitation is much more intense than any of these workers on the basis of which the sex industry has become one of the most profit-earning industries today. Hence, those who are organizing the sex workers in unions, the NGOs etc., have the responsibility to work hard to establish strongest possible bonds with the trade unions or other worker’s organizations and their struggles. Only by uniting their struggles with the general working class movement, the struggle against the exploiters can turn into a tornado which is capable of wiping out the exploiter classes for ever. We should keep this in mind that while there is no other alternative for a worker but to sell her/his labor power, a sex worker is compelled to sell her body! She is a complete proletariat, as we all know, that a proletariat has to sell her/his labor power in order remain alive, so also, a sex worker has no other option except to sell her body on hourly basis. Their age of retirement is no more than 35 to 40 years and there is no provision of any superannuation to be paid to her after her retirement.

There is a widespread trafficking of women and female children all over the world. It is often observed that many “lost” female children are brought to these Red light lanes and by-lanes, drugged and pushed into the flesh trade. Apart from these young girls, the destitute women who get cheated in the name of love and finally abandoned reach these places.

A question raised every now and then is, whether sex-work can be categorised as normal “work”? Is it not slave labor imposed through violence against women? In what ways are sex workers, in reality are just like other workers?

Sex work is work bought and sold like any other commodity within capitalism. In capitalist society the invisible threads connect this profession to production. It metamorphoses into a trade to fulfil the needs of production. This kind of availability of sex in the market place, in fact is a heinous form of women’s exploitation. Though the sex work is publicly denounced morally and criminalized, we should examine sex work from a class point of view. Prostitution takes personal sexual and emotional experience into the realm of marketable experience and thus it becomes a commodity. Moreover it has its own economic base. Sex workers accept and observe all the rules of capitalist society while conducting her trade. She at the same time is a seller of human labor (her body) and offers herself as a commodity that is bought. Her labor is trade as usual, and as she provides sexual services her work is both physical as well as mental. Most of the sex workers cannot directly sell their services to buyer. They sell their sexual services through the owners of the brothels and pimps. Her body is not free in true terms, and she has to sell her body multiple times during a single night on the orders of her owner. On the other hand the owner charges a fixed amount on the basis of the number of times she sells her body. Slavery is inherent in this trade more than in any other worker-capitalist relationship. Sex worker works in a proletarian tradition and her sexual labor is employed as a work. Marx says in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: “Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the laborer.” He viewed the abolition of prostitution as a necessary part of ending capitalism. Similarly, in The Communist Manifesto, he called prostitution the “complement” of the bourgeois family, and predicted that both institutions would one day vanish.

Nobody would deny that the women in the Red light areas are vulnerable to extreme forms of inhuman exploitation. They are treated more like slaves rather than workers under Capitalism. The question is: how can they free themselves from this indignity and slavery?

International Women’s Day is here. Many women’s organizations including those affiliated to the wings of different political parties will celebrate it like every year. In these  celebrations they will raise the issues related to women’s liberation and women’s rights. As far as Women’s Liberation is concerned, it is an issue which concern all exploited and oppressed womenfolk, including the sex workers.

Women across the globe have fought for their liberation and have achieved significant victories like women’s suffrage or right to vote. Their slogan during these struggles has been “BREAD AND ROSES,” which meant Bread for all and Roses too! It was raised during a textile women workers strike in 1912 in the state of Massachusetts in U.S. This Slogan undoubtedly expresses the need for fair wages along with dignified conditions of work as well as gender freedom and the right to be treated as an equal citizen.

There was a lively exchange on the issue of prostitution and sexuality between German socialist and campaigner for women’s rights Clara Zetkin and Lenin. Lenin recognised that prostitutes were double victims of bourgeois society—”victims, first of its accursed system of property and secondly of its accursed moral hypocrisy.” He argued that socialists should focus on organising women where they had collective power, in the workplaces, and thus transform the whole of society. Zetkin was herself contemptuous of the “empty chatter of bourgeois women” who moralised about the evils of prostitution—she argued that without well paid work for women, any discussion of abolishing prostitution was nonsense.

Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent member of the Bolshevik Party and a Marxist theoretician in a speech delivered at an All Russian women’s conference said: “Prostitution is above all a social phenomenon; it is closely connected to the needy position of woman and her economic dependence on man in marriage and the family. The roots of prostitution are in economics. Woman is on the one hand placed in an economically vulnerable position, and on the other hand has been conditioned by centuries of education to expect material favours from a man in return for sexual favours – whether these are given within or outside the marriage tie. This is the root of the problem. Here is the reason for prostitution.”

Similarly, Emma Goldman, the American Anarchist, pointed out in an article written in 1910 titled “Trafficking in women”: “What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution.”

Rosa Luxemburg’s view on women’s emancipation movement was that women were the fundamental force of the socialist revolution that their emancipation movement was a part of the proletariat’s emancipation movement and the two are interlinked.

International Women’s Day is a celebration of the great struggles the women have fought and won over the last century. The women celebrating this day take stock of the achievements and the issues still remaining to be fought for. Tributes would be paid to women political leaders and women achievers in the fields of science and administration will be praised along with them. The women’s organizations will also highlight the fact that women are not safe and secure at home and workplaces. Then, the discussion will centre around domestic-violence and eve-teasing on the streets. The only issue that normally is not discussed in these yearly celebrations is the issue of prostitution and sex workers. Are the sex workers not women as well as workers? When women’s organizations don’t discuss the issue of sex workers it is a cause for concern. Is it because of their moralist stance on the issue that they avoid discussing it?

We are initiating this discussion on the issue of the sex workers on the eve of the International Women’s Day, with the hope that the women’s organizations would discuss and take up the issue of sex workers. This discussion is not only for the Women’s Day but ought to become a part of the women’s as well as workers movement. The question is: how the sex workers will free themselves from this vicious circle of sexual enslavement for survival and what role the women’s organizations and the workers organisations have to play in this endeavour?

For a beginning, the women’s organizations and general workers organisations have the responsibility to come forward and establish dialogue and contacts with the sex workers and their existing organizations. They have the additional responsibility of educating the sex workers to begin the process of including them in the mainstream. This in practice means to establish social and humane relations with the sex workers and to fight collectively against capitalism. It would be a good beginning if along with women’s organizations other segments of the worker organizations also come forward in this endeavour. The women can achieve true liberation only in a new society free from wage slavery since being forced into sexual relations for mere survival amounts to assault on women’s dignity and freedom. Therefore only when the capitalist mode of production is annihilated, and a socialist/communist society is established as an Associated Mode of Production on the basis of Freely Associated Labor, the women as well as men can achieve real freedom from all forms of exploitation and oppression and simultaneously establish a harmonious relation with Nature which has been abused and alienated from humanity under capitalism in the interest of limitless expansion of capital.

International Women’s Day is closely tied with Women’s Liberation including Sex Workers’ Emancipation. Hence a continued dialogue with sex workers in order to develop a close and comradely relation with them and their inclusion in the mainstream of workers struggles is extremely important.









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  1. Sam Friedman

    The difficulties and dangers of sex work for women have been vividly visible during the AIDS pandemic (and I think during the COVID pandemic as well.) In response to this, capital, including both the Gates Foundation and state organizations in India, threw money into organizing HIV prevention campaigns among sex workers. To some degree, they based this work on earlier organizing of sex workers in Calcutta.
    These top down efforts did help protect many women (and men) from infection, but had many negative aspects as well.
    A great many details of this can be read in a wonderful book by sociologist Gowri Vijayakumar called “No Risk.” She also shows how so-called feminists who oppose sex work did enormous harm.

  2. Shubham kangane

    Sir , very nice I like your thoughts. Sir can we stop this ?
    How to stop this red light area business?