COVID-19, Cyclone Amphan show how sex workers remain at receiving end

People tend to believe ‘other’ bodies, particularly of specific caste, class and religion, to be the source of risks. The story, however, is the other way around

By Sumanta Roy, Debottam Saha
Published: Monday 14 September 2020
Amphan struck areas designated for sex work as well, due to which clients of sex workers from the marginal classes at Basirhat were no longer able to visit them. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sex work — in the informal economic sector — is usually talked about very little. The conventional way of understanding the informal and formal economies is not sufficient enough to understand the complex nature of sex work and its existing relations with the labour market.

A 2013 study by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) — based on a survey of 3,000 female sex workers from different states in India — established multi-layered connections between sex work and the existing labour market.

Historically — both globally and in India — the recognition of sex work as an occupation or livelihood was the outcome of several years of struggle and the question of dignity.

Unfortunately, we stand long behind when it comes to recognising sex work as a livelihood opportunity, without attaching stigma to it. There may have been legal sanction to it. Ironically, there are several loopholes in the existing legal framework that give rise to other forms of exploitation, including violence and slavery.

Here, we need to state certain facts about sex work and the labour market from the study mentioned above.

First, many sex workers usually take up sex work part-time, along with other jobs. For others, however, sex work is the primary source of their livelihoods. To understand sex work, we, thus, need to look into its relationship with other forms of work in the existing labour market.

For example, there are sex workers who also work as seasonal dancers, performing in programmes like marriage ceremonies and festivals. For the rest of their time, they are engaged in sex work. Part-time sex workers may not always be able to choose sex work full time because of the stigma and humiliation attached to it.

Second, facts show sex workers are not simply homogeneous or an identical group. In other words, women from specific identities of unprivileged caste groups, classes, religions and ethnicities were more in number, compared to other privileged groups. Women from the below poverty line — and those who are Dalits — were a majority.

Inequalities occur in two stages: First, due to their position in class and caste structures and second, stigmas attached to this work.

Stigma leads to a precarious position, particularly for full-time sex workers. For them, it is hard to switch to other kinds of work. Wherever they go, stigmas against them follow. Hiding becomes difficult. Inequality, thus, intensifies when there is no other work for them.

Third, discussions around existing relations between sex work, the labour market and the impact of the pandemic on these relationships is no doubt complex. During the pandemic, as we know, social distancing became a protective measure to control the spread of the disease.

Sex work and cyclone Amphan

The two most important capitals of sexual labour, however, remain the body and bodily contact. Without them, sex work is impossible. So, the question still remains how earnings can be possible for sex workers whose livelihoods are impossible to imagine without bodily proximity.

This same response frequently emerged over sex work at Basirhat in North 24 Parganas, a district in West Bengal. The state witnessed another natural calamity during the time of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Cyclone Amphan hit coastal areas and areas adjacent to the coastal zone, leading to the intensification of the on-going crisis.

The ‘unlock’ phase began in several areas of the country, including Bengal. Situations like this induce more fear among people, giving rise to instances of discrimination.

Amphan struck areas designated for sex work as well, due to which clients of sex workers from the marginal classes at Basirhat were no longer able to visit them anymore.

On one side, the pandemic was still on, while on the other, the cyclone caused the number of clients to decline. Relief did not reach the locality of sex workers either. Sex workers invariably maintained the narrative of ‘nobody comes here’. This same narrative emerged again, according to the Basirhat Durbar Samanway Committee, a collective of sex workers and their children.

Eliminating stigma

People tend to believe ‘other’ bodies, particularly of specific caste, class and religion, to be the source of risks. The story, however, is the other way around, where the disease was spread from the rich to the poor.

Nevertheless, things will be difficult for sex workers in the ‘unlock’ phase as well. Bodily proximity is fundamental to their work. If fear intensifies with every passing day, sex workers can lose their livelihoods completely.

Sex workers faced the most detrimental consequences when the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) took the shape of an epidemic as well.

Several people, however, knew HIV spread not just through unprotected sex, but by other means as well. The use of condoms turned out to be an effective measure for controlling spread.

Even though sex workers were careful about this because of their own survival, clients often did not agree to using condoms. Sex workers, thus, had to agree for unprotected sex, but were paradoxically the ones usually to be blamed for the spread of HIV. Till date, they are the ones who are targeted, instead of their clients.

The blame game over the spread of HIV has not stopped till today.

Finally, the million-dollar question is what should have been done? Till today, government relief and society do not give recognition to sex workers. There is, instead, an inherent discrimination of relief distribution, that affects sex workers.

The question of stigma still persists as well. So, until and unless local and state machineries at least acknowledge the perils of those who are doubly marginalised — including sex workers —aid and aid distribution will only be lip service.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of  Down To Earth.

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