The first time I came across the word prostitute, it left a sour taste in my mouth. The meaning that the dictionary offered to me was: a person, in particular, a woman, who engages in sexual activity for payment. It put me in a spot of great discomfort. At twelve, with a mind structured by ludicrous social notions, I immediately developed an aversion to the word. The very idea of a person ‘selling’ his/her body seemed unethical. But while my opinions transformed with time, the society still largely nurtures contempt for sex workers.
Prostitution in India is not a new concept. It finds its roots way back into the Vedic period. The Vedas cite references of ‘Sadbaranis’ who were richly dressed female prostitutes and, talk of the well-known Apsaras. Also, prostitution was legalized in India under the Immoral Traffic Suppression Act, 1956, under criminal constraints, yet the society struggles to accept it as a dignified profession. This stagnancy in mindset can be attributed to the taboo that still makes a home in some parts of the society regarding topics like sexual activity, thus demoting free and open conversation. This, in turn, hinders our ability to view the situation from various perspectives.
A part of the blame also goes to the fact that the definition of prostitution itself does little to draw the line between choice and force. Today, not only in India but around the globe, prostitution has been associated with monstrous practices of trafficking and sexual abuse. One can hardly sketch the boundary of morality as lewd acts of violence have painted a horrifying picture of prostitution in the minds of people.
If we speak of prostitution alone, where an individual willingly engages in sexual activity to earn, the disgust and judgment surrounding it are no less. Sex workers are looked down upon as people of shallow character and low standards but what we fail to acknowledge is the fact that prostitution stems from a place of helplessness, desperation, poverty and many a times, lack of education. These sex workers, behind their loud and glittery facades, often hide stories of extraordinary struggle and they only enter this profession when their bodies become their last resort for survival. But the prevalent stigma degrades their social status, disabling them from leading normal lives in spite of having committed no crime. The atmosphere regarding their profession is perpetually poisoned with negativity and they are led to believe that their method of earning is shameful. While we treat prostitutes with loathing, seldom are the visitors of brothels questioned about their morality.
In a civilization that boasts of being modern, prostitution must be made a free choice of an individual concerning his/her own body. It takes plenty of time for an idea so distinct, to normalize in a slow setting, diverse society like India’s, especially when it comes to topics like prostitution, which due to their discrete nature, make way for hypocrisy. Also, given the current reality, legal prostitution can hardly be separated from the inhuman crimes occurring in the same sphere, only thickening the air of mistrust in this direction. But as long as we keep viewing prostitution in a bad light, the stigma will only grow. We need to let go of our back-setting mindsets, only then can we become a progressive society.
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