During a recent hearing the Supreme Court, the judges asked a rhetorical question: If prostitution cannot be curbed by law, why not legalize it?
It has been argued that countries where prostitution is legal, the Netherlands being one often-cited example, sex workers are treated humanely and are integrated into society. What are often forgotten are the context and the social infrastructure in which such work have been accepted as legal.
“Legalizing” prostitution will certainly help end the reign of police terror and exploitation of sex workers in the country, but only to an extent. There are more fundamental barriers that prevent the reach of the law from imparting a humane touch to what is a dehumanizing aspect of life. In the Netherlands, for example, child trafficking and forced entry into prostitution are crimes. The Dutch law “legalizes” prostitution only to the extent that someone enters the “profession” of one’s free will.
Those conditions are largely absent in India. Except for a small subset of women who engage in sex work—the better paid and well-off women in big cities—the average sex worker has a harrowing tale to tell. In India, the initial “free will” when such “choices” are made is, to put it mildly, a malicious lie. Under such circumstances, legalizing prostitution will only encourage violence and force more women into sex work when they don’t want to. Our organized criminals will ensure that.
Then there are complicated social issues. Social acceptability of prostitutes, something that West European societies have come to terms with, is missing here. In India, for example, the surest way to assassinate a woman’s character is to call her a prostitute.
It will take some juristic creativity to fashion a law that does not open the floodgates of violence against women in the name of legalizing prostitution, and also provide some relief to existing sex workers.
Many decades ago, another Supreme Court justice V.R. Krishna Iyer said: “The great problems of law are the grave crises of life and both can be solved not by the literal instructions of printed enactments but by the interpretative sensitization of the heart—to ‘one still, sad music of humanity’”. The question of prostitution needs to be addressed in a similar light.
Will legalizing prostitution make any difference? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org