In the early 1970s, Deep Throat was the first hard-core porn movie that entered the non-X-rated movie circuit and went on to achieve cult status among the officially young in the US.
At the heart of this skin flick was Linda Lovelace, a baby-faced prostitute who had learnt her craft, as legend went, from a sword swallower. The film was a blatant celebration of the myth rapists and brothel owners have sought to perpetuate, that most women and all sex workers actually enjoy dominance and sadomasochistic sex. And jolly girls such as Linda enter the sex market, not because they are forced to, but because they really want to.
A few years later, Linda’s autobiography, Ordeal, put paid to the above lie. She described her miserable marriage to Chuck Traynor, the maker of the movie, and how he had literally starved, threatened and bullied her into performing in the movie, sometimes literally at gunpoint. The movie is still famous, the title immortalized by the Watergate tape reporters who named their mysterious government source after the film. Meanwhile, hardly anyone remembers Linda’s book.
Then there was a little wisp of a girl called Tulsa, 14 years old when she was rescued from one of the dungeons in?Kamathipura (Mumbai’s notorious red-light area) by some good Samaritan. In photographs she looked dazed, starving and near dead. The doctors who examined her found she was suffering from multiple sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and had scars and burn marks all over her body. Tulsa was the tip of an iceberg. According to rough estimates, 40% of sex workers in India are girls below 16 years, lured or abducted by pimps or just?sold?by?families to well-organized gangs of sex traffickers.
All of them are brutalized. The doctors attending on Tulsa were not optimistic about her chances for survival. Finally, she was sent back to her family in Nepal where she died a few months later.
Linda’s story and Tulsa’s emaciated face swam into my mind as I listened to a debate on prime time TV on why prostitution should be legalized and sex workers be treated at par with all others in the unorganized sector.?Some tough-looking and well-turned-out male and female sex workers and their supporters argued vehemently against the proposed amendments to our Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, which seeks to punish both brothel owners and visitors and also seeks to delete the former penal provisions for sex workers, treating them as victims who are mostly forced by the pimps and brothel keepers.
Surprisingly, the sex workers were not pleased about this. They were worried that the new Act would drive their clients away and affect their earnings adversely. They said they had voluntarily opted for the profession and were happy. The brothel keepers and pimps, they argued, were actually their sole mentors, and if repeatedly penalized by the police, they could withdraw from the scene, leaving them open to exploitation by the police. “We want legitimacy and ID cards,” they said, adding, “If HIV/AIDS is to be eradicated, the government must arrange for regular free health check-ups for us and ensure that all practising sex workers are free of STD.”
For the next hour or so, while the anchor rushed around joking, nodding or ensuring discipline, no one punctured the myth of the jolly liberated prostitute with questions about millions of bewildered, brutalized and petrified children being bought and sold in our red-light areas. Nor did the audience choose to discuss the hazards of infected brothel visitors spreading infection outside and infecting unsuspecting wives and unborn children. It was as though once sex work was legalized, all prostitutes in India and their clients would be on to a good thing. As expected, the upper middle class metro audience referred more than once to legal brothels in the Scandinavian countries and the US. Legalized brothels, they said, were safe, healthy and fun places to work in.
All who feel that prostitution must be legalized would do well to read Prostitution and trafficking in Nevada: Making the connections, a book by Melissa Farley based on visits to eight brothels in Nevada, US, where prostitution has been legalized for years. Farley found the living quarters of the fabled sex workers of Nevada cramped, dirty and guarded by violent musclemen, also that they punished and imprisoned their sex workers frequently, but were protected by the state. In fact, in some places, they got the sheriffs to enforce illegal practices such as not allowing lone sex workers out of the brothels after 5pm and, when accompanied by a man, made to use only the back doors of restaurants and bars.
Brothel owners, she writes, pocket half the earnings of prostitutes and make them pay extra for cabs and tips. On top of this, Nevada continues to have a thriving market for illegal prostitution replete with child prostitutes. Legalizing the industry has not meant the closure of illegal joints—nine times more than the legit ones. Meanwhile, the locals have grown?moral?callouses about the trade. The majority of young men interviewed?felt it was okay to rape a prostitute. “Legal prostitution,” writes Farley, “is an institution that just can’t be fixed up or made a little better. It has to be abolished.”
Wouldn’t you agree?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor, Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org