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A file photo of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) workers protesting against former Uttar Pradesh BJP vice-president Dayashankar Singh, who made derogatory remarks against BSP chief Mayawati. Photo: AP
A file photo of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) workers protesting against former Uttar Pradesh BJP vice-president Dayashankar Singh, who made derogatory remarks against BSP chief Mayawati. Photo: AP

Mockery and contempt for sex workers

It's interesting that nowhere in the world is there a word that stigmatizes the male client of a sex worker as the word 'prostitute' does to a woman

What’s the word for a man who goes to a prostitute to buy sex? Don’t say “customer" or “client" because that’s just too vague, too generic. After all, I’m a customer/client at my bank or when I go to the grocery store.

It’s interesting that nowhere in the world is there a word that stigmatizes the male client of a sex worker as the word “prostitute" does to a woman, though the word covers a range of gender from female to trans. Yet, we seem to have no shortage of words to describe those who sell sex for a living and they are all, without exception and in whichever language—whore, hooker, call girl, randi, vaishya—derogatory.

How easily that word trips off the tongue as an insult or term of abuse to discredit women. Dayashankar Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) former Uttar Pradesh vice-president, has just been sacked, following a massive furore in and out of Parliament, for using it to describe Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati; though actually he said, in Hindi, “worse than a prostitute", using “vaishya" as a benchmark of moral degradation.

How ironic then is the counter-abuse by Mayawati’s party loyalists rained on Singh’s mother, wife and 12-year-old daughter, because, of course, when you want to abuse a man, his female relatives are fair game (and, yes, there’s no male equivalent for the ma-behen abuse that is steeped in Delhi’s culture). Let it never be said that misogyny is the monopoly of any one party.

Going back in time, 2012 to be precise, Trinamool Congress member of Parliament (MP) Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar implied that a rape survivor was a sex worker (she was not, but sex workers, she should know, have the same protections under law against rape).

The minister of state for external affairs, V.K. Singh, famously riffed on the word to describe the media and, when faced with criticism later, clarified that he has “used the word for the 10% (of journalists) and they deserve that word".

It seems strange to me that politicians, those in charge of change, are so openly contemptuous of women in sex work, women who number between three million (government figures) and 20 million (non-governmental organization figures) in India. NGO Dasra estimates that 80%, or 16 million people, are trafficked.

In her series on trafficking, my colleague Ashwaq Masoodi documents how 40% of trafficked girls in the sex trade are adolescents; 15% are below the age of 15. There is a word for these girls. It is not prostitute. It is victim.

Surely, politicians can see that. Surely, it is incumbent upon somebody in power with the power to effect change to do something, no matter how small, to better these lives. Instead, what you have is mockery and contempt.

It takes empathy to understand that poverty is a powerful driving force, as is migration. Some in the sex trade have been duped by lovers and then dumped in red-light areas. Still others are daughters of sex workers who, stigmatized like their mothers, end up in the same trade. And, perhaps, some just find this a convenient way to earn a living, sex work as work.

“Everyone who is in this line of work is here because of some compulsion. Nobody is here of their will," says Fatima Khatoon, who describes herself as a “survivor leader" and now works with NGO Apne Aap in Forbesganj, Bihar. “But social disapproval is reserved only for the woman. No one blames the customer."

Speaking on the phone, Khatoon asks for some measure of sympathy. “A sex worker is also somebody’s daughter. Why blame her when you should be blaming society?"

Society, every now and then, makes a passing nod. Back in 2009, a Supreme Court bench asked why sex work should not be legalized. Then, in 2014, a panel was set up to look at ways in which sex work could be regularized. There was a fair bit of debate on both sides. Some felt that regulation would lead to more trafficking, others felt it would afford greater protection. But, after its public airing, the issue seems forgotten, because, let’s face it—when have the rights of sex workers ever been a priority?

Sex workers are routinely harassed by police for bribes, face physical violence from clients that almost never get reported, and are exploited by brothel owners. Add to this the stain of stigma that often means that they prefer to live and work away from families. “My family does not know what exactly I do for work since they live far away," says a sex worker on condition of anonymity. “There is no izzat (honour) in this work, and even our families are ashamed of us even though we support them financially."

Khatoon agrees. “If you can’t respect us, then at least don’t abuse us," she says.

Those words are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandari

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