Riya is a sex worker. She lives in a red-light complex in Mumbai’s Grant Road area, in a run-down building that houses over 750 sex workers. When the nationwide lockdown began on 25 March, their customers all but disappeared. Hindus and Muslims, both. Over the past three weeks, however, Riya has got her trade back on track. The difference is, sex is not as frequent. And now, it’s over the phone.
“I got the idea from a saheli (friend) in the neighbourhood," she says. It was 15-20 days into the lockdown. Most sex workers were struggling to make ends meet. A few NGOs had stepped in, offering food, groceries, medicines and counselling. But the community was scared about its future. “We found out this coronavirus spreads by touch and thought, yeh to AIDS ka bhi baap aa gaya (this is worse than AIDS). Condom had helped until now but what do you use for this? A raincoat?"
One afternoon, she saw her saheli dressing up and putting on make-up. “She said I get calls, I want to look good for them. Then I listened to her when she was on the call. She was talking dirty. I started laughing. I never had to talk to people. They would only ask me to do things: press here, touch there."
But times were hard. Coronavirus cases in Mumbai were showing no signs of plateauing—they still don’t. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, who form a chunk of the clientele, had left for their homes. Riya, a migrant herself, like most sex workers in Mumbai, used to send money to her family in Karnataka every month. As her earnings dried up, her family started feeling the pinch too. She decided to give phone sex a try.
“(After the lockdown) I would often get calls from my regular customers asking me how I was, if I missed them. I would usually not engage. But I said one day, ‘I do. Do you?’ He said, ‘I even touch myself thinking of you.’ I said, ‘Why don’t I help you help yourself?’"
They agreed on a price. She called him back only after he sent her money via Google Pay. Three weeks on, phone sex has become part of Riya’s daily routine. She also offers a video chat—for a higher price. But before coming on, she covers her face with a dupatta, so no one can record her in the act.
She charges ₹300 for a regular phone call and ₹500 for a video chat, both lasting up to 30 minutes. Usually, it’s only with clients she trusts. On an average, she services two-three clients a day during her business hours: 5pm-4am.
At least nine other sex workers in Riya’s neighbourhood offer similar services on phone, says Devta Mhetre, a member of Aastha Parivaar, an NGO that works among them in Mumbai. Most of them use Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp for calls and accept payments over Google Pay or Paytm.
“I was surprised when I first heard of it," says Seema Sayyad, manager at Aastha Parivaar. “We have all seen the ads of escort agencies offering such services. But didn’t think the women we work with, who are mostly illiterate, would know how to work with smartphones and digital payments. But then, sex work is a business. And today, every one of us is finding innovative ways to get back to business."
Innovation is being discussed in every field. A recent advisory published by Butterfly, an Asian and migrant sex worker support network based in Canada, suggests that the profession might never be the same again. Sex workers, it says, should use masks, gloves, dental dams and disinfect work surfaces after each appointment. “Instead of kissing and direct contact, consider offering alternative services such as erotic massage, and strip-tease, and opt for sexual positions that minimize face-to-face contact (e.g doggy style, cow girl/person)," the advisory adds.
Certainly, the situation is dire. Across Indian cities, migrant sex workers are joining the exodus back to their home towns. In Delhi alone, 60% of sex workers have left the city, estimates the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). Some were driven out by their landlords when they couldn’t pay rent, others struggled to afford food and medicines.
The Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates there are 650,000 sex workers in the country. But they fall in the legal grey zone: While sex work isn’t illegal, solicitation is. The nature of the covid-19 virus spread has attracted further scrutiny. A recent modelling study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School says commercial sex work in red-light areas, if allowed to resume, could lead to a rapid rise in infections and quickly overwhelm hospitals in India.
“The (Union) government has announced a series of relief measures over the last few days but none of them cover us," says Kusum, president of the AINSW. There has been no attempt by state governments to address the community’s problems either. “I know many sex workers in Delhi who have restarted taking clients. They say how will they survive if they don’t earn?"
Commercial phone sex isn’t new. “You will find hundreds of numbers online," says Bal Rakshase, assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who recently co-authored research on sex work in India in the digital age. “Our study found that such service providers are engaged in all kinds of jobs: catering, spa, nursing, etc." But such services, he adds, are mostly limited to urban areas and aren’t as open or commonplace as activities in a red-light district.
“For the most part, virtual sex or phone sex has been an occasional activity," says Amit Kumar, national co-ordinator of the Delhi-based AINSW. “Sex workers usually do it with known partners. Sometimes, they don’t do it for money but to get ration or a phone recharge. But after covid-19, virtual sex work might increase. It’s very less now but they might want to do this more often."
Riya, for one, is still learning—she cites the example of her roommate, who engages with clients on an emotional level, building up conversations with innocent but intimate queries like “khana khaya (have you eaten)?" “She knows how to talk," says Riya. “Customers ke saath hasi mazaak karti hai aur phasa leti hai (she lures them with sweet-talk)." The roommate, who has joined us during the phone conversation, laughs. “It works," she says.
It’s not always enough for clients, though. “Sometimes they say, kab tak haath se kaam chalaneka?" says Riya. “But I think this is better. After the lockdown is over, I will do both (physical and virtual sex). Now I can do both."