In Between Worlds

A sex worker and a social worker discuss what it means to ‘rehabilitate’ a sex worker and at what cost.

Artwork by Upasana Agarwal

Elina and I have an agree-to-disagree understanding.

I propagate that women should be helped in breaking away from commercial sexual exploitation. That breaking away is clearly possible. That commercial sexual exploitation should not be normalised or tolerated if we wish to build a society that cares for its women.

Elina is accepting of commercial sex and all that it offers women for their economic and emotional survival. She agrees that women should be helped, and violence in commercial sex work is not okay – but is skeptical about the caring society that I speak of, or the nature of help available to these women.

***

Elina’s mother passed away when she was a child. Her father left her with a relative after he remarried; he needed some space and privacy. The relative sent her for domestic work in another district. There, she was raped by her employer. That is how she learnt about sex. She was 13 then.

An acquaintance offered her an escape in the form of another job. She was handed over to commercial sex instead. She cried in pain, it hurt. People in her new environment told her that commercial sex was a job many women earned from. Now that her periods had started and she had experienced sex, she was indeed a beautiful woman, and was desired by many men. She was also reminded that her father now had a new wife and Elina’s presence at home would be considered a disturbance. It was better to stay away from home for some time, return with some money later, and help the family. Her young mind constructed a picture of her doing the right thing for the family, and working her way up to a better future. Little did she know that she had lost her place at home.

But while in commercial sex, Elina found love, had break-ups, had children, educated herself with help from an NGO, learnt spoken English, and started representing sex worker’s issues in various fora. Her earlier cries turned into an occasional wince. Today, she educates other women about government schemes and safe sex.

***

This story is not new and is frequently echoed by other women. However, resting between the lines is a story of two worlds: In Elina’s words, ‘this’ (commercial sex) world and the ‘general population’ (outside commercial sex) world. The stark difference between the two worlds comes to light while making a ‘breakaway’ from one and ‘breaking into’ another.

The ‘breakaway’ from commercial sex is not only a break from earning through it. It also involves distancing from networks with traffickers, pimps and friends who are part of the commercial sex industry and crime network.

‘Breaking into’ a world outside commercial sex involves finding alternative livelihoods; and creating or repairing relationships with people (who do not earn from the commercial sex industry) for crisis support, accommodation, livelihood, emotional support and basic sustenance. The breakaway and breaking into processes are not exclusive. Women explore support, opportunities and relationships in both worlds. Their experiences therein determine their pathways. Three narratives – amongst many — reflect some truths behind breakaways.

Narrative 1: The Next Stop

The first narrative around breakaways is focused on the nature of the ‘next stop’ or the ‘next address’. The breakaway is accompanied with an ability to visualise a context to break into (unless the breakaway is imposed by the police). This context could be a return to family on her terms, an intimate partner offering support after the breakaway, an alternative source of income, or an alternative safe shelter. Belief in the possibility of fitting into the ‘general population’ marks a turning point in the breakaway. For Reema — another woman I have worked with — it was her encounter with what she perceived as respect that ultimately led to her breakaway. She recalls,

I went to the office [of an NGO] because the outreach worker kept calling me, saying I could help her in her work. She was my friend, she was also in the same line [commercial sex] earlier… I did not expect anything then; I went only because I could not keep refusing a friend. She was not there, but other people were. I was asked to sit on a sofa, given a glass of water and some tea. Then a man [a social worker] came to me… he wanted me to organise groups of women. I said I would try and [began to] leave. He gave me Rs. 500. He said that if I [worked with them] they would pay me a monthly salary, but for now since I had travelled from far to reach their office, they could give me Rs. 500. I went out of the office and waited. Would one of them come or two, would they take me to a lodge or their flat, I wondered. Then as I was waiting, they shut the office… When they saw me, they asked me to take a route to the [railway] station [from where I could get a taxi to go home]. I was confused. Why had they given me the money?…. I will never forget that day. I was respected for doing nothing, they must have seen something that I did not see in myself. I went home and thought: for the first time in my life I was paid before doing some work. I was asked to sit on a sofa, offered a glass of water and some tea. Otherwise, it was me who always served it. Nobody even touched me [that day]… I wondered what my salary would be. I decided to go and ask them later. I could organise groups for them, no difficult task for me. And if I could also get respect without paying for it, why not try…

Narrative 2: Being Part and Apart

The second narrative is associated with experiences of the next stop. When women experience rejection within the ‘general population’, or cannot sustain themselves financially, the most accepting alternative is commercial sex. The break into commercial sex is met with lesser resistance than the break into the ‘general population’. Further, memories of disturbed pasts before entry into commercial sex – domestic work along with rape by employer, familial sexual violence, departure from marital home, control by family, being reprimanded for leaving home, domestic violence, painful sexual relationship with husband – reinforce a belief in the certainty of rejection. Family was and continues to be a troubled space for many women. A return home is often not associated with pleasant experiences. Families are disturbed by past memories of women moving away from home and community to find better opportunities, or to move away from violence and oppressive relationships.

Even when families supported women, their support was not unconditional. Many women who were earlier anxious to return home and breakaway from commercial sex subsequently returned to it.

While earlier they resisted it, they now ‘consented’ to it. Families have their own troubles. There is often no space for them to deal with additional troubles the women may bring. Hence, women planning to return home often create an image that is acceptable to family and community – adequate financial stability or/and an economically stable partner. This indicates that they are not dependent on the family, and instead have means to support themselves and perhaps the family as well.

A still from the film ‘Sex(Work) & the City (2022)’ produced by The Third Eye. 

Elina’s next stop during her first breakaway was also family. Subsequently, it was intimate partners who promised support. And after several breakaway attempts, she argued that a breakaway from commercial sex is mostly not possible – till one is no longer able to earn from it due to advancing age or illness. She cynically reflected,

Maybe a few [women] break away… But let me tell you, it is not possible for most! Take my case. I cannot think of a life out of this [commercial sex] without remembering my past. It makes me afraid. But now [in commercial sex] I am strong. Moving out is always a goal for me. I have yet to find a way to move out and stay out. Till then, even visualising [another breakaway] is not feasible. I go around telling my sisters [other women in commercial sex] that they have rights. But I cannot think of doing this with the ‘general population’. There is too much fear there. Society views us in a bad way, we live in hiding. Our desires are met here. But with the ‘general population’ we have no permission. Do you know that we have to pay higher rents than women from the ‘general population’? We fear the ‘general population’, but in this world we are fine. Sex work is risky, but the ‘general population’ offers lesser safety. We face stigma there, we are not invited to people’s homes, no one wants us around.

Where women had positive experiences with the next stop, they were likely to plan and sustain the breakaway, even if it was forcibly imposed by the police. Esther’s first breakaway happened when she was arrested and briefly imprisoned in a foreign country. Upon release, she began preparing her breakaway. She carried good memories of her imprisonment. It offered her a chance to think about her future, and it introduced her to a religion that she later embraced. She reported that the prison was clean; a television and hot water was available. The prison staff were kind. Since there were only a few women in that prison, it was quiet and peaceful.

Her imprisonment was a turning point in her life. However, when she returned to family, she was asked to leave. She returned to commercial sex.

Her second breakaway happened when an Indian police officer offered to connect her with an NGO. Esther had to cope with memories of her past in commercial sex and feared getting recognised in public spaces. However, she also became financially independent. After hearing about this, her family connected with her and invited her to return home. But they also reminded her of her responsibility towards her younger sibling who needed finances for cancer care. Now a social worker, Esther has carved out a new identity for herself. She credits her breakaway and life after, to the prison staff, the police officer, the NGO and her faith in god.

Narrative 3: Full Circle

The third narrative reflects women’s attempts to break away from commercial sex by participating in the commercial sex industry in other capacities. Some earned by looking after children of other women, cooking for others, selling food, groceries, accessories, cosmetics and clothes. This may be a source of additional income, or it may be a way out for women who attract lesser customers due to age, illness, or visible physical wounds and deformities.

Illegal engagements are another pathway women may opt for after accepting the rules of the crime sector, or being forced to participate in a crime world where resistance is met with harsh consequences. Instances include guarding a child or woman forced into commercial sex, transporting another for it, being part of financial transactions, pimping – all offences that support sex trafficking. Women arrested for these engagements do not generally breakaway from the commercial sex industry, but are further embedded in disadvantage and debt. During imprisonment, women depend on networks in the commercial sex industry to continue sending money to families dependent on their earnings, and/or to meet lawyers’ fees. This implies that after release from prison, women are bound to the industry, in order to pay back not only the money spent on them, but also on the high interest rates imposed on that expenditure.

Kamla was trafficked as a child, then consented to commercial sex, made a breakaway after she fell in love with a man she later married, and returned to commercial sex 20 years later, after her marriage ended.

Why did she return? “I am proud, I cannot ask anyone for help,” she says.

Commercial sex offered economic independence, even if a sizeable chunk of the income went into paying commissions, debts, and inflated bills for meeting basic needs, since sex workers are charged more and failure to pay invites high interest penalty rates. Kamla also began earning as a pimp as she aged.

***

Confronted by participation of women in trafficking offences, Elina cautions that many could be arbitrarily accused and learn about the offences they are accused for much later. The main culprits — people with power — may still be at large. While there is no denying of women’s participation in trafficking offenses, boundaries between victim and offender are repeatedly blurred. Women could be compelled to participate; or may do so to secure trust and acceptance from the commercial sex industry. Women could also gain favour in the form of better earnings, more freedom and perhaps affection from intimate partners who are part of the industry. The sex industry is complex. The harsh realities of the crimes that are committed within are normalised alongside the care and support it provides. Women encounter rape, painful sex, sadomasochism, humiliation at the hands of customers, pimps and others. They experience surveillance, anticipation of physical hurt, threat about getting implicated in crime that they may or may not have participated in, fear of punishment in the event of deviating from or breaking norms of the crime culture. They also undergo ensuing stress disorders, self-inflicted harm, and high-risk behaviours. Most everyday needs like rent, food, electricity, water, clothes, cosmetics, bedding, contraception and medicines, are not free. They come with financial, physical, sexual and emotional costs. 

Yet, in the midst of this, women can also count on the people in the commercial sex industry to look after them and their families’ needs in case of crisis, find friendships, get invited to outings and entertaining activities, and meet people who sympathise with them. But with the ‘general population’, unless there is a strong support system scaffolding the breakaway, these needs are subject to compromise or not met at all.

Image Courtesy: livelaw.in
Women in commercial sex are entitled to access government schemes for child sponsorship, health insurance, livelihoods and social security that are available for the ‘general population’. However, access to these schemes is contingent on proving eligibility for the scheme. Since many women in commercial sex have separated from families, gathering citizenship documentation for proof of residence, income, caste, age et cetera is not easy. Even after securing documentation, follow up with the concerned government departments in order to secure benefits, is a tedious process. Add to this the stigma that they carry, making them outsiders in the ‘general population’.

A case in point is their inability in accessing schemes for rape victims, despite the fact that rape is part of their life.

Some women like Elina cite marital rape as disturbing, but consider their own rape in commercial sex as part of the work they earn from. Customers forcing themselves on women or demanding sexual services that women do not want to engage in is construed as part of work, rather than an imposition on their bodies.

For some schemes, the application process and its conditions may itself be stigmatizing. For instance, during the COVID pandemic the Supreme Court directed States and UTs to provide financial aid to sex workers and their children. In a few districts of Maharashtra, women were required to register with a nodal agency that engaged with women in commercial sex, which was located close to commercial sex sites. Women who were exiting commercial sex were challenged with the thought of revisiting the commercial sex site and registering with the nodal agency there; they feared follow-up visits to their homes that could lead to families learning about their pasts. A few women therefore chose not to apply for financial aid, even though they and their families were in financial distress.

To date, there is no state-led community-based scheme that supports women during their breakaways*. Current legislation and schemes offer women temporary protective custody – meaning shelter in institutions that are most often restrictive. Meetings with visitors are limited and supervised. Women have to give reasons for moving freely outside the institution. Inside the institutions, they might be exposed to training programmes and activities that help them cope with their stress. However, like in different nation states, institution-like facilities operate through rules and regulations akin to custody-like settings and rob women of much of their agency.

Women believe that they are recipients of help rather than being entitled to it. Frequently, they describe institutions as jails.

Institutions are therefore often the last option. A few women have found safety in institutions though, and have used it as a space for reflecting, planning their life and simply taking a break from difficult pasts.

Women’s needs while reconstructing lives outside institutional setups – for instance, rent, travel expenses to educational/training/employment spaces, personal and children’s sustenance until they pursue adequate training and education to develop alterative livelihoods – are not covered under any special scheme. While the staff of government homes have no means of supporting women after their discharge from institutions, every now and then we come across institutional staff, police, court officials and civil society agencies who have made concerted efforts to reach out to women and connect them with non-government agencies that are able to help them reconstruct lives outside of violence. Women who have sustained their breakaway met such external supports to help them tide through reskilling, moments of loneliness, medical emergencies, child support that spans over years, and sometimes a partner who stands by her through thick and thin.

***

The meanings women associate with breakaways and life after them, are not homogenous. For some, life after the breakaway means being able to survive alone, have a name, live safely and peacefully, be of service, and feel empowered. But for many, it also means living an unjust life, a constrained life lived in a state of anxiety and despair. It is not uncommon to hear women share experiences of injustice, not at the hands of traffickers or customers who have raped them, but those carried out by family, law enforcement agencies, institutional staff and civil society who are bound to offer them only what appears available and not what they need. The justice system’s intention to remove women from violence does not translate into one that offers psychological safety. It is dominantly characterised by social control, compromised options for survival, and is a socially excluding processes. Elina echoes a thought shared by others.

That I was raped does not disturb me any longer. That I was sold also does not disturb me; I have almost forgotten that. But what I do remember is that the place outside is not safe. I was watched as a young child. The man saw I was growing up, and seized the chance to use me. My own family thought I eloped with someone and hence did not accept me until I earned enough to support myself and them too. The people I now trust are part of this world [commercial sex], not that side. I am scared of the police, although I know I shouldn’t be. But I fear that I will be treated differently because of my past. I am skeptical about people who offer help.

A woman who participated in my doctoral work once pointed out that a woman’s positioning in society emerged from her income and/ or her relationships. Women call for a chance to reconstruct their lives in communities, receive adequate financial support to back their journeys towards reskilling, develop alternative social networks, explore employment, and deal with past trauma.

My doctoral work indicated that there were three key areas significant to women living a violence-free life – stable shelters that offered a nurturing environment, peace, freedom of movement and agency; relationships with significant persons who were not dependent on the women’s income from commercial sex and were able to psychologically disengage from the women’s past; and most importantly, women’s work. Working through each of these areas is time and resource-intensive.

A woman in commercial sex work need to visualise a society invested in her breakaway. There is a need for special schemes and programmes that support women’s explorations out of commercial sex. The burden of responsibility has to rest with those of us claiming to facilitate the breakaway rather than on the exploited women themselves.

Until then, Elina’s truth will simply belie the truth of the ‘the general population’. Still, each of our truths point to the same reality. All the narratives converge into a desire to someday move away and lead a life out of commercial sex. There is no dearth of direction about what is required to reach out to women breaking away. Women currently and formerly in commercial sex can guide us about what they need and what we ‘need to do. The question is, are we strong enough to listen to them? Whose truth would then count?

*Is all breakaway work non-governmental? Yes. State services exist but they are institutional and not community-based. Hence women have to live in institutions and pursue training etc. Although the recent (proposed) Mission Shakti scheme makes a small reference to it, time will tell if there is a budget allocated for the same.

Sharon Menezes is faculty with the Centre for Criminology and Justice (CCJ), School of Social Work (SSW), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Joint Project Director, Prayas, its field action project. This piece emerges from voices of women who formerly participated in her doctoral work, and continue to guide her understanding of the field.

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