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Keyboard and Mouse


Behind The Brothel

Sex is the most avoided topic in Indian households and sex work, probably the most tabooed profession. In this article, we venture into researching sex work as an important means of livelihood, its history, social implications, contribution to the economy, and legalisation all over the world.

Prostitution, despite being one of the oldest professions has become the most disrelished one. Creating a market for sex work and accepting it socially doesn’t even find a place in the attic!

Prostitution is ruling the underground economy in different countries since ancient times. In some societies, sex workers are viewed as workers of a recognized profession; in others, they have been shunned and punished with imprisonment. In India, Vedas which is one of the earliest known Indian literature has abundant evidence with references in our Indian mythology in the form of demigods. They are described as perfect embodiments, having exceptional beauty and highly accomplished in arts like dance and music. They were sent down on earth to test the ‘tapasya’ (penance) of saints. During the Mughal era, a tawaif was a courtesan who catered to the nobility and excelled in skills like dance, music, poetry, and theatre to entertain the court of the king. The colonial-era saw military-run brothels for its troops across India. Women and girls were recruited from poor rural families to work there. The red-light districts of Mumbai entered into business then. ln the late 19th and early 20th centuries, traffickers supplied sex workers. Prostitution has been kept alive in India in various forms for centuries and continues to thrive.


Stigma and criminal roots often revolve around sex work making the question of legalisation more debatable. In India, ‘culture’ and ‘moral values’ are extensively used as a tool against it despite the fact, that prostitution is prevalent in sacrosanct Indian literature, as a mainstream activity and means of livelihood. The Indian culture and values intertwined with legalities created the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 i.e. the act which governs sex work and is incomplete and redundant in its application. So while sex work is not rendered illegal, activities, like maintaining brothels, seducing customers, and operating within 200m of a public place like hotels, are criminalized which implies that if anyone wishes to practice sex work, they should do so alone and in isolation, making them more susceptible to violence. Sex work is claimed to degrade the quality of life through juxtaposition with violence and drugs and is also considered fundamentally sexist as a profession. A large proportion of sex workers all around the world are women and their clients, men, are given supremacy for their sexual needs while women remain a pawn to satisfy those. Also, the risk of being murdered while on the job is the highest for this profession than any other, owing to its lack of organization, fair regulation and protective laws for those who wish to take it up voluntarily. While some people consider it exploitative, some sex workers also believe that their profession is economically and socially liberating as it frees them from societal judgments while giving them bread earning power with ease and flexibility in working. Some disadvantaged groups also claim sex work to have helped them from destitution when there was no work.


While there are many places, globally, that grant sex work the legal ticket of operation, they come at different prices and with different conditions. The legalisation of sex work is modeled vis a vis:

Have you ever been curious enough to find out where prostitution is legal? Certainly, we have, and this is what we found out:

Prostitution Is Legal in Canada, Germany, Mexico (The country’s 32 states enact their own prostitution policies), and Australia.

Interestingly in Thailand, prostitution is illegal, however, laws are ambiguous and unenforced, which is why it acts as a big economic incentive for rural, unskilled women who have financial obligations such as dependents or debts.

Germany gives legal stature to prostitution and also allows brothels, advertisements, and job offers through HR companies. Germany passed the Prostitutes Protection Act in 2016, which was intended to protect prostitutes by requiring a permit for all prostitution trades and a prostitute registration certificate.

Prostitution is however illegal in every state of the United States including Las Vegas and Reno, except for some counties in Nevada. Brothels are permitted in counties where prostitution is legal, and both brothels and prostitutes are subject to federal income taxes.


Prostitution in India claimed is to be an $8 billion industry a year, with as many as 10 million commercial sex workers. Advantages of flexibility and easy pay make it a lucrative job opportunity for those who wish to take it up voluntarily. But lack of regulations and prevalent exploitation skews the pay of workers under pimps extensively, often leaving them underpaid. Because the activity is considered criminal in many jurisdictions, its substantial revenues are not contributing to the tax revenues of the state, and its workers are not routinely screened for sexually transmitted diseases which are dangerous in cultures favoring unprotected sex and leads to significant expenditure in the health services. According to the Estimates of the costs of crime in Australia, there is an “estimated $96 million loss of taxation revenue from undeclared earnings of prostitution”. Thus, the underground economy associated with it, especially in the urban cities, is very difficult to put a number on.

Nevada Counties set a great example of how to reap the economic benefits of the industry as well as protecting the vulnerable groups. One of the speakers at the brothel prostitution legalizing 1999 Ely town meeting said, ‘And we do recognize in this state, as all states do, that there is such a thing as vices. We recognize that you cannot legislate them out of existence, and the best you can do is regulate and control them.’

It now forms the basis for a big chunk of the country’s income in terms of license fees, reduced expenditure on combating ‘crime’ and healthcare, and an increase in tourist income. The Kenya economy had a similar growth experience through the prostitution industry. They have an onset of ‘new money’ in circulation i.e. from sources outside the existing local funds, like travelers, foreign businesses, and exports. This ‘new money’ propels real growth and the multiplier effect spreads this economic growth to other industries. Sex workers tend to use it as a stepping stone towards opening new business ventures of their own like dress shops, salons, etc. These extra taxes collected, when invested in better public services like education and healthcare and social awareness will help tackle the very social root causes of prostitution. For developing countries, it can also form a major part of exports and a means of redistributing income globally.


But what is the most essential prerequisite of earning income from the sex industry? Regulation. In some countries or subdivisions, prostitution is legal and regulated where, the prostitutes may be registered, hired by a brothel, organized into trade unions, covered by workers’ protection laws, and also required to undergo regular health checks, etc. The degree of regulation, however, varies very much by jurisdiction.

The rationale behind these approaches is accepting that prostitution is impossible to eliminate, and thus regulations can increase transparency and thereby reduce the more undesirable consequences.

In Nevada, state law requires that registered brothel prostitutes be checked weekly for several sexually transmitted diseases and monthly for HIV; furthermore, condoms are mandatory for all oral sex and sexual intercourse. Brothel owners may be held liable if customers become infected with HIV after a prostitute has tested positive for the virus.

But the regulation of prostitution is problematic because standard labor regulations cannot be applied to it. The employer cannot exercise authority over the employee in this case as ordering a person to have sex at a given moment at a given place, is contrary to the physical integrity of the prostitute. Also, to avoid paying social security contributions that come with paid labor, prostitutes are usually listed as independent contractors and sex operators typically operate as facilitators.


Today, even the Indian male chauvinists have come to terms with feminism centered around the protection of women’s rights, and it’s ironic how we have failed to legislate and protect the rights of sex workers. Probably because they do not fit in our mold of an ‘ideal woman’?

Policies that regulate the industry on paper, is based on the premise that sex work is immoral, and it does not promote the safety standards of the women engaged.

The government of India has always focused on prohibition or rescue of sex workers rather than decriminalising it. Due to its ambiguous legal structure, women are prone to high risk of HIV, rape, murders, low compensation, poor social image. Despite the Immoral Trafficking Acts of 1956 and 1986, law enforcement authorities have misused the legalities to detain sex workers in custody and harass them for money. There are regular cases of police officers being bribed by brothel keepers, and justice, often biased. The law gives the state government the power to remove a child who lives with a sex worker in a brothel and sex workers can be removed from any place, at an instant order by the magistrate. Further, the places used by sex workers are also criminalised under Justice Juvenile Act.

Though the act seeks to provide protective homes under the control of state governments for rehabilitation, which are highly inefficient, acknowledged by government officials. Eventually, women end up in a ‘second brothel’.

The public policy for sex workers should be centered around decriminalising sex work and implementing labor norms to make it a safer profession and open to regulation. Additionally, sex work in India is often a result of poverty and forced trafficking but these root causes are somehow left unaddressed. Workers when deprived of education are forced to earn bread through whatever way available.

The unionisation of sex workers has greater importance to offer an unbiased and humanistic approach towards their lives. Policymakers need to understand the clear difference between trafficking, which is illegal, and adult sex work. Since not all women enter this profession forcefully, there should be equal rights. Adult sex work should be decriminalised, regulated, and provide the same legal rights as an ordinary citizen. Without decriminalisation, it will always be a journey of harassment and suffering by oppressors. And if economists wish to reap the benefits of the industry, they need to transform sex work into a lucrative job space.

As marked by Kingsley Davis,

‘Purely from the angle of economic return, the hard question is not why so many women become prostitutes, but why so few of them do.’

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