ARE THE RIGHTS OF SEX WORKERS, RIGHTLY EQUAL?
Author: Harsheen Kaur Luthra, I year of B.B.A.,LL.B(Hons.) From Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law Punjab.
The wedge between Sex Workers & Society
Sex workers in the eyes of so-called right-minded people are either women “in need of rescue and rehabilitation” or are “criminals”. Sex workers today are viewed as either fitting of pity or abhorrence. Laws in India around sex workers and their work are so ambiguous that it is on the judgments that sometimes an act turns out to be legal and other times illegal and a same sex worker turns out to be permissible and then an impermissible one and becomes the victim of the not-so-good mercy of the police officer who went to raid or to basically raze a brothel. Where on one angle, the right to life in India is even available to foreigners, but on the other side Indian women continue to suffer at the hands of the administration just because of their work, the sex work. Today it is common and too normal to say that people could work out their desires and needs on their own in an ideal world where everyone has equal bargaining power but no such world actually exists, no country in the world has achieved equality for all of its citizens, particularly women, and minorities.
Laws yet no Laws for Sex Workers
Sex workers in India are subject to criminal law, and they are apparently entitled to equal protection on the basis of 'age' and 'consent'. When it is clear that the sex worker is a consenting adult, the police must refrain from interfering or taking criminal action. Sex workers should not be "arrested or penalized or harassed or victimized" whenever there is a raid on any brothel, "since voluntary sex work is not illegal and only running the brothel is." Sexual assault victims in the sex industry should be provided with all necessary services, including immediate medical and legal assistance. The media should exercise "extreme caution" in not disclosing the identities of sex workers. The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act criminalizes acts such as running a brothel, soliciting in public, living off-the-earnings sex work, and living with or being in the company of a sex worker. By all the rights, guidelines, and legislation, it seems that sex work is a dignified profession in India but the reality is on the far opposite corner as dignity and respect are some almost impossibly achievable possessions for sex workers.
A Stark Violation of Right to Profession
On one page, it is said that the law is equal for sex workers, but then why are they not provided access to Article 15, i.e Freedom to choose an occupation and the right to engage in work as they are not allowed to solicit their works publicly because it goes against the mentality of right-minded people and if they are caught doing so, they are humiliated, harassed, and pushed behind the bars. Prostitution activities are not allowed in hotels. Running the brothel is also illegal. Now the question arises if they could not profess their work publicly, not in the hotels and not even at the place where they are meant to be which is a brothel as even a brothel could any day be shut down because of their administrator being thrown behind the iron locks, then could it actually be stated that right to the profession is inclusive of sex workers?
Injustice Suffered in sham of Equality & Justice
The Indian law exposes sex workers living in Red Light Districts to police action, who, while enforcing anti-trafficking laws, frequently overstep their bounds by prosecuting sex workers and their clients who engage in consensual and private sex work. According to the Supreme Court, if a sex worker files a complaint, it should be treated as any other complaint, and she should be treated as a complainant rather than an offender. Sex work is a profession many people make a living from it. Despite the Supreme Court's categorical declaration that police should not interfere with consensual sex work and that sex workers should be treated with respect, police violations are still "very uncommon." Police regularly misuse their power by intimidating them or requesting irrational financial recompense from customers, which has an immediate negative impact on the workers.
It can be inferred from the 2022 Supreme Court judgment, that the grievance, the plight or the cry for justice by a sex worker is worthless if it is without authentic proof. The bench of Justice Ghose and Justice Pinaki held that a sex worker cannot lodge a sexual assault if her customer refused to pay, additionally, it was held that sex work could not be alleged to be raped on non-payment. This judgment completely washes out even the apparent rights of a sex worker as a woman consents to sex work to earn living and to earn money, but after this judgment, a sex worker who has not been paid would have to stand in the court of law to cry for justice. This judgment directly describes sex work as being an unethical and undignified profession.
Sex Work-Tainted & Tarnished
In all facets of society, sex labor is stigmatized since it is viewed as a sign of shame, social disrepute, or a damaged identity. In the media, politics, and even research papers, derogatory terminology like "prostitutes," "hookers," and "whores" are regularly used to describe sex workers. Because to this stigma, sex workers are routinely misrepresented as an illiterate, degrading, and impoverished population, which leads to socially acceptable disdain and discrimination against them. This stigma frequently inhibits sex workers from accessing quality medical care, causing them to turn to unorthodox practices. The source of this stigma may be the way sex work is perceived in the eyes of the law. The law does not punish the buying and selling of sex, but rather all activities associated with it, such as running brothels, which promotes a schism between society and sex workers.
It is high time now that society including the so-called right-minded people has to understand and acknowledge sex work as a profession and assign dignity to it. Adult men, women, and transgender people have the right to earn living and the right to live with dignity by providing services. It's time that society understands their profession. Laws need to be amended and should be turned into more comprehensive legislation where Articles 15 & 21 are not violated but are made comparatively more inclusive to the sex workers. Parliament must also reconsider existing legislation and abandon the 'victim-rescue-rehabilitation' narrative.