In the sacred Hindu text of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to continue performing his duties without worrying about the result of his actions. On this note, my friend narrated a story of two women who lived across a street, one a prostitute of ‘ill’ character and the other a ‘pious’ devout worshipper. The prostitute, as the profession dictates, was visited by numerous men every day. The devout lady on the other hand, kept count of the number of men visiting the prostitute each day. It so happened that they died on the same day. At the door to Heaven, the prostitute got to enter first on which the devout lady retaliated and asked God why such injustice had been done to her considering the fact that she had been the ‘moral’ one throughout . To this, God replied by saying that the prostitute had fulfilled her duties religiously without any distractions; however she had allowed her mind to waver which had nullified the sanctity of her prayers. That’s the same truth with a pinch of salt!

Reading between the lines above, Lord Krishna’s theory of ‘Karma’, as it is referred to in modern day jargon, dignified actions not by consequence but by performance.

Among the many avenues of employment that engage people, prostitution is just another such avenue and the people employed in the profession are entitled to an equally respectable place in society.

Prostitution, as the profession entails, is the act of providing sexual services to another person in return for payment. It occurs through brothels, or escort services at the customer’s residence or the escort’s residence or in a hotel room rented for the occasion by the escort. Street prostitution is another kind of practice that has emerged on the circuit in which prostitutes roam the streets to provide services to meet short-term financial needs

Since, in all of the above cases, there is a voluntary agreement between the parties concerned, there is no question of violation of rights. Prostitutes are normal people who deserve to be respected as fellow human beings rather than being looked down upon as being ‘immoral’. In fact, studies done in the United States have pointed out that in larger cities 20 to 30 percent of the prostitutes are male, referred to as gigolos at some places. Keeping this fact aside for the time being, as far as the issue of morality goes, sexual needs of the human body are a perfectly natural phenomenon. The human desire for physical intimacy is an omnipresent force not only in males, but also females. Thus, just because the promiscuity of men has not been legally challenged due to its acceptance as an all-pervasive phenomenon since times adage, similarly the society has no right to point a finger at a woman who wants to indulge in the same biological act of nature. Besides, the fact that most of them take up the profession due to poverty, debts, illiteracy, family background, lack of sex education, social customs, coercion by family, police or pimps needs to be taken into consideration before out casting them. In India, nearly eighty per cent of the prostitutes are in the profession mainly due to poverty, tricked by someone close to them, trafficking, etc.

Flesh trade is not a very appealing choice of profession for most people. Thus, societal exclusion and criminalization of the profession is not an answer to a problem that invades the global economy to the extent of raising an estimated annual revenue exceeding over a US $100 billion.

Anti-prostitution laws do nothing but drive the sector underground which makes the profession even more dangerous for the people involved in it. Besides they violate the Equal Protection Clause which only prosecutes the service providers without remotely penalizing the users of the service. According to studies conducted in the US, prostitutes account for 90 percent of the arrests, while their clients only ten percent. This ratio is skewed against prostitutes as more often than not the clients are able to negotiate their way out with the police. The prostitutes, being the vulnerable lot, are unable to defend themselves and are even subjected to physical and sexual assault by the authorities many-a-times.

Further, these laws have a greater bearing on the street prostitutes who are already at a greater risk of physical violence and drug abuse. According to studies in the US, only 20 percent of the prostitutes are involved in street prostitution; but when it comes to arrest cases, they dominate 85-90 percent of the times. One study found that street prostitutes were three times more likely than other prostitutes to experience an assault and eleven times more likely to have been raped (Stephanie Church et al., British Medical Journal, March 2001). The homicide rate of female prostitutes was estimated to be 204 per 100,000 which is the highest risk of occupational mortality for women in any sphere of life. Laws that criminalize prostitution only contribute to further victimization of prostitutes. Studies have found that eighty percent of the prostitutes have been sexually assaulted, some even raped more than 8-10 times a year. Only 7 percent seek help and an even tinier fraction of about 4 percent actually report it to the police. The illegalization of the profession is to be blamed for such low reporting. The prostitutes obviously do not report any case of violence due to fear of being prosecuted for their professional engagement. They are de-humanized by the society at large such that any crime committed against them is not considered a crime at all. This is a violation of their basic human right to dignity of life.

Thus, the respect denied to prostitutes needs to be restored at the earliest and the profession needs to be dignified in the eyes of the public.

In 1999, Sweden had become the first country in the world to decriminalize prostitution and instead to penalize the user of the service. Norway and Iceland followed suite in 2009. In Netherlands, on the other hand, prostitution was legalized in October 2000, however the prostitutes were required to be over 18 years of age and the clients over 16 years. Registration of prostitutes was mandatory and operation of brothels and pimping was also legal although subject to zoning and licensing requirements. In India too, prostitution is legal, though related activities like soliciting sex in a public place, keeping a brothel, pimping etc are illegal. This essentially amounts to a double-standard as even though prostitution by itself is legal, but any route to engage in it is illegal. This may be one of the reasons why even though the Ministry of Women and Child Development reported the presence of 2.8 million prostitutes in India in 2000, but Human Rights Watch reported the figure to be around 20 million. This points towards the fact that the duplicity in the legal framework with respect to the prostitution sector only drives it underground and fuels the menace surrounding it. In fact, due to its illegal nature, the children of prostitutes are also much more likely to end up in the same profession as the pimps and brothel-owners deny them access to education. Fear of being caught also prevents them from enrolling their children in schools. Thus, the vicious circle of illiteracy and lack of resources which made them take up the profession in the first place continues to handcuff them, without any hope for unleashing themselves or their future generations.

This brings to the forefront the outcry of the prostitutes for a respectable life, not only for themselves but even more so for their children. It calls for desperate measures to cleanse the profession of the stains been inflicted upon it by years of societal disgrace and abuse.

Legalising abortion is the first step towards unleashing the prostitutes from the shackles of violence and abuse. Persons over the age of 18 years should be free to indulge in the act on a mutual consensus basis. However, at the same time registration of prostitutes can be necessitated to regulate the sector and prostitutes can be required to carry a license which can also be used to avail of special benefits on the part of the government. The above reforms lead to an actual decrease in trafficking in Netherlands as was reported by the Dutch Police. This is especially so as sex tourism, which refers to travel generally from developed to under-developed countries to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes, is on a rampant increase globally. The underlying reason behind sex tourism is the illegalisation of the sector in most countries. If the sector is opened up, the sector can be monitored more closely and such tourism can be discouraged.

Hence, the amelioration of the sector demands its legalisation and opening. Not only will legalisation help to pull it out of its pit of social disgrace, but it will also help resolve the various offshoots born out of it. Prostitutes have been repeatedly blamed for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Out of the 200,000 or more prostitutes in Mumbai city of India, 50 percent are inflicted with HIV. Lack of information and failure to use protection are the prime causes behind the spread of AIDS in the region. However, even in the above case, prostitution by itself is not to be blamed for the spread of AIDS as it is the illegal nature of the sector which makes it almost impossible to spread awareness about the use of protective devices and even if that happens, accessibility still remains a hurdle to be crossed. This has been proved by studies done in the US which found that only 3-5 percent of the STDs are prostitution-related compared to 30-35 percent which are teen related.

Thus, sex education forms a really important area of government intervention. Legalising prostitution will make it easier for the prostitutes to come to the forefront and access not only information, but also the devices of use. This can have a huge contribution to stalling the spread of STDs. An instance of the success of sex education has been witnessed in Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata. An education programme was conducted in 1992 which targeted about 5,000 female prostitutes, out of whom only 27% reported the use of condoms. By 1995, the programme had managed to increase this proportion to 82%. Thus, prevention programmes and awareness workshops can go a long way in ridding the profession of its false malign image. Health checks should be made mandatory as part of government policy and leaflets and information must be provided to them regarding sexual health clinics.

Further, legalising prostitution will also make it easier for prostitutes to enrol their children in schools and maybe even reap the benefits of education themselves. The professional life of prostitutes doesn’t last beyond ten years on an average basis. Thus, there is a dire need to provide them vocational training and education so that they can support themselves and their children This can go a long way in ensuring that their next generation can break free of the confines of the profession and choose to take it up by informed choice if they want to, but definitely not necessity or coercion. The government can provide assistance by providing an education cover for the children of prostitutes.

Lastly, though prostitution should be legalised, street prostitution can be done away with due to its nature of fostering a drug culture which impairs their judgement entangling them in the web of drug abuse and physical violence, one feeding upon the other and deepening the web of abuse. The police can be mandated to carry out regular inspections to check upon the operations. In addition to this, prostitution centres can be equipped with safety devices like panic buttons and surveillance devices to ensure smooth functioning such that violent customers can be taken to task immediately.

Prostitution is amongst the oldest professions of all time and it cannot be uprooted by any flimsy law that outlaws the practice. Much as it may seem ironic, but the only hope of defeating it lies in legalising it. Prostitution provides a source of livelihood to millions across the world. The only way of bringing about any change in the system is by providing alternate avenues of employment which can only happen if prostitutes have the freedom to come out in the open to avail those options. Till the time they live a pseudo-life dreading society every living moment, they or their coming generations will not see the light of the day. A solution can only be found if the problem is brought to the forefront. Respect from society can be the first step in restoring their sense of worth and confidence in the fact that they too were born for something more. As Julia Roberts aka Vivian says in the movie Pretty Woman, “It’s not like anybody plans this, it’s not your childhood dream”; let’s not make it their children’s.

Sukanya Garg