The Following article is based on a Research Paper that I wrote a couple of years ago – the research paper was accepted for presentation at the International congress of Applied Psychology (Paris) 2014.
“The oldest profession in the world…” “An inevitable consequence of a patriarchal society” A means of entertainment…” “A service like any other….” These are some of the phrases used to describe the phenomenon of prostitution. There are many who go as far as to call it a profession; not only does this warp the meaning of the term profession, which by definition means a person who does a job that needs special training and a high level of education; it also insults the woman who has a to sell her body for money, by suggesting that her chosen career path in life involves being threatened and abused on a daily basis.
Following is the story of sanaya; she was gang raped in her village and ostracized from her home town…this is her account. “I was wandering in the village in search of a job and was determined to return home only after getting another job. After four days I met a man who promised me job in the big city (Mumbai). He sold me in brothel in Kamathipura for Rs. 20,000. Life here has also been so difficult. I married a man who was my client.. He started “helping” me with clients but that was hardly any help. He would take away my money and force me to take clients. I had become his money-making machine. During my first pregnancy, I was detected HIV positive. I started taking help from organizations here but he never went to the doctor. He died a few years back. Now I am living with another man. He is worse. He beats me a lot. He is also a pimp and that too a famous one in the area. What bad luck! He follows me to the brothels and keeps track of my time. He drinks a lot, gets angry and beats me when I take slightly longer time with a particular client. He checks my underwear to see if I had sex with any man without his permission. I am nine months pregnant, this is my third baby but he thinks the child is not his. What can I say? He beats me all the time so I left the room. I live on the pavement now. All these men destroyed my life. Now I have HIV, they say even a drop of my blood can destroy someone’s life. How did I get so much power?”
There is tremendous debate with regard to prostitution and its legalization; for every person who considers it a legitimate way of making a living and surviving, there are thousands more who are able to see the terrible traumatic consequences of this ‘profession’. What most people fail to acknowledge is that a sexual encounter is one of the most intimate, vulnerable moments of any individual’s life. When such an act is repeatedly shared with a stranger in exchange for money and often associated with violence, coercion or abuse, it scars the mind in an irrevocable manner. It begins to erode a person’s sense of self worth, their self esteem, self concept and ultimately results in an emotional state that is numbed and unable to experience a normal range of emotions. In addition to this, the serious physical health risks make it a ‘profession’ that is extremely hazardous and detrimental to a healthy life.
There are a large number of people who believe that legalization of prostitution will create a system that will support the women engaged in this ‘profession’ and provide them with equal rights. There are those who go so far as to say that prostitution keeps other women safe, as it keeps men with uncontrollable lust off the streets…but at what cost? From a psychological perspective, women engaged in prostitution no longer view themselves as whole. Dissociation is the most common consequence of continuous experience of trauma. Most women report that they cannot prostitute unless they dissociate. When they do not dissociate (detach from the mental, physical and emotional state), they are at risk for being overwhelmed with pain, shame, and rage.70 to 80% of prostituted women have suffered abuse, rape and other forms of violence. 90 % of women engaged in sex trade say that they want to leave and start their lives somewhere else. Sadly for most of them this remains a dream, because they are either controlled by pimps or have suffered so much psychological damage they are unable to build any other way of life.
Prostitution in India
In India the primary law dealing with the status of sex workers is the 1956 law referred to as the The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA). According to this law, sex work in India is neither legal nor illegal; it is tolerated since prostitutes can practice their trade privately, but cannot legally solicit customers in public.
Studies and surveys sponsored by the ministry of women and child development estimate that there are about three million prostitutes in the country, of which an estimated 40 percent are children. The largest red light district in India, perhaps in the world, is the Falkland Road Kamatipura area of Bombay. Hundred million people are involved in human trafficking in India!
It comes as a shock to realize that the hub of the Sex trade throughout Asia and possibly the world is housed in the biggest city in India-Mumbai. It is a sad and cruel paradox that a country that preaches purity and chastity has the largest brothels in the world and is a central point in the human trafficking system. Also, it is interesting to note that prostitution emerged in ancient India when prostitutes were referred to as Devadasis. Originally, Devadasis were celibate dancing girls used in temple ceremonies and they entertained members of the ruling class. But sometime around the 6th Century, the practice of “dedicating” girls to Hindu gods became prevalent in a practice that developed into ritualized prostitution. Today, the districts bordering Maharashtra and Karnataka, known as the “Devadasi belt,” have trafficking structures operating at various levels. The women here are in prostitution either because their husbands deserted them, or they are trafficked through coercion and deception.
A ‘Profession’ – Really?
In most cases the arguments about legalization revolve around reducing stigma, social prejudice and a creation of sudden respect for women in prostitution as a result of legalizing it. The fact that is largely ignored is that prostitution is a ‘profession’ that does serious harm to the mental, emotional and behavioural well-being of an individual. The act of selling one’s body in exchange for money and engaging in behaviour that is often degrading and humiliating on a regular basis ultimately leads to psychological symptoms which are neglected due to the very nature of the work environment and social status of a prostitute.
I find it intrinsically impossible to accept that there exists a ‘profession’ that so profoundly harms people and yet some believe that it can be overlooked or ‘regulated’ and thereby reduce the harm it causes. It becomes the responsibility of individuals engaged in the mental health profession, as well as people who are able to fully grasp the impact of this profession on the psyche and life of a woman, to recognize and fight for the rights of a class of women whose mental health and quality of life has been grossly neglected and violated.