Sex Work in India

Sex Work in India


Sex Work in India

Sex Work in India



This is the first post in Project X’s new series, “Sex Work in South Asia” – a series designed to encourage greater understanding of and dispel misconceptions about sex work in the South Asian region. This series will consider the state of the sex industry and sex workers rights in each of the following South Asian countries: India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal – beginning with India. It will elaborate on the historical context and economic impact of sex work, sex worker statistics, sex work in India’s cultural context, and finally, the future of the sex industry in India.

A Brief History of Sex Work in India

Sex work and sex workers have always existed within the Indian social fabric (Bhattacharji, 1987). The profession was deemed legitimate and sex workers had labour rights (Dasgupta, 2017). Sanskrit and Pali texts have noted the practice of state-sector employment and state-funded education for sex workers where they paid income taxes and were provided pensions in ancient India (Bjattacharya, 1988, pp. 30-42). Tawaifs (courtesans, entertainers) in Northern India and Devadasis (hereditary religious artists) were respected professionals who were able to enjoy great social position.

However, in the 16th century onwards, there came a condemnation of the character of these women by colonialists’ accounts (Bhattacharji, 1987; Ganesh, 2020).  Simultaneously, in the 19th century, British legal discourses scapegoated female sex workers solely as sources of venereal diseases (Atwell, n.d.). Sex workers were arrested and their families were harrassed by British law enforcers if they refused medical examinations (Dasgupta, 2017). Their registrations were cancelled and were expelled if they were diagnosed with venereal diseases, replacing them with “newer and healthier” women (Levine, 2003, pp. 185-186). The sex workers in Calcutta submitted petitions and protested against the Contagious Diseases Act. In 1869, 1,527 sex workers in Calcutta were arrested for their defiance (Bakshi, 2005). The Act was suspended in 1883 and finally repealed in 1888. 

 In August 1956, postcolonial India passed the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, criminalising sex work and equating it with trafficking. Over the years, sex workers have reported high levels of violence and discrimination against them and their work. 

In 2022, the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark ruling that recognises sex work as a legitimate profession. However, sex work is still not decriminalised. 

Law, Policy, and Policing

In India, sex work is not illegal per se as one is still allowed to sell sex privately (Global Network of Sex Work Projects, n.d.). However, various laws found in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act [IPTA], 1956 criminalise sex workers, their clients, pimps, and brothel owners (Dasgupta, 2021). Common activities associated with sex work such as pimping, soliciting, running a brothel etc. are criminalised (Chowdhury, 2022; Singh, 2022):

The existing laws pertaining to sex work put the profession in a legal grey zone that often pose challenges to the rights of sex workers. One example would be how the IPC is often used to charge sex workers with vague crimes such as “public indecency” or even being a “public nuisance” (Singh, 2022).

The State has a monopoly on violence and sex workers often view the State with fear rather than as a protector of their rights. 

India’s legal infrastructure predominantly governs sex work through the anti-trafficking model (Chatterjee, 2021). During 2018-2019, the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) alongside other organisations, successfully prevented the passing of the Trafficking (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill or 2018 Anti-Trafficking bill. The proposed bill would have further criminalised the sex work environment as well as the clients of sex workers. As of 2022, this bill, however, is being revised further which is generating much uncertainty to the future of sex workers and their profession. While trafficking of persons, especially women and minors is a fundamental issue in India that deserves national and international attention, the trafficking paradigm is often erroneously conflated with representations of sex work, migration, and mobility. This undermines the cause of agentic sex workers to ascertain human, health, and labour rights for themselves.

Unfortunately, the IPTA equates sex work with sex trafficking through its continued criminalisation of common sex work activities. The major pitfalls of the IPTA constitute the following:

IPTA allows law enforcers to indiscriminately “rescue and rehabilitate” sex workers against their will (Singh, 2022). These ‘anti-trafficking’ raids are detrimental as sex workers’ human rights are violated  (NNSW, 2019. See SANGRAM & VAMP (2018) for more reasons). Furthermore, HIV-prevention programmes and distribution of condoms are disrupted (Ahmed and Seshu, 2012). The arbitrary enforcement of IPTA creates precarity for sex workers as the statute virtue-signals sex work as socially undesirable and a harmful criminal activity, perpetuating various forms of moral policing, violence, and stigma within and beyond the ambit of the law (Vijayakumar, Panchanadeswaran & Chacko, 2019).

Sexual violence against sex workers is often downplayed as sex workers do not fit to societal standards of the “perfect victim” which dissuades sex workers from seeking help from the authorities (Chatterjee, 2021). Therefore, the Indian Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that recognises  sex work as a ‘profession’ in 2022 is significant as it assures sex workers’ rights by offering safeguards from being targets of police harassment and violence, holding the police accountable for their treatment towards sex workers. The court also ruled that the media should not publish pictures of raid and rescue operations and sex workers who have been detained in ‘protective homes’ against their will must be released (NSWP, 2022). The Supreme Court emphasised that the Central and State Governments must involve sex-worker representatives as consultative actors in the decision-making processes (Patnaik, 2023). Furthermore the ruling also states that, “no child of a sex worker can be separated from her mother  on the ideological grounds of her trade, or presumed to be trafficked on grounds of living in a brothel” (ibid., p. 11). The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) views this as an important step towards decriminalising sex work, adequately recognising their labour as part of the informal economy, and their rights as citizens. However, activists such as Meena Saraswathi Seshu, general secretary of SANGRAM, remain sceptical and believe that the implementation of the Supreme Court ruling would be arduous as backlash from the police is already evident (Berger, 2022). 

All along transgender sex workers, who often turned to sex work for economic survival, were either invisible in policy spaces or faced criminalisation (Vijayakumar, Panchanadeswaran & Chacko, 2019). It was not until the repeal of Section 377 of the IPC in 2018 – which criminalised consensual sexual intercourse between men – and the recognition of transgender persons to choose their gender in 2014 were third gender/transgender/MSM sex workers able to work without added legal precarity.

The indecisive nature of laws surrounding sex work in India echoes the global abolitionist movement’s rhetoric that tend to view sex work as a bane to modern society (Nandkumar, 2022). However, even if sex work were to be decriminalised, discrimination and stigma, as well as other forms of exclusions might persist (Vijayakumar, Panchanadeswaran & Chacko, 2019). 

Sex Worker Statistics and their Economic Impact

Currently, there is little large-scale and systematic data on the political economy of sex work in India but it is estimated that about 1% of adult women in India could be engaged in sex work (Dandona et al., 2006). Information available on cisgender male and third gender/transgender sex workers are even more scant. (Azhar et al., 2020). According to the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), there are over 3 million commercial sex workers in India (National Crimes Records Bureau Report 2020-21 cited in Dasgupta, 2017). Approximately, 2.9 million women in India are commercial sex workers and the rest of India’s sex worker population constitutes male and third sex/transgender sex workers (ibid.). Subramanian (2018) estimates that the sex work sector, with an annual revenue of $8.5 billion, culminates to 0.03% of India’s GDP. Across the years, the population of sex workers have peaked in 2022:

Sex workers operate in the following areas – brothel-based, home-based, street-based, entertainment venues such as bars, massage, parlours, and religious sex workers or devadasis. (Buzdugan, Halli & Cowan, 2009). It was found that across different geographical locations of India, an increasing number of sex workers are operating independently and do not owe or reconcile their wages to a pimp, madam, or broker (Azhar et al., 2020, p. 4).

A consequence of the systemic discrimination towards sex workers is the barriers associated with financial planning and security. Sex workers either lack legal documentation or live in red-light districts which is reflected in their identity cards, preventing access to mainstream banks. Various programmes such as the Usha Cooperative in Kolkata, West Bengal and Sangini Women’s Cooperative Society Bank in Mumbai, Maharashtra were set up to overcome these issues. It was reported that over 30,248 sex workers from all over West Bengal have registered bank accounts (The New Indian Express, 2019). With the Sangini Bank closing due to the lack of funds and sponsors, Mumbai sex workers struggle to keep their money safe and maintain a financial safety net (Agarwal, 2018).

Sex workers spoke out against a Yale-Harvard study that scapegoated sex workers for the COVID-19 spread where the study recommended keeping red-light areas shut after lockdown in five cities to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths (NSWP, 2020). Sex workers, in the proverbial sense, were the sacrificial scapegoats where the rhetoric of diseased/contagion becomes justified since they were physically responsible for spreading the virus. As a result, pandemic politics shifted from discussions about a viral particle to about policing sex workers. This amplifies further injustices, marginalisation experienced by the sex worker community (Nair, 2020). It comes as a punishing blow given that the national lockdown during 2020 made sex workers more financially vulnerable. As sex work is not considered as informal labour in India, they are not  entitled to the Indian government’s social assistance schemes for those working in the informal economy (Chandra, 2020). Thus, they were not provided aid during the COVID-19 pandemic (Sehgal and Patni, 2023). This has disproportionately forced many sex workers such as those working in Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light district,  into debt bondage for survival (ibid.). 

Therefore, the discourse is no longer about Covid but about further containing the sex worker community. If prejudice is a disease, what has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about how we treat ‘disease’ and those who are perceived to be ‘diseased’?

Culture, Religion, and Social Norms

In modern-day India, ideas of  “Indian traditional womanhood” legitimise institutional injustice, inequality, and violence against sex workers (Virdi, 2002) . Minority groups are more likely to engage in sex work – including women living in poverty, third gender/transgender persons, members of scheduled castes (Dalits) and tribes (Azhar et al.,  2020). Sex workers are either viewed as victims or criminals by the Indian State – either as trafficking victims who must exit or remain forcibly in the custody of the state until they reform or criminals, as accomplices to traffickers, who must be policed and punished (Bhattacharjya, 2021).

Bollywood, one of India’s major film industries, often misrepresents sex work from the lens of trafficking where sex workers are victims of exploitation, disregarding the profession as a legitimate livelihood means (Feminism In India, 2023). Such narratives overlook the agency of sex workers and their bodily autonomy. It further silences and marginalises their voices. In an interview for Feminism In India (ibid.), Bishakha Laskar, the President of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar) – a collective by and for sex workers, based  in Sonagachi, West Bengal – emphasised that:

“Sex workers strongly oppose the stories and portrayals shown in films because they do not cover any ground realities. Our real situations, demands, and needs are never talked about in the films.” (ibid.)

such as their citizenship rights, access to education and healthcare, and a safe work environment. Laskar (ibid.) also mentions how sex workers’ clients are also harassed, making it difficult for sex workers to earn a livelihood.

Such stereotypical portrayals often have direct implications on how society enforces the rights of sex workers and contribute towards the  alienation of sex workers within the Indian social fabric (ibid.). Despite this, a survey that studied Indian youths’ perceptions towards sex work found that they possess less stigmatised attitudes towards sex work and workers, and supported legalisation of sex work (Swathisha & Deb, 2022). 

Differences along the axes of gender, sexual identity, caste, and class have a huge varying impact in sex workers’ experiences and the forms of marginalisation they face (Chacko, Panchanadeswaran, & Vijayakumar, 2016; Chacko, Vijayakumar, & Panchanadeswaran, 2016; Vijayakumar, 2018). In India, transgender persons’, especially transgender sex workers face stigma and violence due to visibility in public spaces for sex work and begging (Kalra, 2012 cited in Ganju & Saggurti, 2017). There is a culture that condones violence against gender non-conforming people (ibid.).

The Hope for Law Reform

Besides during public health dialogues or discussions about anti-trafficking laws, it is often challenging to translate the discursive label of ‘sex worker’ into any material benefits such as labour reforms or citizenship rights for the sex worker community. With the rise of authoritarianism in the Government, AINSW fears that this could reduce spaces for activism and rights-based movements for sex workers’ rights in the country (AINSW, 2019). This could inadvertently increase evictions in brothels, ‘cleansing’ of streets, and harassment of sex workers and their clients (ibid.). AINSW was successful in securing around 63% of aspiring Indian Parliamentary candidates’ support for including the sex worker community’s charter of demands in the politicians’ campaign election manifesto (ibid.). AINSW has decided to develop a stronger advocacy programme at state and provincial levels, linking it with their national level advocacy work. Given the resurface of a similar 2018 Anti-Trafficking Bill in 2022, that targets the livelihood of sex workers, there is an impetus for many sex worker organisations to be included in the legal and policy decision-making bodies governing sex work.

Despite the landmark 2022 Supreme Court ruling that recognises sex work as a ‘profession’, reality on the ground remains mostly unchanged as the Central Government has not taken any related actions in response to the court’s ruling (Indulia, 2023), treating sex workers as second-class citizens. Sensitisation work aimed at wider society about sex work, especially among the younger generation is being carried out by AINSW in order to generate greater awareness and support for sex work reforms in India (AINSW, 2019).


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Vanessa Ho

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Executive Director
[email protected]

Vanessa has been full-time with Project X since 2011, and as a result, has had many opportunities to meet and connect with sex workers in Singapore and around the world. Under her leadership, the organisation has grown from a small group of volunteers to one where there are three paid staff and a team of over 60 volunteers. Correspondingly, she has increased the annual operating budget of the organization five times, and is now recognized as the leading organization that empowers and assists women in the sex industry.

Vanessa has written and spoken extensively about sex work, human trafficking, rape culture, and LGBTQ rights in Singapore. She believes that if people can speak about sex, gender and sexuality in open and in non-judgmental ways, society will become a safer place for everyone.

Vanessa holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Warwick, and a Masters Degree in Gender, Society and Representation from University College London.