Barriers and Brothels – Prostitution and its Regularization in India

By – Anisha Moonka

The word prostitution comes from the Latin word prostituere which means to expose publicly. If we look into the dictionary meaning of prostitution, we find that- “prostitution is the practice of engaging in a generally indiscriminate sexual act with someone who is not a spouse or friend in exchange for immediate monetary or other valuable remuneration”. Prostitution is one of the major issues the country is facing in the current day and age. Regularization of prostitution is the need of the hour as currently in India neither is it punishable nor is it legal. We need to take into consideration the fact that women are not the only ones who work as prostitutes, there are both male and transgender prostitutes as well.

Prostitution, today, is a big market, people across the globe make a lot of money by taking advantage of these sex workers who are generally monetarily as well as socially vulnerable. In a country like India where the subject of sex itself is taboo, it is very important to make people aware of topics such as prostitution as not only will it remove the stigma attached to the topic but also prevent people from associating it with morals and the orthodox belief system prevalent in the society. On delving deeper into this topic, we see that Prostitution is an age-old practice in India. Prostitutes have been labeled differently but have always been a part of the past systems be it as Apsaras in the Hindu mythology or as Devdasi (devoted to god) in the colonial period and ironically the society respected them and did not malign their character then, but after the advent of the British, things took a turn as theses Britons started forcing their societal restraints on these women which ultimately resulted in leaving them helpless as well vulnerable to sexual exploitation and poverty.

Today, the negative connotation attached to prostitution as well as the lack of a chance to live a life of dignity for the prostitutes has made us question the need for regularizing as well as decriminalizing it. In an era where we are advocating rights for the LGBTQIA+ community, asking for sex education at educational institutions, and spreading the word of feminism, regularization of prostitution is of utmost importance as it will not only improve the living condition of the prostitutes but also give them the recognition they deserve as citizens of our country. India has always been a signatory to numerous international agreements on the rights of women and even the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination and exploitation of all sorts and has a plethora of related legislations, then as a nation why do we have to fail at protecting the rights of sex workers. The policies in place at the moment are based on the belief that prostitution is immoral conduct and are therefore quite unlikely to promote well-being as well protect the rights of the sex workers. As a result, we as a nation must work towards protecting the rights of prostitutes as well as creating a safer environment for them.


1) Causes of Prostitution in India

Since the Mughal Empire fell apart, the condition for the lower classes of society deteriorated, particularly for the women who worked in harems, palaces, and brothels. Prostitution is primarily caused by poverty. It is difficult for a woman to be financially independent in a patriarchal society like that of India, especially if she has been denied education, liberty, and talents. As a result, prostitution becomes the sole source of income.

Women’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation is a result of India’s restricted, traditional society, which regards women as nothing more than a commodity. Another major reason for prostitution in India is the prevalent caste system, which exploits marginalized women and leaves them to rot in a degraded system. Prostitution is fueled by a lack of sex education, as well as kidnapping and abduction. Some of the factors existed in the past and others still exist today. Because of intergenerational practice and exploitation of female sex in low caste families, some do continue. Devadasi is one of the causes. Men’s psychology and societal factors play a significant influence in encouraging prostitution, notwithstanding their small share, the entire situation, the rearing process, as well as the social system, play a crucial part in coercing a person to indulge in prostitution. One of the major causes, why some women get into prostitution, is because of its prevalence in the family from generations. It is also a sad reality that many men and women of all ages become entangled in the prostitution web as a result of drug addiction.  These are a few causes of Prostitution in India.

2) Health Issues Faced by Women due to Prostitution

Sex workers very often face serious health issues because of their work, which exploits them, and even when they seek medical help, they are discriminated against by the general masses. This situation has become worse because of the AIDS epidemic. Sex workers very often suffer from various STDs (Sexually transmitted diseases) and the most prominent ones include- Syphilis, Gonorrhea, and HPV. Sex workers also suffer from various psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). According to a report published by NCBI, In India, HIV, the prevalence rate among sex workers has ranged from 50% to 90% in Bombay, Delhi, and Chennai. An instance took place in Mumbai, in a hospital, frequently visited by sex workers where the health worker took blood samples from every woman seeking treatment without giving reasons for the same, this can be seen as a violation of the right to privacy, right to information as well as the right to security.

3) Male and Transgender Sex Workers in India

Women are not the only sex workers, there are male as well as transgender sex workers too, though fewer in number male sex workers offer their services to women and do face the similar stigmatization as women. The transgender community is also involved in this business and is again looked down upon by the masses and also suffers from health issues similar to female prostitutes such as AIDS and various mental disorders. The transgender community is also a marginalized community and the treatment meted out to them as sex workers are problematic.

4) Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is one of the most serious problems and needs to be dealt with on an urgent basis. Men, women, children as well as the transgender community are the victims of this offense. The UNODC website states that-

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, to exploit them for profit. Men, women, and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, which occurs in every region of the world. The traffickers often use violence or fraudulent employment agencies and fake promises of education and job opportunities to trick and coerce their victims”.

Human Trafficking is abolished under Article 23 of the Indian Constitution but it continues to be the second-largest crime that is committed in India. In 2021 itself the government came up with an act known as the Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Act, 2021, which extends to the whole of India and aims at preventing Human Trafficking. This topic has been brought into consideration as one of the primary causes of trafficking is to sell people (mainly women) as sex objects and exploit them. Commercialized sex is a profitable market that permits traffickers and pimps to earn profits from the victims of trafficking via an endless circle of buyers and negotiations.

What is the way forward?

Decriminalization of Prostitution

Decriminalization and the Legalization of Prostitution have always been controversial topics, people hold varied opinions regarding the same. Currently, the legal status of prostitution is undefined in India, it is neither completely legal nor entirely illegal and hence requires serious regularization. The bare minimum the government can do today is to decriminalize prostitution though it is not a crime, certain aspects of prostitution do count as crimes making the legal aspect of it unorganized and haphazard.

There need to be separate laws specific to sex workers and their rights. Currently. Sex workers have fundamental rights as citizens of the country, but their work is not covered under any labor law, which creates a loophole in the system. A regularized process of legalization of Prostitution is essential today. Society still believes Prostitution to be an immoral act, however, the Decriminalization of it might change the mindset of a few if not all the people of the society. Some essentials which a new set of laws regarding sex workers and prostitution must cover are:

  1. Providing free health checkups
  2. Removing the concept of middlemen and pimps completely
  3. Strict punishments for forced prostitution
  4. Strict actions for sex trafficking especially of minors
  5. Labour rights for sex workers

Now the question arises as to how this will benefit the nation at large?

A regularized way of dealing with prostitution will not only empower the sex workers but also help upgrade the societal mentality towards them. This will also result in the eradication of forced Prostitution and the involvement of minors in this practice. If taken under the labour laws, the sex workers would be benefitted as they will get legal protection as well as workers’ rights. Labour emancipation will help in changing the power balance as the power will shift toward the sex workers, which is currently in the hands of pimps and brothel-keepers.

Workers in the sex industry face poor working conditions, stigmatization, discrimination, and marginalization all around the world. Working in the sex industry exposes women, men, and transgender people to a lot of abuse, violence, and exploitation. It is widely assumed that this is due to the nature of the work. The abuses that sex workers suffer are thought to be closely linked to sex employment. The terrible treatment of sex workers around the world is due to their exclusion from civil and human rights, which is often the outcome of the sex industry’s unlawful status. Hence, reforming laws and regularizing them will eradicate the problems they face and is the need of the hour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Kirit P. Mehta School of Law Publications