On legalising prostitution

Social respectability shouldn’t get in the way of legality

Madhu Kishwar takes an eminently sensible comment by the Supreme Court—that the government ought to consider legalising prostitution—and engages in a tangential polemic on the social respectability of the oldest profession. “While there is need to decriminalise this activity and free sex workers from the terror and the extortionist grip of the police,” she writes “to make it respectable and socially acceptable would mean turning a blind eye to the dehumanising circumstances through which the vast majority of children and women are trapped into trading their bodies.”

The fundamental flaw in her argument is that the mere fact that an activity is legal doesn’t make that activity socially respectable. In fact, ‘social respectability’ is itself subjective—depending the time, place and people concerned. It is an unfortunate fact that in many places in twenty-first century India, working as a public sanitation professional is not considered socially respectable. Yet no one argues that sewage cleaning ought to be illegal. Governments might try, but they are largely powerless in trying to change the social mores.

Even while Ms Kishwar’s questions on legalising prostitution appear rhetorical, it is useful and educative to answer them—not least because they help conceptualise how the prostitution industry might be governed.

What does the term “legalise” actually imply?

It would imply that consensual trade in sexual services between adult citizens is permitted.

Does it mean that a prostitute can open a sexshop anywhere she likes and advertise her services? Does it mean men or women supplying call girls should be able to set up an office in any neighborhood they like, just as doctors set up their clinics, proclaiming that call girls are available between such and such hours?

No. Zoning laws have existed in India for a long time and prostitution can be subject to it. Merely because leather tanning is legal doesn’t mean you can open a tannery anywhere you like. So too for brothels. Just because selling cigarettes and beer is legal doesn’t mean you can put up beer and cigarette advertisements anywhere you please. So too for brothels.

How many of us are willing to let our young children grow up amidst an atmosphere where renting a woman’s body for sex is considered a perfectly legitimate activity?

It’s not as if our young children are growing in an atmosphere where they are oblivious to the realities of the world they live in. But should the need to retain the pretence of innocence of our children outweigh the benefits—from exploitation by the mafia and by the police—to the hundreds of thousands of people in the sex industry today? Is Ms Kishwar suggesting that it is okay to allow hundreds of thousands of women and men to be exploited by criminal gangs and corrupt policemen so that we can tell our children, in the relative comfort of our middle-class homes, that prostitution is morally wrong?

If people come to know that a mafia don has set up a call-girl racket in their neighbourhood, do they have the right to seek its removal or does it mean other citizens have to suffer the presence of such activities in the name of “respecting” the rights of sex workers to an occupation of their choice and thereby endanger their own lives?

One major advantage of legalising prostitution is that it will be less susceptible to be a mafia-run business, with all the criminal political economy that is associated with an underground business. But Ms Kishwar has a point—how does one balance the rights of the prostitutes against the rights of the community they live in. It is a political question—and ought to be decided by the same political processes that govern other decisions. Democratic politics is noisy, messy and imperfect. It is, however, a very good way to answer questions involving such trade-offs. (See an earlier post from Amsterdam)

Those who demand that sex work be given the same “respect” as any other profession, need to explain whose duty it is to give or ensure “respect” for prostitutes and pimps? Is the government expected to enact a law requiring people not to shun prostitutes, as for instance it did to ban the practice of untouchability? One can prove that one does not practice untouchability by freely intermixing and inter-dining with castes condemned as untouchables. How does one prove one’s “respect” for a prostitute?

Governments can’t force anyone to respect anyone else. But as discussed earlier, this is largely irrelevant to the issue of whether it makes sense to legalise the sex industry. Ms Kishwar appears to come out against legalising prostitution because she is against according it social respectability. She is entitled to her view on what ought to be socially respectable, but it would be sad if that subjective judgement should be allowed to get in the way of de-illegalising prostitution.

In fact, there is a great danger in a society where only the socially respectable is legal, for such a society has closed its doors to progress.