Only about 20 percent of the women surveyed were forced, sold, cheated
or otherwise pushed into sex work according to the study, which was
conducted in 2009 and only recently released. Nearly 80 percent of the
3,000 females surveyed in 14 states across the country entered sex work
by themselves. The higher incomes and livelihoods they could access
weighed significantly in that decision. The harsh fact is that for many
women, working conditions are cruel or incomes are disastrously low in
other labor markets, the survey categorically revealed.
"Sex work as work should be placed in the context of women's choice
rather than our own understanding or preferences," said economist Rohini
Sahni, who released the preliminary findings of the survey in Mumbai.
In the post-HIV context, hygiene or control of the 'high risk'
population dominates surveys of sex workers, but there was no
information on the economic aspects of their work, Sahni said.
Sahni and V. Kalyan Shankar of Pune University's Department of Economics
analysed the data emerging from the survey, which was conducted under
the aegis of the Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation
(CASAM) as part of the Paulo Longo Research Initiative (PLRI) on sex
The women who participated in this unique survey come from different
backgrounds, ages, language, cultures and states as diverse as Andhra
Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Goa, Nagaland, Uttar Pradesh, and so on. More
than 35 civil society organizations and individuals fanned out to
administer a questionnaire to the sex workers, chosen in areas where
they were not collectivized so as to preclude any influence in the
What they found was that poverty and limited education push women into
the labor force at early ages and sex workers are no exception. While 60
percent were from rural family backgrounds and 65 percent from poor
family backgrounds – 26 percent are of middle class origins. Half of
them had no schooling while the educational levels of the others were
seven percent (primary schooling up to Class Four), 13.4 percent
(secondary schooling up to Class Seven), 6.5 percent (up to Class Ten)
and 11.3 percent (up to Class Twelve).
The percentages of those who were forced (7.1), sold (2.8), cheated
(9.2) or were 'devadasis' (0.6), as against the 79.4 per cent who said
that they entered sex work of their own volition, was an interesting
indicator of the 'force' versus 'choice' debate in many discussions on
"There is a lot of misinformation on this issue because of our obsession
with trafficking. Very few women are forced into sex work but the
public narrative is overwhelmingly that of force," said anthropologist
Professor Andrea Cornwall of the University of Sussex, UK, who is part
of PLRL, a global network of academics and activists engaged in research
on sex work.
The findings of such a survey would give recognition to the labour of
women in sex work as well as start a discourse on their working
conditions – a precursor to determining their rights, Prof. Cornwall
Of the 3,000 women surveyed, 1,158 said that they had entered sex work
directly, 1,488 said they had experience of other labor markets before
or alongside sex work, while 326 had other work identities but the
sequence of their entry was not known. Sahni, unscrambling the data,
revealed that the sex workers listed a range of activities they did
before getting into sex work: Puri and papad-making, domestic work,
tailoring, working in beauty parlors, doing agricultural labor or
construction labor, or peddling anything from bangles to socks to fruit
Asked why they left their earlier occupations, the predominant response
was economic: Low pay, no profit in business, no regular work,
insufficient money to run the home. The harassment and harsh working
conditions they faced as unorganized laborers, coupled with insufficient
income, made them consider sex work as a more economically rewarding
option, according to Sahni.
Respondents said they made incomes between Rs 500-1,000 per month
(US$1=Rs 44) in other labor markets. They revealed that there was an
immediate jump when they came into sex work, citing incomes ranging from
Rs 1,000-3,000, with a substantial number saying they earned anything
between Rs 3,000-5,000.
Interestingly, an examination of the categories of those
forced/sold/cheated or involving an element of abuse was roughly similar
across those who entered sex work directly and those who entered after
working in other labor markets, at 22.1 percent and 24.8 percent,
respectively. However, those sold were much higher in the category of
direct entrants, and the agents involved in this abuse were husbands,
lovers, friends and acquaintances.
Another interesting aspect emerging from the preliminary analysis of the
data was that 60.27 percent of women who entered the profession were in
the 19-22 age group. While some of them may later go on to work in
other labor markets (at 23-26 years of age), the females from other
labor markets who enter into sex work do so at 19-22 years, with others
in the 23-26 year or 27-30 year age groups.
The survey yielded a rich store of data, but more number crunching and
analysis are required to determine trends related to sexuality, abuse,
stigma, migration patterns for the female, male and transgender sex
workers. But, as Sahni put it, at least some middle ground can be
established to address the reality of sex work and demystify simplistic
and stereotypical narratives about it.