Borders of the Pandemic: Requestioning the Dialogue between Female Subjugation and Red-light Areas
By Oishika Ghosh
Deliverance versus oppression and control versus choice are a few binaries that further limit women’s agency, their will of living, sexual interaction, and ideas of autonomy within the self-contradictory forces. Similarly, a nationwide lockdown owing to COVID-19 brought a sudden standstill to the whole world, including the busiest red-light areas too. While a few female sex workers faced issues to make their ends meet, others could not even afford a single bottle of sanitiser or meagre house rent. Within the rubric of this larger scenario, the study report of Harvard Medical School and Yale University was just the tip of the iceberg. The report claimed an indefinite and immediate closure of the red-light areas, which perhaps could have reduced the cases by 72%.
But the question remains, can sex be the chief factor behind COVID-19 spread when fifteen people live in a cramped house quarter with no proper sanitation? I argue in my piece that a pandemic like COVID-19 had impacted the site of female sex work, which despite being stigmatized, is in itself a radical space.
Bodies of women in the dire times of the pandemic
Bodies of women have been targeted forever, be it the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 or the authoritarian forces during colonial rule. However, what the pandemic did is that it increased their vulnerabilities. The idea of socio-physical distancing not only led to the distance between bodies but also referred to the idea of a contaminated body. The equation was crystal clear. It was the female sex workers who became the most untouched and the most unwanted, while their bodies became carriers of the virus. So, this is particularly where, the perception of pure bodies and impure bodies emerged, whereby impure bodies were necessarily the sex workers. Their earnings stopped, but their economic liabilities continued. Leaving apart food, clothing and shelter, what became much more difficult was the burden of their children.
The idea of ‘fear’ and sharing spaces
Masking and physical distancing were proliferated as important measures for prevention whereby sex workers were the worst hit. Even in the post-pandemic period, the ‘fear’ remained a major hindrance for female sex workers. This idea of ‘fear’ was not only marked against infection but also against survival strategies. Having no coping mechanism at hand, most of them started returning to their rural homelands, started to sell vegetables, or thought of doing some other work.
What remained even more problematic was how a few of the sex workers, continued covertly practising their work. Even after they were caught up, most of the brothel-based sex workers or single mothers, had to live together in congested rooms while sharing the space with their co sex-workers. Thus, in dire times, when food supply became difficult, the option of buying sanitisers became even more trivial. Poor tenants in such cases were forced to pay inflated rents for cramped quarters with no running water and perpetually damped walls placed residents at chronic risk for tuberculosis.
In a Times of India report, Sonam (name changed) is reported to have taken the train from Nalasopara and travel for more than an hour to reach Mumbai Central station. She walked for a couple of minutes, to reach Kamathipura, where she had lived most of her life. But during the Covid-19 lockdown, Sonam was left with no option but to move to a kholi in Nalasopara. Despite being congested and cramped, she continued to live here, as the rent was much cheaper and she travelled to “Bombay” only if it was to meet an old client (Times, 2022). Thus, while red-light areas began to gradually shrink years ago, the pandemic gave it a further push.
The invisible community (?)
Irrespective of the pandemic, sex workers have been treated as an invisible community, largely. But interestingly, while the government takes great pains to recognize the political participation of sex workers in elections (be it for vote bank politics or any other reason), the fact that their momentous yet invisible contribution to society is not being recognized seems a bit ironic to me. In a news report, released by The Wire, Durbar’s (a project for protecting sex workers ever since 1992) secretary Putul Singh asserted, “We have always had the right to vote; however, we never got our recognition. Every election, candidates from all parties come to our doors seeking votes. But why are our demands not represented in election manifestos?” (Wire, 2022).
Criminalizing and decriminalizing sex work at the times of pandemic
Sex workers, particularly women, who engage in sex-for-profit are often conceived as societal undesirables. Therefore, we achieve two perspectives here. On one hand, there are states and territories which aim at socially progressive policies for decriminalizing sex work; on the other hand, debates over female participation in commercial sex remain denounced. Thus, the discussion of sex work is one of the few international anathemas that has transcended time and place.
Eventually, this dichotomy between desirable and undesirable leads us to a debate between criminalizing sex work and decriminalizing the same. For instance, the criminalization and persecution of sex workers is a major tool to combat prostitution in the postcolonial age; a method used to combat the “immoral enemy” of the public (Vanwesenbeeck, 2017). Whereas the father of sociology, August Comte (2013), argues that the most significant effect of decriminalization would be the destigmatization of sex work. Sex work usually revolves around the maintenance of secrecy and discretion to avoid social rejection. However, decriminalization helps in increasing visibility for women who consent to work in an industry similar to any other market. Even sex workers in such cases are identified as those who possess the footing to be included in dialogues they have historically been rejected from. Thus, decriminalization whole-heartedly supports feminist theory by granting rights and representation for women, in spite of how they identify themselves socio-economically.
Decentralized Sex work
The pandemic, I argue, has led to an entire decentralization of sex work which deconstructs the idea of boundaries among the red-light areas. While a few sex workers relocated to their homelands and started practising their work through virtual platforms, others started going to nearby lodges and boarding houses. A major reason behind such a decentralization was because of the lack of transportation. Work in red-light areas started to resume only when trains restarted and people regained employment, provided the job losses and economic repression owing to the pandemic.
The politics of uncertainty and a different reality
While uncertainty became a major problem for everyone due to the virus spread, sex workers faced the added disadvantage of withstanding a dying industry. Apart from being invisible, they lost all sorts of exposure even from the government and media. So, what the pandemic hinders is how women’s bodies are deconstructed through the dialogues of capitalist-consumerist ideas by dehumanizing the range of voices.
Today a very small percentage of sex workers practices their work in brothels, whereby most of them work on streets and at construction sites where they trade sex for the opportunity to work. Hence, these workers might also be deduced as ‘mobile’. However, a few of these workers due to the pandemic switched to virtual platforms. And the ones who did not have any smartphones were the worst hit.
Another question that remains, is the idea of a different reality and vexed portrayal. The report published by Harvard Medical School and Yale University, considered nations like Netherlands, USA, Germany and Australia as the prototypes. But India as a country portrays an entirely different picture when it comes to female sex workers and their working circumstances. While films such as Slumdog Millionaire, portray urban slums as hubs of sex trafficking, what they also portray is an incorrect picture of how children residing in red-light areas are the sex workers.
Abuse versus agency
The assumption that the female sex workers belonging from Jouno polli / Nishiddho polli / Line Bari are needed to be protected in the dire times of the pandemic deeply entrenches female agency through the patriarchal maxim. As if, they do not have the power to decide for themselves. And as discussed above, the idea of criminalizing sex work pictures it as something very tarnished, which in turn subverts the perception of desire, body and sexuality, through and through.
On one hand, the court recognizes sex workers and upholds their rights; but on the other hand, brothels till date are referred to as ‘illegal’ and sex work as ‘detrimental’ (Webster, 2016). There are various other groups of female sex workers with varying risks of money and visibility who are situated at the fringes of society. However, the pandemic pushed them even further. As Webster (2016) writes, “Historically, the oppression paradigm has dominated thought on sex work. It says that sex work is a result of patriarchal gender relations, which results in exploitation, subjugation and violence. By using this language, victimisation becomes intrinsic to the sex worker and their agency is disregarded. It recognises violence against women as inherent to sex work. It is also strongly based in moralism and affirms the social stigmatisation of sexuality” (7).
To conclude, in India’s patriarchal and hierarchical society, women always have a strict role and a stricter decorum that eventually limits their agency. It is dangerous to step out of the room. It is dangerous to be in the room. It is dangerous when a married girl desires to complete her education. It is dangerous when a wife says ‘no’ to sex. And it is dangerous when she aspires to do something by herself, following her own visions. Therefore, restrictions on women’s choices are not the only tool with which female subjugation in red-light areas can be studied and measured. The other tool might be the lens of the pandemic, which has pushed them further away.
Hence, I deduce how COVID-19 spread incremented the cycle of stigma, silence, and violence among sex workers, which not only created silence but also preserved stereotypes and misunderstandings within its very context. And this creates violence. The violence is portrayed through the idea when Red-light areas are brought to a sudden halt based on a foreign report in spite of having a different reality. Violence is portrayed when sex workers have economic liabilities but no sources to fulfil them. Violence is portrayed through the idea that they could not even afford a single bottle of sanitiser and had to live in cramped quarters with fifteen other people in the same room.
Thus, in spite of the varying definitions of stigma and violence, it is by viewing female sex workers through the lens of the pandemic, is where we must begin.
Photo: Wilson Center
Das, Sudipto. (Oct 2, 2022). ‘Kolkata pujas depict life of sex workers, focus on red-light areas as themes: Kolkata News – Times of India’. Retrieved from
https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/kolkata-pujas-depict-life-of-sex workers focus-on-red-light-areas-as-themes/articleshow/94592102.cms on November 19, 2022
Gupta, R. (2020). ‘Blind spots of the pandemic: Sex work and covid-19, The Pangean’.
Retrieved from https://thepangean.com/Blind-Spots-of-the-Pandemic on November 19, 2022
Saeed, F. (2015). ‘Taboo! The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area’. United States: Blackstone Publishing.
Vanwesenbeeck, I. (2017). ‘Sex Work Criminalization Is Barking Up the Wrong Tree’. Arch Sex Behav 46, 1631–1640. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-1008-3
Webster, Julia. (2016). ‘An Analysis of Opposing Feminist Views of Sex Work: Is it the woman’s choice? In Kolkata, West Bengal, India’. Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 2579. https://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/2579
Oishika Ghosh is presently a student of Sociology at Jadavpur University. Her research interests include Caste, Gender and Visual Sociology. She has presented her papers at both International and National Conferences organized by Indian Sociological Society (ISS) and corresponding Universities. Her pieces have also been published on academic websites and a few other journal magazines.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.