Video Editor: Kunal Mehra
Illustrations: Aroop Mishra
Producer: Smitha TK, Vikram Venkateswaran, Tridip Mondal
Camerapersons: Smitha T K, Vikram Venkateswaran, Romani Agarwal
Executive Producer: Ritu Kapur, Rohit Khanna
(This article was originally published on 17 January 2020. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark International Sex Workers Day.)
It was half past two. Alcohol was spilled on the floor and loud snores sounded. The child tossed in her sleep. One dosa, with a pinch of salt and chili, didn’t satisfy her hunger. Just then, Raji’s sister came home and exclaimed she had a job for her. Raji was a popular make-up artist in her locality. Immediately, she grabbed her kit and hurried out.
Upon entering the bungalow she was directed to, Raji found no girl to deck up. A woman ushered her into a room and said, “Just go in and talk to sir. Just be with him like he is your husband. I know you need money so don’t cry and just sit.” Raji’s protests were stifled by the thought of her baby’s cries. After an hour, she walked out of the house with a meagre amount of Rs 150. She vowed to never return.
The next day, her daughter came to her with an empty plate, the landlord threatened her to pay the rent and her husband used all the money in the house for alcohol. She returned to the job. This time of her own volition.
The story of many other sex workers in Chennai is similar. With no red light district, the city has shrouded the industry, which has continued to thrive for decades.
While the police claim to have ‘curbed’ the sex work industry and people prefer to live in denial, there isn’t a designated red light district in Chennai.
However, every day after 11 pm, you can find women and members of the transgender community lined up on the side of key roads in the city, such as Nungambakkam High Road, Usman Road Junction, Nelson Manickam Road, Porur Highway, Kodambakkam High Road, for solicitation. From the bustling heart of Chennai to the IT Corridor, the sex work industry spans the city. Brothels work out of residential areas and shift constantly. Several sex workers say the police enable the trade, and are sometimes even clients.
To understand their struggles, dreams and desires, The Quint spoke to sex workers in the city.
Desire to Love
I asked 55-year-old Revathi* (name changed) if she wanted a partner, someone on who’s shoulder she could cry on, someone with whom to watch films, and draw budgets... She gave me a sharp look and told me she’s been happily married for 25 years.
“I love my husband. However many men come along, he will always be first. I act with everyone else, no real affection.”Revathi*, Sex Worker
However, in the last two decades, she’s never told her husband what she does for a living. She believes the truth will cost her her family.
Most women I spoke to said they wanted a partner or have been affected to the extent of losing all hope of finding love.
With a wistful smile, 32-year-old Ankita* said, “I want to be a housewife whose husband goes to work, to cook a variety of dishes for him, go out happily with children, and be happy.”
Almost every woman’s story started with a broken home: abusive husbands or fathers, the pressing need for financial sustenance while battling with the taboo of a married woman leaving her husband, despite facing harassment at his hands.
Some even said that even when they did choose a partner, more often than not, the men turned out to be violent, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of abuse.
Many women said their fellow sex workers are, at the end of the day, their best friends.
“Today, I have over 20 friends... we’ve been friends for 20 years now. We have fun... Everyone shares their problems, so the heart feels lighter... We share food, sleep together. No matter what problems we have at home, we all sit together, talk and are there for each other always.”Kamala*, Sex Worker
Desire of Freedom From Abuse
As their ‘job’ is to fulfil others’ desires, a lot of their own dreams are left on the back-burner. They bear the abuse that come from clients, some who make appalling requests and some whose wishes are quite amusing.
A common fantasy of most clients is to force the women to smoke and drink so they’re “on the same level”. Many women fall ill while doing this, but tough it out for payment.
Some women talked about rape by multiple men, as in many cases, one man cannot afford the woman for the night. The cost for a couple of hours ranges between Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000, but the women receive a meagre Rs 200-800 as the money is divided between pimps and cops.
Women who solicit independently on the beach or on roads charge less, but are subjected to abuse as well.
“One of my friends, Suseela, was also into sex work. One day, she was told to come to a particular address so she went there by auto. They took her to a cemetery and 10 people raped her on top of a grave. After that, they stripped her naked and chased her away. This happened as early as 3 am. Those men had told her, ‘This is your job, right? So you can go like this’. She then found a saree put out to dry somewhere, wore that and came home,” said Kamala*.
“I tell these men to treat sex workers like their own wives. Not as a prize. Harassing a woman just because they are paying is not good. Then what’s the difference between a dog and a human.”Anita*, Sex Worker
Desire for Dignity of Work
When asked if they’d like to be seen as regular working women, they smiled, saying the desire won’t see light of day and that they’ve reconciled to their situation and, thus, live in the shadows.
Every time they walk out wearing a bright-coloured saree and jasmine flowers in their hair, they can feel their neighbours’ judgmental gaze. Many said they travel to the other end of the city to solicit so that nobody finds out.
“Sometimes, I feel how hard should I work for just Rs 300? Sometimes, I can't even eat when I get back home,” said a sex worker.
Sometimes, the women’s kids have to bear the brunt of their work. “It becomes very difficult to admit children into schools because everyone will start saying, ‘Is your mother like THAT?’” said Kamala*.
No red light district in the making, zero security and constant abuse has risked the lives of thousands of women who continue to earn their living in this manner.
Organisations like Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO) teach sex workers how to be safe while doing their job. They are taught to use condoms, made aware of the symptoms and precautions to take for HIV-AIDS and even how to convince a drunk man to use protection.
“I have had no regrets doing such work ever. Only because I did this job, I am able to help people like me today. Today, at ICWO, there are over 250 people working under me and I am encouraging them to look for part-time jobs, giving them condoms, taking them for blood tests once every six months, getting tablets for those who are HIV positive, spreading awareness... This is giving me happiness,” beamed Kamala*.
Do they want rehabilitation? ‘No’ was the most common answer.
“Our concern is, you force them to do something and they don’t like it, they are not comfortable, they are not confident, so they fail and go back to sex work,” said Hariharan, founder of Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO).
A few of them are now trying their hand at part-time jobs in order to gradually move away from their current work.
Hariharan has been working with sex workers for two decades and believes the best way to approach them would be to open a camp and encourage older women to come forward as they are the ones who lure young girls into the trade.
Apart from learning about safe sex, many women are also getting trained in self-defence as protection from violent clients and the police.
Desire for a Better Future
Unlike Kamathipura in Mumbai or Sonagachi in Kolkata, Chennai has no designated space for sex work. This has been sex workers’ long-standing demand for decades now.
“Just like Bombay, why can’t they set aside a separate area (red light district) in Tamil Nadu also? It will be more free, no problems for anyone no fear for clients or workers. Why should only our people bear blows?” asked Revathi.*
They also wish the police wouldn’t harass sex workers and detain them; and instead catch a hold of the men who force themselves on women and rape them.
Their wish-list is absolutely reasonable but they have very little hope that any of it will come true.
When I talked to these women, their eyes lit up when they talked about their kids. They’ve hidden a big part of their identities from their families but when it comes to their children, they want to ready them to take on this world full of chaos, disappointment, abuse and violence. They want their children to achieve their dreams.
“I advise my son that his wife should not struggle like I did.”Revathi*, Sex Worker
What’s heartening is that despite the abuse they struggle with, and the lack of any official agency’s support, they are proud of standing on their own feet and supporting their families and even leaving an abuse family and living independently in some cases.
It’s not sympathy or pity that they desire. They desire dignity and respect.
(*Names changes to protect their identities.)
Here is a glimpse into what went into the making of this documentary.