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Prostitution In India: The Black, The White and the various shades of Grey

By Susmit Mukherjee; 2nd year NALSAR University

Prostitution in the pages of Indian History – A brief Introduction

The waters of History behind Prostitution in Modern-Day India are murky at best. The most logical and concrete explanation regarding the origins of Prostitution in India (as we know it) is that Indian women from the lower classes and caste groups, deceived by false promises of money and social status began working as prostitutes for British soldiers and traders during the Colonial Era. Throughout the period of British Colonial Rule in India, there were very little measures taken to bring prostitution under the regulation of laws and policies. Ritualised prostitution also began during the British Rule when Devadasis who earlier enjoyed a very high status as temple artists in the Indian society gradually lost their significance (as their royal patrons were defeated and stripped of their wealth by the British). These Devadasis, left with no means to support themselves had to resort to prostitution. Devadasis were ‘married to god’ before attaining the age of puberty and forced to work as prostitutes for upper caste men.  

It is important to note that the ‘tawaifs’ (referred to as ‘nautch’ or dancing girls by the British) who also worked as Prostitutes during the pre-colonial and early colonial era enjoyed a very elite position in the Indian society. They were treated as queens and princesses by the local rulers and had immense control over the government. However, over time, as the princely states declined and the zamindars lost their significance, the social status of these women also declined, and they were not treated with the same respect they used to receive earlier.

During the British Colonial era, the Indian Government implemented several systems for regulating prostitution like the Contagious Diseases Act (which was already in force in several other British Colonies). However, the main objective behind such regulations were to protect British men from Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and not to protect the rights or look after the welfare of women who were trapped in prostitution (which, by that time had become a thriving industry). Such regulatory measures (like the Contagious Diseases Act for example) ended in failure and were eventually abolished.   

The ‘status’ of Prostitution in the Law

In India, the act of conducting sex work where sexual services are provided voluntarily and with proper consent is legal. However, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 criminalizes certain specific aspects related to organized Prostitution like keeping a Brothel, pimping, human trafficking etc.. The IPC strictly prohibits trafficking of minor girls for the purpose of sex work under Sections 366A, 366B and 370 but remains silent about prostitution in general. The lack of clarity and vagueness of the laws in general is clearly reflected in the fact that maintaining a brothel in India is a punishable offence, but an individual can choose to work as a prostitute without suffering any legal consequences. There is no doubt that the existing laws are inadequate to even begin addressing the complex social and economic problems faced by sex workers across the nation. However, even these laws are not implemented properly, and this fact is evidenced by the widespread influx of sex workers from foreign countries into India and child prostitutes working in India’s major red-light districts. 

A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao has already declared in an order that prostitution should be recognised as a profession and sex work, if conducted voluntarily is not a crime. The bench also issued several directions to safeguard the rights and dignity of over nine lakh women and transgender sex workers across the country. 

Despite the (recent) legal awareness movement to bring Prostitution the forefront of legal and policy reforms across the nation, Prostitution continues to be a very controversial issue. Till date, the debate among activists regarding this complex issue continues without the scope for any sort of agreement in the near future. While some activists call for ending the existing legal restrictions on the prostitution industry, others recommend a stricter approach towards implementing the existing laws and drafting a separate legislation for regulating prostitution.    

The Debate on bringing into force, a separate legal code for regulating prostitution

Drafting a separate legislation and tightening the existing legal measures aimed at regulating the prostitution industry in India may result in a number of favourable and unfavourable outcomes. 

To begin with, a few well-known examples of such favourable outcomes are as follows:

  1. A highly regulated environment would ensure that sex workers have access to basic human rights, healthcare and legal protection from exploitation and undue harassment. 

  2. Sex workers would have greater negotiating power regarding their compensation and working hours. 

  3. The Prostitution industry in India is among the most thriving and profitable industries. Proper regulation of this industry can open up new sources of tax revenue which can be used by the government for financing welfare programs. 

  4. Increased access to protective equipment and healthcare would help immensely in reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. 

However, while advocating in favour of ‘legalising’ prostitution in India, the unfavourable outcomes that may arise from taking such a step are often ignored. A few examples of such unfavourable outcomes are as follows:

  1. The social problems arising out of prostitution are complex and simply assuming that law can be the solution to all those problems would be absurd to the point of foolishness. Making the trade of prostitution as simple and straightforward as any other trade or business would only worsen the already existing problem of objectification of women. Promoting the idea that women’s bodies can be freely bought and sold like any other commodity would result in greater gender inequality and discrimination. 

  2. Human trafficking is already a very serious problem in India. If all legal restrictions meant to keep prostitution in check (like making brothels illegal) are removed, incidents of human trafficking would automatically increase as criminals involved in human trafficking can easily operate under the protection of legally established brothels.  

  3. Such a move would result in a massive backlash from conservative communities which strongly believe that prostitution is ‘immoral’ and ‘violates religious values’. This can result in a loss of faith in the lawmaking process. 

  4. No amount of lawmaking can possibly eliminate the social stigma and discrimination faced by sex workers, especially in a country like India. One has to accept that even the powerful legal mechanism of the state has its own set of limitations.   

The ‘ground reality’ of the lives of sex workers in India

The fact that sex workers in India are trapped in a living nightmare in order to sustain themselves should hardly come as a surprise. Even though maintaining Brothels in India is illegal, they are a common sight in some of India’s major red-light districts. The existing laws governing prostitution suffer the challenge of weak implementation and enforcement at the ground level. The demands made by sex workers for better working conditions are often ignored by the police and judicial authorities. The scarcity of resources is also a major problem. For example, children who are forced to work as prostitutes are usually treated as victims of human trafficking and placed in the custody of rehabilitation homes. However, these places are extremely overcrowded and underfunded. Hence, many of these children have no choice but to return to the streets. 

Even though trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a punishable offence, it is a well-known fact that women working as first-generation sex workers in some of India’s largest red-light districts like Kamathipura in Mumbai and Sonagachi in Kolkata are not there by choice. They have been enticed away from their poverty-stricken villages with false promises of a well-paying job only to be trapped in the evil cycle of sexual slavery and despair. A majority of brothels in India’s metropolitan cities are either directly or indirectly controlled by the Mafia and other local criminal organizations, making it impossible for sex workers to escape. 

Children born to sex workers often sleep under the bed while their mothers entertain clients above. When an infant cries out of hunger during such sessions, the mother often mixes alcohol with the milk before feeding it to the baby. Hence, from a very young age, such children are exposed to addiction and sexual activities. Young girls born to sex workers are gradually pushed into the sex trade when their mother’s clients begin to offer more money in exchange for additional sexual services. The washrooms in these red-light districts often have no doors or curtains, a clear testament to the lack of dignity and respect given to women in the sex trade. 

There exists very little research on the possible mental health implications of such inhuman conditions on sex workers and their children. Red light districts and brothels are not only havens for criminals and drug lords but are also sites for forced labour. Women who work as sex workers during the night are forced to roll bidis and participate in other kinds of labour activities during the day. 

Most law enforcement officers in India continue to believe that sex work is a crime punishable by law. As a result, sex workers in nine out of ten cases are unable to approach the police when they are subjected to violence and sexual abuse. Police officers, when approached with complaints from sex workers who have been beaten and tortured often refuse to file FIRs or conduct an investigation regarding the matter. Sex workers who have been victims of crimes also refrain from approaching the police in fear of harassment and extortion from the police personnel themselves.  


The first step to solving any problem is realising that there is one. It is important to understand the dark side of prostitution and the problems which affect the millions of people who are a part of this industry. Sex workers are particularly vulnerable targets for criminal activities like rape, fraud, robbery etc.. Here, I would like to quote Dr. Vargeshwari Deswal, a well-known women’s rights activist and a senior faculty member at Delhi University who said that if something cannot be eliminated altogether, it should be regulated. However, instead of only focusing on ‘aggressive’ solutions like regulation, it is also important to focus on solutions that can help make a difference at the grassroots level. 

Countless women in India become prostitutes after being raped. Survivors of sexual assault are subjected to shame and boycotted by a society that refuses to accept them. Poverty and depression eventually forces them to sell their body for sex in order to survive. Constructing rehabilitation centres for counselling and helping these women learn new skills can go a long way towards helping sex workers in India create a better life for themselves. 

India is home to millions of women who supplement their meagre income through prostitution. Most of these women are not only HIV positive but also suffer from a range of other diseases as well. Dedicated health camps for providing free medical checkups to sex workers in India is definitely the need of the hour. 

As I end this paper with a few small solutions that I believe can help mitigate some of the challenges faced by sex workers in India, I would like to add that an approach towards solving any problem whatsoever requires cooperation from both the society and the government. 

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