Gloria Steinem, renowned feminist, writer and activist at a press conference in New Delhi on Sunday. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Up against the epidemic of trafficking-Neha Alawadhi, April3, 2012

“Prostitution is not inevitable, it is only about unequal distribution of power,” said author/activist Gloria Steinem talking about “Feminist approaches to combating sex trafficking and prostitution” here on Monday.

Speaking at a Press conference and later at an interaction with students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, she spoke about the dynamics of human trafficking based on her experiences. “Today we face an epidemic of sex trafficking. More people are being pushed into it than even the slave trade,” said Ms. Steinem.

According to the statistics provided by Apne Aap, an NGO that fights sex trafficking worldwide, the number of child victims trafficked globally for sexual exploitation or cheap labour is 1.2 million annually. The National Human Rights Commission estimates that almost half the children trafficked within India are between the ages of 11 and 14.

Corroborating these facts, Ms. Steinem said: “The average age for children to be pushed into sex trafficking is between 12 and 13 in the United States and between 9 and 12 in India. The perception is that very young children are less likely to have AIDS.” Quoting from her experiences in different countries, she said women who are trafficked suffer a great deal because of patriarchal structures and religions.

Speaking about the situation in India, Apne Aap Women Worldwide founder president Ruchira Gupta pointed out that socio-economic causes contribute a great deal towards sexual exploitation and trafficking of women in India. “Ninety per cent of trafficking in India is internal, and those from India’s most disadvantaged social economic strata including the lowest castes are particularly vulnerable to forced or bonded labour and sex trafficking,” she said.

Ms. Steinem agreed saying that the less “valuable” women who are not expected to maintain the “purity” of a class, caste or race are the ones most likely to fall prey to human trafficking worldwide.

Speaking about the legal aspect of human trafficking and the legalisation of prostitution in some regions, Ms. Steinem said: “Body invasion is the most traumatising act…it should not be legal to sell the bodies of other people.” She also rubbished the idea that prostitution was the oldest profession, which is propounded by supporters of legalising prostitution. “It is one of the oldest oppressions, not oldest professions,” she said.

An Apne Aap fact-sheet pointed out that in India trafficking laws are not comprehensively laid out, especially with regard to the trafficking of children. “The Indian Penal Code addresses issues of buying and sale of minors, importation of girls etc…The Goa Children’s Act (2003) is the only Indian statute that provides a legal definition of trafficking and is child specific,” it said.

Ms. Steinem plans to travel to parts of villages in Bihar and in Kolkata with Apne Aap to look at issues of sex trafficking and prostitution in these are

Legalising has not helped globally—Ruchira Gupta

April 6, The Hindu– Apne Aap believes that sex is different from sexual exploitation and as feminists we have a right to sex without domination. Apne Aap organises women and girls, who are victims and survivors of prostitution in numerous small groups of ten to resist the sexual exploitation of themselves and their daughters. These women are from poor, low-caste families and do not see their prostitution as “work” or a “choice.” At best it is a survival strategy.

Body invasion is inherent to prostitution and differentiates it from livelihoods in the unorganised sector like agriculture and domestic work that Ms Ghosh talks about. In addition, I would like to point out to both Ms Ghosh and Ms Roy the uniformly disastrous results whereever the selling or renting of human beings for sexual purposes has been legalised and normalised. In Australia and the Netherlands where prostitution has been legalised, for instance, trafficking and the harms that come with prostitution have not decreased but increased. In Victoria, Australia, it not only allowed legal brothels to proliferate, but illegal brothels increased by 300 per cent in one year. A hospitable environment for sex tourists and other buyers drove up demand, local women and girls had too many alternatives to becoming the supply, and women and girls were trafficked from South East Asia. The same is true of Amsterdam where trafficked Eastern European and North African girls outnumber Dutch citizens in brothels.

The Mayor of Amsterdam reports that the red-light district has become a centre for illegal immigration and money laundering. In Germany and in an area near Las Vegas in the US where prostitution has been legalised, government agencies tried to make applicants for unemployment benefits show that they had attempted to find “work” in the so-called “hospitality industry” of prostitution in order to become eligible for such benefits.

In the few countries that have legalized prostitution — with the idea that it would reduce harm to prostituted women themselves, as is now being argued by some in India — rates of assault and rape against prostituted persons have not dropped at all. In an upscale legal brothel in Australia, for example, rooms are equipped with panic buttons, but a bouncer reports that the women’s calls for help can never be answered quickly enough to prevent violence by clients, which occurs regularly.

Finally, we must remember that the commodification of human beings focuses on women and children, usually poor or low-caste, and creates a separate class of human beings whose bodies can be rented or sold. It is the very opposite of the universal protection of human dignity enshrined in the body of the Indian Constitution.

Moralistic assumptions–Shohini Ghosh

April 6, The Hindu–Gloria Steinem’s “feminist approach” to trafficking and prostitution is not shared by all feminists. Many of us do not believe that abolishing sex work will stop trafficking, nor do we think that the two are synonymous. The conflation of sex-work with ‘trafficking’ stems from the moralistic assumption that women can never voluntarily choose sex work as a profession and are always ‘trafficked’ into it.

This idea has been conclusively challenged by the sex workers rights movement that has tirelessly argued that trafficking (that is induction into the trade through force, coercion or deception) is a crime whereas the exchange of sexual services between two consenting adults is not.

Just as all sex work is not linked to trafficking, all trafficking is also not linked to sex work. While it is certainly true that many women (and children) enter sex-work under violent and exploitative conditions, this is no different from other livelihood occupations in the unorganized sector such as agricultural and domestic work, construction and industrial labour. Ironically, those who demand the abolition of sex work to stop trafficking do not make the same argument for domestic work despite the fact that conditions, wages, working hours, levels of exhaustion are far worse for domestic workers.

It has been repeatedly pointed out that the statistics on `trafficking’ have no basis in a rigorous methodology, scientific evidence or primary research. A study undertaken by the Special Rappateur on Violence Against Women demonstrated the extreme difficulty of finding reliable statistics since so much of the activity happens underground. Consequently, ‘trafficking’ statistics are derived from figures relating to sex-work, migration and even numbers of “missing persons”. By failing to distinguish between sex-work, migration and trafficking, ‘abolitionists’ like Steinem only serve to make the gender-neutral term synonymous with the female migrant.

Ironically, some of the best work on ‘trafficking’ in India is being done by the Self Regulatory Boards of the Durbar Mahila Swamanyay Committee (DMSC) which emerged out of the famous STD/HIV Intervention Project (SHIP) in Sonagachi, now an internationally acclaimed model sexual health project. The DMSC considers sex-work to be a contractual sexual service negotiated between consenting sexual adults and demands decriminalization of adult sex-work. If feminists like Gloria Steinem and organizations like Apne Aap want to end trafficking in sex-work, their best bet is to recognize sex-work as labour, support its decriminalization and empower the sex-worker to fight exploitation, coercion and stigma.

Ms Shohini Ghosh is the Professor Zakir Hussain Chair at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia

 Need for a nuanced debate–Kumkum Roy

April 6, The Hindu –Gloria Steinem’s talk was organised by the Women’s Studies Programme, JNU, in collaboration with Apne Aap, and we had hoped that it would be an occasion for discussing the complexities of the issues involved. However, there were clearly differences in perspective—while there can be no disagreement that involuntary trafficking is a serious issue, the fact that women (and men) may have few choices in several situations, and may then ‘choose’ options that may not be in tune with the ideals of middle-class/upper caste women (and men) needed to be explored rather than dismissed.

In the open discussion that followed Ms Steinem’s presentation, there were several participants who agreed with her positions. However, others pointed out that there were certain simplistic assumptions involved. For instance, Ms Steinem and Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap refuse to recognize that unionized sex workers are voicing their own opinions—these women are dismissed as puppets of pimps and brothel owners—a gross simplification in view of the sheer numbers of women across the country who have unionised in a bid to claim human rights and dignity.

Other voices of dissent pointed out to the need to look at issues of poverty and labour in general, and locate sex work within that context, and/ or within a larger context of violence rather than homogenise all prostitutes/ sex workers. While side-stepping rather than engaging with these questions, one of Ms Steinem’s responses was that she would not mind if prostitutes, as she chooses to designate all sex workers, paid income tax—at the same time she advocated a strategy of penalizing but not criminalizing the client—how these were to be achieved remained unclear.

We, in the Women’s Studies Programme, feel the need for a far more nuanced discussion and debate on these issues—one in which women who express a different point of view are not dismissed as being in a denial mode. Given that some of these issues were raised in the open discussion and in the concluding remarks, it would have only been fair that some of these found reflection in the reporting on the event.

Dr Kumkum Roy is Director of the Women’s Studies Programme at the JNU

 Body invasion is de-humanising–Gloria Steinem

April 7, The Hindu –When I’m meeting with women and girls in prostitution in my own country as well as some countries of Europe, Africa and here in India, I’ve always asked what they would like for their daughter. So far, the answers have not included prostitution.

That’s especially striking given the profound differences in their lives, from Manhattan call girls to women in the brothel line-ups of Sonagachi; from women in the counties around Las Vegas, the only places in the US where prostitution is legal, to bar girls from the villages of Ghana and the scheduled castes in Bihar where women are consigned to prostitution by birth. Indeed, the same seems to be true of prostituted males who serve male clients.

The truth seems to be that the invasion of the human body by another person – whether empowered by money or violence or authority — is de-humanising in itself. Yes, there are many other jobs in which people are exploited, but prostitution is the only one that by definition crosses boundary of our skin and invades our most central sense of self. I know this is a subject that needs much more exploring, but I want to indicate it in shorthand because I think it’s the source of the misunderstanding in these two letters in response to a lecture I gave at Jawaharlal Nehru University on April 2.

I did not say — nor do I think, as Shohini Ghosh supposes — that sex trafficking and prostitution are “synonymous.” Though both are created by the same customers who want unequal sex, they represent crucial differences in a woman’s ability to escape or control her own life. However, I would not equate prostitution with domestic work, as she does. That ignores the damage and trauma of the body invasion that is intrinsic to the former and should never be part of the latter. Also I don’t think “consenting adults” is practical answer to structural inequality. Even sexual harassment law requires that sexual attention be “welcome,” not just “consensual.” It recognizes that consent can be coerced.

In addition, Kumkum Roy criticizes me for not using the term “sex worker.” I know this term is common in AIDS policy and academia, but it turned out to be dangerous in real life. For instance, in places as disparate as Germany and Nevada in the US, government used the idea that prostitution is “a job like any other” to withhold welfare and unemployment benefits from women who failed to try it. Only protests by women’s movements ended this form of procurement. As a popular term, I notice that prostituted girls and women say “survival sex,” as more descriptive as well as a breach of human rights.

Finally, I devoutly wish that unions had improved conditions in brothels, kept children out of prostitution and lessened disease and violence, as they promised to do, but in fact, there has been a huge increase in trafficking, girls in prostitution have become younger and younger, and there is no independent evidence of lowering rates of AIDS. What the idea of unions has done is to enhance the ability of the sex industry to attract millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation for the distribution on condoms, despite the fact that customers often pay more for sex without condoms, and it has created a big new source of income for brothel owners, pimps and traffickers who are called “peer educators,” I understand that that the traffic of women and girls into Sonagachi has greatly increased.

But there is good news. The old polarization into legalization and criminalization is giving way to a more practical, woman-centered and successful Third Way: De-criminalize the prostituted persons, offer them meaningful choices, prosecute traffickers, pimps and all who sell the bodies of others, and also penalize the customers who create the market while educating them about its tragic human consequences.

Those are turning out to be goals on which many people work together.

Gloria Steinem’s   approach  is evacuated of all political economy – Geeta Patel

April11, 2011–I’d like to begin my salvo in response to Gloria Steinem’s letter with the closing sentences of her opening paragraph, one that is evacuated of every vestige of nuanced analysis, and turns instead to sentiment to make her point. “I’ve always asked what they would like for their daughter.  So far, the answers have not included prostitution.” A series of sentences guaranteed to appeal to knee jerk liberals.  So why does this bother me?  It bothers me because the entire set of claims that Steinem makes – which I would not call an analysis— is evacuated of all political economy.  In other words none of the statements in Steinem’s response actually scrutinize the conditions under which women who do sex work live, work, organize, conditions that, even if not explicitly stated, would enable Steinem to actually interrogate how sex work measures up or is laid out or understood in relation to other kinds of labor.  Instead Steinem resorts to feeling, sentimentality to orchestrate her scattered speculations. All this feeling that gives people the illusion of politics makes readers feel as though, through Steinem, they have actually grasped the real issues at stake for these ‘poor women we have to help.’  Steinem’s letter has made me, as someone who has worked as a domestic laborer, worked in a massage parlor, helped start the first battered women’s shelter in the U.S. as a young feminist in the late 1970s, and have been teaching courses on gender and sexuality, or including them in my research since that same time, so irate that I could wax eloquent on every claim she produces as truth.  I will restrict myself to three.


The first:  So, for example, in New York now, in the current economy in which banks have lost some moral capital and are downsizing rapaciously to protect their financial capital, while continuing to make their employees work egregiously long hours many women bankers do not encourage their girl children to go into banking.  Doctors in the United States laboring under circumstances where care for the patient and their health is suffering under the demands of insurance company mandates are discouraging their children from training in medicine.   In Delhi at this contemporary moment with soaring inflation, no domestic worker I know would suggest that their children follow in their footsteps and work in households that do not pay them a living wage.  The two best mistrys, carpenters, that I know in Delhi, who come from a long lineage of carpenters, have made sure that their children do not follow their trade.  This despite the fact that as master carpenters the children could perhaps move to the United States and make more money than they would as drivers (which some of those children have become, and the U.S. is where they imagine a glorious future for themselves.)  Why am I bringing all these sorts of seemingly incommensurate forms of labor together poised in this particular way?  Because making decisions on behalf of children is tied to critiques of working conditions.  Because I respect sex workers enough to actually understand that they, like all the other working parents, are dealing with the exigencies of a better future for their children.  Which reasonable parent would not?   If one looks at local and global conditions, and imagines them as mattering, each location producing slightly different responses even as they are tied together.  If one addresses these in rigorous ways, the ways in which the best analysts who try to speak to trafficking do, then one also has to think about these conditions, in general, as ones that produce how sex workers think, make decisions (and all decisions must be constrained—this is after all a lesson feminist analysis has encouraged in the past ten years).  Otherwise Steinem allows sex workers no autonomy as subjects; they have been reduced to the body of sex – the prostitute’s violated body that Steinem assigns them.


The second:  clearly Steinem does not grasp the emotional and sometimes brutal physical violence that attends domestic labor.  I have interviewed domestic workers in Sri Lanka who work outside (by constrained choice) their country of origin.  They have been burned, maimed, raped, emotionally violated.  If one lays bodily and psychic violation in a long history of the political economy of labor conditions one quickly comes to see that all labor can be attended by extreme violence.  And unions were one of the places that workers went to address issues of equity and violence.  That however does not mean that this violence is true of all instances of any one kind of labor, such as that of domestic workers (or workers who work in free trade zones).  The informal union I helped set up in New York when I was a domestic was one that attempted to enable workers to argue for better per hour wages, better treatment in daily encounters, better work hours, protection in case of accidents at work.  As do sex workers unions.  Unions are not perfect; they are an attempt to produce more equitable, better organized protective conditions.  But then, I understood that my work in a massage parlor was precisely that, work.  And I could have argued, with other people, for better conditions and health care benefits, had I had a union to help me craft a different, community politics.  That might in fact permit me to encourage my daughter, had I had one, to work in a massage parlor rather than at a Macdonald’s  or a Wal-Mart in the United States.   She would make better money and would not have to stand in a government line for food stamps so that she could actually eat a decent meal, would have had access to health care.  A situation that many young people in the area I lived in Boston were facing.


The third:  Steinem seems to have succumbed to what has been known since the beginning of the century (the 20th that is) as union busting.  Steinem’s claims about unions tell me more about her position on unions and nothing about what unions for sex workers do or don’t do, can or cannot do.  To accuse a union of being responsible for making conditions worse for people, for sex workers, to accuse a union of being a kind of magic magnet that attracts money rapaciously, sounds remarkably like the revitalized anti-union, anti-poor rhetoric that is currently rampant in the United States.  This rhetoric, from its inception, has always been attended by subtle trenchant critiques, including those by women who were arguing on behalf of their own and other people’s labor.  Steinem could well have said that unions gave people an eight hour day, they fought for wages that people could afford to live on, they fought for safe working conditions, so that people would not have to hazard their bodies at work. The living wage campaigns in the United States at this moment are about fighting for people to work only one job so that they do not have to destroy their health and even die young working on double shifts.  This sort of analysis would have actually attended to Steinem’s claim that she is making an argument that addresses bodily violation.  However Steinem seems to have lost both the critique and the history of women’s organizing and class analysis.  Instead, insinuated into her language are hackneyed versions of anti-union sentiment.    They take our money, they make things so much more difficult, they are in fact responsible for the degradation of workers’ lives, they encourage criminal elements:  these are only four of many rhetorical volleys that are directed at gutting the only protections that people have had against the ravages that the current economy is making of working lives.

 Geeta Patel, Associate Professor, Studies in Women and Gender, Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Virginia.



There was release of first pan india survey of sex workers in Mumbai Last Year , interesting discussion