The commercialization of sex is very much prevalent today. Here the women and children are treated like commodities in the flesh market. The market grows each day as more and more oppressed and economically deprived women get coerced into sexual servitude. With the advancement in technology and changes in the political and economic scenarios, the traditional practices of sexual exploitation of women are acquiring new dimensions and forms. The profession of sex is colored with emotion, ideology, personal advancement, and exploitative structure. We live in a world of sexual explosion, media, magazines; advertisements, etc. play important parts in it. Lack of knowledge about sex leads a lot of people to the distorted use of sex. Authoritarianism and a legalistic approach toward sex are negative positions and Roman Catholicism gives value to chastity and celibacy. The Church treated sexuality as horrific immorality. To this day Christianity thinks an adulterer is more sinful than a politician who takes bribes, although the latter probably does thousand times as much harm. Human sexuality is divinely ordained nature. Sexuality is part of the distinctiveness of humanity. According to Genesis, the story of sexuality is based on human structure. Sex contains the capacity for personal affirmation and mutuality. Here the question is how you will relate sexuality with religious and social values. How can we permit the sexual labor community or commercial sex workers to co-exist in society? Prostitution is the main form of commercial sex work. This paper highlights the causes, evils, and struggles for the rights of commercial sex workers.


The word prostitution has been derived from the Latin word ‘prostibula’ or proseda.[1] In the ancient Greek context, harlots stood in front of their houses to entice the passer-by in the afternoons. From this practice, the word originated. According to G.R. Scott, ‘an individual who for some kind of new (monetary or otherwise) or for some other personal satisfaction and as a part or full-time profession, engages in normal or abnormal sexual intercourse with various persons who may be of the same sex or the opposite sex is the prostitute.[2] Kathleen Barry gives guidelines for a new definition of prostitution which can be applied cross-culturally and historically. She defines prostitution as “the provision of sexual services in exchange for material gains. This provision may be induced by one or more of a variety of conditions: Physical coercion (compulsion), socio-economic coercion (sexual abuse, poverty), acquisition by pure base; individual decision”.[3]

Nalini Jameela, one of the sex workers prefers to use the word ‘commercial sex worker (CSW) instead of the term prostitute because the latter denotes a negative connotation. She justifies this by arguing that the barbers of Kerala were known as ‘churakas’ (Churakanmar) which has a negative meaning. In order to maintain a better status in society they changed this title to ‘barber’ and formed a barbers association.[4]

Sex workers: Past and Present

Streetwalkers, brothels, Devadasi system are the oldest form of commercial sex. Economic and Social marginalization causes to organize around prostitution. Streetwalkers, common prostitutes, and call girls are different categories of prostitutes. A report of the Human Resource Development Ministry in 1995 stated that in Bombay and Hyderabad, where the sex industry was rampant there were an estimated 70,000 to 1, 00,000 women in prostitution and 15% were estimated to be below the age of 15 years. Of this total population, 2.6% are Nepalese and 2.7% of them are from Bangladesh. Brothels and red light areas are existing in India.[5] The society girls belong to the elite or upper middle-class families, who live in private houses, are educated and gainfully employed enter into the trade not on account of any compulsion or financial constraints but for fun and extra income needed for meeting the expenses of their luxurious life. They are called call girls. Today many women are leading a double life playing the smart neighborhood girls on weekends and dashing off for weekend liaisons with stagers.

Children and the Commercial sex market

Sociologists feel that children in commercial sex are on the rise in every Asian country.[6] Now commercial sexual exploitation of children is a Global problem requiring international cooperation. This illegal industry includes pornography, sex tourism, and trafficking of Children. In 1991 government of India initiated a survey of prostitution through a Central Social Welfare Board in six metropolitan cities in India. This study indicates at the time of entry in the Sex industry, 15% of the women are the category of children and 25% are minors between the ages of 16-18 years.[7] Human Rights Watch, Asia, estimated that there are 20,000 Nepalese girls in Mumbai’s brothels. It adds that the average age of Nepalese girls recruited for prostitution was 10-14 years of in 1991.[8]

Causes of Prostitution

Prostitution is rampant in the present context because of various reasons:

(1) Economic causes: Though economic compulsions constitute the major factor in the causation of prostitution, it is by no means the only and exclusive cause of the phenomenon. In India, there are many prostitutes, who are compelled to adopt prostitution to feed themselves and their dependents. At the same time, there are many prostitutes who hail from well-to-do families. The economic factors are comprised of (a) Poverty: It is the main economic factor responsible for prostitution. A woman (illiterate, semi-literate, or literate) unable to get any gainful employment and has no support must either starve to death or earn a livelihood through prostitution. (b) Underage Employment: many females have to work in hotels, offices, industries, and shop at an immature age. At their impressionable age, they are easily misled by lust seekers. (c) Bad work Environment: In India, many women are able to get employment through intermediaries. Whenever opportunities offer themselves they exploit them fully and often succeed in receiving sexual bribes. Once a woman falls prey to their lust, they have no time to make a professional out of her. (d) Immoral Traffic in Children and Women: Many tender girls are kidnapped by unscrupulous gangsters. They probably train them in the art of sex work and when these girls mature they are sold.

(2) Social Causes: Social causes are extremely important factors in encouraging and promoting prostitution. The social factors comprised of (a) Family factors: Most prostitutes are connected with family troubles. Their parents were either living separately or their family relations were so strained that as children they were left to their own machinations and received no love. The children of criminals show a marked tendency to become prostitutes. An unloved child when she grows up offers all of herself to anyone showing any degree of love and affection. (b) Marital factors: Many superstitions prevalent in India force women into prostitution. E.g. Widow re-marriage is still frowned upon. Therefore the widows unable to remarry were forced to become prostitutes. In India homes particularly among villagers and the poor illicit connections are common and these connections are temporary and do not meets the sex needs of young women fully. They take to prostitution are a last resort. (c) Illegitimate motherhood: The Women who become pregnant as a result of their liaisons and who cannot get an abortion are exposed in society. Nobody wants to remarry them bout everybody wants to enjoy them sexually. Desperately such women prefer to become regular prostitutes.

(3) Psychological causes: There are some psychological facts, which tend the person toward prostitution. A Woman who is frigid becomes desperate and tries one man after another. Because of frigidity she is unable to experience pleasure and becomes a prostitute by trial and error. Some women are incapable of submission. In order to assert their independence, they consort with other men.[9] There is also a possibility due to the lack of proper sexual education, psychological possibility with the gender identity, and punishing the animas (the maleness in female) which can lead to distorted sexual behavior.

(4) Biological factors: The person born with defective sex organs and overactive glands may feel compelled to sexual gratification in a strange manner.[10]

(5) Religious and cultural factors: In India, there have been religious sanctions on prostitution. The Devadasi (god slaves or temple prostitutes) system forced the girls to become prostitutes. There are certain religious sects in India and abroad in which the priest had the right to deflower every newly married girl. The polygamy and polyandry sanctioned by many societies are sophistications of prostitution. In many cultures, a guest is honored by the offer of a wife or daughter by the host.[11]

A feminist viewpoint on Sex work

Feminists hate the exploitation of women’s sexuality by profiteers and some feel instinctive that sex work supports the objectification of women’s sexuality and of that is somehow related to the violence against women. Some argue that sex workers provide a great social service for they save millions of respectable women from being pounced upon by sex-hungry men. Others see sex workers as oppressed and unable, by the very nature of their work, to recognize that oppression. This group, therefore, tends to exclude the voices of women in the profession themselves who disagree with them. One woman claims “All work involves selling some part of your body….I choose to sell my sexual organs… that is the only difference.” [12] Nalini Jameela, one of the sex workers in Kerala, opines that at least four reasons CSW are superior to other women: a) when a child is born sex workers do not go in search of fatherhood. b) There is no need for waiting for a husband. c) There is more sexual freedom than an ordinary housewife. d) There is the freedom to select the father of the child and also bring up of the child.[13] The International Labor Organization has recognized CSW as labor.[14] Jean D’ Cunha pointed out that Liberation feminism demands legal reforms that recognized prostitution as a valid form of labor and aim at safeguarding women in prostitution against discriminatory and exploitative practices.[15]

Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act

The suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act (SITA), 1956 was amended in 1986 as the Central Government introduced the Immoral Traffic in Persons Prevent Act. The SITA as its name suggests aims at abolishing traffic in women and girls for prostitution. So it penalizes brothel keeping, pimping, procuring, detention of a woman or girl for prostitution, and seduction of women in custody. The practice of prostitution individually, independently, and voluntarily by a woman does not constitute an offense. But the punishment was given when there is a prostitute and set free the client which is an example of double morality and challenging women’s rights.[16] The severe human rights violation is that even children are kidnapped and sold to the brothel-keepers as it is a lucrative trade. It is observed by D’ Cunha that a minor girl who is a virgin is sold for anything between Rs.500 to Rs. 7000 in Kamathipura.[17] Immoral Traffic in Person Prevention Act, 1986 includes both males and females who engage in prostitution. It also defines prostitution as any form of sexual exploitation or abuse or commercial purpose.

Three systems of law have been formulated and applied in various parts of the world with respect to prostitution.[18] They are such as

(1) Prohibitionism: This system as it exists in the USA, Japan, and the like, bans prostitution per se. by itself. It criminalizes the activities of all categories of people involved in prostitution, namely, brothel keeper, pimps, procurers, prostitutes, and clients. In its actual operation, it is discriminatory enforced against women. It overwhelmingly penalizes the prostitute while the men derive profit and pleasures from prostitution (i.e. pimps and Clients).

(2) Tolerationism: This system is closed in accordance with the United Nations 1949 convention decision and has been adopted in several countries. This system does not seek to abolish prostitution or prostitution per se. it is only targeted at trafficking in women and girls for prostitution, brothel keeping, pimping, and procuring. Under this system, prostitutes are not supposed to be criminalized by virtue of their work and have more or less the same rights as other citizens.

(3) Legalization of prostitution: Many countries have adopted the system of legalized prostitution. Prostitution was a legal activity in the 19th century in England and India. Legalization permits prostitution in ‘closed houses’ or Eros centers. Under this system, prostitutes are required to register themselves with the local authorities and submit themselves for periodic health certificates and a VD clearance card, which must be presented every periodic examination at the VD control clinic. It is only after this formality that a prostitute is issued a police clearance and a government license, which permits her to ply her trade professionally.

Organizations of prostitutes and their rights

The demand for legalization and licensing of prostitution has been raised, so as to allow for unionization of prostitutes against police harassment and for the provision of welfare measures for prostitute women and their children.

The Bharatiya Patita Udhar Sabha: Is a Delhi-based Prostitute’s Right Organization that was founded in May 1984 by Khairati Lal Bhola, who claimed to be a social worker. In 1985, the president was Nimmibai, a big-time brothel keeper. She has been arrested for brothel keeping several times and has several changes against her. The organization demands the legalization and licensing of prostitutes, a measure by which they also wish to monitor the health of prostitutes.

The Asahaya Tirskrut Nari Sangh: It is another prostitute rights organization that was established in Kamathipura, Bombay’s largest red-light area. The Sangh was floated primarily by the Indian Health Organization. The Sangh has been demanding licensing of prostitution, registration of prostitutes, monitoring of prostitutes’ health to curb the incidence of STDs and AIDS, for whose spread prostitutes are considered responsible, and the abolition of forced and child prostitutes. The Sangh also formed a cooperative credit society to free prostitutes from the clutches of money lenders.

The Pune Devadasi Sangatna: This Sangatna was established in 1981 in Budhwarpeth, Pune. The organization demands that prostitution be given social and legal recognition and that prostitutes is given a license to practice. It also demands curbs on police harassment, free health care, and bank loans to set up small businesses. The Sanghatna has formed a cooperative credit society with funds from the Government and local trust.

The International Committee for Prostitutes’ rights has drawn up a World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights which guarantees the prostitutes all human rights and liberties including the freedom of speech, travel, immigration, work, marriage and motherhood, and the right to unemployment insurance, health insurance, and housing.

Commercial Sex Workers: A Christian response

Even though Bible condemns adultery and prostitution as evil, attention is to be diverted to the circumstances of context which led to this evil. Jesus in his time was aware of the situations, especially that of the social structure, which lead to prostitution. Their context and their struggle and helplessness were considered by Jesus in a compassionate manner, as can be seen in the case of women caught in adultery. He let her go freely with a warning that she should sin no more.[19] In the same way, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman. He was people-oriented in his ethics and overcome the rigid rules in a more human way. The Pauline writings also warned against the misuse of sex and sexual perversions. Prostitution was viewed by Paul as sexual immorality. (I Cor: 6:15)

Christians are responsible to provide spiritual direction, rehabilitation, education for the children, humanness and love, counseling, medical service, housing, gainful employment, legal services, empowerment programs and awareness about commercial sexual exploitation, etc., to CSW. We are responsible to help them to come out from the exploitative structures in CSW that lead them to marginalized oppressed and physically and psychologically depressed groups.


Trafficking in young women, under-aged girls, and children for commercial sexual exploitation has emerged as one of the most formidable challenges in the new millennium. It is threatening the dignity of women and destroying them physically, psychologically, emotionally, and socio-economically. In order to maximize their profits, the market forces are denying women and children their basic rights and denying them their right to live with dignity. The commercialization of sex is a dehumanizing phenomenon and is negating the accomplishments of the struggles for women’s emancipation and empowerment. Commercial sex workers are arguing for rights and acceptance in society similar to others because even their basic rights were denied. It is important to preserve the dignity of women and children and prevent the degradation of human civilization at all costs.


Chakraborty, Dipangshu. Atrocities in Indian women. (New Delhi: A.P.H Publishing, 1997).

Vatsyayan. Urban Society. (Delhi: Kedarnath Ramnath, 1984).

D’ Cunha, Jean. The Legalisation of Prostitution. (Banglore: Word Marks, 1991).

Jameela, Nalini. Oru Lymkikathozhilaliyude Atmakadha. (Malayalam: Translation: A Sex workers Autobiography) (Kottayam: D.C. Books, 2005).

Sen, Shalini and Lalitha S.A. Women Soliciting Change. (New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1998).

Sherwani, Azim. The girl Child in Crisis. (New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1998).

Stephen, M. Introduction to Christian Ethics. (Delhi: ISPCK, 2003).

[1] Dipangshu Chakraborty, Atrocities in Indian women (New Delhi: A.P.H Publishing, 1997), 81.

[2] Vatsyayan, Urban Society (Delhi: Kedarnath Ramnath, 1984), 204.

[3] Jean D’ Cunha, The Legalisation of Prostitution (Banglore: Word Marks, 1991), 17.

[4] Nalini Jameela, Oru Lymkikathozhilaliyude Atmakadha (Malayalam: Translation: A Sex workers Autobiography) (Kottayam: D.C. Books, 2005), 109.

[5] Dipangshu Chakraborty, 83.

[6] Shalini Sen and Lalitha S.A, 4-5.

[7] Shalini Sen and Lalitha S.A, Women Soliciting Change (New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1998), 35.

[8] Azim Sherwani, The girl Child in Crisis (New delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1998), 64.

[9] Vatsyayan, Urban Society (Delhi: Kedarnath Ramnath, 1984), 204.

[10] Vatsyayan, 204.

[11] Vatsyayan, 204.

[12] Shalini Sen and Lalitha S.A, 6-7.

[13] Nalini Jameela, 109.

[14] Shalini Sen and Lalitha S.A, 8.

[15] Jean D’ Cunha, The Legalization of Prostitution (Banglore: Work Markers, 1991), 110.

[16] Jean D’ Cunha, 43.

[17] Jean D’ Cunha, 42.

[18] Jean D’ Cunha, 42.

[19] M. Stephen, Introduction to Christian Ethics (Delhi: ISPCK, 2003), 293.


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