Closing red-light areas to contain COVID-19: a misguided fantasy of containment

Photo credit @DMSC Kolkata

In the effort to contain COVID-19, “red light areas” are in danger of becoming a fantasy backdrop for the state to perform grand, empty gestures of “pandemic control.” This distracts from the fact that persons doing sex work in India, whether in brothels, homes, streets, lodges, or construction sites, belong to the vast population of poor migrants and informal sector workers who have been spectacularly abandoned at this time of lockdown and crisis.

By Shakthi Nataraj (shakthi.nataraj@kcl.ac.uk)

A disturbing new study went viral on Indian media outlets last week. Authored by scientists at Harvard Medical School and Yale University, it claims that shutting down red light areas in Mumbai, New Delhi, Nagpur, Kolkata and Pune during the lockdown can reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases by 72%, and recommends keeping them closed indefinitely. To ameliorate the effect on sex workers, one of the authors, Dr. Sudhakar Nuti, suggested in an email interview on Tuesday that they be linked to government schemes and channelled into other occupations. He seemed to see these as permanent measures to eradicate both the virus and sex work. COVID-19, he says, presents “an ideal natural opportunity to help sex workers exit their trade and find alternative livelihoods.”

While the full study has not been released yet for public review, this recommendation is based upon a flawed and dangerously simplistic understanding of where and how sex work occurs in India. With little or no consultation from sex worker collectives, activists, or academics, it recommends measures that will increase police violence and precarity for not only sex workers but millions of informal sector labourers and migrants across the country. The fantasy that there are clearly demarcated “red light areas” of contagion, that can be contained by dramatic “pandemic control” measures, distracts from the demonstrated impossibility of enforcing such measures in the current period of lockdown.

The study is apparently based on the National AIDS Control Organization’s estimate that there are 6,37,500 sex workers in India. This figure might seem enormous, but it must be disaggregated based on qualitative evidence from the field. The truth is that only a very small percentage of sex work in India work takes place in brothels. A study of 5301 sex workers across Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra showed that only 24% of respondents had ever in their life been in a brothel, and other studies consistently show that the vast majority of sex workers are street and home-based. Moreover, these spaces are not mutually exclusive: as anthropologist Svati Shah has documented in Mumbai, most brothel-based sex workers have also worked on streets and at construction sites where they might trade sex for work. Being migrants, they move frequently between different cities and their hometowns, relying on shifting networks of relatives, NGOs, state agencies, and other precarious city dwellers to keep afloat.

The study also falsely implies that there is a brisk and healthy “business as usual” in red-light areas, necessitating a dramatic “shutdown”. In cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, however, brothel-based sex work has steadily dwindled since the late 1990s, with the rise of abolitionist anti-trafficking movements, private redevelopment interests, and police crackdowns. Urban development researchers Kundu and Satija at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences find that the population of brothel-based sex workers in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light area, dwindled from almost 50,000 in 1992 to about 2000 in 2010 and only 500-1000 in 2016. They point out that most brothels in Kamathipura have been replaced by manufacturing units for bags, jeans dyeing, mats and cloth. These facts and figures are corroborated by Shah, who has studied sex work in Mumbai for over a decade. In a similar pattern, red-light areas in Goa, Surat and Pune were all but demolished between 2000 and 2004, with the land reclaimed for tourism, seaside hotels, highways, storefronts, and industrial units. As landlords, private developers, and state agencies lock horns over these prime pieces of real estate, poor tenants pay exorbitant rents for cramped quarters with no running water and often in violation of municipal regulations, making residents vulnerable to eviction at any time. Dr. Nuti’s blindingly obvious point that “social distancing is not possible while having sex” is something sex worker collectives are all too aware of, many of them having been HIV/AIDS peer educators for two decades. The bigger issue is that unsafe living conditions, exacerbated by decades of gentrification and anti-poor policies, make “social distancing” impossible for all slum residents. Is sex really the main risk factor for a virus spread by respiratory droplets, when 17 people must live in a house with no running water to wash their hands? Or in Sonagachi, where chronically damp walls place residents at chronic risk for tuberculosis?

Brothel-based sex work has declined even more radically in the past two months of lockdown. The All-India Network of Sex Workers reports that Delhi’s G.B. Road has completely shut down and that over 60% of sex workers have returned to their home states. Government agencies and NG0s estimate that there are between 986 and 1500 brothel-based sex workers on G.B. Road at the moment. In Sonagachi in Kolkata, a report from last month suggests that there are no more than 5000 brothel-based sex workers. In many areas women are being tossed out of brothels because they are unable to pay rent. In others, they are stranded in brothels without transport back home to their villages. Volunteers and NGOs are unable to distribute rations because of lockdown restrictions, and food prices have more than doubled. In this context, Dr. Nuti’s concern that hospital Intensive Care Units will be flooded by sex workers with COVID-19 seems somewhat misplaced. Hospitals have never lined up to treat sex workers even at the best of times, and COVID-19 is hardly the main threat to their health at the moment. Instead, organizations in Andhra report that ART medications to treat HIV/AIDS have been cut down to one batch of tablets every three months, and even these are ineffective without proper nutrition. The primary concern for sex workers at the moment is not whether they have clients (most do not), but how to gain access to government schemes in a context where most of them do not have ration cards because they cannot prove residence, and do not have Jan Dhan accounts to receive government funds.

Dr. Nuti’s warning that government schemes will save sex workers from “criminal moneylenders” is especially ironic, because sex workers themselves are treated as “criminals” by the law in India. As sex worker collectives have emphasized for decades, government policing and “brothel raid-and-rescues” are often why they fall into debt bondage in the first place, paying police bribes of up to Rs. 1500 per month in addition to legal fees, and losing wages while trapped in “rehabilitation homes.” A recent study by development economists in Andhra showed that over 90% of sex workers had been unable to save money in the previous six months.

At the deepest level, the problem with the study is that it naively exports a predictive model based on the Netherlands, Germany and Australia to India, a country which has a vastly different reality when it comes sex work, and to working conditions in general. A whopping 92% of India’s labouring population works in the informal sector where sex work occurs, and many persons doing sex work may not consider “sex worker” to be their primary work identity. Rather, they perform sex work while undertaking other forms of precarious, unregulated, and stigmatized work to survive. The fantasy of rehabilitating sex workers by channelling them into other livelihoods is misguided because many are already engaged in other livelihoods. A 2014 study of sex work in 14 states found that over 50% of women who sold sex had also worked as domestic workers, construction workers, or daily wage-earners and almost 30% of women continued to work in these other jobs even after taking up sex work. Many switched to doing sex work voluntarily and exclusively because they could earn 3 to 6 times as much as they did in other jobs. For instance, for about 70% of respondents, domestic work paid Rs. 500-1000 per month, while sex work paid Rs. 3000- 5000. Most persons doing sex work in Indian cities are female migrants from impoverished and drought-ridden areas. Many come from families of landless agricultural labourers and belong to SC, ST and OBC communities. On average they possess little formal education and support children, husbands, and families back home. A large proportion of transgender persons do sex work to survive after being cast out of their natal homes, coupling it with other livelihood options such as begging.

Since sex work is criminalized and marked by severe gender and caste-based stigma, it entails specific and unique forms of violence. Nevertheless, the current impulse to police space for reasons of “public health” has long been a way to render public space unsafe for the urban poor more generally. Legal ethnographer Prabha Kotiswaran has demonstrated how in Sonagachi, it is not anti-sex work legislation but laws governing tenancy and public space that tend to have the strongest effects on sex worker fortunes. She shows that in the case of street-based sex work too, laws related to public obscenity and nuisance, such as the Railways Act, give police and railway officials arbitrary power and legal immunity, while setting sex workers, beggars, street-vendors and pavement-dwellers against one another. Spaces such as Kamathipura and G.B. Road are home to a diverse mix of similarly vulnerable migrant workers, transgender persons, pavement-dwellers, sanitation workers primarily from oppressed dalit castes, street vendors, home-based beedi workers, and nomadic performer communities such as the Saperas. These proposed “closures” will certainly increase police violence and economic precarity for these communities.

It is in the face of these facts that the fantasy of “shutting down red light areas” takes on such seductive appeal for the state and middle classes alike. After all, the iconic “red-light area,” fetishized in countless films, novels, and moral crusades, has long distorted, even aestheticized, more pervasive political-economic conditions. Svati Shah argues that films such as Born Into Brothels and Slumdog Millionaire portray urban slums as ominous dens of sex trafficking where women need to be rescued, implicitly normalizing the rest of the city, while also masking the politics of gentrification, caste oppression, and precarious labour within areas like Kamathipura. Ethnographers across India have shown how police and anti-trafficking organizations, aided by the loose legal definition of a “brothel,” incorrectly portray children living in red light areas as “child sex workers” and consistently misrepresent voluntary sex workers as brothel-keepers or trafficked victims. This spectre of the brothel dates to the colonial period. Historian Ashwini Tambe has shown, for instance, how anti-prostitution laws such as The Contagious Diseases Act of 1868 produced red-light areas as a space of moral filth and contagion, justifying the control of public space in Mumbai more generally.

If these proposed closures are implemented, the “red light area” will again become a cinematic backdrop for the state to perform grand, empty gestures of “pandemic control.” The fantasy is that heroic scientists and police can cure COVID-19, sex work, and chronic poverty in one fell swoop. The reality is that persons doing sex work in India, whether in brothels, homes, streets, lodges, or construction sites, belong to the vast population of informal sector workers and migrants who the state has spectacularly abandoned at this time of lockdown and crisis. Instead of enforcing stricter lockdown, the government should heed the advice of grassroots activists and sex worker collectives and send provisions, not police, to the poorest inhabitants of India’s cities.

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A shorter version of this article appeared on Open Democracy on 11.06.20. Shortly afterwards, the full study entitled ‘Modelling the Effect of Continued Closure of Red-Light Areas on COVID-19 Transmission in India’ (2020) was released online, authored by Sudhakar V. Nuti of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, along with Jeffrey P. Townsend, Alison P. Galvani, Abhishek Pandey, Pratha Sah, and Chad Wells at the Yale School of Public Health. Despite not having been peer-reviewed, the authors bypassed civil society organisations completely and shared the study with media outlets in India as well as lawmakers. To combat this study, a group of activists and academics including Prabha Kotiswaran and Shakthi Nataraj at the Laws of Social Reproduction project, Meena Seshu (SANGRAM), Aarthi Pai (SANGRAM), Siddharth Dube, Sundar Sundararaman, Mona Mishra, Tripti Tandon (Lawyer’s Collective), and Shyamala Nataraj (SIAAP), drafted a statement of concern that was shared with the deans of Harvard Medical School and Yale School of Public Health, and the Vice-President for Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. The statement had over 140 signatories, including former health secretaries of the Government of India, leading policymakers and civil society leaders, sex worker collectives, and academics. The statement was highly effective, leading the dean of Yale School of Public Health to initiate an investigation into the study, and media outlets to publicly denounce the study in India.

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