Community Update

World Pulse Toolkits Available!

At World Pulse, we recognize the need for ongoing learning—for you and for your community! Our toolkits are all available here.

We are especially excited to share our signature Citizen Journalism and Digital Empowerment Curriculum. Start learning today!


The Census of India seems to have issues about the distinction between “workers” and “non-workers.” It lists homemakers, beggars, prisoners and prostitutes as “non-workers” because they are “economically non-productive workers” in their perception and definition. The ‘homemaker’ issue has been dealt with by the Supreme Court already that has strongly recommended corrections to be incorporated by the Census of India in its current estimates. The apex court however, did not seem to notice the gender bias in the Census of India’s labelling the prostitute a non-worker and as economically non-productive. Around a decade-and-a-half ago, social activists and NGOs toyed with the nomenclature of the prostitute. She is now called a ‘sex worker’ instead of ‘prostitute.’ But the Census did not implement this change so the sex-worker still remains labeled a prostitute. This change in nomenclature probably arose to bring these marginalised and stigmatized women within the mainstream. That the status quo of the prostitute has not changed with this change in her nomenclature is common knowledge. It has only vested her with a false sense of self-esteem which she does not really possess.

But if she is deemed a ‘sex worker’ which she genuinely is, how does the Census deny her the recognition of being a productive worker who contributes to the economy directly and indirectly? How did the Supreme Court fail to notice this anomaly while it was hauling the Census for its callous ignorance of the homemaker’s contribution? Who is a prostitute? In Indian law statutes, prostitution is defined as the act of a female who offers her body for promiscuous sexual intercourse for hire, in exchange for money or kind. The two conditions that can define a woman to be a prostitute according to the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act, 1956 (amended in 1987 by the Amendment Act 1986 with the name changed to read “Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act” and the 2006 Bill are (a) a female has to offer her body for indiscriminate sexual intercourse, and (b) she should do so for some financial consideration. This is the legal definition which clearly spells out that she is a productive worker because her work has both use-value and exchange-value.

The widespread patriarchal control over women’s sexuality in the service of reproduction within marriage renders other expressions of sex for the woman as beyond the scope of social norms and even law. But the ‘illicitness’ of prostitute sex is due to the social disapproval of commercial sex. This brings prostitution within the ambit of the commercialization of traditional female roles which leads to considerable ambivalence in contemporary economics. When women place monetary value and claim payment for work that they traditionally (within marriage) perform for ‘free’ – out of love, instinct, for intangible non-monetary rewards, it is viewed as ‘betrayal.’ At the same time, when professions get ‘feminized’ in the wage market such as prostitution which is almost a totally feminized occupation, they get devalued. Perceived from this angle, commercial sex is nothing more than an inferior version of ‘real’ or free and romantic sex.

A beggar is a parasite, a prostitute is not. A prisoner is a criminal. A prostitute is not. The beggar has neither use-value nor exchange-value. The prisoner has use-value when he is given work in the prison and very little exchange-value he gets for his labour. The prostitute has both. Interestingly, the slippages between women who are prostitutes and sell sex for money and women who are not prostitutes because sex is structured into a married relationship are many in terms of theory, argument and practice. Examples that blur the distinctions between the two are – the contractual terms of bourgeois marriage, women’s confessions to ‘occasional prostitution’, sex for favours, sex inscribed into certain professions, describing women who are promiscuous as whores and so on. Luce Irigary states that the prostitute’s ‘value’ cannot be categorized either as use-value or as exchange-value (the mother and the virgin respectively representing the female ‘types’ of these values). She adds that prostitution amounts to usage that is exchanged. Irigary insists that she is only an object of exchange between and among men, the pimp and the client. Shannon Bell in Reading, Writing and Re-Writing the Prostitute Body, 1994, writes that the ambiguous unity in the prostitute body of use and exchange value positions her as a speaking subject which makes her “an active participant who exchanges her own use-value.”

Lynda Nead argues that the prostitute occupies a unique place at the centre of an extraordinary and nefarious economic system. She represents all the terms within capitalist production – she is human labour, she is the object that is being exchanged and she is also the seller all at once. She stands as worker, commodity and capitalist and blurs the categories of bourgeois economics the same way as she tests the boundaries of bourgeois morality. As commodity therefore, the prostitute encapsulates and distorts as the same time, all the classic features of bourgeois economics. This is the full nature of her threat an also the key to her power. (Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Fiction, 1988.) In India, she is human labour and she is the object being exchanged. But she is definitely not the seller. Her earnings are appropriated by the system she belongs to. Does this make her a non-worker?

Marx states that under capitalism, the exchange value of commodities is their inherent monetary property and that in turn, money achieves a social existence quite apart from all commodities and their natural mode of existence. The circulation of money and its abstraction as a sign in a system of exchange serves as a mirror image for women as sign in a system of exchange. Ironically, the women who form the very commodity that is exchanged have little or no control over the money that is exchanged. This is confiscated and appropriated by the infrastructural features of prostitution such as the brothel owner, the pimp, the bouncers, the brothel madam and so on. They do not have access to the circulation of money either. The very fact that the prostitute’s value-in-exchange helps support the procurer, the pimp, the brothel owner, the brothel madam and the bouncer proves that she indeed is a productive worker. That money does not come to her or remains with her cannot deny her claim to being an economic worker whose service brings money.

In India, the supply of women from lower castes into the sex trade is driven by the demand for prostitutes, though prostitution is illegal. Its very existence and pervasiveness in Indian society is an anomaly in an otherwise conservative country. There is a historic culture of commercial sex with eroticism enshrined in the myriad religious traditions. Consequently, there is greater tolerance of prostitution in rural areas where it is seen as a continuation of a cultural tradition. The large number of pimps, bouncers, self-appointed protectionists within and without the legal machinery, the brothel madams and local politicians form an unending link in a chain of middlemen who cut into the meager earnings of the prostitute, placing her back into the vicious circle of poverty she began from. The circular reality of poverty provides the tragic irony of her existence. Does that make her a non-worker? How can the Supreme Court wear blinkers while chiding the Census for categorizing the homemaker as a non-worker and ignoring the same categorization of the prostitute?

The inhuman oppression of women by civilized mankind is not based on common logic. It is based on the feudal lord’s inherent proprietorial rights over his slave, and on the overwhelming sense of power and control this gives him over the life of his slave. Substitute ‘feudal lord’ with the Census of India, the Supreme Court and the society at large and the ‘slave’ with the sex worker and the argument will at once become clear.


Magazine »

Read global coverage through women's eyes

Inside Congo's Growing Sisterhood

Inside Congo's Growing Sisterhood

Community »

Connect with women on the ground worldwide

Mkandeh's picture

Ebola: Sierra Leoneans feel like prisoners

Campaigns »

Be heard at influential forums

WWW: Women Weave the Web

WWW: Women Weave the Web

Programs »

Help us train women citizen journalists

World Pulse Voices of Our Future

World Pulse Voices of Our Future

Blog »

Read the latest from World Pulse headquarters

EMAGAZINE: Bridging Borders

EMAGAZINE: Bridging Borders

Partners »

Join forces with our wide network of partners

Nobel Women's Initiative

Nobel Women's Initiative