Prostitution as Livelihood
‘Work’ or ‘Crime’?

Geetanjali Gangoli

Paper presented at the conference Livelihoods and Poverty Reduction: Lessons From Eastern India, 25-27 September 2001
By Geetanjali Gangoli, Research Fellow, International Centre for the Study of Violence and Abuse, University of Sunderland, UK

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Organisation of sex-work
Issues of financial access and aging
Fieldwork issues and questions of methodology
Concluding statements



“We believe that like any other occupation, sex-work too is an occupation and not a moral condition. If it is one of the ‘oldest’ profession in the world, that is because it must have continued to meet an important and consistent social demand.” [1]

“When it (prostitution) starts with violence and sexual abuse how can we call it "work"? … An action that violates human rights, how can we call it work?”[2]

The two statements quoted above reveal the diametrically different positions held by two NGOs, both working with and claiming to represent the voices of sex-workers/prostitutes. There are several issues at stake – the naming of what happens in the sex trade as (sex) work or as prostitution; the questions of the rights of women in the trade to define themselves and an attempt to mark the human rights violations within the trade. In the first statement, sex-workers are seen as labourers, meeting an important social demand; in the second, prostitutes are represented as ‘innocent victims’, subjected to human rights violations.

The paper seeks to look at livelihood issues within the sex trade in the two states by looking at the organisation of the red light areas. It is an attempt to unpack the difference between the highly organised and relatively prosperous red light areas of Sonagachi in Calcutta, the tightly controlled but poverty driven red light slum of Malishahi in Bhubaneswar and the structure of the family based sex trade industry in Tikirapada, a ‘red-light’ village.

Organisation of sex-work

It has been suggested that the livelihood of women in the sex trade can be adequately gauged through a study of three stages in their lives – prior to joining the trade, during the period of work and after leaving the trade.[3] I now look at the organisation of the sex trade in Calcutta, Bhubaneswar and Tikarapada.


Entry into sex work is often defined as exploitation, coercion and trafficking. However, women have been known to join the sex trade for a variety of reasons. As the table below demonstrates, there is no single reason why women enter prostitution.

Entry into trade.
(Study conducted in Sonagachi, Calcutta in 1992 with 450 sex-workers – approximately 12% of all sex-workers in the area)[4]

Reasons for joining Total number Total percentage

Acute poverty






Family Dispute












Acute poverty is therefore the single most important reason for joining sex-work in Calcutta. Studies in Orissa similarly suggest that economic survival is a central reason for entering prostitution. The cyclone in 1999 created increased impoverishment. The burden on the extended family increased and women left their homes to fend for themselves. Some of them ended in sex-work.[5] In tribal Orissa, women start sex-work due to social and economic exploitation. They may enter contract labour, and often are raped. Then they enter prostitution. In some villages in Balasore, families sell their daughters into prostitution due to poverty. In some areas, the network of traffickers is so strong that some families send their daughters into the trade under compulsion. Other reasons are dowry demands. In the Western Orissa border area (with Andhra Pradesh), dowry demands are very high due to the influence of Andhra. So women enter sex-work to earn money for their dowry.[6]

Coercion and kidnapping therefore seem less important in these reports. During the course of my fieldwork, I found however, that while many women start off by telling stories of coercion and violence, once a relationship is established, the stories often change. As a paper on sex-workers in a South African mine points out, people’s stories of being tricked into sex-work were remarkably similar, almost a part of a script. However:

“… the objective veracity of people’s accounts is not the most important or interesting feature of the life histories. What is more important is how people reconstruct and account for their life choices, given that these accounts reflect the social identities that play a key role in shaping people’s sexual behavior. In this context, the main interest of these stories of origin lies in the role that they play as a strategy for coping with a spoiled identity …”[7]

In India as in South Africa, social stigma is a powerful factor pushing women in sex-work to cast themselves as ‘innocent victims’. Once the researcher spends time and energy in the ‘field’, the stories often change. Women who started, in the first instance, recounting uncomplicated stories of innocent victimhood, later trusted me enough to recast themselves as agents. The following excerpts from my interview make this clearer:

“I’ve been in India for the past 12 and a half years. I was brought here by my fate; nobody has kept me here by force… I am in touch with my family. I send money and letters home regularly.” [8]

“I started working because I fought with my mother in law. She abused me and harassed me. My husband is an alcoholic. He pushed me to enter sex-work and I realized that this is the only way I can earn some money and feed my family. I go to Bowbazaar in the morning and have rented a house there.”[9]

“Someone from my village who belongs to this line brought me here.  I came because our family is too poor to look after me.”[10]

Sex-work and migration are often linked. This can be attributed to a number of causal factors: the relative anonymity of the new destination, limited options for employment and the need to survive in a new location without family support. Experts on migration also suggest that migrant women are seen as going against the traditional female role – of staying home and being looked after by the family – and are pushed into sex-work by forces that see them as transgressive.[11] Or having stepped out of the normative female role, they are more amenable to opportunities that may not be acceptable in their place of origin.

The question of entry into prostitution can therefore be seen in two ways. One, that it is important to look at multiple ways in which women and minors enter and negotiate entry into prostitution. Further, it is important to look at the compulsions pushing women into arranging their lives into simplified stories of force and coercion for the consumption of researchers and journalists.

I argue, however, that for the purpose of defining prostitution as work, the mode of entry into sex-work is irrelevant. A conceptual distinction can be made between entry into sex-work and the profession itself. All work relationships combine coercion, compensation and commitment in varying degrees.[12]


There are about 80,000 sex-workers in Calcutta.[13] Brothel based sex-work in Sonagachi, Calcutta follows a fairly regulated system. Sex-workers can start work by the time they are 9 or 10 and many continue till their mid 30s. At the lowest of the hierarchy are the chhukries – young girls – who are mostly bound to the maashi (literally aunt, a generic term for brothel owner), who purchase them from agents or from their relatives. Chhukries work under highly regulated conditions and stay with the maashi until they can pay off the advanced amount. Next are the adhiyas (literally half), who operate semi independently, and pay half the amount earned to the room provider. Some sex-workers operate through the dalal-bari system – they contract clients through a dalal (intermediary). This allows then to escape the legal ban on soliciting clients. Then there is the swadhin (independent) sex-worker, who takes a room, pays an advance or rent, bears all the expenses and keeps all the earnings.[14] The average age at which some girls become swadhin is 18. After working as sex-workers till their thirties, women retire from active sex-work and take up related professions.

Not all red light areas operate in the same way. Sonagachi is the most prosperous red light area while Khidirpur and Kalighat  are poorer and the trade follows a less rigidly organised system. The extent of NGO control in these areas is less intense.[15]

Another aspect of the sex trade in Calcutta is that of informal or ‘flying’ sex-workers. Some are based in nearby villages or suburbs of the city and come to the red light area in the evening or the day. Most of them are single women; some are married with children. With factories and alternative means of employment reducing in the city, middle class housewives and students act as ‘flying sex-workers. ‘Flying’ sex-workers are more vulnerable than brothel based women in Calcutta. Not being a part of the protective brothel system, they have less negotiating powers. [16]

Full time sex-workers express hostility towards free lancers, seeing them as poachers on their territory. They are also resented for combining a socially respectable life with prostitution. [17] Both categories of sex-workers experience the red-light area and sex-work differently. Part-time prostitutes see the red-light area as a space where they can practice their professions and sex-work as a way to supplement their personal or family income. There is some degree of shame and secrecy associated with their work, but they have the persona of respectability to fall back on outside the area. Full time sex-workers see the red-light area as a space they ‘own’ and have partial rights over.

Informalisation of the sex trade has also led to decentralisation of the trade or moving away from the red light areas. It is suggested that the expansion due to NGO interventions in Calcutta (especially the influencial Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee) has given sex-workers confidence to expand their scope of work-space.[18]

The situation in the capital of Orissa is somewhat different. Sex-workers in Bhubaneswar are located in the red light slum, Malishahi, near the railway station. 11 years ago, the red light area was located elsewhere in an area close to the railway centre. They were then relocated to a distant suburb. Faced with the break up of the trade, individual sex-workers came to Malishahi, an urban slum, near the city centre.[19] Sex-workers in the city of Bhubaneswar have faced repeated fears of dislocation stopped by legal action by the Orissa Patita Udhar Samiti. (OPUS)Sex-work in Bhubaneswar also takes the form of street based, family based and brothel based sex-work.

Interviews with sex-workers in Bhubaneswar brought out that they have entered the trade due to poverty, and that they do not have any contact with their families. None of them see leaving the sex trade as being viable due to the social stigma attached. The trade itself is small – with only 80-100 women. They come from Cuttack, Keonjhar and Calcutta. Some are from Bangladesh. The women often live with their families, or with partners. They work for a ‘owner’, a woman who rents out a house to them for a percentage of the earnings, that can go up to 50% of the income.[20]

Family based sex-work takes place in the village of Tikirapada, Angul district, Orissa. Tikarapada has 4 hamlets: made up of fisherfolk, cultivators, Harijans and the ghatashahis (river bank residents). The sex-workers are either ghatashahis or temporary migrants from Malishahi, Angul and Phulbani. Both are socially excluded within the village.

Prostitution began here in the 1940s to meet the demands of the labour of a paper mill. After the mill closed down in 1982, prostitution was given a boost by the tourist trade centering around the nearby crocodile sanctuary. Tourism takes place mostly between October to February.  The sex-trade is controlled by middlemen or dalals who contact customers and keep 20% of the money. The income varies seasonably. The income earned during the 4-5 months is used for the entire year. Three or four sex-workers can earn between Rs. 5000 – 10,000 a day in the tourist season. Most of the women earn about 500-1000 a day.[21]

Issues of financial access and aging

The question of whether the sex trade can be defined as work can be addressed through the prism of financial access. While there can be little debate about the fact that women in the sex industry experience sex-work as a survival strategy, the issue gets complicated by the human rights violations within the trade, linked to which is the question of access to the money and resources generated. There are essentially two points of view here. One that the sex trade be abolished as it is discriminatory and women in the trade rehabilitated.

“There is money generated in the sex trade, but it is linked with sexual exploitation. Children and women are trafficked for the money that can be generated from them. Most of the money generated through this is enjoyed by pimps and the maashi. Women are exploited for economic benefits but they are not the gainers in this process.”[22]

Similarly, in family based sex-work such as in Tikarapada and Garai, activists argue that the income generated by women is used by the men  in the family.[23] Organisations such as Sanlaap and WIF argue against the notion that sex-workers are empowered women in control of their destiny.

“Empowerment through income happens only to a few of them, 99% can’t save any money, the empowered 1% become madams. They live off the earnings of the sex-workers or rent out their rooms to flying sex-workers for anything between Rs. 50-100.”[24]

While there are no established statistics on the earnings of sex-workers, NGOs have tried to make some informed assertions. According to Sanlaap, a Calcutta based NGO:

“Assuming there are 20,000 sex-workers in Calcutta, each with a gross average earning of Rs. 100 a day, the total turnover per day is Rs. 200,0000 and Rs. 600,000,00 per month and an average turnover of Rs. 720 million. Only a small part goes to sex-workers, the rest to recruiters, middlemen, agents, pimps, brothel-keepers, live-in partners, liquor sellers, the underworld and the police.”[25]

My field experience reveals to me, however, that the percentage of the income that a sex-worker controls depends on a variety of factors. One, the stage of sex-work that she belongs to. In the earlier stages of her work, a brothel based sex-worker may have little or no access to the income that she has generated. Deductions are made for the interest of the money that she has been purchased for, her rent and lodging. All of these are often inflated. Even after she manages to get independent, she still has to pay rent and bribes to the police and local goons for protection. Sex-workers belonging to DMSC however point out that unionisation has meant a reduction in the amount of corruption and extra legal payments to the police. A similar experience is reported by sex-workers belonging to the Bhubaneswar based OPUS.

Women in the sex trade often support their families. Many send up to 50% of their income home.[26] As an activist points out:

“They have a continuing link with their families. Some even send money to their former husbands regularly even if he has remarried. They continue to have some allegiance with the husband, even if they have been abandoned by him. Most send money home regularly to their parents and brothers, they arrange the education of their brothers, marry off their sisters. The amount that they varies according to their economic condition. But most send something home.”[27]

The sex trade provides employment and income to a range of people in and around the red light area.

“…our family members aren’t the only people that are being supported by us. We provide livelihood to so many people: because we practice our trade, the local hotels and paan-cigarette wallahs do so well, they earn more money than others outside the red light area. Taxiwallahs  charge more money from clients if they want to come to the red light area. But even these people, who depend on to us, look at us with loathing.”[28]

NGOs often express a bias against family members dependent on sex-workers. This view in my opinion, is based on patriarchal notions of morality, masculinity  and income generation. It both denies women agency – in supporting their families through sex-work –  and stigmatises men economically dependent on women.

While many sex-workers do suffer from low self-esteem, they simultaneously believe that what they are doing is work. This, to my mind is the most important difference between sex-workers and the official discourse. Prostitute rights groups in the west have argued against the notion that prostitution can not be voluntary in a racist, sexist, capitalist, patriarchal social field. They do not claim that prostitution is a free choice; they claim that it is as free a choice as other choices made in a capitalist, patriarchal, racist system.[29] In India, the Sex-workers’ Manifesto released in 1997 in Calcutta has made a similar claim.

Women take up prostitution for the same reason as they might take up any other livelihood option available to them. Our stories are not fundamentally different from the labourer from Bihar who pulls a rickshaw in Calcutta or the worker from Calcutta who works part time in a factory in Bombay.”[30]

Most older women are unable to eke out a living through sex-work, and move on to other, or related professions. If they have managed to save enough money to buy property, they rent out rooms to practicing sex-workers or run a brothel. Others sell liquor, pan and cigarettes in the area. There are a sizeable number of cases where older women marry their partners, but continue to live in the red light area.[31] There are, of course, exceptions to this trend, and older women in the profession sometimes continue to have a clientele. A 40-year-old sex-worker in Calcutta told me that while she doesn’t work regularly, she still entertains the occasional client. She spoke about a young, attractive college boy, who has been coming to her for the past 6 months.

“I ask him why he comes to me. I am twice his age. He says that he comes here because I have such beautiful eyes. He doesn’t care about my age.”[32]

In Tikarapada, the problem of ageing sex-workers has another dimension. Since the village is not organised as a red light area, the economic opportunities for older women in the profession are fewer and many older sex-workers end up destitute.[33]

Field work issues and questions of methodology

I examine the nature of problems faced at various points of field work. To what extent do NGOs act as ‘gatekeepers’ to the red light areas and what are the differences between the two states under study?

There are some differences in access to information in West Bengal and Orissa. NGOs in both states act as gatekeepers to the red light areas in both states but there are differences. In the Calcutta based NGOs that I have worked with – DMSC, Sanlaap and Women’s Interlink Foundation, there is openness to varying degrees. DMSC is highly organised and has a ‘kit’ of information for outsiders. But there is a degree of uniformity as far as the opinions of the staff is concerned. The staff is unified in briefing the ‘outsider’.

Critics of NGO dominance argue that the livelihood of NGOs depends on the sex trade, hence there is no political will within these organisations to stop sex-work.[34] This view, however, is not borne out by the differences in perceptions and activities of NGOs in Calcutta. To elaborate, while DMSC believes that sex-work should be legalised and not abolished; Sanlaap believes in the abolition of child prostitution and decriminalisation of adult sex-work and WIF believes that prostitution per se is oppressive and should be stopped.

In Orissa, access to information is less easy than in Calcutta. Sex-workers in the Malishahi area refuse to talk to ‘outsiders’ who have not got ‘permission’ from the de-facto head.[35] The red light area is dominated by the Orissa Patita Udhar Samiti, which makes it difficult for any other organisation to work in the area. Outside intervention is closely monitored. It is difficult if not impossible to interview any women working in the area without getting the permission of Madan Bahra, the husband of the secretary of the Samiti. The nature of the control may be quasi official but is totalitarian. Interestingly no one in the red light area told us to contact the secretary, Abha Rani Chowdhry, who is clearly a figurehead in the organisation. Madan Bahra agreed to help us after much persuasion, but displayed some contempt for research, stressing the need for more action.

In other organisations, there appears little control over views held by different members of the group. In Nari Surakshya Samiti, for instance, questions were answered quite differently by a worker in the organisation and the head, unlike DMSC where there is a unanimity of opinion and information across the board.[36]

Concluding statements

I suggest that prostitution is work, both in terms of organisation and economic and social contribution to society. Prostitution also fits into sociological definitions of work. Work is understood to include any human effort – paid or unpaid – that adds use value to goods and services.[37] Prostitution even fits into the narrower definition of work as employment for wages. Secondly, women in the sex-trade in India as elsewhere, define themselves as workers.[38] It is therefore condescending and patronising for activists, researchers and policy makers to ignore or undermine these perceptions. The question of whether legalisation can actually improve the lives of sex-workers, however is more difficult to answer. While NGOs and policy makers argue out the issue, the voices and perceptions of women in the sex trade needs to be added to the debate before any policy changes can be made.

(I acknowledge with gratitude the assistance given to me by Mr. S.A.Khan, Mr. Rashmi Ranjan Satpathy and Nirupama Satpathy in Orissa and Mr. Basar Ali in Calcutta during the course of my field work in August and September 2001.)


[1] Quote from Sex-workers Manifesto. Theme paper of the First National Conference of Sex-workers organised by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Calcutta. 14-16 November 1997.

[2] Sanlaap, Human rights and sex trafficking. Unpublished paper. 1999.

[3] Interview with Aloka Mitra, Women’s Interlink Foundation, Calcutta on 20.09.2001.

[4] Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, The Fallen Learn to Rise. The Social Impact of STD-HIV Intervention Programme. Calcutta. 1997.

[5] Interview with Shaheen Nilofer, Coordinator, OXFAM India Trust, Orissa. 7th September 2001.

[6] Interview with Manisha Majumdar, Coordinator, Task Force on Women and Violence. 7th September 2001.

[7] Catherine Campbell, Selling Sex in the Time of AIDS: Identity, Sexuality and Commercial Sex-work on a South African mine. Social Science and Medicine. Volume 50 (2). 2000.

[8] Interview with Rekha Lamba, sex-worker in Calcutta of Nepalese origin. 27th September 1998.

[9] Interview with ‘Aloka, flying’ sex-worker from Garai, Calcutta, 20.09.01.

[10] Interview with Joyati, sex-worker in Malishahi, Bhubaneswar on 6.09.01.

[11] Lin Chew, Prostitution and Migration: Issues and Approaches. Summary of Network Presentation, Calcutta, March 1998. .APSNET. Bulletin of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex-workers. No. 1, August 1999: 13-16.

[12] Chris Tilly and Charles Tilly, Work Under Capitalism. New Perspectives in Sociology. Westview Press. Colorado. 1998: 23.74-75.

[13] Interview with Mrinal Kanta Dutta, Director of DMSC, 27th August 2001.

[14] Based on interviews in Sonagachi in 1998 and 2001. Also see, Society for Human Development and Social Action, Learning to Change. Seven Years’ Stint of STD/HIV Intervention Programme at Sonagachi. 1992-1999. Calcutta. 1999.

[15] Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, The Fallen Learn to Rise. The Social Impact of STD-HIV Intervention Programme. Calcutta. 1997: 16-17.

[16] Interview with Sandip Bandopadhyay, worked with DMSC between 1996-1998, currently a free lance consultant, 29th August 2001.

[17] Interview with Veena, brothel owner in Sonagachi, Calcutta. 27th September 1998.

[18] Interview with Shekhar Chatterjee, worked with CINI and now works for a sponsorship programme run by Sahay in 400 villages in West Bengal on 1.09.01.

[19] I owe this insight to Mr. SA Khan.

[20] Interview with Samima Khatoon, Ruchika, A Street Children Organisation. Malishahi. 3rd September 2001 and Madan Bahra, OPUS, 5th September 2001.

[21] Interview with Smita Pattanaik, Nari Surakhya Samiti, Angul on 16th September 2001.

[22] Interview with Aloka Mitra, Women’s Interlink Foundation, Calcutta on 20.09.2001.

[23] Interview with Smita Pattanaik, Nari Surakhya Samiti, Angul on 16th September 2001.

[24] Interview with Aloka Mitra, Women’s Interlink Foundation, Calcutta on 20.09.2001.

[25] Sanlaap, Child Prostitution in Calcutta. Calcutta. 1999. On file with Sanlaap.

[26] Interview with Aloka Mitra, Women’s Interlink Foundation, Calcutta on 20.09.2001.

[27] Interview with Sandip Bandopadhyay, worked with DMSC between 1996-1998, currently a free lance consultant, 29th August 2001.

[28] Interview with Malati, sex-worker in Sonagachi on 27th August 2001.

[29] Shanon Bell, Reading, Writing and Rewriting the Prostitute Body. Indiana University Press. Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1994: 110 –111.

[30] Sex-workers’ Manifesto. Theme Paper of the First National Conference of Sex-workers organised by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Calcutta. 14-16 November 1997.

[31] Interview with Sandip Bandopadhyay, worked with DMSC between 1996-1998, currently a free lance consultant, 29th August 2001.

[32] Interview with Radha, Sonagachi on 14th September 1998.

[33] Nari Suraksya Samiti, Position Paper on Tikarapada. On file.

[34] Interview with Shekhar Chatterjee, worked with CINI and now works for a sponsorship programme run by Sahay in 400 villages in West Bengal on 1.09.01.

[35] Interview with Madan Bahra, 5th September 2001 and the visit to Malishahi, 4th September 2001.

[36] Anjana Mahakud, Coordinator, Nari Surakhya Samiti, expressed the view that prostitution cannot be stopped as it fulfils a social need while the Secretary of the organisation, Smita Pattanaik stated that the aim of the organisation is to abolish prostitution and to rehabilitate women in the trade. Interviews on 16th September 2001.

[37] Chris Tilly and Charles Tilly, Work Under Capitalism. New Perspectives in Sociology. Westview Press. Colorado. 1998: 23.

[38] In Calcutta, members of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee called themselves Juona Kormi that translates itself as sex-workers. While this is a political organisation, it is important to remember that colloquial terms for defining sex-work, by workers and others is dhanda in Hindi, that translates itself into business or occupation.