BJP leader Daya Shankar Singh kicked up a controversy by calling BSP leader Mayawati “worse than a prostitute ”. Within hours, news and social media were clogged with TV channels and newspapers calling him “sexist, cheap and blatant.”
Finance minister Arun Jaitley expressed “personal regret” in Parliament and the party expelled Singh.
But underlying in the controversy was one unanswered question: What is so inherently sexist in calling someone a prostitute? Why is sex work considered bad?
In India, prostitution is not criminalised. However, pimping, brothel-keeping and soliciting sex in any other way is punishable, according to the law.
This goes to show that prostitution is often inseparable from trafficking and exploitation. So what one advocates for is humane treatment and facilities for sex workers.
Like it or not, there’s nothing inherently wrong about prostitution. What is wrong is how sex workers are treated in India.
They are often forced to operate out of dingy houses in seedy neighbourhoods without proper protection or oversight.
They don’t have access to proper legal, police or health options and are often exploited by both their customers and pimps. Using prostitution as a slur only worsens their already precarious social position.
Using prostitution as a slur often comes from rigid social morality. A lot of people who are opposed to the idea can’t really articulate why they don’t like it--similar to the same way most regard homosexuality. They allow their personal feelings and prejudices to dictate how the profession is seen.
The same bias reflects in the mindset of political leaders, when they use ‘prostitution’--just another job--in a derogatory way.
To take what is just another profession and strip it of dignity is not only wrong, it is attacking the human worth of sex workers. And when senior leaders agree that the comment is offensive, they are offending the prostitutes and not Mayawati.
Prostitution is far more widespread in India than we imagine and is undertaken by many people who see it as a viable option in an otherwise bleak economy. In 2007, the ministry of women and child development reported more than 3 million female sex workers in India.
But our moral dogma and prejudices have ensured that demands by sex workers for recognition as labourers have fallen on deaf ears.
Leaders and lawmakers should either rehablitate sex workers or help them do their work safely instead of dropping in at red-light areas for poll campaigns and then denounce by using ‘prostitute’ as a term of ‘abuse’.
(The views expressed are personal.)