Last month was abuzz with the Supreme Court’s ruling on prostitution, ‘Sex workers are entitled to equal status and equal protection under the law of the land’. Some rejoiced, some were disappointed, a few unaffected and the rest unaware. I read multiple news articles and wondered what the bench actually said, how was it different from the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, ITPA, would it change the lives and future of victims? The ruling is not clear on many grounds. Are women in prostitution victims or not? While a smattering few have chosen to sell their bodies to feed their bellies, studies point out that a vast majority were coerced into prostitution; by family, lack an alternative livelihood, and trafficked within the country and across borders for commercial gain.

How would this ruling treat a former victim turned brothel-keeper or brothel owner? How would this ruling treat a brothel, the running of which according to the Act is a crime? How would this ruling treat women who were trafficked, but at the time of rescue, for various reasons, claim they are in the sex trade of their own volition? I concur with Additional Solicitor General, ASG, Mr. Jayant Sud who stated that sex workers who are rescued from the brothel are kept in the shelter homes for their safekeeping. It is indeed tricky to verify at the time of a raid whether women had voluntarily consented or were coerced into prostitution. From experience, my colleagues and I concur with the ASG that those trafficked from across the country, might not know anyone in the city where they are rescued and are vulnerable to being coerced by the perpetrators. Therefore, the recommendation asking the police to refrain from interfering with women in the trade, who are consenting adults is not practical.

A Social Investigation Report, SIR, is essential to finding out if the consent was voluntary or not. We know from experience that in a matter of minutes, leave alone days, the victim is moved from one brothel to another or even to another state. If there were no post-rescue protocols, the victim would be lost in this abyss before a SIR is done. Even prior to this ruling, we have had perpetrators consider it harassment when we did a SIR. Often, our Home Investigation Report revealed that a victim’s home was either unsafe (coerced by the family) or documents produced were fake clearly indicating the ‘Consenting Adult’ was coerced.

It does take us to the basic question if prostitution can actually be considered work? What value does prostitution add to society? What protection can it offer the people involved in their work? Is our society (including the SC bench) truly looking at prostitution in the same light as other professions?

If so, women in prostitution need to be called workers and not victims. Until then, patriarchy is not saying victims need protection, but in saying that prostitution is work for it is the patriarchs that gain from this ‘work’.