Trigger Warning: This story contains instances of rape and sexual violence that readers may find disturbing
It’s well past midnight. It’s time for Harish* to put on his make-up and saunter up the terrace. Unplugging his phone from the charger, he grabs his wig, a lollipop, and tip-toes his way out, trying not to step on one of the four boys he shares a dusty little room with. It’s a full-moon night, so he doesn’t have trouble finding a well-lit spot to make clandestine video calls to his clients.
“It doesn’t pay much doing it over the phone – I make around Rs. 200 for a three-hour call. I’ve even been tricked out of payment by three customers this week. It’s a risk, but I need to survive. My savings have dwindled,” says the 26-year-old migrant sex worker based in Chennai. He has been out of work since India went into total lockdown in March after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the Coronavirus cases in the country showing no signs of plateauing, he recently managed to get a few clients who wanted to avail his services on the phone and pay him just enough money to cover three square meals a day. “I’ve been practicing social distancing and adhering to the government’s lockdown guidelines. I haven’t solicited customers in person since the first lockdown. But if things don’t get any better, I might end up starving,” he adds.
The COVID-19 pandemic has yet again brought to the fore the socio-economic vulnerabilities of India’s most marginalized. Among them, one of the worst affected communities is that of sex workers. In the absence of legal recognition and protection against exploitation, the pandemic has affected this section of population disproportionately. But this state of sex workers is far from better even otherwise – COVID-19 has only exacerbated their situation. While reports about cis-gender women and trans sex workers, although far and between, manage to make it to mainstream media, a certain section gets entirely neglected.
Male sex workers (MSW), a significant but invisible population in India, which include cis-gender men, both straight and gay, live not just on the fringes of society, but even within their own communities. With next to non-existent data available on their demographics or even census numbers, the condition of MSW is grim. Based on a 2018 study, there were an estimated 42 million sex workers worldwide, and it’s thought that up to 20 per cent of them are male. If these numbers are to be believed, there could be well over eight million MSW. Meanwhile, India had 1,200,000 sex workers according to a Universal Periodic Review report in 2016, and the number is very likely to be much higher now. However, the number of MSW among these is not known, an indication of how understudied they are.
Sudhir Patil, treasurer of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), says there should be well over 150,000 MSW in India. An MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) sex worker from Sangli, Maharashtra, 45-year-old Sudhir says, “I became a sex worker in my late 20s. Poverty forced me into it. But over time, this became my profession. I live with my parents and they’re aware of my work. Yes, it’s risky and a lot of hard work. I get around five clients a day and each of them pays around Rs. 200. When I solicit on the highway, I accept clients for even as little as Rs. 100. But at the end of the day, all that matters is that I get to stand on my own feet and it’s empowering.” He adds with a chuckle, “These younger boys have made it more difficult for me to get new clients, though. There’s a lot of competition and I need to be at the top of my game. This is one of those professions where your worth diminishes with experience. But I’m not going anywhere!”
Sudhir credits developing a positive attitude towards his work to his experience working with Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM), a registered nonprofit organization that works towards empowering stigmatized communities. Sudhir is part of the core team of SANGRAM’s Muskan, a collective of 1,500 male and 500 trans sex workers, that runs support groups, facilitates targeted interventions for HIV prevention, care and support, and is involved in local advocacy. “We’ve completely stopped working now and are practicing good hygiene to help the government and the public fight the pandemic. But the government still turns a blind eye to us. No one cares about us. If it wasn’t for NNSW and SANGRAM who helped us with daily essentials, we’d all be dying of starvation now,” says Sudhir.
Organization is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to MSW. Under the complex Immoral Traffic Prevention Act of 1956, sex work itself isn’t illegal in India. But, a number of related activities including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, prostitution in a hotel, child prostitution, pimping and pandering, are illegal. However, many brothels operate in Indian metros including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Chennai. In these brothels, albeit run illegally, sex workers often live in families and have multiple identities as mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. It is this structure that MSW lack.
The absence of male brothels in India (male brothels exist in relatively few countries) means less networking, and therefore, lack of mutual support, thereby making them more vulnerable to exploitation. As a result, instances of violence including rape while engaging in sex work have been normalized, particularly with trans sex workers and MSW.
Faizan*, a 23-year-old male sex worker, says, “I was raped at a hotel after a client spiked my drink. I woke up to three men around me, all naked, while I’d consented to meeting only one of them. I was helpless and what made it worse was their absolute impunity. They were undeniably confident that I would not contact police and just asked me to leave. We still blame women for crimes against them. So, when you’re a sex worker, and a male at that, it’s obviously your own fault, isn’t it?”
A native of Lucknow, he was forced to flee from home after he came out as gay to his parents who refused to accept his sexuality. He currently studies at an arts college in Delhi and the sex work helps him pay his bills. “Even if I muster up the courage to go file a complaint, I doubt they’d take it seriously. They’d think it’s not as bad as a woman being raped. But it’s exactly the same,” he adds highlighting how the lack of a proper legal framework leaves many others like him vulnerable to police violence, harassment, and abuse.
Speaking of police violence, Sudhir recalls an incident. “It’s very common for police and local goons to engage in non-consensual/forceful sex with us. There have been multiple instances of illegal detention as well. Earlier this year, cops in Kolhapur assaulted a male sex worker, which caused a fracture in his leg. Despite our complaints even to the collector, no action was taken. It was only after presenting a letter jointly written by SANGRAM, NNSW, and Muskaan, to the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) that a complaint was even filed,” explains Sudhir yet again highlighting why it’s important to have agency.
“It’s mostly the men who are violent. The women are respectful and dignified,” says Rahul*, a gigolo, a male sex worker who caters to women. He had come to Mumbai all the way from Darjeeling with hopes and dreams of becoming an actor, but found himself in a dire financial situation two years ago. “Bollywood doesn’t cast people like me in lead roles,” he says. (Of course, that’s no surprise for an industry that blatantly passes off bespoke manor-born scions from Johars to Kapoors to Pandeys.) “I thought I had exhausted all my options. But a friend of mine who is a seasoned gigolo convinced me to enter his line of work. I did hesitate initially, but today, after two years, I feel I’ve found a lucrative career. I get paid between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 25,000 a night. Some of my friends who have ‘experience’ make even more,” he says. His “respectable list of clients” are smart and affluent women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. “They’re mostly women who are in unhappy marriages or have no sense of belonging. They just want to be cared for and appreciated. Sometimes, it could also be because they just have too much money and want to engage in vicarious desires and fantasies.” However, it is not always sex that they want. “One lady who had booked a suite at an upscale hotel in Bandra, just wanted to talk. We held hands all night, talked, and watched a movie before she fell asleep on my chest. We didn’t do anything. She was kind and even offered to help me get a bank loan for my sister’s wedding,” he fondly remembers. His family back home thinks he’s an assistant director in films. “I can’t tell them what I do. I’m able to send enough money to tend to my family’s needs while also being able to afford my own indulgences. So, that’s all that matters,” adds Rahul*.
Irrespective of the clients they cater to, one of the biggest risks associated with sex work, is contracting HIV/STI, and trans sex workers and MSW have specific vulnerabilities to HIV. While studies on trans sex workers have made significant contributions towards eventually mobilizing them for HIV prevention in many places, the same isn’t the case with MSW who have been grossly neglected with almost no access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services.
Beena Thomas, a scientist at the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis (NIRT), Chennai, is one among the few researchers to have studied MSW. The study, Transactional Sex and the Challenges to Safer Sexual Behaviors: A Study Among Male Sex Workers in Chennai, India, that also included researchers from reputed institutes across the world, documented HIV risk factors and motivations for sex work in this population, says Beena. Conducted between 2013 and 2014, the study involved a community-based convenience sample of 100 MSW mostly in the age group of 18-25 in Chennai. It showed that the most common reasons for starting sex work were money (83.0 percent) and pleasure (56.0 percent).
However, it made rather startling revelations with respect to safe-sex practices. Nearly 70.0 percent were offered more money not to use a condom during sex with a client, and 74.2 percent reported accepting this proposition. “Most MSW are involved in transactional sex (sexual relationships where the giving and/or receiving of gifts, money or other services is an important factor) of one kind or the other. Because of the lack of a formal structure, they’re more vulnerable to be coerced into unsafe practices. They find it hard to negotiate with their clients. And if sex work is their only source of income, it is likely that they agree to go forward without protection as the clients pay more,” says Beena. The study also confirmed that 64 percent reported ever testing for HIV and 20.2 percent for any STI.
“They do not perceive themselves at risk because they don’t understand the severity of it. The ones who do, refrain from getting tested because of the stigma attached,” adds Beena. While exploratory in nature, the findings of the study suggested that HIV prevention interventions for MSW should explore supporting safe sexual practices, including facilitating sexual safety negotiation skills and strategies. So, they came up with an intervention that was designed for the MSW based on how the MSW wanted themselves. “Mobilizing them is difficult because they might have different clients to attend to at different times of the day and at different locations. So, we decided to educate them via text messages and calls while also making sure they were at the right place and time when they received it. We didn’t jump straight to safe-sex practices. We started with telling them they’re beautiful, and they’re precious because most of them lacked self-worth, and then took it from there. The starting point to restrict sexual misbehaviour is self-acceptance and to make MSW remind themselves that they’re worth it and have the right to a healthy and safe life like everyone else,” explains Beena.
On their part, all the sex workers ask is for decriminalization of consensual adult sex work. While the road to equal rights might be a long one, decriminalizing their occupation gives sex workers a chance at legal protection, justice, and access to health care. Essentially, the criminalization of sex work is a human rights issue and a government of a “free country” should not be telling consenting adults who they’re allowed to have sexual relations with and on what terms.
*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity