30 Jun 2020
In social-distancing era, how has the life of sex-workers changed?
Written byShalini Ojha
The rules of the world, like maintaining a respectable distance, minimizing social contact, and wearing masks, don't fit the bill for sex workers, whose livelihoods depend on physical touch.
Much like other professions, the coronavirus pandemic has affected sex workers too.
Faced with a crisis like none other, they are now learning new tricks like clicking nudes, striptease, and surreptitious calls to keep money flowing.
The relaxations from lockdown weren't extended to Red Light Areas
To recall, India was locked down on March 25, to keep a check on coronavirus transmission.
In the last few weeks, the restrictions were eased in phases. As part of the "unlocking phase," which began in June, the government let most offices resume operations; markets, and religious places to open.
But Red Light Areas (RLAs) remained shut and experts believe the curbs should continue.
Keeping RLAs shut would help reduce death toll by 70%
A study conducted by Mumbai's doctors, along with the School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, concluded that keeping RLAs shut will delay the COVID-19 peak in India by 23 days, and reduce the death toll by almost 67%.
The study predicted 2,000 sex workers could die in West Bengal if restrictions are lifted. The situation of already-battered Maharashtra could worsen too.
Opening up India is challenging, RLAs' closure may help: Study
The study noted that opening up a country as diverse as India already comes with its set of challenges.
"There are limited public health interventions that can substantially reduce COVID-19 cases and deaths when re-opening a country as large and diverse as India. Extended closure of RLAs in India may be one of these interventions — and it is feasible," the study suggested.
Staring at uncertain future, sex workers find survival tips
For these women who relied on a hand-to-mouth income, the problem is two-fold — not many support the unlocking of RLAs, and even if the doors are opened, customers might not pay a visit fearing infection.
In this scenario, they have turned towards learning technology to stay connected with existing clients and finding new ones.
Many have learned striptease and dance to rake in moolah.
E-sex is helping these workers earn money
A TOI report said e-sex is helping these women earn money during the distressing times. Some social organizations help them too, by teaching how e-wallets function.
About the changed business model, a peer educator from Chennai, Gajalakshmi, said clients ask workers for video calls over WhatsApp. "If they like her, they strike a bargain," she said.
The same formula is followed in West Bengal.
In Kolkata, number of video/phone calls have surged
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, which works for sex workers in Kolkata's Sonagachi, said the number of phone and video calls has gone up since lockdown.
In Bengaluru, sex workers use other apps like Zoom, Telegram, and Skype. The sex workers understand the internet is the only way they can sustain their businesses.
Though this method provides a ray of hope, it throws challenges too.
Privacy remains a big concern among sex workers, clients
Notably, a large number of clients and sex workers aren't comfortable with online interactions. A worker told New Indian Express she agrees for an online call with a new customer only after gaining trust that he wouldn't record it.
Moreover, some workers, who live with their families, can't indulge in e-sex.
There are others who don't have access to a phone or the internet.
Stripped of livelihoods, sex workers tackling mental health issues too
Obviously, the uncertainty has taken a toll on sex workers' mental health. Activists, working closely with them, said they need more counseling as many are suffering from anxiety issues.
Their current business is crumbling and to start a new one, they need capital.
Unfortunately, the government's policies, meant to provide cash and food, don't help as many don't have requisite cards.
Road to normalcy seems an impossible one for sex workers
The sex workers who are back in RLAs have been following all the necessary precautions, like wearing masks and sanitizing the area. And some who neither have the option of e-sex nor returning to work, are looking for new jobs.
But in most scenarios, they are shooed away and not entertained for interviews.
Their livelihood is gone. Will it ever make a return?