Two weeks ago we passed the one year mark of living and working with the women in a red-light district. We are marred with sludge and sweat.
The women I work with made room for me in their lives, telling me their stories. They laid the weight of their world on my chest and asked me to breathe it in.
I came here thinking I knew all about human trafficking and prostitution, but despite an optimistic self-analysis of my own preparation and astuteness, there was a lot left to discover.
Prostitution is a contentious topic. There are loud voiced people on each side of the divide. Intelligent, highly educated and well intentioned people have convincing arguments both for and against the commercial sex industry. False dichotomies will be thrown at you; “If you are pro-prostitution, you are supporting rape”, “if you are anti-prostitution, you are anti-feminist, taking away women’s choice”. Both sides will tell you they are fighting for the same thing; the rights of women. The right to work in prostitution, the right to not work in prostitution, the right to give consent, the right to say no, the right to live free of exploitation. A year here has not given me all the answers. But still, I too have a loud voice and like to jump on a controversial bandwagon from time to time.
I’ve met a lot of people, that when they find out who I work with, ask “well, were they
trafficked, or did they choose to be prostitutes”. As if creating a segregative system of categorisation will distinguish who the worthy victims are.
By drawing distinction between those who are physically forced into prostitution and those prostituted by destitution, or any number of other manipulating circumstances, we obscure the exploitive, complex and controlling factors that go into shaping someone’s choice. The notion of choice does not exist within prostitution the same way it exists outside of it.
As I have written before, choice does not always present itself as balanced. When we hear the word choice, we automatically think there is an option that offers a different but equal alternative, but the women I’ve met have faced impossible choices. There was not a better option available. You can’t pick the person at the end of a long line of social, political and economic problems and blame them for their inability to fight the system. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t.
We like to view human trafficking and prostitution as separate, or even contrasting, because it’s easier. It removes the moral conflict of having to think deeply about how we got here, to where the commodification and consumption of humanity is commonplace. If we can continue to stand where everything is black or white, right or wrong, and good or bad, we can avoid wading into the murky grey area where the dirt might stick to us, and where our complicity in the world’s suffering is highlighted. We can stay sitting atop our high horse and casually condemn entire sections of society.
I plan to let this place, pull apart my understanding and reconstruct my thinking for a while longer. While originally the plan had been to stay one year, I’ve decided to extend it to two, short of anything disastrous happening. This next year will look different, with support structures changing and our business going through some new transitions. Kolkata will continue to be a difficult place to live, but I believe I am within my capabilities to stay.
Hannah* served in South Asia as a nurse (*name changed)