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Economic Effects of Prostitution


This thesis was written with the intension of exploring the multi-dimensional problem of prostitution and the flesh trade in India. The main objective of the study was to identify the various socio-economic factors that could be associated with prostitution as a profession.  To study the socio-economic background, social organization and qualitative backgrounds of prostitutes were taken into consideration to elucidate the multiple dimensions of the problem in a structured way. Milieu of the information is drawn from existing international and domestic literature of the economics of sexual exploitation and prostitution. The study attempts to analyze multiple push and pull factors that aids in the trafficking of women and girls from rural areas of India to metropolitan cities. Lack of education, social discrimination and cultural norms based on religion and ethnicity and poverty are identified as the major push factors and demand for more employment opportunities, higher incomes and better lifestyles are classified as the pull factors. The pull factors are identified as schemes to lure unsuspecting and in a majority of the cases, poorly educated and vulnerable girls for the purpose of trafficking.

I have also drawn upon the labour of temple women from the borders of two Indian states – Karnataka and Maharashtra to encompass the social structure and cultural norms that have forced women into prostitution.


Prostitution as a profession exists throughout man’s recorded history. It dates back to centuries and has with good reason, been described as the world’s oldest profession. No known societies, whether modern or traditional, exist without some form of prostitution and India is an evidence for this.

The first thing that would strike you about India is the sense of extreme contrast.  While on one side, people are surviving on less than $1 a day, the country is home to 5 million billionaires that account for 7% of the worlds richest.  Along with a feeling of moving forward and progress, there exists an undercurrent of tradition and cultural barriers laid on the foundation of religion and superstition that are even more deeply ingrained owing to the caste system. These sharp contrasts between the ‘new and modern India’ and ‘old’ India are showcased through their critically acclaimed ‘holy-whore’ system.

Sex work in India, employs women who operate on the fringe of legality. There are roughly 3 million female sex workers, owing to low social status, lack of ample opportunities for education, employment and poverty. The diverse nature of Indian prostitution is illustrated from sex workers hiding behind the name-tag of Devdasis (temple dancers) to more commonly known street workers. A staggering 35.47 percent of the mentioned figure has entered the trade before the age of 18 years, bringing to light the increase in number of prostitutes by 50% between 1997 and 2004. In a majority of the cases, these girls will have retired by the age of 30.

Traditionally, the social status of prostitutes in India has always been low and continues to be so; regardless of their religion, they are denied multiple social rights. For instance, when any of these women passed away in Sonagachi (Red light district, Kolkata), the bodies are disposed in the Hubly river as a result of refuted funeral rights.

Contrary to the social perception of sex workers however, the eminence seems to be gradually improving. A major turning point was a decision made by the ___ High court in ___ to legalize prostitution, given the brothel or red light area is licensed. This makes India, one of the few countries where prostitution is legal. In light of the rising cases of reported HIV/AIDS, sex workers were categorized as a high risk group and so, many non-government organizations have been actively promoting sex awareness amongst the lot since the late 1990’s. This being said, most sex workers in India remain marginalized from mainstream society till date. Albeit the profession brings in more income in comparison to other skills, in most cases, the money is extorted by corrupt officials who benefit from the sex worker’s existing stigmatized position.

Statement of the problem:

Albeit the presence of abundant data suggesting prostitution in India has reached an alarming magnitude, a certain trend has been noticed; there has been an increase in not just prostitution of the lower class which is mainly practiced by unskilled and poorly educated women but also that of the upper class. The upper class prostitutes consist of rather sophisticated and well educated women who cater to the ‘elite’ class of the society. Nevertheless, prostitution hasn’t received enough attention by economists. It materializes that prostitution thrives more in metropolitan cities in comparison to rural areas, especially in slums and well populated areas of commercial and business purposes such as brothels, night clubs, hotels and guest houses and it usually carried out in exchange of cash transactions. Little is known about the worker’s social background and her take on the profession she is disposes herself to. Being a country that is lays such great importance to culture and tradition, moralists and other similar groups have consistently condemned the lot and their line of work to harsh judgement for various reasons. It is alongside this background that this study is envisaged.  The following study in no way supports any moral charges that pan aggressive generalizations. In an attempt to study the nature of the profession of prostitution in a developing country like India, there appear to be certain questions that we would want to answer; What kind of prostitutions do we have? What may their socio-economic background be? In regard to this, what are the various socio-economic factors and conditions that promote the profession so greatly and what kind of relationship do the clients have with their prostitutes? Additionally, what may the effects of the flesh trade on the Indian economy be?

Aim and Objectives of the Study:

The all-purpose aim of the following study is to explore the nature of prostitution and its effect on the Indian economy. The specific objectives are as follows:

  1. Study the socio-economic background of prostitution and the flesh trade in India
  2. Highlight the diverse socio-economic factors and conditions that fuel the profession
  3. Identify trends and patterns of establishment, social organization and modes of operation of prostitutes

Definition, Types and Characteristics of Prostitution:

The most challenging question that must be answered at the kick-off of the study is: What is prostitution? In terms of economic rationalization, economists ponder over the choice of wife or whore where each are considered as ‘economic goods’ that can be substituted for the other; men buy and women sell.  Prostitution may be perceived as solely a social problem which has negative implications for the moral wellbeing of the society. For the purpose of the proposed study however, the terms of prostitution and profession are interchangeable. Clinard (1968) stated that sexual intercourse on a promiscuous and mercenary or on monetary basis with accompanying emotional indifference may be termed as prostitution. Gathering from this, a prostitute would figuratively be one who engages in sexual relations that are promiscuous, insensitive and lack affection, often not legitimated by the hands of matrimony. However, this broad definition singles out ambiguous cases since the acceptance of gifts or money in exchange of sexual favours of any sort do not encompass a form of prostitution and may be found amongst girlfriends, wives and mistresses.

In efforts to explain what the flesh trade is all about, the main attention goes to the development process, the characteristics of the profession and its various types. The typical career or life-cycle of a prostitute’s career consists of three stages;

  1. Entrance into the career
  2. Apprenticeship/Initiation and
  3. The development of contact

The girl is initially in contact with an individual(s) who is familiar with the trade; in most cases the pimp figure is a close relative or friend who traffics the entity (unknowingly a majority of the times). This includes relocating the girl from a rural area to an urban city after which she is forced into apprenticeship. This period exists to force the newbie into learning tricks of the trade or ‘rules of the game’ (Clinard, 1968).

Clinard classifies prostitutes into four types;

  1. The first type is of the lowest in status: ‘Streetwalkers’ who implore potential customers in public places. Often harassed and jailed by law-enforcers but seldom penalised.
  2. The second category comprises of those residing in organized brothels which are normally places in slum areas. The owner of the brothel swallows a share of the prostitute’s daily earnings as rent and to a great extent, protection from law enforcement agents.
  3. The third kind is what we call a ‘call girl’ or ‘escort’; they generally reside in a rented apartment of function out of high-class hotels.
  4. The fourth group includes upper-class prostitutes who work independently. More often than not residing in a well-furnished accommodation and in a respectable part of the town.  Most of the clients are brought in through word of mouth or personal recommendations and are highly placed members of the society.

In addition to these categories of prostitutes that Clinard has mentioned, there exist several more groups:

5. Devadasis:  Glorified temple dancers who are popularly known as ‘Devadasis.’ The Devadasi tradition is referred to as ‘sacred prostitution’ and throws light on the ‘holy-whore system’ that dates back to the 12th century. These women are bred into the profession out of the socio-religious act of dedicating pre-pubescent girls to temples under the worship of the Indian goddess Yelamma. This religious phenomenon is backed by the economic factors; girls being forced to perform religious rituals and duties in temples from a young age owing to milited employment and education facilities and in turn tempting elders to beckon the positives of doing so. Further string economic motivations lay behind the status ascribed to the household, bringing in elements of competition where households vie these positions. Devadasis are bestowed benefits of land procurement and being the economic backbone of the household in an otherwise patriarchal society, higher social status in certain areas.

Clinard (1968) brought to light certain characteristics that are common amongst prostitutes. Youth is considered to be of uttermost importance and prostitutes in not just India but other countries also are aged between 16 and 25 in the prime of their profession. In some cases though, prostitutes are widows, may be separated from their husbands or formally divorced too. The nature of their profession demands them to be highly mobile and through associations, develop behaviour patterns that become eminent in the society. One special characteristic that must be noted is that the behaviour of prostitutes in India is different from their western countries counterparts where it doesn’t carry the same level of stigma as does here. Prostitution is now legal but not less organized in India than is in more developed countries.

Market Structure of Prostitutes in India:

There are two major categories of sex workers identified in India, that have broader classifications; those who work out of brothels/equivalents of brothels and those who are known as floating sex workers. The latter are differentiated on the basis of where they work out of; mostly in hotels, their own residences and guest houses. There are 275,000 brothels and 8 official red light districts in India, which are located in either commercial centres or near in junction with river/seaports making it strategically easier to transport and hand over trafficked girls easily. Cluster of dingy, poorly lit and small rooms are what usually constitute these brothels and is regulated by local authority. Typically there are several narrow alleys leading to these entities. Sonagachi, Kolkata, the largest red light district in India and one of the largest in the word is one such paradigm of several hundred multi-storeyed brothels and around 10,000 sex workers. Located in North Kolkata, near the Marble Palace, it attracts clients of all economic stands; from bored truck drivers to well off business men. The size of the red light district makes it look like a little village in itself, with numerous narrow streets and endless spaces used to service client; with vast streets lined with fruit and vegetable stalls and shops that cater to daily needs.

There exists a significant variation amongst the clients that are serviced as well as in the act of practicing safe sex flanked by brothel based or floating sex workers (World Bank, 2009). Sex workers operating out of brothels have an average of 19 clients per week while floating sex workers average between 15 and 45 clients per week. The sixth round Behavioural survey (BSS 2006-227) data stated that safe sex was practiced only by 70% of the clients and ranged between 49% and 81% for those of street workers. Hotel-based sex workers are particularly susceptible to HIV/AIDS owing to their large number of clients. The higher rate of safe-sex practice in brothels is a direct reflection of legalized brothels, making it easier to distribute contraceptives (BBC, 2000).

Brothels demand an institutionalized hierarchy (Kotiswaran, 2008). The top most of the ladder are the local landlords or locally known ‘zamindars’ who run the show. They lease their land to the homeowners, who are also known as ‘bariwalis.’ The bariwali is the main figure who builds the house that is later rented out as a brothel to brother managers (sardarnis). These madams or sardaris facilitate the flesh trade by providing financial inputs required to make down payments for contracting services of the sex workers to the glorified pimps or agents; these agents take it upon themselves to find the victims to be trafficked.  The trafficked victim or bonded worker (known as chukris) are mandated to work to the point where the Madams or Sardarnis can pay the former the investment made.  With the motive of having to do so, the Sardarnis extract as much of financial outputs off the bonded sex workers as they can, giving the Chukris no time off, let alone the choice of who she would like to take on as a client or not. When the debts are ultimately paid off, Chukris are given the option of working as they like, with fewer restrictions. In contrast to bonded sex workers, floating sex workers enjoy the freedom of negotiation with their clients and pimps, the variety of services they have to offer. Edlund and Korn (2002) illustrated the spot-like nature of transactions in restricting roles of middlemen. A similar situation is noted in other markets too; such as in Malaysia and Los Angeles in the United States of America.

How women become a part of the Flesh trade in India:

Much emphasis, in the existing literature on economics of sex work focuses on motives of sex workers that push them into entering the profession. The analysis is based on standard labour supply models (Edlund and Korn 2002); whilst supply models have proven to be useful in this area, multiple non-economic incentives have also proven to play a major role in understanding better why women would enter this sort of employment (Moffatt and peters 2004). The following outline of major reasons why women take up the profession is based on a survey of floating sex workers based out of brothels, administered by ________ institute of Development studies with financial assistance from ____. The survey considered inputs from brothels in 3 of the 8 major red light districts in India; Sonagachi (Kolkata), Kamathipura (Bombay) and Garstin Bastion Road (New Delhi).  With a total of over 250 sex workers interviewed, 123 were from the three mentioned brothels and the rest were floating sex workers from the red light districts around India.

Insert table 1.

The results brought to light the most important reason that women become sex-workers as it being an economic necessity bred out of poverty, following forced labour and trafficking. Whilst trafficking accounts for the major reason behind the largest number of cases amongst brothel based sex-workers, economic necessity is what fuels the profession to a great extent. With less than 10 percent reporting that they became sex-workers out of personal interest, the knowledge of gruesome nature of the profession is widely spread and known. Major forces that led sex workers into the line apart from economic vulnerability were divorce or separation (accounting for 5.3%), domestic squabbles (accounting for 5.3%) and rape (4.3%). Between 15000 and 20000 women and children are trafficked annually in India to be exploited not only domestically but also internationally. Multiple reported cases of Indian women being trafficked to Gulf countries in exchange of promises of well paying jobs only to have resulted in sexual servitude (EPCAT, 2006).

It must be noted that trafficking does not cease at sex work. Female infanticide and selective sex abortions has created severe gender imbalances in the country, leading to a shortage of women available for marriage. For men desperate to marry, in North Indian states like Haryana, traffickers have found an ideal base to expand their business of luring unsuspecting girls into the flesh trade. With promises of work in the city, the young girls are kidnapped from other states and sold to men in Haryana.

Another noted reason behind becoming a sex worker is breaking out of the hands of domestic violence. The prevalence of physical abuse against women by husbands in India varies between 25% and 50% and this extends to domestic violence is the form of marital rape and various forms of sexual assault such as burning (Wahed and Bhuiya, 2007). With effects of shock on labour supply, decisions in favour of entering the profession arise from wanting to escape these daily episodes, representing an exogenous shock. Indian women, similar to the state of Kenyan women, as noted by Robinson and Yeh (2011) has little to no access to credit services or any savings to financially support themselves. This is turn leaves sex-work as the only doable option to make ends meet available to those who want to flee violence. A majority of the married prostitutes in India voluntarily entered the profession because of the same exogenous shock as that of walking out an abusive marriage or the death of their spouse (Wahed and Bhuiya, 2007). With evidence from India and its neighboring country Bangladesh, it became clear that women who took up prostitution resulting from the exogenous shock of deceased husbands or unpleasant marriages earned more than those didn’t get married in the first place (Rao et al, 2003, Islam and Smyth 2012).

In addition to the above mentioned factors that stimulate the need to enter prostitution, another motivation to enter the profession arises from matrilineal based practice. This factor is not given enough importance; with more than 25000 children living in brothels and red light districts, it is typical for the daughters of prostitutes to be expected to join the line like their mothers. Sons of the prostitutes often take on the idea of becoming pimps while their sisters enter the profession at the average age of 12 (EPCAT 2006). With substantial evidence backing the fact that sex workers in brothels such as those in Sonagachi, Kolkata, wherein mothers rely on their daughters to enter the profession so as to support them to finally be able to retire from the line themselves, the cycle carries on (Hammond, 2008). Ethnographic fieldwork has documented the existence of successions in the profession that go beyond the traditional ritual but in turn network their daughters to high end markets, hoping to introduce them to richer clients (Brown 2005, 2007).

The Socio-Economic Status of the Workers:

The social stigma affixed with the prostitution in India laid the ground for social exclusion of those in the profession. The social exclusion arsing from this line of work has been an important component of several economic models of sex work (Cameron, 2002, Edlund and Korn 2002). These models showcase how social stigma plays a central role in prohibiting sex workers from changing their professions and the possibility of getting married some day. The legalisation of prostitution however combined with continuous efforts of numerous non-government organizations has aided in marginalization of sex workers in India. In a recent  ___ survey, a little more than one third of those engaged in prostitution confided that leaving the industry was next to impossible, while a staggering 69.9 per cent admitted to concealing the very profession from their immediate family owing to the nature of their work (Mondal, 2006).

Given the various kinds of prostitutes present, a majority have been noted to reside in brothels. With 38% of floating sex workers living in rented accommodation, 26% dwell on streets and 17% in non-government organization organized relief centres leaving a mere 4% to be owning a personal accommodation. Edlund and Korn (2002) threw light on the reason behind sex workers earning an adequate amount and still missing out on fundamental human capital as a result of compensation foregone owing to the selling of their chastity in the marriage market.  Conversely pointed out, in Mexico and Ecuador, Arunachalam and Shah (2008) concluded that 29 per cent of sex workers are in fact married and that they are more likely to have entered the institution of matrimony at younger ages than those who are not in the profession. A __ survey in __ explained that 45% of sex workers were in fact married, 37% were divorced or separated, had fled a violent relationship or were widowed leaving a mere 20% under the category of never been married in the first place (Mondal, 2006) pointing out inconsistencies with Elund and Korn’s (2002) thesis. Additionally, another survey stated that 66.5 per cent of prostitutes mothered a child and 30.2% had more than two children. Supporting Elund and Korn’s (2002) thesis suggesting that sex workers face traction when it comes to their daughters wanting to get married but cannot due to their profession (as many offspring enter the same line, evidence from South Asia has backed the theory (Cornish, 2006). One of the compensations however, that arises from the foregone benefits of the union of matrimony is the high transactions received in favour of undertaking prostitution. No ethnographic research on matrilineal lineage on the high end sex market in India backs this trend seen in South Asia though; but in this case, private performers or dancers, locally known as ‘Tawaifs’ (courtesans) are the closest to this setting (Brown, 2007).

Insert tables 2 + 3

It is no surprise that sex workers in India are frequently subjected to violence in their workplace. The survey by __ sheds light on this issue. 37.4% of surveyed individuals reported assault by clients and 53.8 % the same by homeowners or Bariwalis. The consecutive table displays the number of times sex workers have been raped while working, pointing out that 62.1 % reported being raped a minimum of one time, with more than 1/5th of the workers admitting to have been forced to divulge in sexual activities against their will, several times. In addition to this, prostitutes have faced a high level of harassment from law-enforcement officials as well. This sort of treatment was noted to be the one aspect that sex-workers disliked the most about their profession. Multiple women in the profession complained about the unfair distribution of their hard earned income into the pockets of corrupt officials (Mondal and Islam 2006). Earlier studies brought into light that a shocking 30 percent of sex work was controlled and dictated by police officials who extorted money from not only floating prostitutes but also brothels in the form of bribes (Khan, 1988). This study concluded that prostitutes faced demands for free ‘servicing’ at the hands of physical violence by the police (Khan, 1988). Further studies carried out in Sonagachi, Kolkata reported the prevalence of vice and corruption by the police (Kotiswaran, 2008).

Lack of adequate information about health facilities and poor economic and social conditions has forced abortions and miscarriages to be common amongst sex workers. The ___ survey stated that 34.9 percent of prostitutes have had at least one abortion and some even more, while 17.1 percent reported at least one miscarriage Mondal and Islam, 2006). A higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases amongst prostitutes is no revelation either. An estimated 40 percent of the total work force of those engaged in prostitution have an STD (Alam, 2010). With the highest incidence of syphilis followed by gonorrhoea, genital warts and hepatitis-B, the presence of risky sexual practices facilitating the spread of HIV (World Bank, 2009) was brought to light. The extent of regular health checks and those who choose to take advantage of them varies greatly; the survey had 9.6 percent individuals reporting that they received a check up weekly, while 1.4 percent stated they received it once a fortnight, 4.3 percent received one every three weeks and 28.1 monthly. Mondal and Islam (2006) reported a mere 45.2% to having received a proper health check up ‘every now and then’ or even never.

Economic returns to sex work in India:

Data from __ suggests that a majority of prostitutes in India work exclusively as sex workers with a small number involved in earning through various other means such as dealing with handicrafts or tailoring for that matter. The survey stated that 71.2% of the workers admitted to bringing in money only through sex work (Mondal and Isalam, 2006). With variation in results across various brothels from different red light districts around the country, it was still generalized that a higher proportion of prostitutes who derived income through other means were involved in the handling of drugs. An adequate amount of evidence gathered through surveys has syndicated the successful facilitation of the business through tactical involvement from local authorities (Mondal and Islam, 2006).

An analysis of why a majority of prostitutes rely greatly on income derived from sex work does not cease at lack of training opportunities in various areas. In a __survey, close to two-thirds of surveyed individuals admitted to having received some form of vocational training such as that of tailoring, embroidery and handicrafts. A distinct reason why some of these workers have other modes of income outside their intended profession is that in terms of economic returns, there exist multiples of fulltime earnings in professions with distinct skills. Such is the case in India, stating the average income of a brothel based sex worker to be ___ and a floating sex worker’s to be ___. In comparison to the income women in non-sex work labour markets bring in, this income in highly favourable.  The median monthly income for Indian women employed in hard labour is less than US $ 11.50 and less than 1.5 per cent of women manage to bring in more than US $ 115.3 monthly as of 2005___(Asian Development Bank 2005).

Another reason behind the adoption of such a profession for Indian sex workers lies with the stigma attached to it; the very concept is considered to be a taboo and as a result, prostitutes find it next to impossible to find employment opportunities elsewhere. Despite high levels of income, very little goes into saving for the future. A ___ survey reported that less than 46.7 percent had savings of any kind and another 27 percent stated they had debts to pay ff. Incidences of debts are noticeably higher in brothel based sex worker’s case as in comparison to floating sex workers for the reason that they are also working to pay off the Sardarnis and in many cases, corrupt police officials.

Islam and Smyth (2012) utilized ___ data to analyze economic returns of forgoing contraception and enhanced physical features amongst sex workers in India; the study  based empirical specifications entailing regressions of monthly earnings from sex work with physical features or beauty as a variable (whether the prostitute is physically appealing or not on a scale of 1-4 wherein 1= not attractive and 4=most attractive). Assessed by the psyche of a client, a dummy variable equated to 1 if the prostitute utilizes contraceptives and hence a series of control variables to follow. These control variables entailed qualitative and quantitative human characteristics like their age, health status (tests for sexually transmitted diseases), levels of education and experience; labour supply + individual features  entailing their marital status, number of children, the usage of oral contraception, income from various other sources, number of clients daily along with number of partners in personal sex life, whether the individual is happy or not and finally whether she works out of a brothel or is a floating prostitute); the sex worker’s familial stance (whether the mother was engaged in the same profession and if the parents approve of their daughter’s profession); and finally the client’s characteristics (whether there are any permanent customers, the economic background of the customers –rich or not, their physical appearance, likeliness to utilize contraception and age). These regressions also took into account the prostitute’s place of work, social backgrounds of the clients (occupation) and the various sub categories of sexual acts. The participation of a safe sex training programme constituted as an instrument for the use of contraceptives. Unobserved characteristics were controlled through enumerator specific fixed effects.

Main findings of the study involved a negative relationship between the utilization of contraception and average monthly earnings; in comparison to clients who divulged in safe sex to those who refused, the earnings were 81 percent and 154 percent higher, in accordance to the empirical specification off course. A positive coefficient on beauty in addition to significant in specification showed how the average earnings of those perceived to be more physically appealing was 15-20 percent. This trend was also noted in Arunachalam and Shah’s (2010) study on sex workers in Mexico and Ecuador ranging similar incomes for premium beauty for females employed in other professions. In addition to this, Smyth and Islam (2012) found a link between more attractive sex workers charging higher for foregoing contraception. This in turn fetched between 23 percent and 37 per cent of more income.

Two possible explanations are available for this result; one being that physically appealing sex workers enjoy higher bargaining power when negotiating prices with potential clients; in doing so, more attractive women end up with bargains that are more to their liking than others because more beautiful people are believed to be better negotiators (Rosenblat, 2008).  Multiple arguments arose in lieu of linking one’s physical appearance with negotiation skills (Rosenblat, 2008). The first one found a correlation between physical appearance and vocal attractiveness (Zuckerman and Driver, 1989); stating more attractive people to be regarded as more effective communicators. The second reason explains how more physically appealing individuals tend to receive greater attention from family, friends and co-workers, assisting in receiving enhanced social skills in childhood, adolescence and adulthood as well (Hatfield and Sprecher, 1986). As perceptions of physical beauty are generally stable through adulthood, people are likely to have acquired better communication skills whilst bargaining (Rosenblat, 2008). The third notion depicts how this quality is a strong predictor of the amount of self-esteem an individual may have which in turn influences a variety of traits such as that of being assertive which helps in greater bargaining outcomes. Regarding aesthetically pleasing employees as more approachable and persuasive to deliver certain messages accounts for the fourth argument; this is because the stereotype of beauty is good plays the role of a negotiator in determining the effectiveness of attractive individuals (Langlois et al., 2000).

In Hakim’s (2010) recently introduced ‘erotic capital,’ both men and women were said to possess the quality but it has been argued that women own greater erotic capital in comparison to men, empowering them with better negotiation abilities. Albeit the multiple dimensions of erotic capital, beauty is the central feature. The bottom-line is, men prefer physically attractive women when they are choosing a mate while women prefer men who are desirable in general. Additionally, women are well-versed with the notion that being attractive only plays to their bargain in acquiring desirable males. Hakim (2010) related concepts of negotiation between partners. Her argues were simple; a wife owns the power to bargain as she withholds sexual access as her tool. A wife might offer or withhold sex to her advantage and thus manipulate her husband into getting what she wants (Arndt 2009). A man’s demand for sexual activity is what makes this strategy work so well; their need exceeds a woman’s and thus they cave in. Through extensive surveys of numerous sources, Baumeister et al. (2001), concluded that due to a higher sex drive in men than that in women. Even though transactions over sexual activities in a marriage are more subtle in nature, they are certainly more explicit in the commercial market. Hakim (2010) thus concluded that prostitution is a prime example of an occupation in which more attractive women can utilize erotic capital to their advantage.

In another study by Andreoni and Petrie (2008), attractive people were said to be more cooperative. Externally, the research suggests that clients had a pre-notion that attractive sex workers would for some reason agree to forego contraception. Everything remaining constant however, it was now difficult for the attractive sex worker to agree to do so just because the client expects them to, thus opening them to the risk of unsafe sex. All things however are not equal and if as stated, attractiveness does have a direct impact of negotiation powers; it would explain how more attractive people manage to do away with being less cooperative. Another aspect reasons that sex workers might not be cooperative at all. Van Kleef et al. (2007) established that individuals possessing peripheral status within an attractive group tend to be more cooperative with each other than with opponents.

A different kind of explanation for this analysis found that attractiveness and unsafe sex behaved as complements in the utility function of the client (Gerter et al., 2005). The evidence from experiments in which males were found to be more enthusiastic t about the idea of borrowing from a bank after seeing a advertisement that used a woman to send out a message suggested that risk taking behaviour of males increased around women (Bertrand et al.). This is turn decreased the rate of interest by a laudable 25 percent when an attractive woman was used in the advertisement, thus forcing an increase in the number of loans demanded. Wilson and Daly (2004) analyzed monetary outcomes in the presence of women and found that males discount the former steeply in their presence. The study started with assessing the participant’s discounting rates in lieu of smaller amounts combined with larger but delayed prices. Respondents were then shown images of attractive alongside less attractive individuals but of the opposite sex. Meanwhile a separate group that was under controlled view was presented with imaged of appealing and unappealing cars. After this, the respondents were asked to re-evaluate their monetary decisions following which the post discount rate was calculated. It was noted than males who had been presented with images of attractive women were the ones who displayed significant decrease in their levels of patience and were now predisposed to accepting smaller but instant outcomes. On the other hand, women showed no such change.

Daly and Wilson (2004) explained the outcome of their result to be so because women carried with them a mindset that honed on to the idea of finding a mate, subconsciously forcing them to overvalue rewards. If the quality of taking on risks accelerates a male’s desirability, they may be more prone to risky behaviour in the presence of physically appealing women to hint potential mating characteristics (McAlvanah, 2009). Although risky behaviour is not a quality a potential client would display while approaching a sex worker as they do not intend on having marital relationships with them, they however also associate these qualities with ‘good genes’ (Gangestand and Simpson, 2000). Women would base their notion of a man possessing ‘good genes’ on his physical stature and strength whilst men would base theirs entirely on a woman’s physical appeal. Psychologists who have specialized in evolutionary theory explain how men give women with a higher physical appeal a go on the gene pool. Keeping this characteristic in mind, men choose to mate women who possess such qualities in the hope of producing attractive off-spring who will eventually carry on the linage (Buss, 1999).

Scruton (2004) said in a famous quote, ‘Human beings are animals…we are governed by the laws of biology, and even our thoughts and emotions are the result of electrochemical processes in the brain.’ From which we understand that men who utilize the services of a prostitute often are not out to impregnate them but are doing so with the intention of natural biological urges. While the evolutionary mechanism does associate them with the quality of wanting to procreate with an attractive woman, female beauty and unsafe sex are therefore complements when purchased from prostitutes.

One’s physical beauty plays the role of a proxy for self esteem and confidence or other such characteristics that demand attention in the labour market. Previous studies have proven that these characteristics have little to none effect on beauty premiums for non-sex work. Arunachalam and Shah (2010) on the other hand however, explained the control of a prostitute’s sex work through physical attributes such as that of communication skills, height and weight and beauty control their premium in Mexico and Ecuador. Islam and Smyth (2012) lacked data on the physical traits of prostitutes but after having included variables that measured self confessed happiness, abuse and discrimination by the police, it was found that beauty premium was similar even after including them, thus concluding its reduced effects on returns to beauty.

Islam and Smyth (2012), explored the relationship between premium earnings from beauty and employer discrimination (i.e. employers tend to favour more attractive employees more). A majority of floating sex workers in India make arrangements with clients through pimps and are hence categorized as self-employed. Brothel based sex-workers on the other hand (Chukris) share a formal set up with their Madams or Sardarnis and they seize more than half the income the prostitute makes per transaction for providing them with a secure roof over their heads. These workers however were placed under against a low measure of beauty standards. This sort of finding coincided with Arunachalam and Shah’s (2010)’s take on women of Ecuador and Mexico. In a way this implies that Sardarnis may be segregating and also to an extent discriminating against less physically appealing prostitutes when employing them for their service. Islam and Smyth (2012) weakly supported the notion that floating sex workers brought in more money as in comparison to brothel based sex workers but each of their beauty premiums did not statistically differ greatly.  These findings have largely been seen as consistent when it comes to employer discrimination in regards to beauty premium.

For each additional client that a sex-worker saw on an average, daily, she earned between 10 to 13 percent more and for each additional day that she worked; the earnings were between 6 and 7 percent extra, monthly. Considering other control variables such as the number of children, it was noted that sex-workers brought in an extra 20 per cent to 26 per cent as in comparison to those who did not have any (Islam and Smyth, 2012). The possible reasons behind this phenomenon was that most sex-workers who did have children were at some point successful at the hands of matrimony and ended up in the profession as a result of an exogenous shock (here, possible violent relationships or death of the husband) and a trait common in the country, weight gain after having children. Slightly over-weight women are perceived as more appealing in India, whilst retaining their charm. This pointed out an earnings premium for prostitutes who took care of their health. Those who were religious with getting tested received between 45 percent and 54 percent monthly. The positive correlation resulting from regular health checkups indicating good health only made sense that clients were more willing to pay for premium services that assured lesser risk of contracying sexually transmitted diseases (Gertler et al., 2005). Various control variables like level of education, religion, caste, experience (virgin/non-virgin) did not seem to play a significant role and were hence not robust across empirical specifications.

The number of clients that a sex worker has monthly as an indicator suggests the excess supply of sex workers, according to Islam and Smyth (2012). Consistent with data that supports this, this line of profession is seen to be very competitive. Following that such competition may result in less attractive prostitutes to consider leaving the profession altogether. On the occasion that this predicament may be right, the beauty premium would manifest greater wages and also establish a stronger base and hold for the particular worker in the industry. This certainly associates higher premiums with beauty amongst current sex workers. When comparing the beauty premium of prostitutes whose mothers were not sex-workers at any point themselves, there has been discussion on whether there would be expectations  of more attractive women to enter the industry more easily as those through their mother’s personal connections (Islam and Smyth, 2012). Ultimately though, it was found that it wasn’t the way things worked and a majority of the worker’s mothers were also engaged in the same profession. There was however a connection between the beauty of a sex-worker and whether her mother was a prostitute too whatsoever. Instead, those whose mothers were in the industry were somehow more attractive (as measured on the scale of attractiveness). A possible explanation for this phenomenon however is that more attractive girls in general would be more successful in the marriage market in contrast to less attractive women; but, women whose mothers are prostitutes would also have lesser marriage opportunities owing to the social stigma attached to their profession.

The relationship between a sex-worker and her client:

The role of clients in a sex worker’s life, is central and crucial. The socio-economic atmosphere of a brothel is largely decided and influenced by the class of clientele the sex-workers have. This being said, the cliental stream varies greatly in different alleys. Based on regularity, the clients are categorized under fixed, occasional and regular clients. Those who come under the category of fixed are typically more comfortable and prefer a prostitute with whom they may have a type of relationship based on familiarity and ease and may/may not have an emotional attachment. Those who are labelled as regulars are essentially ‘partners’ and in most cases, have an emotional attachment with the prostitute. The third category – occasional clients are those who utilize the services of a prostitute or visit a brothel on rare occasions and have no emotional relationship of any kind with the workers.

In a study conducted by ____ , it was seen that an average sex-worker had between 4-5 clients during the day; the younger ones who would have been recently trafficked had several clients throughout the course of the day, ranging between 8-15. This brought to light the fact that the younger and more attractive a prostitute may appear, the more the number of customers are likely to visit, with as many as 20 men a day. Those are older than these prostitutes who are perceived as less ‘fresh’ and not as attractive receive between 2 and 5 customers on any given day. Owing to a high level on competition in brothels, a majority of the older and less attractive women end up negotiating prices and forego practicing safe sex from the fear of missing out on potential clients to their younger counterparts.

It has also been noticed that the inflow of customers varies greatly depending on religious festivals in the country, such as those of Muslim’s Eid(s) and Hindu’s multiple Pujas. With the peak hours of brothels being late afternoons and nights and mid mornings too sometimes, regular clients or fixed clients who want to spend the night can do so on the payment of a higher rate. There may be cases where these clients are required to bribe local authorities or officials to do so, resulting in a smaller number of clients wanting to do so.

___ pointed out that in accordance to the kind of sexual act carried out, the prices of transactions between clients and sex workers and the total amount of time varied. In addition to this, the study pointed out that prostitutes charged their clients based on the amount of time they spent with them while the clients preferred to pay based on the kind of sexual act carried out. Not only depending on the kind of client, the rate also depended on whether any contraceptives would be used or not. Typically, the act is priced between __ and __. On an average day, during the morning or afternoon, the prices range between __ and ___ while it goes up to __ at night and in many cases, an increasd amount based on how well the prostitute can impress the client.

On being enquired about the several types of clients that visited prostitutes in a __ survey, it was found that a staggering __ were well off clients, very rich in many cases, while __ were categorized under salaried clients, students making up for __ and finally, businessmen at __. The study showed that the average age of client was 30 years and the age group that utilized the services of a prostitute was majorly between 23 years and 35 years, accounting for a grand total of 86% of their customers.  The survey found that around 40% of the prostitutes admitted to having fallen in love with their clients out of which 37% were brothel based workers.

One of the most important characteristics of brothel based prostitutes was the kind of emotional relationship they shared with their regular clients. Upon survey, many of these prostitutes admitted to having forgone contraception during the time they spent with clients they were emotionally involved with knowing the whole time that these men also utilized the services of other women in the brothel at the same time. This brought to light that the kind of relationship these prostitutes shared with their clients was on the same lines as that between a husband and wife. This results(ed) in clients having children outside their marriage, with prostitutes fully aware of this and continuing to feel for their clients romantically. In a recent survey, a prostitute stated that she knew her husband is married and that they do not have a physical relationship. She admits to wanting a child with him because she loves him and hence, forgoes the use of contraception for the same reason. She hopes to marry him and leave the brothel someday (Mondal and Islam, 2006).

In numerous cases, prostitutes who have a regular client or a ‘babu’ perceive them as their only escape mechanism from the life they lead. Like the case of the above interviewed sex-worker, many prostitutes intend on marrying their ‘babu’ and leaving the brothel while older and more experienced prostitutes prefer having multiple ‘babus.’ The older women admitted to feeling a greater sense of safety and security in the presence of their ‘babus’ and also more loved and taken care of. Their interpretation to this was the security of having meals and other such necessities. In contrast to the older women’s preference of having ‘babus,’ younger women admitted to being happier without one as they thus had the freedom of being with other men too.

Role of government and NGO’s

With the ever-growing number of non-government organizations to represent, support and aid both brothel based prostitutes and floating sex-workers, most of their activities depend on advocacy, spreading awareness about health-related issues, legal rights, providing educational opportunities for the prostitute’s children, raising awareness about alternative job markets and training them for the same. The kind of support that these organizations provide are majorly on ad-hoc basis. Many of these organizations meant solely for sex-workers receive help from more established non-government organizations in terms of publicity and funds. A recent survey ___ found that 47.3 of sex workers met with these organizations regularly and took advantage of the facilities provided to them, with an additional 25.6 per cent meeting specific non-government organization officers with whom they felt comfortable with. A small percentage of 9.6 percent of those surveyed accounted for having no contact of any kind with these organizations.

In a study by Islam (2005) to help a local non-government organization __ in determining the various obstacles prostitutes faced on a regular basis while seeking medical treatment in their local municipal hospitals found that a majority of these women hesitated and in many cases refused to see the doctor because of the kind of treatment they received. This has forced them to conceal their identities and seek medical assistance from professionals based in places geographically distant from where they reside. It was noticed till very recently that many religious authorities such as ‘imams’ refused to perform the final rites and grave-workers did not want to help with the rituals of a funeral of a prostitute. Islam (2005), however noticed a trend in the fall of this kind of attitude and treatment towards the women and that there is a betterment in the kind of behaviour they receive. With consistent efforts from local non-government organizations, sex-workers have managed to convince local authorities to provide them with a separate space to serve as graveyards for those engaged in their profession. In addition to this, a positive change in attitude received from medical staff towards sex-workers has been noticed too.

The survey found that a majority of prostitutes expect education, information on HIV/AIDS and vocational training should be provided to them by the government. The children of these sex-workers displayed their determination to break the cycle of prostitution by showing their interest in educational opportunities and vocational training. This brings to light the reality of the nature of barriers that children of sex-workers face in public schools because parents of their classmates want their children to do nothing with them. This in turn forces the school authorities to become hesitant to enrol prostitute’s children. The need for the government to highlight awareness amongst the local community to dampen the ill-treatment and flak these children receive was brought to light by Islam (2005).

Another major aspect in the long term to brighten the society’s perception of prostitutes and their status in the community is laying emphasis on human rights. With international and national conferences held during the United Nations Decade for Women around the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), women’s struggles to receive human rights inclusive of government structures was found. Through a collaborative approach to improve societal status of prostitutes, emphasis on using the human rights platform for the betterment of sex-workers by bringing together various humanitarian and societal organizations such as non-government organizations (local and international) and the government, focus on basics needs such as shelter for prostitutes and their children was finally received.


HIV/AIDS hasn’t been highly prevalent in a country with such a large fraction of the population engaged in prostitution. The World Bank (200__) recorded less than 0.1 percent of the entire population of the country to be victims of the deadly disease. A majority of the risk factor and modes of spread of HIV/AIDS is however attributed to the country’s commercial sex market and flesh trade. Owing to this, a commendable number of non-government organizations have actively worked in spreading awareness about the upsides of practicing safe-sex amongst those engaged in the profession. The educational insights provided by the non-government organizations combined with the legalization of prostitution and licenced brothels and red-light districts greatly aided in the betterment of the socio-economic status of sex-workers. However, the overall demeanour of prostitutes in the country continues till date to be subject to social stigma and they are still a marginalized section of the economy. Even though women engaged in the profession of prostitution bring in more money than their counterparts engaged in professions other than prostitution, their standards of living are still relatively low in the country. From being subject to indefinite levels of extortion to harassment, prostitutes face inhumane treatment on a regular basis. Incidences of sexual assault and physical violence against prostitutes is also very high. Those who are segmented under recently trafficked into the business, also known as ‘chukris’ or the newbies have next to no rights and have absolutely no say in the clients they are forced to deal with on a regular basis. They are forced to divulge in acts of unsafe sex and physical violence when they refuse to comply. It is this lot of those engaged in the profession who become particularly susceptible to multiple sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. The life of those who have been employed for a longer time in the flesh trade however, seem to have an advantage of bargaining power with their clients by insisting the use contraceptives and larger incomes in cases where they do not. This was also noticed in other parts of the world (Gertler et al., 2005). The economics of sex-work in South Asia and it’s policy implications are fairly descriptive from the existing literature (for example, refer to Islam and Smyth, 2002). The demand side houses non-government organization’s need to mount, their educational campaigns that seem to be rapidly increasing in size to promote the positives of practicing safe sex. While on the supply side, policies formulating strategies to reduce competition between prostitutes who forego utilizing contraceptives by bringing to light the downsides of unsafe sex are presented. Such is the nature of the policies being implemented in the country and it’s neighbour, ___, both off-course at varying degrees (some of these policies are available under the label of the ‘Sonagachi Project’ in Swendeman et al., 2009).

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