Sex Work and the City

In Chennai, husbands don’t know their wives are sex workers, finds an unusual survey
It Happens
IN THE SHADOWS Unlike other cities, Chennai doesn’t have a red light district

Unlike Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, Chennai has no designated red light district, with conspicuously available young and old women waiting at every window. As a result, sex work has had to go underground and get innovative, ‘an instance of which is the rise of the mobile brothel, which wanders around Chennai making house or hotel calls’. Another consequence of sex work’s clandestine and decentralised nature is the rising number of married women taking part without the knowledge of their husbands.

According to a recent paper by social worker and researcher Uma Ravikumar, who conducted 311 interviews with sex workers scattered across 11 neighbourhoods in Chennai, including in Vadapalani, Kodambakkam, KK Nagar, T-Nagar and Porur, about 70 per cent of the city’s estimated 14,000 sex workers are ‘home-based’. “They tell their husbands that they are going for garments work, or some other small-scale work where they are paid on a daily basis,” says Ravikumar, “and whenever their clients call, usually four to six times a month, they meet them.”

Most of them get involved in sex work after being insidiously primed to do so by older sex workers in their neighbourhood. “They’re the ones who bring new sex workers into the field, by spotting women who are suffering from financial or marital problems,” says Ravikumar. “They emotionally bond with them, they provide moral support, and then they say, ‘I’ll take care of you, I’ll get you a very decent client, you can improve your family life, and anyway your husband is a drunkard or having another affair.’ They say, ‘Wherever you go to work, you have exploitation, better to adjust and be [exploited] in a good place.’” Others, born to sex workers, are inadvertent recidivists. “Brokers and agents target children of sex workers,” says Ravikumar. “Sex workers insist that they don’t want their children to enter the profession, but the moment their daughters hit puberty, they send them to a higher class client, since the first encounter fetches a high price, anywhere between Rs 50,000 to Rs 3 lakh. They get them married after, but they have been exposed to the profession, so that’s what they turn to for survival in times of distress if their husbands desert them or don’t earn enough.”