Leaving The Shadows Behind
A former commercial sex worker shares her rehabilitation journey
Khushi Gupta, 28, works as a sales representative in a Noida-based marketing company. A resident of Delhi, Gupta started work here just six months ago. The job, she said, has given her a new lease of life.
Before she took up this job, Gupta earned her living as a sex worker for nearly two years. She said she had to do this to be able to survive during the pandemic.
After a challenging job-hunting exercise, Gupta’s new stint as a sales professional has given her a chance to free herself from the shackles of sex work. Stories of women being thrown into sex work or how they are sold in exchange for money are plenty. However, stories where women leave sex work to pursue another profession are still rate. Gupta's is one such story.
She was knee-deep in debt since 2019, and to add to her woes her husband was diagnosed with severe arthritis and was advised bed rest by the doctors.The couple also had a child, and the family’s responsibility fell on Gupta. She lost her job when the pandemic began, and couldn't get another as companies had slowed hiring. Gupta faced difficulties making ends meet and was under constant pressure from her landlord to pay rent.
Gupta's friend knew of her problems and suggested she enter sex work. But, Gupta was reluctant to not do the job because of her status. Instead, she tried her hands at seeking work as a housekeeper. But, she realised she wasn't underpaid and couldn't care for her husband and child, so she left the job.
As her friend continued to suggest sex work, Gupta went alongwith her to “check” a brothel in the Govindpuri area of Delhi. “That was the first time I had visited a brothel, and before I realised it, I slowly became a part of the prostitution world. I had my family's interest in mind, and now was able to earn. But, easy money came at a price, my self-respect”.
Gupta said that she was always scared of the knock on her door, sometimes it could even be a policeman. Often, the men would say, ‘Iss se acha toh kisi ke ghar pe kaam kar leti’ (it would've been better if you worked as a domestic worker,)’.
“It was horrible. When a man looks at us, we know what they think of us. But, despite knowing that, we had to do many things we never imagined. After my first experience, I cried for a week, stopped visiting Govindpuri, and decided I didn't want to do it. But, after a week, I went again because I could see my financial condition worsening. My friends at the brothel suggested I drink a peg or two, which would help me proceed with the work. After some time, it all seemed normal, and I did everything, thinking I was giving my child a good life,” recalled Gupta.
In the beginning, Gupta recalled that she couldn't earn much, and clients demanded extra services like body massages. She used to earn Rs. 2000-3000 per day at that time.
Gupta said she never wanted to be a sex worker, but had to do it keeping her family's needs in mind. On her very first day, she told the brothel owner that she would leave as soon as she got a “corporate job”. “The madam replied ‘Jaogi toh kaafi achi baat hai par yahan se bahar koi jaa nhi pata, laut aate hain sab ek din’ (it will be great if you leave, but most people can't escape this, most come back here),” recalled Gupta.
Even her colleagues at the brothel told her that “once you enter sex work, you will either work here as an employee or as an owner, but you will never be able to go past it”. When she saw that many of her colleagues had been here for almost 20 years, she lost some hope. However, Gupta recalls that even then, she sent applications, appeared for interviews and never lost hope of leading a good life.
she finally got an offer letter in November 2022 and left Govindpuri forever. According to Gupta, the brothel's owner was quite understanding but told her that, “Nobody can really leave this place; if you find yourself in need of money, my door is always open for you."
Gupta, says nobody knows of her past, not even her husband or friends, acquaintances, colleagues. “I have totally transformed my personality to the extent that even if somebody shows my picture and says that she was a sex worker, nobody would be able to recognize me,” she said.
Gupta explains that she has been married for eight years and has an almost 7-year-old son. Till now, her biggest ordeal was to hide it from her husband because he would have never accepted Gupta as a sex worker. Gupta says, "I can't even tell my husband; he will leave me without giving a second thought. People might go to a brothel but want their wives pure as crystal."
Gupta always told her husband that she was working as an online event coordinator and hence was able to earn good money and spare time for family.
In India, as per the existing laws on sex work and human trafficking, running a brothel is illegal. Earlier in 2022, the Supreme Court of India ruled that sex workers should be treated with decency and dignity and that the police should not interfere or take criminal action when adults participate in consensual sex.
As per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the prevalence amongst sex workers remains at 2.2%, and sex workers account for one of the high-risk groups in the context of HIV/AIDS. Sex work is not a crime in India, but as per the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1956, living off the wages of a sex worker and soliciting sex work is criminalized. This makes sex workers vulnerable to harassment by the police.
"Sex workers become vulnerable and lose the rights to have protected sex after brothels are raided and closed, and they run away forcibly. They lose respect immediately from their kids, neighbors, and relatives. The second level problem comes when a sex worker becomes a child's mother, and their community becomes judgmental. Their children also face many troubles in their upbringing and are subjected to discrimination and exclusion," says Sanghamitra Ray, Deputy Director - Projects at Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences.
Other health problems exist, but they are rarely addressed. For instance, since sex workers engage in sexual activity more frequently than other women, they are more likely to get cervical cancer. However, it is challenging for sex workers to spread knowledge about this, except for certain areas where they are well collected, such as in West Bengal under the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC).
Additionally, sex workers are still made to undergo mandatory testing for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, under Section 15(5A), ITPA, despite the clear guidance for voluntary testing under the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP).
At last, Gupta states that she still meets her friends from her sex work days and says that they are an inevitable part of her life and that she doesn't want to leave them behind.
Speaking about the plight of sex workers, Ray said that sex workers always struggled to leave the profession and take up other jobs due to societal taboos.
"Sometimes it is their will, sometimes it is a compulsion because of finances, and sometimes they get trapped into sex work. But, even after this, if they want to stop the work, they cannot because society is not so psychologically equipped to hire a sex worker. Sex workers can stop the work but can't seek other respectable jobs because of the psychological bend of people toward sex workers. If they go to some other place for a job, they hide their identity to be accepted and welcomed," Ray said.