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Magnifying the Miniscule: A Case Study of the Brothels

Alankrita Malviya is a Law Student from Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla

Published onMay 03, 2022
Magnifying the Miniscule: A Case Study of the Brothels


The empirical research presented in the following pages would attune the reader with a detailed case study of the seeming to be ‘marginalized community of prostitutes and the establishment; Brothel. The community which is not largely introduced in the academic reading writing realm is attempted to be seen from spectacles fixing the myopic eye and patient ear to hear the rare.

The academic intelligentsia has always side-lined the second gender; woman, like the first, gender elite has never left the space for equal treatment and equal seating. This duel between the gender elite and the gendered subaltern was never solved and on it arose the other – sub-subalterns, those who are subalterns among the subalterns; Prostitutes. On the rung of the ladder ‘of presumed morality prostitutes find a place at the lowermost possibility of existence, their minute existence and irrelevant significance will be magnified through data mining. This paper is a detailed case study of the molecular, minute, and minuscule establishment/community of Brothels & Prostitution.

Keywords: Brothel, Prostitute, Society, paid sex, feminism


Everyday world affair is problematic for women, to the woman-kind, this world has not been kind enough especially if the woman is indulged in a work/profession which does not fit in the code of morality. Their lives and experiences are systematically excluded from the realms of socially legitimate knowledge. In the work of Adam Smith, the wealth of Nation, he quotes that ‘The labor of a menial servant…adds to the value of nothing’ to which Katrine Marcal raises the question of ‘who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner’. This constant duel between men and women from all around the world has been in place since the inception of power and gender. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949, in The Second Sex, about the futility and the repetition of housework; human dependence on others has little presence in the book. All the aforementioned writing suggests- the global traditions which assign neither status nor significant reward to what is variously described as care, work, social reproduction, or housework. This is a position from which the emancipation of women is seen to lie firmly in the rejection of any form of association with traditional forms of femininity and identification with what is construed as the world of men.1 The various human forms which women might take ( daughter, mother, lover, and so on ) are implicitly forms of failure in which women do not achieve selfhood.2 Women are marginal to the serious concerns of life, which are pre-empted by men. The marginality and powerlessness of women are reflected in both the ways; women are expected to speak and the ways in which women are spoken of. As Spivak points out (2003), the actual term “subaltern” might have been a way of avoiding censorship (as “proletariat” would not have been printed), and, as such, it took for granted the description of any idiosyncratic traits the subaltern might possess apart from its evident submission to the ruling class and its inability to unify and speak up to right their wrongs and write their history.

Inappropriate women’s speech, strong expression of feeling is avoided, expression of uncertainty is favored, and means of expression in regard to subject matter deemed trivial to the real world are elaborated. Her social relations and social roles are derivative and dependent relation to men. The personal identity of women thus is linguistically submerged. In the patriarchal set up, her birth is a tragedy. Of the two options- elite and the everyman, she is the latter as the former is already taken by the first gender. This allocation of importance and the right to decide for oneself has never been given to her; she has always been the listener, recipient, follower, and devotee of the first gender speaker, sender, leader, and lord. Her existence is merely for the reason that men cannot reproduce alone. For the earth to exist, she needs to exist hence she is just ‘borne’. Her importance lies in her sex organ, otherwise, men were enough to lead the world. The societal construct of woman is so much like a commodity- All manufactured for ‘sale and bought purposes’. All aspects of the appearance of a female body are meticulously cataloged. Men’s lust to rob and dominate satiated by the tender flesh of women’s bodies got an easier approach with the establishment of brothels. Women’s butchered life got an institution for regular butchering. A place for profane functions in the dark night slowly in the name of profession/work/job got an implicit sanction from the government. In “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy of Sex,” Gayle Rubin traces the commodification of female sexuality in capitalist societies to exchanges by men for women as objects of pleasure.

This paper does not look for a concrete redundant reading and knowledge of brothels and prostitutes, rather, the pertinent questions are -

  • 1. Whether prostitution is looked down upon?

  • 2. What resistance do they receive from society?

  • 3. Who has access to set the moral code?

  • 4. Is it a profession? Legal or illegal? What do these women have to say about what they do? Is it just a source of livelihood?

  • 5. Does this ensemble of variety of their moral/immoral routinized actions reflect a shadow of helplessness?

  • 6. Is this profession, the last resort to resolve the entangled financial debts/crisis and lack of means to survive.

Let’s unfold the dusty pages and require a flambeau of consideration.

Welcome to the doors of the world‘s oldest profession!

What is prostitution?

Before entering into the feminist rhetoric, it is useful to define prostitution. In the official discourse, as in a common-sense understanding of the term, the term prostitute is a descriptive term that serves as an adjective for any sexually transgressed woman. Prostitutes are therefore seen as sexual beings representing uncontrolled sexuality, however, in India, prostitution is may appear as the exchange of sexual favors between partners within a relationship for money, which is just one of the various ways of expressing and carrying out human sexuality.3 The most common types of prostitutes that come to mind are streetwalkers; these are the women who stand on street corners and just walk up and down the street waiting for their clients, other types of prostitutes include child prostitutes, adolescent prostitutes, house prostitutes, and call girls. We have some sort of distorted view of prostitution and prostitutes typically that they’re considered as heavy drug users, emotionally disturbed individuals, and in some shape or form just abnormal (deviant). There are many social and psychological factors that lead to prostitution. First- the predisposing factors- these are the unpleasant factors that are traumatizing events or experiences that individuals go through resulting in psychological problems which in later stages pave the way to prostitution. The second factor is attracting factors with the popular belief that prostitution means easy money and luxurious life. The third factor is Precipitating Factor, with this, social situations and influences come into play, and if an individual is unemployed he is more likely to visit the last resort of prostitution. Sociologists believe that- the experiences this individual endured lead to a strong detachment that they form with themselves and with everyone else they associate with. They believe that emotional detachment results in detachment from any negative stigma that comes with prostitution, therefore it’s easier for them to go into prostitution. They are immune from self-hatred whereas psychologists and psychiatrists believe that the predisposing factors are key when it comes to prostitution. They believe that the experience they endure leads to emotional instability or abnormal condition.

Whether it is looked down upon?

The given question is demonstrated by the harassment of an activist in a local railway station by the police. An activist was threatened with imprisonment for soliciting while buying cigarettes in a stall on the station at 2:30 a.m. interestingly, while the police accosted her. The woman’s silence and failure to admit this allowed the police to publicize and gain mileage out of it. The case involved notions of chastity – is a woman out at night buying cigarettes a whore? If not, what does it reveal about patriarchal perceptions of female sexuality and socially defined parameters of public behavior for women? If she is indeed a whore does that entitle the police – or any male member of the public – to harass her? In the mainstream male discourse, only men and whores can access public space, especially at times and places designated as unsafe. But the right of a whore to access public space is contingent on her being treated like a whore, i.e. violently and disrespectfully.4 Hence, yes they are looked down upon. On the other hand, Saadat Hasan Manto underlines the dignity of it, as with any other job, when posing the moral question “is such a woman not virtuous?” He expresses his concern and solidarity for the women who are nothing but slaves of the patriarchal capitalist system (a woman who “offers to sell what she has of value without an intention to cheat”), a system that is corrupted morally to such an extent that it condemns the most diligent worker to the label “whore”. We know how society fits together and how it functions through uniformity and code of conduct i.e commonality of interest, but we can’t cover that in anything meaningful way without also talking about the people who don’t fit. In sociology, Deviance simply means being non-normative, different. Deviance is anything that deviates from what people generally accept as normal. Prostitution is also nothing but social deviance from the norm set by society for women and their social control on their chastity and piousness.

According to Catherine A MacKinnon – “Paying the woman to appear to resist and then surrender does not make the sex consensual; it makes pornography an arm of prostitution, the sex is not chosen for sex. Money is the medium of force and provides the cover of consent.” Prostitution is oppressive, coercive, and anti-woman. One of the most persuasive myths about prostitution is that it is the oldest profession. If prostitution is work, will states create training programs for girls to perform the 'best oral sex’? In India prostitution is legal (timidly, laws are dual and vague) but pimping, owning, and managing a brothel is illegal. Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata are the major cities in India where brothels are operating illegally in large numbers. Prostitution in itself is neither illegal nor punishable. Now the men may feel even more entitled. In New Zealand prostitution is legal. The promises from the NZ government – that de-criminalization would result in less violence, regular inspections of brothels, and no increase in the sex trade – have not materialized. The opposite has happened. Under legalization, women are still murdered by pimps and punters.

When prostituted women become “employees”, and part of the “labor market”, pimps become “managers” and “business entrepreneurs”, and the punters are merely clients. Services helping people to exit are irrelevant because who needs support to get out of a regular job? Effectively, governments wash their hands off women under legalization because, according to the mantra, “It is better than working at McDonald’s but at least when you work at McDonald’s you’re not the meat.5

The decision to include prostitution as an “employment skill” is a green light for pimps to populate brothels to meet the increased male demand for the prostitution of the most vulnerable women.

The practice of using human bodies as a marketplace has been normalized under the neoliberal economic system. Supporting the notion that prostitution is ‘labor’ is not a progressive or female-friendly point of view. It has been investigated that there happens a breast milk trade in Cambodia, where wealthy American businessmen recruit pregnant women and pay them a pittance for their milk. Girls in Ukraine sell ‘virgin’ blonde hair for use as extensions in western salons. It is increasingly common to ‘rent a womb’ from women in the global south to carry a baby on behalf of privileged westerners. In the Netherlands, which legalized its sex trade in 2000, it is perfectly legal for driving instructors to offer lessons in return for sex, as long as the learner drivers are over the age of 18. Under legalization in Germany, one government-funded NGO described its website as a ‘counseling center for sex workers, it offers training to women to become ‘sexual assistants in surrogate partnerships’ when they decide to leave prostitution. The training focuses on how “sex workers” can help disabled people to explore their sexuality. Providing prostitution services, which is what it is, to men who are ill or disabled is a bit like the “meals on wheels” service and clearly considered to be a public service.6 This is the stature of women in the holy world which does nothing except commodify the assets of a woman’s body. When would the other Gender realize the patriarchal guilt? Dorothy Smith, a Canadian Sociologist in her writing ‘the Everyday World as Problematic? Reflections on Smith’s Method of Making Sense of Women’s Experience’ points out that we must form sociology from the women’s point of view. The said research would be less violent. The established society has objectified social relations as consciousness of society that knows them from the vantage point and the standpoint of their ruling men rather than from the standpoint of the majority of that outside of sociology. In New Zealand prostitution is legal, in Cambodia breastmilk of woman is traded, In Ukraine, virgin girls sell their blonde hair to salons, Women’s womb is rented and whatnot. She is no less than a sheep who is used for meat, milk, and wool, and - multi-purpose. The reason for this undignified treatment is that- history has not been fair to the womankind. The bridle has never gotten into the hands of women. The rulers for so long are men and set of moral conduct from their standpoint, whatever fits their hand is the best size. In Masculine sociology men’s standpoint is universal. Women are excluded from man’s culture, at best they are additives. The ideology that is created and made available to women is made by those who are not women. The sociology of women is brutally silenced. The authority of the male voice is so persuasive and dominant that the real challenge is - ‘trying to shout’. Women must grasp their own authority to speak and they must sense their deprivation of authority. You are the author of your own wrong book but when the book is written by somebody else for you, you won’t get the chance to cry for the bad script.

Is it just a source of livelihood? Is this profession their last resort to resolve the entangled financial debts/crisis and lack of means to survive?

One of the sex workers, Chandralekha said, “My grandma said: ‘The whole village is involved in prostitution. What difference does it make if you become one?’ My grandmother is the one who got me involved...I'd say, a woman starts feeling bad from the beginning, but there's a weakness. There's a hungry stomach to feed and there is resignation.”

There are plenty of small pockets in India, even in urban areas, where an entire place is known as the ‘red light area,’ because it is inhabited only by prostitutes. No woman will choose to prostitute herself unless she has no other option, and in certain scenarios is forced into it by her family even before she reaches puberty. What is fascinating to find out is that there are actual places in India where prostitution is not only the main or only source of income for the entire family but the profession is actually passed down through generations.

The Bachara tribe from west Madhya Pradesh - is famous for treating prostitution as a tradition. The eldest daughter of the family is brought up with the knowledge that she will grow up in this life, and once she gets older, the younger daughter takes over. The tradition comes down from the days when the women from the tribe would grow up to become respected courtesans—respect that is not given to women in the sex trade anymore. The only way out of this life is for the woman to find a suitor who agrees to pay her parents the expensive dowry they demand her, but how do the young girls get into this life, it is their father or brother who ends up acting as their pimp, taking care of all the arrangements. In fact, the family has a dedicated room that is meant for this purpose, and this purpose only. There have been several documentaries made on this tribe, the most famous being the 2004-made Highway Courtesans, by Mystelle Brabbée.7 

Nat Purwa, a small village in the Hardoi district in east Uttar Pradesh - is another such place. An extremely poor village, most of the villagers of which belong to the Nat Community. In 1871, when the Criminal Tribes Act was passed under British rule, the Nats became one of the communities accused of being involved with ‘criminal activities.’ Editor of Manushi, Madhu Kishwar told Al Jazeera, “During the colonial period, the British outlawed their activities. They got beaten up, arrested, locked up and brutalization continued. This dried up their traditional source of livelihood and women had no choice. They ended up in prostitution”.8 Children in this village know only their first names, and most don't even have first names—not surprising, considering Nat Purwa is known as ‘the village of bastards’.

The devadasi system has changed from being a religious custom to one of simple exploitation. A devadasi literally translates to “God's female servant,” and this practice goes back as far as the 6th century CE. Young pre-pubescent girls were “married off” to the local deity, and in ancient periods, it meant that she was dedicated to the service of God. In addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, the women learned classical dance and enjoyed a very high status in society. They would go on to marry patrons, who were often kings, and wouldn't need to participate in the daily workings of the household. During the British rule, these kings soon lost their power, leaving the devadasis to their own devices, and soon they turned to a life of prostitution to support themselves. Even though the system has been outlawed since 1988, there are hundreds of women still forced to turn to this life in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. Instead of serving God, they now have to cater to whoever places the highest bid on their virginity, and then go wherever they are sent to, to lead their lives as what can be basically termed as undignified.9

Wadia village in north Gujarat is famous for its prostitution, with the birth of girls being celebrated because it just means there's another breadwinner in the family. Girls are groomed for a life as a prostitute, and some start as young as 12, and boys are trained to be pimps. Men come to Wadia from as far as Ahmedabad, Pakistan, Rajasthan, even Mumbai to buy sex—with rates ranging anywhere between INR 500 to 10,000.10

Is it their choice? What do these women have to say about what they do? Is it just a source of livelihood?

These sub-subaltern women; prostitutes are most often pushed into the business of the ‘sex for sale by their own first gender relatives. The domination of the first gender has stung the venom deep into the already wounded body of the second gender. Female prostitution is perhaps the oldest profession all over the world. Alas, it is perhaps the most hated profession. Hated in the sense that people who visit them actually enjoy it, but in society, they pretend otherwise. This pretention is social control, to not deviate from the set norms of women's chastity and untouched bodies. Social Control is the attempt by society to regulate people’s thoughts and behaviors in ways that limit or punish deviance. But not all norm violations are informally sanctioned. Formal Sanctioning of deviance occurs when norms are codified into law and violation almost always results in negative sanctions from the criminal justice system. The sociological approach to deviance is based on 3 ideas- First is the idea that deviance varies according to cultural norms, in other words, nothing is inherently deviant: Cultural norms vary from culture to culture, and over time and place, so what’s deviant now might have once been quite normal.

A story from New Delhi showing the normalization of ‘ money for sex’ -

When Bechwa*11 comes home in the morning, her husband is usually still asleep. She has worked through the night, selling sex on the highways tracing Delhi's periphery, but she will bathe, cook breakfast, and get the children ready for school before getting some rest herself.

In a tumble-down corner of Najafgarh, a patch of urban villages stitched into the Indian capital's fraying hem, what Bechwa does for a living is no secret. Bechwa belongs to Perna caste, and among the women and girls of this acutely marginalized community, entering the sex trade is a usual next step after marriage and childbirth. And, if they don’t want to engage in the system, they are either abandoned or beaten up by their husbands. So a woman is damned if she does ( by the society ), damned if she doesn’t ( by her family ).

“My first child died shortly after being born. When [my second-born] daughter was around one year, that's when I started this work”. Married in her mid-teens to a Perna man she hadn't met before, she estimates that she was 17 when she became the sole earner in her young family.

Now in what she guesses to be her late 20s, Bechwa still leaves the Perna Basti (settlement) each night with other women from the community to tout for customers in ‘random places’: bus stops, lay-bys, and parks far from their own neighborhood and out of view of the police. They travel in a group, sharing the rickshaw fare and the risk of assault.

“We try to get it done quickly”, Bechwa explains. They conduct encounters in cars or hidden outdoor nooks. While one woman is with a client, a friend will make sure to stay within shouting distance. Each client pays between 200 rupees - and 300 rupees. In a night, the women can expect to make as much as 1,000 rupees or as little as nothing.12

The second major principle sociologists draw on, is the idea that people are deviant because they’re labeled as deviant. And, as Gullick argued that labeling people can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, when society treats you as deviant it’s easier to become one. Brenda Myers- Powell was just a child when she became a prostitute in the early 1970s, in an interview with her, she described her dark 25 years. She said “pimps are very good at torture; they are very good at manipulation. Some of them will do things like wake you in the middle of the night with a gun to your head. Others will pretend that they value you, and you feel like, I am Cinderella, and here comes my Prince Charming. They seem so sweet and so charming and they tell you: ‘you just have to do this one thing for me and then you’ll get to the good part’. And you think, my life has already been so hard, what’s a little bit more? But you never ever do get to the good part. A prostitute might sleep with five strangers a day. In a year, that’s more than 1800 men she is having sexual intercourse or oral sex with. These are not relationships, trust me on that. They are using my body like a toilet.”13

The last major sociological principle for understanding deviance is the idea that defining social norms involves social power. The law has many things but Karl Marx argued that one of its roles is as a means for the powerful elite to protect their own interests, for example, the difference between a campaign rally and a spontaneous protest. Both are public political speech and may block traffic but they draw resoundingly different reactions from police. Emile Durkheim’s structural Functionalist approach to deviance was that, since deviance is found in every society, it must serve some function and Durkheim argued that deviance serves four functions in particular- First, he said, deviance helps to define cultural values and cultural norms. Basically, we can only understand what’s good by only understanding what’s not good. He argued that society’s response to deviance clarifies moral boundaries. This means that when society reacts to deviance, it’s drawing a line. Durkheim also said that these reactions bring society together by reacting in similar ways to something that seems not –normative, we are basically affirming to each other that we are an ‘us’ and the deviants are ‘them’. And finally, Durkheim pointed out that deviance can actually encourage social change. But a Conflict theory approach links deviance to social power. If we look at society, we find that the socially deviant is not necessarily the most dangerous. Rather, a conflict theory perspective points out that they are often the most powerless. Conflict theory posits that norms and laws reflect the interest of the powerful, so the powerful can defend their power by labeling as deviant anything that threatens that power.

Prostitutes are looked down upon in the daylight and bloom the nights of many in the dim dusky nights. They are deviants & they are sub-subalterns. Highly marginalized and systematically denied of choices and power, the choice to move out of the profession of ‘sale of oneself’ and power to speak out, that it’s not their greed for easy money but the need to support a family consisting of an indolent ‘nithalla’ husband; and children who if not sent to school will become one.


The view of women as a commodity is pervasive in popular manifestations of various cultures. Women who have had sexual experiences are considered to be ‘used goods’ and are unlikely to ever marry. Without a husband, a woman has no source of income; She is an impoverished cultural outcast. The prevailing line of reasoning is that she at least has a useful place as a prostitute. Women who have been widowed or divorced are also confronted with this social stigma. If a woman’s husband dies, she has essentially outlived her purpose. Since she is not a virgin, she obviously cannot marry again. In rural areas, Bride burnings, in which a woman burns herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, still occur. There is a social stigma, which leads a woman to believe that her life is worthless after her husband’s death.

When strong notions are combined with the potency of religion or poverty, even more people are pressured into prostitution. For example, a girl may become a street child because her mother died and her father’s new spouse will not accept her. As a street child, she may be periodically arrested along with her fellow vagabonds for crimes, that they may or may not have committed. While in police custody, instead of simply being beaten as her male cohorts are, she may be sexually abused by the police officers. She may decide to become a prostitute to support herself and to find her place in the broken world in which she is fated to reside. Her children will likely become prostitutes as well.

Women from the long past were sufferers of the second class treatment; situated in the Social oblique and subjected to the submissive and submitting lifestyle. Used by the opposite elite gender and abused by the same is a lifetime musical tune installed in her assaulted cassette.

Living in a social bottom beneath which there is no bottom is not easy, to be always attentive to orders and suggestions, to hold down one’s opinions to support the beliefs of others is a sacrifice. Others are deaf and dumb to her problems. Societal help is so less than the abandoned women are forced to opt for a profession/work/job where all they get is meager money in return of their dignity. Who would choose to lose everything every day? Prostitution, is hence, a social construct, on whom sexual tourism is performed each night behind the tight doors & on the moving beds. All moral restrictions/ reforms are tried and tested on her as if she is a testing tool. ‘Brothels are the bad houses and those in it are dirty girls but the elite men are not sinners in the temple, they are saints in Brothel’, absolute hypocrisy!

mujhe banane wale ne apnane se inkaar kar diya’!...

Prostitution; is a social construct that society refused to accept

(A Picture condensing all adjectives)

Not her greed, but a need…

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