Sex worker rights activist Meena Seshu looks at soliciting as a form of sexual expression. This is the first in a series of blog posts from the national conference Porn. Panic. Ban that Point of View and the Internet Democracy Project convened in October 2015 in New Delhi.
“The reason I’m on this panel is because we thought we should look at soliciting as a construct, as sexual expression, but not in the virtual world. Imagine a public street. The police are watching, and they are waiting to pounce on you, and you have to attract this client. Imagine the kind of sexual expression that you will have to use.
We have been on the street with sex workers for hours; but when they pick up a client, we can’t figure out how they picked them up. It’s just impossible. So, we went back to the women and asked them, “Okay, so how do you actually do this? How do you actually identify which man is going to be your client?” I was told that ‘good’ women, or non-sex workers, don’t have eye contact with men in general. They may glance at a man, but they don’t look into a man’s eyes. And that’s how the sex workers sort of indicate that they are in sex work or that they are available, because they will look into his eyes. So I was like, “Accha! So there is nothing sexual whatsoever there? It is just the eyes? You just maintain eye contact?”
The best part was that most sex workers told me that women don’t see men.
I said, “What do you mean women don’t see men?”
“You don’t see men!” they replied. “You walk on the street and you see men. You see MEEEEN! But do you see the man?”
I realized that was true. These women are looking for the man, right? So they don’t see men. We see the mass when walking on the street. They see the man in that mass.
The other thing I learnt is this whole thing about protecting the breasts. Obviously. So, if you are wearing a saree, and the pallu falls, there is this desperation to put it back in place. Whereas sex workers make the pallu fall very obviously, and keep it there for sometime. I didn’t know that. So if you’re a sex worker and are standing at the paan patti, which is where the paan and the cigarettes are sold, you have to stand there in a lazy manner, which is also something that you have to learn. And when you are standing there in this lazy manner, you drop this pallu, and quickly don’t pick it up. You let it trail for a minute. This works with the chunni and the pallu, whether you wear a saree or a salwar kameez. This chunni is absolutely important! It’s a tool to attract men. So you have to wear the chunni. If you don’t wear the chunni, you have no attracting ability. So this is the way of soliciting on the street.
There is also another thing you learn. They say that when you walk, you should walk lazily. I’ll just explain lazily. They say, “Aalas.” I said, ‘But how do you explain this aalas?” They say, “Drop one bum at a time.” This is the way you walk on the street. So you see this man. You have made eye contact. You wink at him, and then you drop this one bum. Unimaginable! Now when we are walking on the streets, I can pick up sex workers like that! Earlier, this was not possible. Now, I can just see and say, “Accha! She is in dhanda. She is in dhanda. She is in dhanda.” I can actually say it, very unconsciously.
More and more women in sex work are now aping the office-going group. They have the purse, the pinned-up saree, and no glaring makeup, because the police are looking for all of that. So you have to make yourself look like a non-sex worker to be able to pick up clients now. The other thing they told me is that non-sex workers will never, never focus on the penis. “They don’t look at the penis, whereas we focus on the penis. When we feel that there is a slight bulge, that he is getting harder, that’s the guy.” The scratching of the crotch and all is useless, because everybody, clients and non-clients, do it all the time. So that is useless as an indicator that the guy wants to have sex with you.
Of course, all of this has now changed with the coming of mobile phones. You don’t see the women on the streets any longer. They are using mobile phones to get clients. Unfortunately, I get solicited along with them because what is going wrong is that men are taking numbers off the phones of the sex workers. So nowadays, my life is miserable, because most of these women have my number. So I get calls saying, “I got this number off Rekha or Neha or whoever.” The thing that irritates me the most is that they call my number and say, ‘Who is speaking?’ But that is the way the sex work code goes, that they have your number, they pick it up and then say ‘Who is speaking?’ because they don’t know whose number it is. It’s a male voice, and then you start off saying that so and so gave you the number and go on with the conversation. So this is the soliciting that one is talking about.”
Very quickly, to change gears, we do a lot of work with rural women in sex work and work on sexuality education. We have got reams and reams of questions from boys and girls. In our sexuality education, we have these drawings of the vagina and a hard penis, because the girls did not know what a hard penis looks like. So we actually drew it, this is flaccid and this is hard and this is the way it looks and so on. And this all had to be drawn, because it is a rural area and you may not get electricity and will not be able to do power point presentations. So you will have to use those black boards which can be rolled up and carried along.
In the vagina [drawing] we have the clitoris, called the kamasukhakendra. The amount of questions that teachers have asked about this kamasukhakendra is unbelievable. Why is it that there is so much lack of knowledge about this kamasukhakendra, I still cannot understand. My famous one [question] about sex education has been when this girl came up to me and said, ‘What do you mean women masturbate?!”
So I said, “What do you mean… I mean women masturbate.”
“It’s not possible! You cannot ejaculate, so you cannot masturbate.”
So this whole understanding that unless you ejaculate, you don’t masturbate, you cannot masturbate, because you can’t have an orgasm is so entrenched in the minds of these young girls. It is very unfortunate that we are not able to deal with these issues. And I’m talking about sex workers also. We do sex ed with sex workers as well. Because sex workers, who know very well how to give pleasure to men find it very difficult to pleasure themselves.”
Meena Saraswathi Seshu is secretary-general of Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM), an HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and support organisation working with socially marginalised people in Maharashtra, India.
Image courtesy: SANGRAM