Sex Work in Indian Society: Then and Now

Keywords: Prostitution, typology, rehabilitation.

The profession of prostitution is one of the oldest in almost all the countries since long in every type of society. In the ancient history of India, the prostitution was present as an organized and established institution and it was also referred in our Vedas. In the earlier Indian mythology there were many instances of high class prostitution in form of very beautiful demigods showing as prostitutes. They are popularly known as Menaka, Rambha, Urvashi and Tillotama (Jaishankar & Haldar, 2008). These are very beautiful, charming and are very perfect in giving attractive dance and musical performances. These prostitutions are used in heaven for amusement of guest in the court of Lord Indra, the Lord of Hindu Gods. In ancient time the names of prostitution varied and as per duties given to them. For example prostitutes who served nobility were called Ganikas, and were well versed in the arts, Ganika adheksha was superintendent of prosti tutes, Pratiganika was substi tute employed for a short term period during absence of Ganika, Punschal was low grade prostitute, Kritavardha and Avarudha were professional prostitutes who lived as mistress and under the protection of one master (Sinha & Basu, 1992). The profession of prostitution was state managed and the prosti tutes besides providing sexual services to the citizens and nobility also acted as spies to keep a watch on the enemies, thieves and other anti-state activities (Acharya, 2011). Other authors were classified prostitutes into ‘Ganikas’ at the top, ‘Kulata’ the married woman involved with other men, ‘Paricharika’ a mistress in the house of nobles and ‘Kumbhadasi’ as the lowest category of prostitutes. During 18th and 19th century ‘Nautch girls’ or the dancing girls became very popular in providing recreation and sensual pleasures to rich and resourceful people in India, especially in Bengal province. Jordar (1984) had mention three types of prostitutes in his study in Calcutta city, namely:

1. Chukli– lower category of prostitutes, who provides food and shelter in lieu of her services,
2. Adia-a prostitute who gets half of her income. In both the cases Mashi or female brothel keeper takes charge of the income, and
3. Self -employed or independent prostitute– where she is the owner of brothel who is famous in the name of Mashi (Sinha & Basu, 1992).
In Indi a, unt i l rec ent l y, t he templ es entertained dancing girls. The dancing girls at t ache d to each temple were cal led devadasis. They were considered the servants of gods . The devadasi system started declining in North India as a result of the destruction of major Hindu temples by the Muslim invaders, but it continued to flourish in the big temples of South India. Devadasis were women who were dedicated in the service of God. They were married to God – and entertained God and his associates by their talents of singing and dance. At one time the devadasis were the only women in India who enjoyed the privilege of learning to read, dance and sing. They were highly respected and given more accomplishments by the society and were adorned by the rulers. In South India the devadasis originally provided service to the temples but later turned into secular prostitutes by entertaining pilgrims for personal earnings. According to Henriques (1961) there were seven types of devadasis namely: Datta– devadasi woman who gave herself as a gift to the temple. Vikrita– devadasi woman who sold herself to the temple. Abhritya– devadasi woman who dedicated herself for the sake of her family. Bhakta– devadasi woman who joined temple through devotion. Hrita– devadasi woman who was enticed into this service. Alankaras– devadasi woman who belonged to the special class of highl y trained prostitutes presented to temples by kings and noblemen. Rudraganika or Gopnika– devadasi who received wages from the temple in return for her services. The amount received by the devadasis for the religious duties was very meagre. They supplemented it by selling their favours to temple pilgrims. This led to temple based rel igious pros ti tution in ancient India. Religious prostitution differs from commercial prostitution because the woman is a religious ministrant and the money given to her is used for rel igious purposes , and the act of intercourse itself is viewed as religious ritual. Various efforts were created within the past to arrest its growth by the state through legislation or by opinion with very little impact. There was aggregation of prostitutes in a town and a list of them kept by the state. Kautilya ordered down the foundations for keeping the general public ladies (prostitutes) in restraint. The reference to prostitutes also comes in Mahabharata and Jataka stories, and all Hindu Shastrakars such as Manu, Gautam, and Brihaspati recommended suppression of prostitution.
BASAVI SYSTEM This system is less organized than the Devadas i s ys tem both rel igious l y and financially. This is made possible by the social realities of poverty and gender discrimination. This system is practiced in Andhra Pradesh state of India. Basavi means ‘female bull’, which ostensibly connotes the bull’s freedom to wander. Historically, Basavi were forbidden to marry and spent their lives performing religious duties for God Hanuman (Monkey God). Like Devadasi system, Basavi also come from the lower caste families both poor and uneducated and believe that religion will fulfill their economic needs. They too feel that scarification of a daughter can bring them a son and also god will relief them from all types of financial problem (Nandi, 1973).

This is another form of rel igious rural prostitution practiced in Andhra Pradesh state of India. In this system the girls are married to a god before puberty and enter to the prostitution when they reach puberty. The girls from the lower castes group dedicated themselves to this profession in a wish to improve their financial position. In this system, a wealthy person will select a young girl from the lower caste and request her family to marry the village deity. The person finances all the expenditure and this ceremony will occur before attaining the puberty. But when the girl attain the puberty, her family perform another ceremony and after that the person who financed the ceremony he has right to sleep with the girls first. After that the girl has to live in the temple and work as prostitute and generate the money for her family (Moti, 1973).

Bhavins system practices in the Goa state of India, where the girls engaged in the service of God Ganesh. In this profession, the family of a girl dedicated her to the temple during her infancy, where the girls work Bhavins, where she pours the oil in the god’s lamp. On attaining the puberty the girl is formally married and thereafter she worked as prostitute in that region (Naik, 1928).


1. Street: shoppers invited on the road, park or other public places. Serviced in side streets, vehicles, or short stay premises
2. Bondage and discipline: sexual fantasy through role play. May involve the inflicting of pain, but genital contact is not routine
3. Brothel: Premises explicitly dedicated to providing sex. Better security than street. Often licensed by authorities
4. Lap dancing: A recent development invol ving erot i c dancing at close quarters without sexual contact
5. Escort:consume rcontacts sex employee by phone or via building workers. Most covert form of sex work. Relatively expensive because of low client turnover. Service provided at client’s home or hotel room
6. Massage parlour: Premises ostensibly dedicated to providing massage, but a range of sexual services may be provided. In South East Asia similar arrangements may apply in barbershops
Private: Client contacts sex worker by phone. Similar to escorts except services provided in sex worker’s premises. A variant in London and other big cities is ‘flat’ prostitution—high cost services in rented, serviced, inner city units Travelling entertainers: Actors, dancers and others involved in entertainment may also provide sexual services
1. Window or doorway: Brothels with sex employees on public show. Windows preferred in cold climates, doorways in warmer places
2. Beer girls: Young women hired by major companies to promote and sell products in bars and clubs. Sexual services sold to supplement income
3. Club, pub, bar, karaoke bar, dance hall: Clients solicited in alcohol vending ve nue s a nd ser vi ced on s i te or elsewhere
4. Street vendors and traders: Ostensibly marketing rural produce or other goods but supplementing income with sexual services
5. Other all-male venues: shoppers invi t ed in al l -male ve nues l i k e barbershops, bathhouses, saunas, and mining camps. Serviced on site or elsewhere.
6. Opportunistic: A person approached in a social venue may occasionally choose to charge for sexual favours if the client appears wealthy enough
7. Door knock or hotel: Unattached males are approached in their hotel rooms or boarding houses
8. Femme libre: Women, usually single or divorced, who exchange sexual services for gifts. The gifts are then converted to cash
9. Transport (ship, truck, train): Sex workers may board vehicles to service the crew or passengers or pick up clients at stations and terminals
10. Individual arrangements: The single mother who may have sex together with her landowner in situ of rent. Older sex employees United Nations agency solely wear down a tiny low variety of normal shoppers, by appointment. ‘Kept’ women or men. Concubines. The number of possible arrangements is vast
11. CB radio: Sex employees drive on highways victimization CB radio to exchange (jargon) messages with potential driver shoppers. Serviced at truck stops or parking areas
12. Swingers clubs: Some swingers or couples sex clubs employ (undisclosed) sex workers if there is a shortage of female guests
13. Other methods of solicitation: Through various media including noticeboard and news paper advertisements, ‘sex worker catalogues’ with mobile phone numbers, the internet via virtual brothels, etc. Services are delivered mostly in brothels and other indoor venues
14. Geisha: Women engaged primarily to provide social company, but sex may ensue
15. ‘Sex for drugs’: ladies providing oral sex for cocaine in crack homes. Young homosexual men might give opportunist sexual services paid with medicine.
16. Beach boys, bumsters, and gigolos: Men and boys engaged by ladies on the face of it for social functions however sex is commonly concerned. Some beach boys area uni t underneath aged and plenty of conjointly service male shoppers.
17. Survival sex: A matter of degree, where starvation or other serious deprivation is imminent, particularly for dependents. Food or security could also be the currency, instead of cash.
18. Pornography: Pornography has been on a rise all over the world and it has because one of the greatest industries and provides lot of employment when it comes to US but in India it is still illegal
The ancient classification was mostly based on religious grounds and the involvement of money was very less whereas the current typologies focus is mostly on money making and there are many micro economies which are running parallel with each and every typology. The paradigm shift in the changes in the typologies also indicate the causative factors which are responsible for the growth of sex work industries. The most prominent causative factors that have come up from the researches include poverty, unemployment, trafficking and other socio-political implications.

The typologies specially the current typologies have lot of health as well as mental health implications. The most common being the increased risk for sexual ly transmi tted diseases (HIV/AIDS). The street prostitutes, drug and survivor groups being at greatest risk for both STDs and STIs (Buzdugan, Halli & Cowan, 2009). Growing trends have also shown increase in the psychological distress and psychiatric morbidity among the sex workers (Iaisuklang & Ali, 2017). They are also becoming victims of the criminal acts.

Prostitution has been present since ages the current paper provides how the profession has changed in India through ages. The need for research regarding sex work is very important keeping in mind the health hazards, psychosocial risks and socio economic policies associated with this. Prevention in terms of addressing the issues of poverty, access to education, employment oppor tuni t ies , programs for sustainable livelihood and poverty alleviation. Special attention for education of the tribal people and financial upliftment through agriculture. Abolish of the cultural practices like Devadasi, Basavi, Jogin, and Bhavin and the social milieu like dowry, and widow from the Indian society. Promoting gender equality.

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Iaisuklang, M. G., & Ali, A. (2017). Psychiatric morbidity among female commercial sex worker s . Indian Journal of Psychiatry , 59(4), 465.

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Nandi, R. N. (1973). Religious Institutions and Cults in the Deccan, CAD 600-AD 1000. Motilal Banarsidass Publishe.

Sinha, S. N. & Nitish K. B. (1992). The history of marriage and prostitution (Vedas to Vatsyayana), Rita D. Sil (Ed.), New Delhi: Kharna.

Conflict of interest: None
Role of funding source: None

It’s a matter of great pride for me that All India Association of Medical Social Work Professionals is launching first issue of “Indian Journal of Health Social Work” on the auspicious occasion of 6th Annual National Conference of AIAMSWP, 2019.

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