Trigger Warning: This article discusses the leisure and well-being of sex workers and mentions depression, anxiety and suicide.
Stories have always been a powerful means to understand the self and the world that surrounds us. In our times, movies have emerged as an evocative instrument of storytelling and an exploration of leisure in the lives of sex workers has been depicted through a rare cinematic endeavour that has largely been seen as a mass feminist movie. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie, Gangubai Khathiawadi, depicts the journey of a young girl Ganga, who ends up becoming a sex worker, ‘Gangu’ in Mumbai’s (in)famous red light, Kamathipura.
Of the many things that the movie highlights, it touches on, albeit marginally, the idea of ‘leave and leisure’ for women in the sex industry of Kamathipura. At one point in the movie, Gangu having completed a year in sex work, desires to take a day’s leave and enjoy a movie with her fellow mates at the brothel. While her character raises pertinent ideas of ‘profit and loss being regular affairs in business’ and ‘every office having provisions for weekly off’, her desire for leisure as simple as being able to watch a movie is confronted with impediments at every step. She ends up saying, “Can’t we have a day off, in peace?” The movie at other junctures also underlines subtly the idea of leave from sex work during religious events or celebrations. It succinctly highlights the various constraints on their liberties to have leaves and enjoy them in leisure.
This article is based on my on-ground study of women in sex work in Mumbai’s Kamathipura. While leisure did not start as a central idea in the research, it is through their narratives that I understood the grave lack of ‘entertainment’ (as they called it) and how it undermined their agency. It also impinges on us the question: does the lack of leisure deny them a life of dignity?
Gender and leisure: A sex worker’s account
Leisure is an experience that provides a sense of happiness, pleasure and comfort without restrictions or bondages. Without the burden of being productive and stressful, leisure enables a fine balance between individual and social fulfilment. The work-leisure relationship becomes even more critical for women who despite finding pleasure in very simple activities, often face predicaments like caregiving, gendered responsibilities in the family, time use patterns, and lack of access among others, which makes leisure fragmented and secondary for them.
This is much more the case for women in sex work whose labour is not only undervalued but also unrecognised. Underpinned by unregulated and low remuneration, neither do they have the economic resources nor the social acceptance to engage in leisure. Deepa (26), a sex worker in Kamathipura expressed the disappointment of not having any entertainment in their lives. Her account underlined how sexual pleasure, often seen as a recreation, is in fact a misnomer in their work. She spoke about how it is a pain for which they are abysmally paid and often, unpaid too.
While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art.24) makes provisions for the right “to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay”, there are a large group of workers who lack this fundamental human right, of which sex workers are a prominent example. This often means insufficient and interrupted sleep which severely impacts their health outcomes.
Despite there being no fixed working hours, legislation has largely remained silent on the rights of these women to ‘rest and leisure’. Jyoti (34) further added, that she had been working for many years in the sex industry but had never heard anyone talk about their right to leave, rest and leisure. The absence of any such dialogue has meant that much like the brothel owners, their own families, police, and government, these women too consider themselves only as bodies that provide leisure to others, without having a contingent right to demand the same.
While on the one hand, there is no recognition of the importance of leisure in the lives of sex workers, on the other there are constraints like lack of economic resources and avenues of leisure. Women working as sex workers are often confined to a ghetto in the city. As such, their movement is restricted to that geography. Due to the taboos and stigma that surround their work, sex workers find it difficult to access public spaces like markets, parks, public transport, theatres, religious settings, restaurants, pools etc. This is not only true for spaces beyond the red-light area but also within it. Sex workers find it difficult to hide their identities within these demarcated spaces of cities, thereby restricting their ability involve in and enjoy the innumerable activities of leisure and to have meaningful social interactions.
Does the denial lead to suppressed agency among sex workers?
The constant denial of leave and leisure sometimes takes the form of an internalised psyche where these women forbid themselves from demanding it as well. Ideas of productivity and loss of it, become so conditioned that they begin seeing themselves as no more than ‘providers of leisure’ and not active agents who can pursue it as well. Being constantly reminded by the social fabric, its norms and taboos and under the burden of family obligations, they stop demanding their ‘right to leave and leisure.’
Kirti (30) with much disappointment highlighted, how everyone in the vicinity recognised them as sex workers only, without any identity and rights of personhood. As such, they are seen as the ‘dirty women’ who are fit to only provide leisure and not demand it.
Kirti expresses that the fear of going to a cinema hall, being recognised there for only her work and in turn being insulted and not allowed to enter is worse than the pain of not watching cinema. Dolly (24), elaborating on Kirti’s narrative argued that cinema, parks, and restaurants are places where ‘normal’ people went and that the norms of these ‘public spaces’ would never allow women like her to enter and enjoy. Their accounts iterate the idea that sex workers are no more than the ‘dirty’ work they are seen to be doing. Rimpi (40) highlighted this when she said that with their meagre earning, sex workers like her, anyway find it difficult to fulfil their family responsibilities. In such a situation, a day of leisure means a loss of a day’s productivity and of wages.
Their accounts highlight now they have begun to believe that leave and leisure are luxurious things that they cannot even think about. The social stigma they face, coupled with the burden of shouldering family responsibilities and apathy from the state and its policies has meant that sex workers give up on the very possibility of leave and leisure. This not only has a long-lasting impact on their health outcomes but also significantly diminishes the possibility of agency for them.
Making space for leave and leisure in the everyday experiences of sex workers
While there has been much debate on sex work, the ethics, morality, legality, subjugation vs empowerment in it, not much has been discussed as far as the ‘right to leave and leisure’ goes. This is a critical area considering that leave and leisure have a significant impact (detriment) on the well-being and health outcomes of women in sex work.
It often leads to depression, anxiety, self-doubts, and emotional trauma often manifesting in the extremities of suicide ideation and suicidal attempts. During these conversations, the respondents often narrated instances of feeling low, without a purpose and contemplating death. While these are often trivialised, I believe that this can have a long-lasting impact on women’s health and well-being.
It is therefore critical to move beyond the debates of legalisation and criminalisation, to begin conversations about (among other things like recognising sex work as work), the right to leave and leisure for sex workers without them having to lose out on their earnings. It is important to bring policy interventions that not only remove the external barriers but also address the internal constraints that restrict these sex workers’ liberties to leave, leisure and most importantly a life of dignity.