Sample profile, marriage, and intimate relationship and entry into sex work
The mean age of women was 35.13 years (S.D. = 4.34, range: 25–42). Years of schooling ranged from none to ten years. All women, except one had been born and raised in Chennai city. All respondents identified themselves as ‘currently married,’ and in most cases, their families had arranged their marriage. Male partners of FSWs in our sample could be classified into 3 types: (1) ‘paying sexual partners’ (one-time clients) with whom women did not have an ongoing relationship, (2) ‘paying regular partners’ (regular clients) who saw sex workers periodically and who possibly had other partners; (3)‘non-paying intimate partners’ with whom women had an ongoing, often cohabiting relationship. These included husbands or ex-clients who women considered ‘husbands’. Most of the women in the sample were separated from their husbands and were living with a ‘non-paying’ intimate sexual partner (an ex-client) who they considered ‘husbands’, including two widowed and one woman whose husband had deserted her. Women considered the intimate relationships with these ‘non-paying’ partners identical to a matrimonial relationship. Despite the dysfunctional nature of the relationships, FSWs perceived that their ‘marriage-like’ relationships accorded them respectability in their communities as is highlighted in the following quote by an in-depth interview participant:
I used to think why I should live such a horrible life with him. But I know how difficult it is to survive with out any support. Generally it is very difficult to lead a life with out a male support. People wont give us a house for rent if we are single, so a life partner is must for survival. So I made up my mind to live with him and take care of my children, so that people will not talk behind me and I will have a male support to lead my life.
Women’s narratives highlighted the meagre financial resources at their disposal and underscored poverty as the primary reason for women entering sex work. Necessity to provide for the family, especially children, and financial crisis overrode any resistance that women may have felt in entering the sex trade. In the context of unstable marriages, unreliable partners, lack of education and vocational skills, sex work seemed to be the only option available to many women. There was also evidence of women being forced into sex work by their husbands.
Experiences of various forms of intimate partner and client violence
FSWs in the current study reported experiencing a wide range of abusive behaviours from their regular, non-paying intimate partners, including emotional, verbal, physical and sexual violence. Data pointed to sexual jealousy and constant suspicions of infidelity as one of the main reasons that often led up to violent episodes. As one in-depth interview participant explained:
I was deserted earlier by my first husband, probably because of that he (the current partner) constantly suspects me of having sexual relationships with other men. He hit me, caused injuries that I had to get stitches for, punched me, and burned me. He verbally abuses me constantly in vulgar terms…it is a horrible life.
Women’s narratives in focus groups and interviews also pointed to episodes of severe physical violence with intimate partners, often with serious consequences as one woman pointed out, “Because of the severe violence, my eyes have been affected and now I have a problem with my eyesight.” Another woman shared her experience, “He has even beaten me with an electric wire and subjected me to an electric shock.”
There was also evidence of the violence from clients and potential clients on the streets, “When we are standing on the road, they (clients) will push us and beat us” and “They will also harass and verbally abuse using vulgar words, some others will say- ‘I will pour acid on your face’.”
Role of violence, sexual coercion and alcohol in condom use
Women faced a myriad set of risks from the inherently dangerous sex work environment including threats, violence and rampant sexual coercion, issues that were highlighted in focus group discussions: “We can’t refuse when they ask us to have sex in different positions; they will pay only if we agree to do it….that is why our health is worsening.” Another woman explained, “They will demand anal sex. When I had anal sex, I started bleeding, but we have to adjust to all those things.” Forced group sex was also extremely common as the following quote reveals:
One customer will come and pay the fee for himself, but then there will be ten men and they will not give more money. The others will be waiting by a bike or auto. The person will call other people, telling them to come with two or three people to have sex with her. They will threaten her to have sex with a lot of people for Rs.100–200.
Coercion, especially in the context of clients’ alcohol use proved a formidable barrier in condom negotiation as women’s narrations revealed:
Clients have the tendency to shout when they are drunk and yell and also refuse to use condom during intercourse.
Most of the time, they (clients) come fully drunk…and behave really badly. One of my friend’s clients came in fully drunk, insisted on having sex, and started biting her breast and hurt her with burning cigarettes.
Negotiating condom use with regular non-paying intimate partners was a complex process for women. As women in in-depth interviews explained:
Even if we tell them (intimate partners) about condom usage, they ask questions about trust and whether we are accusing them of going to a prostitute, this in turn creates lots of problems in the family. So we never ask our husband to use a condom.
We cannot negotiate condom usage with our husband. But we can ask clients to wear condoms…we can tell them about the consequences, explain the reasons why he should use a condom. We can also walk out if they don’t want to use a condom. But we cannot walk out on our husbands.
In focus group discussions, women shared their helplessness in the context of their own alcohol use:
Some clients take us to parties, they ask us to drink so that we lose our consciousness and they come and have sex with us at that time. At those times, we will not be aware of how many men come and have sex with us. It does not stop there. Even the lodge owner comes and has sex with us.
Survival and Coping strategies adopted by sex workers
FSWs in our study used myriad strategies to remain safe and protect their health in the risky and dangerous sex work environment. These ranged from fixing rates and collecting the payment in advance, non-confrontation with problematic clients, encouraging potentially violent clients to get drunk, enlisting the help of peers and building strong supportive networks, coaxing, pleading, and reasoning, to aggressive retaliation in public places as illustrated by an in-depth interview participant:
We also shout at them and tell them very clearly- ‘Don’t shout like that. We have come to this profession to survive so if the rate is ok you can continue with us, other wise you can leave this place.’
Some of the respondents also displayed personal power and strength in their abilities to successfully negotiate condom use with clients and also not accede to clients’ demands. As one respondent highlighted, “Two clients asked me to come (have sex) without using Nirodh (the local brand of condom). But I refused them.” Another woman’s narration underscored the use of aggressive negotiation strategy:
Generally, we don’t remove our clothes completely, whereas our clients ask us to remove our clothes, they say that we pay you and so you have to do what ever we ask to do. But we will not do everything that they demand. We just tell them ‘If you are willing, come, otherwise you can carry on with some one else’.
Circumstances that reinforced women’s tenure in sex work and perceived benefits
Partner alcohol use, under/unemployment, and pervasive intimate partner violence, including severe physical and sexual violence contributed to the persistent instability of marital/regular intimate relationships that forced women to take the lead in providing for their families and reinforced their positions in sex work as the following quotes highlight:
He won’t go for job at all and all the time he will be fully drunk. I have waited for long … what to do? I have to take care of my children so I took this profession. Now he fights with me and hits me saying that I go out for sex.
Another respondent highlighted women’s helplessness in the face of inequitable gender norms that condone risky male behaviour: “Men have affairs; some times they don’t come home. If the wife asks him for the reason he will start hitting her and break her head.” However, there was ample evidence of women’s perceptions of the benefits of sex work. As one respondent said, “Whatever profession I might be in but I have given my children a good education.” Many women also acknowledged their contributions in providing for their families and retained a sense of self-worth as the following quote shows:
In most cases men they don’t take up their responsibilities, they beat their wife, torture her, they drink alcohol, don’t give money to run the family, don’t take care of the children. Here the woman takes up the role of taking care of her family, goes for this trade and starts earning for the family. A woman faces poverty, violence, torture, and lots of hardships. So I feel a woman who undergoes all these problems is an ideal woman.
Many women shared comfortable friendships with some clients, who even served as their protectors under some circumstances, a quality that they did not often experience with their intimate partners. As one interview participant highlighted:
Some (clients) who are very happy with my services will pay for the auto ride or give provisions for my family in addition to the regular fees. Some men just come for pleasure for five minutes. If there are problems with rowdies some clients will protect me by saying, ‘She’s my wife.’