REDLIGHT INDUSTRIES: The Economics of Sex Work

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the entire community of sex workers and their occupation to a complete halt overnight. On one hand a country of more than a billion people was put under lockdown, the women in sex work- marginalised and deprived were further pushed into invisibility only to be forgotten and left to their fate.

Regarded as the ‘oldest profession of the world’, sex work has been a prominent yet the most contentious profession all across the world. Sex work has been a prevalent profession since time immemorial, with incidents of its eminence and rising influence dating back to eras as old as the Ancient Babylonian. Chanakya or ‘Kautilya’ as he was widely known, the wisest advisor to the first emperor of Maurya kingdom, in the ancient Indian political treatise ‘Arthashastra’ meticulously talks about prostitution and its code of practice while recognising it as legitimate profession that contributes to the revenue of the state. There are various elaborate references in the text, on the roles of courtesans, brothels and prostitutes along with elaborate discussions on how each of them were regulated. With the changing trajectory of morality, ritualistic (as well as economic) position of women in the society and the institution of marriage- sex work in contemporary times finds itself as a profession in the dark. The nature and state’s recognition of the profession has been dismal. The industrialised world has rarely offered sex-workers the oppurtunity of inclusion in the social, political and economic spheres. What’s left is that they have had to assert inclusion through different strategies, sometimes covert. The need for state welfare entitlements to sex works has peaked given the situation of a pandemic, the economics of which is still alien to many.


The term “informal economy” became widespread in the 1970‘s as a label for economic activities that take place outside the framework of official institutions. They stem from the proliferation of self-employment and casual labour. Scholars have viewed prostitution from three distinctive eyeglasses: as a form of deviant behaviour, as a form of gender oppression and as a type of work.

Sex work is like any other form of trade, where ‘sexual services’ are exchanged for money but what makes it different are the social stigma, apprehensions, and questions of moral decadence and unethical choices that are attached to it. As far as economic consciousness is concerned, sexual labor is a poorly understood aspect. Prostitution is cornered in the whole spectrum of informal labor markets and it is indeed disparaged as an economic alternative to earn money. Majority of people who work as sex-workers are women, bringing us to a popular opinion which also remains a fact, that the work that men and women do outside of their households to earn money has never been looked at with parity. Women aren’t given as much recognition for working for the same number of hours, under the same conditions as those of men, and hence the lack of acknowledgement and recognition for women as professionals is not only restricted to sex work alone. A survey of female sex workers from India conducted as a part of a study on sex work by Sahni and Shankar (2013) shows that 1811 out of the 3000 women who were surveyed chose sex work voluntarily, after working in manufacturing or service industries for extremely meagre wages and unsafe working conditions. This comes with the understanding of informal labor markets- where working conditions and wages offered are already poor, and more so for the female workers. Therefore, women have to look for other avenues to work, since they can’t feed themselves and their families if they cease to work. Sex work, being a women-dominated profession is safer and more organized than many other informal/unskilled industry professions- where working conditions are worse than pathetic. Citing the Sex Worker’s Manifesto put forth by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), on the issue of why do women get into sex work:

Women take up prostitution for the same reason as they may take up any other livelihood option available to them. Our stories are not fundamentally different from the labourer from Bihar who pulls a rickshaw in Calcutta, or the worker from Calcutta who works part time in a factory in Bombay.” (DMSC 1997).

The survey by Sahni and Shankar(2013) indeed compares the daily income of an average rickshawpuller in Calcutta and the daily income of a sex worker in Sonagachi (Calcutta), quoting statistics from the Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector (published by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (2007: 69)), and it is inferred that an average sex worker in Sonagachi earns way more than a male rickshaw puller in the same town does. Reason for entering the sex work market are mostly economic, for most of the women, arising out of their own personal trysts and interactions with the informal labor market, prior to entering into sex-work. Some sex workers may continue to other petty jobs so as to amplify the scope of earning. However, Sahni and Shankar (2013) argue that-

“When a woman sells socks or handkerchiefs in a local train or works as a vegetable vendor, her identity as a worker participating in the informal economy is not disputed despite the fact that she may be ‘working’ for paltry incomes. She does however, get the recognition that she is working and earning as a part of the informal economy. But when she engages with sex work, her alternative work identities cease to matter. She gets christened as a sex worker for all purposes but without the recognition of work that goes with it.”


Friedrich Engels in the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that monogamous traditions in a capitalist society is one of the primary causes of sex-work becoming a profession. In a capitalist society, all the property a man owns has to go to one or more of his heirs, which requires the man to marry a woman who would be able to bear his children, to whom the property rights would be passed. Hence, romanticizing copulation only as ‘an act of love’ is a mistake as men, over so many years have been marrying and copulating with women, just so that the heirs come into existence, no matter whether love exists or not. Prostitution- the commodification of sex- Engels broadly argues, has stemmed out of the same capitalist thought, and though monogamy and prostitution might be poles apart when compared in the literal sense, they are closely intertwined with each other- making them a classic example of a dialectic.

Since we talk about commodification of sex, like all other commodities, the product of sex work also has a use value and an exchange value- “The use value in prostitution is satisfying the client’s desire, the provision of sexual pleasure. The exchange value is the social labor embodied in that commodity, that is, the physical and mental labor involved in providing the sexual service. This is equivalent to what the sex worker needs to reproduce herself under socially average conditions for the industry.” As with various other professions under a capitalist society, sex work also takes place with workers having different roles and positions, which might be hierarchical too, at times. Prostitutes who voluntarily pursue sex-work (and are not coerced into pursuing the profession) be wage laborers, who can be hired by people like brothel owners or they can operate independently, selling services directly to the clients and not working under anybody. For the first category of prostitutes, the labor is sold not directly to the client, but it is sold to the boss, who quotes and receives money from the client, out of which, he/she only gives a limited proportion to the sex worker who actually delivered the service and put in the actual labor to do the job. Such workers are exploited by the hands of the bourgeois brothel/bar owners, as the owners who deal directly with the clients appropriate major proportions of the income that has been generated completely by the labor provided by the sex-worker as their own profits, and reward the sex worker with an income which is lesser than the value of the service that she provided. This is how all wage laborers are exploited by the so called bourgeois capitalists, who own the means of production (here, in the form of a place- brothels/bars/saunas), as proposed by Karl Marx under the infamous labor theory of value. The prostitutes who work on their own are self-employed and own the means of production themselves. They are classic examples of petit-bourgeois in modern society. Then, there are others who, after a considerable amount of experience in the sex work industry, become brothel owners and employ other prostitutes under them, while continuing to be a part of the profession themselves.

The clients who buy the services from a sex workers are merely ‘consumers’ if the scenario is looked upon from a perspective which is completely based on fundamental economics. Consumers create demand, sellers create supply, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ pushes the market forces towards an equilibrium and the market for sex-work clears. However, that is not all. Sex-work is a layered profession in that way- for it has overlapping layers of various economic and social aspects associated to it. Consumers, who are mostly men, may become direct exploiters of the sellers, who are mostly women here, harassing them or oppressing them in various ways, including the use of violence to show their power. Owing to the social stigma that revolves around sex-work, the State also does not give any proper workplace rights to sex workers at large, rendering them in a state of helplessness.

“In many countries, women with prior convictions for prostitution have restrictions on their rights to travel, they are often denied custody of their children, and today in England street working women are served with anti-social behavior orders which lead to effective curfews for an activity that is not actually a crime. More extreme examples of the oppression of prostitutes include the high rate of murder and violent assault, and the vicious way in which prostitutes are treated in the press. Women who are ‘outed’ as prostitutes can find themselves cast out by families and friends, can lose their children and can never move into ‘straight’ jobs. They become outlaws.”


Organising themselves and forming collectives does add to the advantage of workers, be it the workers in the sex-work industry or in any other profession. Over the years there have been many organisations of sex workers which have come to the forefront to protect and demand for their rights, which they are denied due to multiple reasons. When we talk about collectives of sex workers, many of them have emerged from feminist collectives and groups of women, however a group of feminists who think that sex-work in a capitalist society condones toxic patriarchy, are completely against it. The other group does see sex-work in a good light, wherein it is perceived to be a means to achieve empowerment and economic independence, as far as a woman chooses to indulge in the profession. Feminists and social workers support such collectives to try and put an end to any kind of harassment or oppression that happens with women who are into this profession.

One such collective of sex-workers is the The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committeeis, which is based in West Bengal, India. The collective grew out of the Sonagachi AIDS prevention initiative. The organization has 65,000 members, working in some of the poorest areas of the country:

“Durbar is explicit about its political objective of fighting for recognition of sex work as work and, of sex workers as workers and for a secure social existence of sex workers and their children. Durbar demands decriminalisation of adult sex work and seeks to reform laws that restrict the human rights of sex workers, that tend to criminalise them and limit their enfranchisement as full citizens.”

Collectivisation and further unionization of sex workers is integral given there are several ‘classes’ of sex-workers which need to be protected against any workplace harassment against sex-workers from the side of the clients or the employers(brothel and bar owners, etc.). Organizing sex workers is also important to spread awareness among the general public so as to emaciate the social stigma that revolves around the profession and also to educate the sex workers about their rights and how they should conduct themselves in crisis situations. In various countries across the world, sex work is criminalized, which does not mean that sex-work does not exist. It exists, but as an underground activity, operating far-far away from the hands of the law, giving the exploiters a greater opportunity to exploit and harass sex-workers. Organizations of sex-workers shall fight against such injustices and wrongdoings of the State and the society, to ensure a greater and respectable standard of living for sex-workers.


Sex work in India is governed by the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. Although sex work is not illegal according to the Act, supporting activities such as maintenance of brothels, soliciting customers , child prostitution are all punishable offences. The act stands out to be problematic because even though it is illegal, brothels and other places where prostitutes operate from do exist, but in an underground form. In a situation where a sex-worker faces any exploitation by the hands of pimps or brothel owners, she can’t approach the authorities as she will be punished for working in a brothel, where she might be working because of certain inevitable circumstances. “The Act has made sex workers more vulnerable by forcing them to work in the darker, more invisible corners of the cities, silently suffering exploitation. This seclusion of sex workers also implies that they are left in oblivion about access to information about and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, which they are most at risk of contracting. Further, it also means that they can’t access public facilities like public hospitals, colleges and schools, the access to which are quintessential for them to expand their opportunities and improve the quality of their lives.”


Sex work wouldn’t have existed in its current form, had it not been for the combination of capitalism and monogamy, which exists in multiple countries across the globe. In a socialist society, sexual relationships would evolve in a very different way, considering the absence of the analogy between private property rights and monogamy, as proposed by Engels.

Sex work as it exists today is not the most adequate/desirable profession because of the perils of the work. Sex workers are criminalized, harassed and looked down upon. In countries where the profession is decriminalized, there is a whole lot of stigma that these workers have to deal with. The State plays a role in aggravating the agonies of these workers by not providing them with adequate protection and rights which they very much deserve. Women choose to enter into the profession, even though they are well capable of having and evaluating other options for earning their livelihoods, which they deem to be even worse than prostitution. This very much explains the circumstances these women are subjected to and the obstacles that they have to face to earn a respectable living. If the State as well as the society, including the stakeholders who are participants in the profession( including employers, pimps, brothel owners, clients) starts looking at sex-work with as much respect as those who pursue it as a sole means to their livelihoods look at it, and if they try to empathize with the situations these women are in, we can expect changes to occur and the sun to rise for these workers- who have been, since a long time now, demanding their due respect, if not complete acceptance.

If people in a society do not wish to accept the fact that certain people can sell sex in exchange for money, if they wish to, as they do not see themselves indulging in sex work ever due any reason whatsoever, they should at the very least, understand that different people with different conditionings, circumstances and prerogatives and have different choices, and that every choice has a right to be respected, if not entirely embraced. Our minds may be conditioned in a different way, so as to look down upon people who are sex-workers and this conditioning might take a whole lot of time to get altered or changes, to enable us to embrace the profession with open arms. However, till that time comes, it is integral that we make the society an inclusive and a safe space to live in for each and every section of the society, by respecting them and their choices, as long as those choices are not harming us personally in any way. Sex-work is just like any other work- lets respect that and also try to accept that.


Sex Work and its Linkages with Informal Labour Markets in India: Findings from the First Pan-India Survey of Female Sex Workers - Rohini Sahni and V. Kalyan Shankar, February 2013, Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Working Paper, (V-2013: N-416)

'Marxism versus moralism': a Marxist analysis of prostitution- 2010 article by Alliance for Workers Liberty by Helen Ward (

‘A Response to the Sex Work Debate’ ,Issue: 127, 25th June 2010 , by Gareth Dale and Xanthe Rose, the international socialism journal

‘Marxism for Whores’ by Magpie Corvid | August 1, 2015 for Salvage.Zone

‘How should economists think about sex work’ , 2018 article by Our Economy ( )

‘The Legality of Sex Work in India’- 2018 article by Sara Sethia for

Kautilya’s Arthashastra- translated by L.N Rangarajan, pub. Oct 2000 by Penguin India

Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Friedrich Engels

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