How patriarchy makes ‘sex worker’ a term of abuse

The Goddess as a free woman discomforts many, who cannot bear to see any female, divine or otherwise, in positions of power.

 |  3-minute read |   27-02-2016
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So someone in the extreme Left allegedly described Durga, the Hindu Goddess, as a “sex worker”. Those on the extreme Right, unable to take a high ground, want them to be punished. For those watching this rooster fight between hecklers and reactionaries, encouraged by politicians who want to distract all attention from “development”, it is time to ponder on the term “sex worker”. 

Sex worker allegedly is a politically correct phrase for “prostitute”. The sociological meaning of the word is very different from the mythological meaning. 

In society, it usually refers to people (men, women, and transgenders) who provide sex services in exchange for money. In a market economy, this should be no problem. Its about demand and supply. It’s about dignity of labour. 

However, in a market economy overshadowed by moral norms, this is one service that is frowned upon. In other words, it is seen as a “dirty” job, lower than the lowest of the jobs. In other words, there is an implicit assumption that all jobs exist in a hierarchy, much as in the caste system where the job of the temple priest was seen as superior to the job of sanitation worker. The former got respect, not the latter. 

Those who endorse the hierarchical scheme of vocations grade the sex-worker lower than even the sanitation worker. Hence “sex worker” is a slander. The right-wing is naturally upset for the slander is used against their goddess. It is ironical that this slander used by extremists on the Left who allegedly do not discriminate between different types of workers and service providers. 

In the mythological world, sex worker or prostitute is neither a positive nor a negative word. Here, nature is metaphorically seen as a woman who accepts all seeds until humanity transforms forest into field and controls which seed can be sown. 

Culture thus turns the “free woman” into a domesticated demure “controlled woman”. 

durga-sexwork-embed_022716073153.jpg A depiction of Goddess Durga defeating Mahishasur.

The Goddess then is a free woman who is both a virgin or Kumari, unattached to any man, as well as a mother or Mata, primal origin of all things. 

As society became increasingly patriarchal, the “unattached woman” became the venerated “temple bride”, then the grudgingly respected “courtesan”, and eventually the disrespected prostitute or sex worker, who had to be driven out society or live secretly in its underbelly satisfying the unsavoury yearnings of men. 

In fact, a woman who was not attached to a man was open to abuse and exploitation, and she often became a “sex worker” as she had no other source of income. This was accompanied by loss of social status, unlike the courtesans and temple brides of yore.

In Christianity, where sex is sin, the pre-Christian phrase “Virgin Mother” was used very differently. It came to be used to refer to a woman who gives birth the Chosen One without participating in the “polluting” act of sex. Mary, mother of Jesus, is no free woman; she is the wife of Joseph, demure and gentle. 

But the unbound hair of Durga as she rides a lion is indicator of her freedom. She is bound to no man: neither Shiva, the guileless man she chooses to marry, nor Mahishasura, the powerful man whose marriage proposal she rejects. 

She chooses to indulge one and kill the other. This freedom of woman, communicated through the Goddess, discomforts many, who cannot bear to see any woman, divine or otherwise, in positions of power. They naturally call her bi**h or wh**e, or the politically correct phrase “sex worker”.

Writer

Devdutt Pattanaik Devdutt Pattanaik @devduttmyth

The author writes on mythology. His latest work is Girl who Chose: a new way of retelling the Ramayana.

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