In a bitter resident association altercation in my building, the chairperson threw his last weapon at me, "You are a bloody whore".
I was furious, and retorted, "Call your bloody wife a whore you pimp". I would have slapped his stupid arrogant face right then, but my husband held my hand. "He is not worth engaging with," he said. My fault - I had dared to stand up to his siphoning off money from the building fund. I am outspoken and (usually unafraid), but I bet that even if I was docile and feminine, I would have been slut shamed. Slut shaming is in the same category as racist comments - it is what we do when we run out of rational arguments to make a point, or know we are in the wrong. At some point, irrespective of her demonstrated sexuality, many of us have called a woman a tart, harlot, whore, prostitute, or the Hindi "rundi".
Yet when I read Rivers of Flesh, a brilliant collection of stories on prostitutes, translated into English from Indian regional languages, (edited by Ruchira Gupta, publisher Speaking Tiger), and Girls Like Us by Rachel Llyod, I felt a different kind of shame. Of using the words prostitute and whore with such nonchalance and ignorance. How was I different from the thieving chairperson when I behaved like him and abused his wife? I am proud to be a woman - brains, fat, hormones, girlfriends and all, so how did I ever stoop to the level of slut shaming?
This Women's Day, prostitutes are who I am thinking of. And how they are marginalised, abused, and scorned - all because they are forced to sell their flesh to satisfy a man's need for sex and function as a receptacle for his depraved behaviour. Some manage to escape the brutal life, while others have no way out. Yet, these brave women who have been thrust to the outside fringes of the society, deserve our compassion, support and love. They are women like us.
The statistics are staggering. In India, more than three million women are engaged in the flesh trade, and 1.4 million of these are children. The age at which young girls are procured for the trade is as young as nine years. Contrary to popular belief, for the overwhelming majority, prostitution is not the profession of choice. Most young girls are procured from remote villages where their impoverished families are paid paltry sums as loan against employment the girls will receive in the city.
On the long road to the city, the girls are beaten, starved and broken emotionally, so they will not create a fuss when they are called upon to provide services. In the cities, they are bought by brothel owners, and a premium is paid for voluptuousness, beauty and docility. For five to seven years, the young girls are in debt bondage - they must work to pay off the money that was "loaned" to their families. When they are finally "released", they have nowhere to go, and a life of prostitution becomes the known devil they must fall back on for survival.
"She wants it" is what we often hear but really, how many women will willingly submit themselves to the depraved behaviour of men who come visiting them? A customer who thinks that sex is about complete submission and is confident that violence against the whore will not be punished? So he burns the prostitute with cigarette butts, forces glass bottles and drugs up her vagina and beats her senseless so he can be in control and enjoy the act? Or eyes her young daughter, her cheeks and body displaying her puppy fat, who is blithely unaware that "Uncle" gets turned on while she is innocently playing with her doll outside the room where he batters her mother?
"Whores enjoy what they do" is another cliché. Prostitutes dress up bright, wear flowers in their hair, loud make-up that hides the marks of physical and emotional abuse, and must "strut" their wares. A drop of the pallu, a hint of "bad-girl" behaviour, the pouts and babygirl talk indicate that they are good at their trade, and must be selected from the smorgasbord that is available to the man on prowl.
The shelf life of prostitutes is short, and the pressure to earn money for the pimps and brothel owners pushes them to behave in manners that tell us that they like what they do. They must curry favour with the pimp and the customer, laugh at their jokes and insults because the repercussions can be severe - from beating and starvation to being discarded. The prostitute finds no help from the police. Many take "hafta" from them, use them for free or cheap sex and turn a blind eye when pimps thrash them senseless.
"How can you be raped?" is what prostitutes are told when they ask for help. A whore is a whore after all and signed up to sell her body, so she is denied the right to say no. At best, rape is a "theft of services" and she cannot portray herself as the victim. Such unbearable humiliation!
If anyone must bear the cross for trading in flesh, it is men - the ones who force women to sell their bodies and persecute them, and those who use them to satisfy their needs. As Polly Adler, the famous brothel owner said, "What it comes down to is this: the grocer, the butcher, the baker, the merchant, the landlord, the druggist, the liquor dealer, the policeman, the doctor, the city father and the politician - these are the people who make money out of prostitution, these are the real reapers of the wages of sin." They deserve our contempt.
From this Women's Day on, I will never slut shame again. Prostitutes are women like me, like us, making the best of the situation they have been placed in. They are deeply compassionate - the older ones look out for the young ones in the trade, they want to educate their children to help them escape the terrible bondage, and they support each other to help navigate their difficult lives. They are victims, not sinners and don't have to seek forgiveness or pardon and definitely don't have the wrong moral compass.
They deserve my highest respect.