Brinda Lajmi’s tryst with Zoom, unlike most of us, did not start on a clumsy, awkward footing. For the 52-year-old sex worker based in eastern India’s Sonagachi – Asia’s largest red-light area – being able to adapt to the digital rules of a pandemic world is a matter of pride.
“My customers are not rich,” she told VICE. “Most of them can barely make enough to buy a cheap bottle of rum.”
What explains her pride in learning the ropes quicker than the others? For starters, competition. Lajmi believes the “new Nepali girls” in Sonagachi leave no stone unturned in “flaunting their petite bodies.”
She said that veterans like her can’t let those newer to sex work have an unfair technological advantage, too. For her, it doesn’t get more liberating than Zoom. Even though she sparsely uses it for her handful of Indian customers living in the Middle East, she cherishes the moment she creates a link and shares it with them.
Sex workers in India were particularly affected by the pandemic. Loss of jobs, income and mounting bills led to an increase in domestic violence cases, some even fatal. Just like most of the world, sex workers expanded their digital lives.
Sites like OnlyFans, best known for their nudes, boomed, growing by 553 percent in 2020. Though this was out of reach for sex workers with no knowledge of or access to these services, the pandemic was still monumental in terms of how they wielded technology to get work or keep themselves safe. In places like India, which has been experiencing a smartphone boom, phone sex services became popular.
In the recently released book Intimate City, author Manjima Bhattacharjya, a feminist researcher with a doctorate in sociology, has analysed the intersection of tech and sex work in the city of Mumbai in the pre-pandemic world. During her research, Bhattacharjya made an interesting discovery: the huge efforts that went into personalising escort services online.
“Any understanding of sexual commerce and tech must be understood in a wide cultural context,” she told VICE. “For most customers, consent is paramount to enjoying the act. If the sex worker does not give the impression that she is enjoying it, the men won’t like it either.”
Bhattacharjya analysed over a hundred different websites offering escort services and the common denominator was the same: The individuality of the sex worker had to be emphasised.
As opposed to the quick, mechanical encounters offline, these websites “humanised” the sex worker — thus making them more real to men who didn’t necessarily like the idea of engaging with only the sexual aspect. From finer details about the sex worker’s dietary preferences, her favourite colour to the films she enjoys, the websites promise more human contact beyond just sex.
Increasing access to tech means that sex workers can now personalise the information they want their clients to know about them, and therefore better sell their services.
“These websites have detailed descriptions of what the sex worker likes, how they talk, and the things they enjoy,” said Bhattacharjya. Knowing these details gives clients a better sense of connection with sex workers, which makes for more personal encounters. “Offline spaces do not provide any scope for such articulation,” she added.
Hiring sex workers online also helps clients ensure the services they receive are informed and voluntary, as opposed to those tied up with pimps or brothels. “Websites also use certain email IDs that also invoke consent and self-sufficiency such as email@example.com,” Bhattacharjya said.
In escort services meant for women, male sex workers put emphasis on giving pleasure and not receiving it, with a package that promised oral and anal sex – something that, according to male sex workers Bhattacharjya spoke to, their clients’ husbands couldn’t provide.
In India, this penchant for hiring sex workers based on the personas they project online comes with a catch. Particularly during the pandemic, the proliferation of fake websites has increased, with extortion and blackmailing at an all-time high.
Rijula Das, whose novel A Death in Shonagachhi recently won the Tata Literature Live! award for fiction, has set his story in the same world that Lajmi is part of Lajmi’s world. “The state of Sonagachi, analyzed from a tech angle, is a far cry from the days of phone booths,” Das told VICE. “Particularly in the Kalighat area, sex workers were at the mercy of shady men operating these phone booths if they had to contact their families or clients.”
Various media reports in the past have highlighted how Asia’s largest red-light area is plagued by violence, slavery and child trafficking.
According to Das, one of the most important advantages that tech has ushered into India’s ambiguously legal sex work industry is security. During the research for her book, she encountered various voluntary associations and collectives of sex workers (who also figure prominently in the novel) and understood their ways of keeping each other safe.
“There are now WhatsApp groups where they update each other about their location when they are with their clients,” she said. “This is crucial because street-based sex work is very much an integral part of Shonagachi’s culture.”
In Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district, safety concerns are not just limited to potentially dangerous customers. In 2012, cops conducted one of the biggest raids in Kamathipura. With more than 400 arrests, even nearby vendors selling knickknacks and bangles were not spared. All of them were booked under different sections of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act.
In her book, Bhattacharjya references this incident and quotes sex workers who refuse to believe that such raids are conducted to curb “immorality.” According to many who live and work in this area, such raids are conducted at the behest of real estate moguls — their eyes set upon Kamathipura’s prime South Bombay land flanked by the Arabian sea on one side and naval docks on the other.
Archana Kumar, a 38-year-old sex worker, was arrested during one such raid in 2018. She echoed a similar sentiment but added that tech indeed comes to the rescue in some cases. “Some of the cops are friendly,” she told VICE. “If it’s an impromptu raid which they are also a part of, they will share the cavalry’s live GPS location so we have enough time to get things in order.”
Another crucial aspect to the intersection of tech with sex work is in the way it has positively impacted how queer people access online and offline spaces. In his 2008 book Gay Bombay, Parmesh Shahani wrote how the “gendered nature and increased policing of public spaces” in India make it difficult for both women and queer people to act freely in public.
In Mumbai, Shahani wrote, cruising spaces for queer folks varied across the spectrum, from a specific loo of a second class compartment in a train, to an informally demarcated space outside a particular McDonald's joint, to certain public gardens and beach promenades. However, the inherent risk to one’s safety prevailed.
“Today, with the proliferation of queer dating apps and smartphones, both queer sex workers and others can relay information about safe cruising spaces to each other without having to put themselves at risk,” said Bhattacharjya.
This has been particularly helpful for transgender sex workers, locally referred to as kothis. More than straight men, Bhattacharjya notes, they face discrimination and danger from gay men who see them as “competition.”
Kumar, the sex worker from Mumbai, also lost two of her kothi friends to a skirmish they had with three armed gay men in the autumn of 2016. Though she clarified that the bone of contention had to do with money and not strictly sex work or competition, the kothis’ vulnerability was palpable.
In India, trans people routinely face widespread violence. Last year, Sweet Maria, a prolific trans activist from south India, was found dead with her throat slit open and wounds that indicated she had also been stabbed.
In Das’ novel, too, the murder of a sex worker sets a chain of events in motion, revealing one problematic layer after another of unorganised sex work, both online and offline.
“Tech has revolutionised the industry,” said Bhattacharjya. “It's not just about having access to sophisticated digital tools, but one can see the happiness on their face when they create playlists, collaborate on Reels, and dance together."
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