Seeing beyond the red mist | Daily News

Seeing beyond the red mist

Sex workers have been active in this island for centuries. Some may find this topic as unpleasant, but this is a real social issue which needs to be addressed. Many people with conservative religious views believe prostitution is immoral because it involves sex for money, and they consider prostitution a sign of society’s moral decay.

The important thing to remember is that sex workers are human beings. No one joyfully becomes a sex worker, at least in Sri Lanka. There is an old saying that “it takes two to tango.” Prostitution obviously cannot occur unless a customer wants to pay for the services of a sex worker. In this modern world sex workers cater to the entire gamut of human sexual deviations. A red mist has indeed engulfed this society, blinding us to the reality of life.

During the American Civil War, prostitutes found many customers among the soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy; the term hooker for prostitute comes from their relations with soldiers commanded by Union General Joseph Hooker. After the Civil War, camps of sex workers would set up at railroad construction sites. When the railroad workers would visit the camps at night, they hung their red signal lamps outside the prostitutes’ tents so they could be found if there was a railroad emergency. The term ‘red-light zone’, for a prostitution intense area originated from this vintage practice. Due to the nature of the sex work industry, many sex workers lead nocturnal lifestyles.

Several types of prostitutes exist. In Sri Lanka the bottom of the prostitution ‘hierarchy’ are streetwalkers, who typically find their customers, or are found by their customers. Call girls work as independent operators in their homes or hotels and charge a lot of money for their services. A final category of prostitution involves prostitutes who hang around in bars, casinos and questionable massage parlours. They make contact with a customer in these settings and then have sex with them elsewhere. The term Spa is used loosely in big cities, and some Spas are undesirable and threaten the image of decent Spas that operate in a very professional sense. This situation needs to be regulated by the competent authorities. Indirect sex work refers to services, such as stripping and virtual sex services (over the internet). With the schools’ big match season around the corner there is always a ‘demand’ for strippers to perform at stag nights. Some would take offence and deny this but strippers are the highlight of most stag nights.

There has been an increase of 30 per cent in prostitution in the last few months as women here are forced to become sex workers, according to Stand-up Movement Lanka (SUML), a group that works for the rights of sex workers.

Most assume that Sri Lankan sex workers are confined to women. There are hundreds of male sex workers, especially in the tourism-dependent beach areas. Male sex work is often linked with drug use and alcohol and is common among sex workers and clients. Additionally, a proportion of male sex workers have female clients- both locally and visiting tourists. Male and female sex workers depend on tourism. Prostitution reflects the economic inequality in society. Many poor women feel compelled to become sex workers because of their lack of money. In the context of persistent poverty and instability, sex work offers just enough money, stability, and satisfaction. Financial issues have an overwhelming impact on the lives of sex workers. Many women sex workers reported struggling to pay off debts. The Northern Province is a land embellished with heritage and deep religious values. I was surprised to learn that there is an increase in sex workers, among whom are many war widows. These widows have no job skills and engage in sex work to survive. Similar situations can be seen across the country. Anuradhapura was one of the regions where the commercial sexual exploitation of women was widespread years ago. According to the Assistant Superintendent of Police-Anuradhapura this situation has now changed and the once high rate is significantly less. A senior officer at Police Head Quarters said they are monitoring some Spas that have been noted for being contact points for illegal sex, and the Sri Lanka Police remains vigilant to conduct raids on brothels operating in hidden locations.

Interestingly in Colombo City there are English speaking women now engaging in ‘discreet’ paid sex work to overcome the economic perils and support their families. There are other ‘divas’ who have been engaging in ‘selective’ sex work- dealing with super rich clients who reward them with an opulent lifestyle for a few hours.

Social exclusion is commonly defined as a series of mutually reinforcing processes, such as low income, poverty, debt, unemployment, poor education, health problems, housing problems, crime, lack of social support and other adverse life events. Drug addiction has been identified as a significant factor which prompts engagement in ‘on-street’ sex work in Sri Lanka. Due to the nature of this work, sexually transmitted infections are another inevitable risk among sex workers. Some of the most prominent health concerns facing sex workers as a group are communicable diseases, such as HIV and other blood borne viruses. Physical, sexual and verbal violence are common experiences for many sex workers, who cannot report these to the police.

Sex workers suffer from a wide range of health and well-being issues. There are some dedicated counseling hotlines which offer professional counseling to anyone feeling down and facing depression. Chief Operating Officer of Lanka Life Line, Ranil Thilakaratne said “Lanka Life Line is a confidential 24/7, tri-lingual crisis support service run by trained volunteers. We strongly believe that people need to talk about their problems and get support. No one should suffer alone. Our hot line is 1375”. In addition there are two other hotlines – National Mental Health hotline 1926 and the CCC Line 1333 (tri-lingual service hotline primarily dedicated for suicide prevention) which people can call. Sri Lanka must face the reality of its sex workers and think of pragmatic ways to look into their issues and build a society that does not judge but yields its support for these sex workers to begin a new chapter in their lives, where they can live with dignity.

Prostitution causes personal, family and social disorganisation .The prostitute and the person who approaches her lead a sort of ‘double life’. They might suffer from moral collapse. Broken marriages lead both husband and wife seeking love and affection from others. Most men turn to sex workers for solace. On the other hand there are marriages that become dysfunctional due to the husbands cheating and engaging with sex workers, before being exposed to their wives! The difficulties experienced when trying to find pathways out of sex work remains a challenge. What other skills do these women (and men) have to begin a new chapter in life? Education and training is very important if vulnerable people are to find alternative forms of employment and cease selling themselves for sex. In Sri Lanka sex work is associated with high levels of social stigma which is said to arise from an attribution of shame – particularly applying to women. Sex trafficking is the most severe and exploitative form of sex work. It is a serious violation of human rights.

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