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Study of prostitution history and current effects in India

“When 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".


Adler, Polly

This quote fairly explains that prostitution has been always an integral part of urbanization. More our society has advanced on the path of new technology and fresh cultural values more it has pushed itself to the increasing complexities of life. These complexities have lead to more complicated crimes and violence in the society and have given a new dimension to urbanization. The concept of urbanization and urbanism is quite controversial and has been an issue of debate between prominent Social scientists and Anthropologists. According to Beals, the term ‘urbanization’ basically refers to the kind of assimilation in which people develop their urban ways of life, while Kinglsey Davis argued this term can be used as an characteristic of a social system (Eames&Goode,1977).

Further it could be concluded that urbanization has also lead to the study of Urban Anthropology. Anthropologists who were basically interested in study of natives and civilizations in the remote parts of the world shifted their attention to the new dynamics of city lives and the problems related to it (Basham,1978). This shift made the anthropologist to focus more on the unit of urban culture i.e. city. From 20th century onwards cities and its different social systems have been in prime focus of the Anthropologists (Wirth,1938).Definition of City as a whole became a topic of discussion and extensive debates. Wirth cited “In the rich literature on the city we look in vain for a theory of urbanism presenting in a systematic fashion the available knowledge concerning the city as a social entity."(Wirth,1938:70). In his theory of urbanism, Wirth also talks about problems and dangers of a city life and how the amalgamation of different social relations and stratus have given rise to the emergence of crime and violence.

Prostitution is also claimed as illegal in different cities of the world though there is a much debate about whether prostitution can be really called as a crime or not (Sithannan,2006). “Street prostitution and brothels are largely urban phenomena that are especially widespread in cities with large migrant male population."(Basham,1978:153). Many few countries of the world including India have adopted prostitution as legal. In India there is a huge flow of rural migrants to cities which has lead to lot of urban problems in cities(Singh,1997). Due to this huge rural migration most of the jobs are taken by men, while women are left with no choice but to adopt prostitution as their means of profession (Basham,1978). Cities of India have a huge number of female populations who are following prostitution as their profession. Hectic jobs and glamorous corporate life styles one of the basic features of urbanization has lead to a kind of sex starvation among the urban population(Sithannan,2006). This has brought the role of prostitutes into limelight and has increased their demand in the society.

Prostitution in different cities of India from Early to Modern

Prostitution as a business is flourishing in different cities of India. Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune, Banaras, New Delhi and Nagpur are hubs of prostitution in India(Mandelbaum,1970). It is noticed that prostitution as a trend in more favorable in Indian cities rather than in villages (Sithannan,2006). The fact which is quite interesting about Indian prostitution is that from ancient times India has been following a system of prostitution in cities(Sanger,2006). These early cities possess unique characteristics of themselves and cannot be compared to the modern cities of the world (Smith,n.d). These early cities were particularly known as ‘Nagars’ and were the core units of the important kingdoms from where all the governmental and economic affairs were controlled and regulated. There was a concept of ‘Nagar vadhus’ or “city brides" in these early cities of India (Singh,1997). They were basically prostitutes serving the common man’s sexual need and desires while kings had their own personal harem. This explains that prostitution as a phenomenon has also been a regular feature in the ancient cities of India. According to “Arthashastra" a famous ancient Indian manuscript a code of law was laid down on the prostitutes for their proper conduct in public(Sithannan,2006).This proves that prostitution in early cities was controlled and regulated by a proper system of law.

Women in early cities of India had no rights on themselves and were basically considered the property of men (Sithannan,2006). Prostitutes acted as gifts of negotiations between kings and nobles in ancient days(Sanger,2006). Even during the British colonization in India, cities such as Kolkata and Mumbai were hubs of prostitution(Levine,2003). Many Indian women were captured and pushed into this profession for the entertainment of British officials and military men (Sanger,2006). The capital city of Goa, Panaji was under Portuguese domination during this time and had a small community of Japanese girls who were basically captured during war and were forced to prostitution by Portuguese officials (Aronowitz,2001).

Many historical documents mentions about the dancing girls and the practice of “Devdasi" i.e. divine prostitution which is still followed in different parts of the countries.(Singh,1997)

Prostitution has been a common trait in both the ancient and modern cities of India and is increasing in number with time (Aronowitz,2001).The main reason behind this is basically poverty, social dogmas and different mental and physical oppression on women(Sithannan,2006).

The growth of urbanization in modern cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Banaras had also increased different kinds of prostitution( Ringdal,1997,2004). According to a survey there are 2.4 million women in Mumbai alone who has adopted prostitution as their profession. Nowadays particular streets and places in the cities are best known for availability of prostitutes there(Sithannan,2006). Places such as Shivdaspur in Banaras, Kalighat in Kolkata, G.B road in New Delhi and Kamathipura in Mumbai are quite famous as red-light areas of India. Prostitution as a profession has become more popular in this cities due to various reason. Women who are not well educated and suffer from acute poverty, this profession provides lot of money to sustain. More over most of the children of these prostitutes are forced to become a prostitute(Mandelbaum,1970). A survey conducted by Human right students in the year 2001 came up with an interesting data which shows that 30% of women in India adopt prostitution before age of sixteen and are sold to brothels by their parents or guardians for huge ransom of money. Most number of sexworkers can be found in major cities rather than in rural areas(Basham,1978). Cities have more huge market for sex industry.

Prostitution in religious cities of India

In India there are many cities which are categorized as being religious cities of India. Such cities are basically judged by their functional roles and provide as pilgrimage destinations for Indians(Sengupta,2004). The examples of such cities are Haridwar, Banaras, Tirupathi and Madurai.

A different form of prostitution exists in these cities of India. Though these cities are quite conservative in nature but they still have prostitutes working undercover in the society. A very unique kind of prostitution that prevails in Banaras is the widow whose husband had died early and is pushed to state of acute poverty and starvation had no choice left but to adopt prostitution as the only way of surviving(Eck,1982). These activities were carried out in very secretive way. Another kind of prostitutes that existed were called “devdasis" or “jogans" who work in temples and generally known as “servant of gods"(Singh,1997). In an ancient Indian writing “Mricchakatika" we find a love story between a prostitute and a Brahmin who used to worship in temples. These divine prostitutes are subjected to lot of sexual exploitation by the priests and wealthy individuals of the community(Singh,1997).

Though prostitution also existed in the traditional and religious cities of India it was still considered as evil by the people(Sanger,2006). Social and religious constraints are one of the important factors behind the rise of prostitution in these cities of India(Tripathy & Pradhan 2003). Hinduism have always considered women as the property of her father or husband or her brother and this is the main reason when these women lose their father or husband o brother they become vulnerable to the society and fall prey to the dark world of prostitution. Prostitution is also the result of religious stigma attached to the Indian women.(Barry,1995)

“Culture of poverty" a reason behind prostitution in Indian cities.

Poverty is one of the important key factors behind prostitution which is sometimes also defined as urban crisis (Eames & Goode,1977). Anthropologists have done an extensive work on the study of poverty as a culture of urbanization. Oscar Lewis was the first one who focused on the concept of poverty in cities and did a huge work on the culture of poverty(Eames &Goode,1977).It is interesting to note that one of the basic trends of study of urban anthropology is to focus on the problems related to urban social life and find means to overcome it. This was argued by Gulick who believed that poverty is not only a important factor in cities but also play a major role in rural areas of the country(Eames & Goode,1977).Lewis suggested that poverty is a kind of culture rather than a phenomenon, where people who become poor follow certain way of life and trends which they pass on from one generation to another generation(Lewis,1966). This statement of Lewis was vehemently argued by Judith Goode who believed that there is no such “culture of poverty" and justifying poverty in a cultural basis is completely unacceptable (Goode,n.d). According to modern anthropologists the study on poverty have not been very full proof because most of the scholars have concentrated themselves in studying the downtrodden segment of the society only, without concentrating much on the sources of the culture of poverty(Basham,1978). This has provided opportunity for the new urban anthropologists to focus more on the sources and reasons behind poverty and also work on other aspects of the society which are caused due to poverty such as crime and prostitution. Poverty has been a very big problem for Indian society and has given birth to lot of health problems and crimes in different cities of India(Basham,1978). Ethnographers has noticed through Participant observations in their research in India that slums in cities are hubs of most of the problems giving rise to gang culture and crimes. These slums have very low income rates, low hygiene and lower rate of education(Eames & Goode,1977). It can be very well concluded that illiteracy and poverty together is giving rise to prostitution in different parts of the country.

The differences of social status between people in cities are huge and it is this competition for survival that forces women and children to follow the path of prostitution(Barry,1979). This has also lead to a rise in huge number of sex transmitted diseases such as HIV(aids) among people. Many Non Governmental Organizations are working for the betterment of the health of sex workers in the cities and educating them more about the consequences of uncontrolled sex and measures to prevent it(Tripathy & Pradhan 2003).

Types of prostitution in Indian cities

There are different kinds of prostitution that are prevalent in Indian cities. Some examples of this is the custom of “Tawaif" who are basically singers and dancers but are compelled to sexual activities for entertainment of their customers. There are also Call girls and Bar dancers and singers who fulfills sexual needs of their clients. Brothels in India are generally restricted to certain parts of the cities(Sithannan,2006). Interestingly enough brothels are considered illegal in India while there are not enough measures taken by the government officials to eradicate them(Mandelbaum,1970). This is due to abundance of political corruption which is basic traits of modern cities in India. City is considered as the birth place of political corruption (Basham,1978).

Another traditional form of prostitution that had existed in Indian cities from old times is the system of “Devdasi"(Singh,1997). Many scholars have talked about a period in India where “devdasi cult" existed for a long time and was quite prominent with the people of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. According to this system girls from some selected and chosen families were donated to the temples of the Hindu gods where they used to serve as maids to the priests and powerful men of the community(Tripathy & Pradhan 2003). They also provided them with sexual pleasure in the time of need. In return their families received social prestige and lots of money from these priests and powerful dignitaries. In modern India this system of “devdasi" has been abolished by the government though it still exists in the prominent cities of Karnataka(Tripathy & Pradhan 2003). Poor families still donate their girls to temple in return of good ransom of money. These girls who are proclaimed as “devdasis" or servants of god are not allowed to get married throughout their lives. This form of Prostitution is actually known as Divine prostitution by many cultures around the world(Singh,1997).

Human trafficking and Flesh trade is a major issue that India is facing today(Sithannan,2006). Due to huge form of Human trafficking in important cities of India there has been a growth of new kind of prostitution in India. India is surrounded by some of the countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan who are economically quite backward. Due to which there is a heavy flow of illegal migrants from these countries to the major cities of India. Huge number of women and children are allured and exported from these countries to India in exchange of lot of money. Later they are forced in prostitution by the dealers who have exported them from other countries. This whole system is operated by organized criminal group who benefit a lot out of this exchange and has turned this into an international business. International trafficking is a major issue throughout the world and India is trying its best to curb the problem by improving border securities and keeping check on the immigration system.(Barry,1995)

Another kind of trafficking that is also quite prominent in Indian cities is internal trafficking. In this form of trafficking women and children from the rural areas and poor parts of the country are allured with attractive job offers or kidnapped by men dealing in this kind of trafficking business and send to the cities for becoming prostitutes(Ringdal,1997,2004). In many cases it is also seen that the relatives or family of the girl sell her to these dealers in exchange of good amount of money. Most of the prostitutes in Indian cities who have been interviewed have confessed that they were forced and compelled to prostitution by their families and relatives due to extreme economic deprivation.

City is always considered as the point of attraction for the rural people(Basham,1978). Urban ways and rich life styles have always fascinated the dreams of poor peasant girls in the poor villages of India which has been glorified with the colorful Bollywood movies. Many young girls in villages see the dreams to become actresses and come to cities in search of fame and get trapped in the nasty world of prostitution.

In recent times a glamorous form of prostitution is taking the centre stage of attraction in rich cities of India like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi(Sithannan,2006). This kind of prostitution is chosen by girls of middle class families who take up this profession as an easy means to earn a lot of money. Generally these girls t are quite educated in nature and act as escorts to big corporate professionals. One of the basic reasons behind the rise of this kind of prostitution is the corporate life style of men in these cities where they are separated from their spouse and partners for a long span of time which results in the growth of sex starvation among these men(Barry,1995). This thirst for physical needs become more prominent with huge pressure in work and lonely lifestyle which is ultimately quenched by these high profile prostitutes.

Of late India is facing huge problem of child prostitution in the cities where it is estimated that more than four lakh children in major cities of india are following prostitution as their profession(Tripathy & Pradhan 2003). Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune are hubs of child prostitution in India. This kind of prostitution has become very popular among men in cities who are scared of sexual transmitted diseases and prefer virgins instead of older ones and also because they are cheaper. One of the basic push factors that make these children follow this profession is poverty. Many families in India sell their girl child to temples and brokers in exchange of good sum of money(Tripathy & Pradhan 2003). It is also noticed that 99% of girl children of prostitutes follows the profession of their mother. It is sad that how these children of prostitutes take prostitution as their hereditary profession. Mumbai city which has the most number of child prostitutes brought from Nepal. Child prostitution is a menace to Indian culture and society and is the worst form of child abuse and sexual exploitation(Barry,1995)

Male prostitution is also getting prominence in recent times in particular cities of India such as Delhi and Mumbai (Mandelbaum,1970). Though homosexuality is not a crime in India anymore but male prostitution is not so much accepted among common people in India. It is may be due to that stigma which is attached to the “concept of masculinity" and “manhood". Due to which male prostitutes in India face more criticism and harassments from the masses rather than his female counterparts. This kind of prostitution is generally concentrated in big cities of India and is not very popular with the rural parts of the country(Mandelbaum,1970).

Urbanization has given birth to different kind of prostitution in India and it has grown more with time and space. It is observed that prostitutes generally have lot of resentments towards society as a whole and also towards their clients(Basham,1978)

Prostitution as an Urban culture in India

The term prostitution basically refers to an act of sexual intercourse which a woman or a man does in exchange of money(Sanger,2006). A person who does these acts is called prostitute or sex worker. Prostitution is generally known as a very old form of profession followed by women in every culture and civilization. Traces of prostitution have been found in the oldest civilizations of the world such Indus valley and Harappa(Sanger,2006). The oldest cities of India such Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro have remains of statues of “dancing girl" that were basically claimed as prostitutes by archeologist and social scientist. This proves that prostitution as a way of life has been practiced by the people of India from ancient times. Archeologists have proved that ancient cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were typically urban in nature and followed a life style of cities. Referring prostitution as an urban culture is an issue of huge debate.

Anthropologists have tried to explain the meaning of culture in different ways throughout the century. The word culture that has originated from the Latin word “colere" which basically means to cultivate.(Erisksen,1995,2001).

As Eriksen(1995,2001:4) has cited:

“Culture refers to the acquired, cognitive and symbolic aspects of existence, whereas society refers to the social organization of human life, patterns of interaction and power relationships. The implication of this analytical distinction, which may seem bewildering, will eventually be evident."

The concept of urban culture basically refers to the cultivated ways of urban life which literally means trends and customs which are passed on from one generation to another generation in cities and towns. Generally study of urban anthropology is basically referred as the study of city. There are many attempts to find a proper definition of city.

“Cities have been defined according to numerous criteria-among them relative size and population density, relation to surrounding territories, and occupational and role differentiation of their inhabitants –but no brief, single definition has been advanced that satisfies all scholars".(Basham,1978:49)

Prostitution as an urban culture in India is accepted and challenged by many Indian scholars. All the data and documentaries have proven so far that prostitution has been a part of early cities and modern cities in India. Prostitution is one of the oldest forms of urban trends in cities that have been passed on from one generation to another (Levine,2003). It is very interesting to note that children of these prostitutes tend to become prostitutes too. It is a kind of urban culture that has been always present with the realms of city.(Sanger,2006). The view of prostitution as an urban culture is not extensively defined by anthropologists. It is very hard to say that prostitution is the consequence of urbanization or prostitution has always been a part of urbanization(Basham,1978). Almost 73% of the sexworkers in India stay in city.(Sithannan,2006)

The view of prostitution as an urban culture have been argued by many anthropologists who believe that prostitution is not a urban phenomenon alone and can be found in all the rural areas of India(Singh,1997). Considering prostitution as culture is not justifiable because this is not accepted and acknowledged by all the people of the city as a whole(Barry,1995). The view that has been presented against the view of prostitution as an urban culture basically advocated prostitution as a menace to society rather than a culture which everybody likes to follow. The most fascinating fact about prostitution is that though it is rejected and discarded by every section of society it has always existed as an integral part of the society. It is noticed that prostitutes bear lot of resentment against the society and people as a whole. They believe that it is the society who compels them to follow the profession and it is the society as a whole that humiliates them the most(Tripathy & Pradhan,2003).

Prostitution as a necessary evil in the cities:

In the western society prostitution is considered as a necessary evil which view is very much accepted in Indian cities as well. Ironically enough no religion and culture of India support prostitution but they try to give different names to it to justify their attitude towards prostitution such as “Noshto Meye" or the spoiled girl(Sithannan,2006).

There are lots of families in cities who take the help of the prostitutes to act as surrogate mother to their child. There had been lot of official documents proving that couples who are unable to have a child take the help of a prostitute to bear their child for them in exchange of some money. Prostitutes are not only instrument of sex sale in the cities but also used as an instrument of womb sale(Barry,1995).

According to Indian tradition men are considered polygamous by nature while women are considered monogamous(Singh,1997). From the cultural context Indian men think that they are more sexually driven than Indian women. This at an extent is used for justifying their attitude for having sex with more number of women rather than their wives, girlfriends or lovers. It is true that prostitutes can be also proclaimed as a savior to all those girls who are virgin and honest. Virginity before marriage is an important concept in India and if prostitution would not have existed then these honest and virgin girls would have fallen prey to these sex starved men.(Sithannan,2006). There would have been huge amount of rapes in every part of the country and women would not have been as safe as they are now in Indian cities. By fulfilling the sexual desires of these sex starved men prostitutes are actually saving the city from lot of hideous crimes that could have been committed if prostitution would not have existed.

Prostitution is that kind of institution which is also teaching people to be aware of their health and consequences of uncontrolled sexual desires could be quite harmful for one’s health(Levine,2003).

Moreover destitute girls and infants who are left over on streets of the city and have to face daily humiliations from the city dwellers as well as police recourse themselves to this profession of prostitution. It not only provides them with food but also provides those shelters and power to earn money(Tripathy & Pradhan,2003).

In such circumstances prostitution becomes a good means to have good life and earn a good amount of money.


In this essay I have tried to talk about prostitution and prostitutes in the context of cities in India. There are different kinds of prostitution in India which has been part of Indian culture from time immemorial now. Indian tradition has always supported prostitution indirectly through different forms of prostitution such as divine prostitutions like “devadasi" and “jogans". Prostitution in different ways has entered the core of city life in India and is increasing with time. I had also focused elaborately about the prostitution that exists in different religious cities of India.

I really believe that prostitution in cities is not bad or harmful if it is controlled and checked properly by the government and proper measures are adopted against any economic exploitation of these prostitutes. It is noticed that most of these prostitutes staying in city brothels are economically indebt to the owner of the brothel for food clothing and shelter they get from the brothel owners which they sometimes are not able to pay back throughout their lives. Major reason behind this is prostitutes who work in brothels in these big cities are basically underpaid and are in constant economic crisis. It is also true that the most of the prostitutes in these brothels are suffering from sex transmitted diseases.

According to some official records it has also been proven that sexual harassments by police and some inconsiderate government officials on girls who live on streets of these cities have also given rise to prostitution in India. It is a shame that how policemen who are employed by the government for the security of men and women of the city becomes the sexual exploiters themselves.

As a woman the fact that haunts me is that human trafficking is becoming major issue throughout the world and Indian cities are targeted for these kinds of illegal migrations and dealings on the flesh trade. Major Indian cities are also witnessing huge amount of corruption which has reached in the inner roots of the society and is helping in the development of new form of crimes in the society and is also adding fuel to the organized crime in cities.

Rural migration in cities is increasing more number of prostitution in India. Poor villagers see city as the place where all their dreams of luxury and happy life will come true and this lead them to city in search of jobs and fame. Mumbai film industry is very reputed throughout the world and is known as the famous Bollywood, it is also due to this reason that Mumbai is known as the city of dreams by many people. Many girls from villages come to this city everyday in search of fame in Bollywood and get trapped in the dark rooms of brothels.

In ancient times women were treated as commodity in India. She was the treasured property of her father before marriage and belonged to her husband after marriage. This cultural concept still exists in many parts of India and plays a big role in determining women’s position in the modern society. It is this cultural and social doctrine that sometimes becomes the main reason behind prostitution.

The most interesting fact about prostitution is that though people like to call it as an evil it has still being accepted by every parts of the society and by every culture of the world.

The facts that prostitution is really a necessary evil for urban life is accepted my many scholars around the world and I too believe that prostitution really play a very important social role in our community.

In this essay I have tried to draw attention to the fact that many urban anthropologists have also tried to look, which is basically considering prostitution as part of urban culture. The amalgamation of urban culture and prostitution is quite interesting and can provide a good framework for detailed urban research in future. Though there are challenges which should not be neglected but considering prostitution as a culture in urban context can open a new dimension of study in urban anthropology.

Lastly I have tried to define and analyze prostitution in the context of Indian cities alone and have generally focused on prostitution in India. Prostitution in other cities of the world still remains much of a mystery and gives place where urban ethnographers can try to have their future research.

In this essay I had tried to introduce my academic audiences with the different prostitutions in Indian cities and their links to Indian culture and history with little bit glimpses of social problems that exist in the cities of India such as poverty and corruption.I have also tried to explain the inherent concept on prostitution by society as whole an and had also tried to justify reason behind such notions.

Altogether I have dealt prostitution as an urban phenomenon and how it had affected the city and its attributes in India throughout the century.

The future of Prostitution in India

The future of prostitution in Indian cities according to me can be quite good if they are kept under good check by the government and if some moral duties and rights are imposed on the prostitutes making them aware of the social and moral values so that they don’t act as an instrument responsible for broken marriages and families.

Moreover I believe that Indian government should start working more effectively in curbing political corruption and poverty around the country which have given birth too many other social problems in the society.

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