Getting Educated Through Pornography

By Peggy Orenstein

The other day, I got an email from a 21-year-old college senior about sex — or perhaps more correctly, about how ill equipped she was to talk about sex. The abstinence-only curriculum in her middle and high schools had taught her little more than “don’t,” and she’d told me that although her otherwise liberal parents would have been willing to answer any questions, it was pretty clear the topic made them even more uncomfortable than it made her.

So she had turned to pornography. “There’s a lot of problems with porn,” she wrote. “But it is kind of nice to be able to use it to gain some knowledge of sex.”

I wish I could say her sentiments were unusual, but I heard them repeatedly during the three years I spent interviewing young women in high school and college for a book on girls and sex. In fact, according to a survey of college students in Britain, 60 percent consult pornography, at least in part, as though it were an instruction manual, even as nearly three-quarters say that they know it is as realistic as pro wrestling. (Its depictions of women, meanwhile, are about as accurate as those of the “The Real Housewives” franchise.)

The statistics on sexual assault may have forced a national dialogue on consent, but honest conversations between adults and teenagers about what happens after yes — discussions about ethics, respect, decision making, sensuality, reciprocity, relationship building, the ability to assert desires and set limits — remain rare. And while we are more often telling children that both parties must agree unequivocally to a sexual encounter, we still tend to avoid the biggest taboo of all: women’s capacity for and entitlement to sexual pleasure.

It starts, whether intentionally or not, with parents. When my daughter was a baby, I remember reading somewhere that while labeling infants’ body parts (“here’s your nose,” “here are your toes”), parents often include a boy’s genitals but not a girl’s. Leaving something unnamed, of course, makes it quite literally unspeakable.

Nor does that silence change much as girls get older. President Obama is trying — finally — in his 2017 budget to remove all federal funding for abstinence education (research has shown repeatedly that the nearly $2 billion spent on it over the past quarter-century may as well have been set on fire). Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 components the agency recommends as essential to sex education. Only 23 states mandate sex ed at all; 13 require it to be medically accurate.

Even the most comprehensive classes generally stick with a woman’s internal parts: uteruses, fallopian tubes, ovaries. Those classic diagrams of a woman’s reproductive system, the ones shaped like the head of a steer, blur into a gray Y between the legs, as if the vulva and the labia, let alone the clitoris, don’t exist. And whereas males’ puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females’ is defined by periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge?

Clip_78No wonder that according to the largest survey on American sexual behavior conducted in decades, published in 2010 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers at Indiana University found only about a third of girls between 14 and 17 reported masturbating regularly and fewer than half have even tried once. When I asked about the subject, girls would tell me, “I have a boyfriend to do that,” though, in addition to placing their pleasure in someone else’s hands, few had ever climaxed with a partner.

Boys, meanwhile, used masturbating on their own as a reason girls should perform oral sex, which was typically not reciprocated. As one of a group of college sophomores informed me, “Guys will say, ‘A hand job is a man job, a blow job is yo’ job.’ ” The other women nodded their heads in agreement.

Frustrated by such stories, I asked a high school senior how she would feel if guys expected girls to, say, fetch a glass of water from the kitchen whenever they were together yet never (or only grudgingly) offered to do so in return? She burst out laughing. “Well, I guess when you put it that way,” she said.

The rise of oral sex, as well as its demotion to an act less intimate than intercourse, was among the most significant transformations in American sexual behavior during the 20th century. In the 21st, the biggest change appears to be an increase in anal sex. In 1992, 16 percent of women aged 18 to 24 said they had tried anal sex. Today, according to the Indiana University study, 20 percent of women 18 to 19 have, and by ages 20 to 24 it’s up to 40 percent.

A 2014 study of 16- to 18-year-old heterosexuals — and can we just pause a moment to consider just how young that is? — published in a British medical journal found that it was mainly boys who pushed for “fifth base,” approaching it less as a form of intimacy with a partner (who they assumed would both need to be and could be coerced into it) than a competition with other boys. They expected girls to endure the act, which young women in the study consistently reported as painful. Both sexes blamed the girls themselves for the discomfort, calling them “naïve or flawed,” unable to “relax.”

IMG_2830According to Debby Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and one of the researchers on its sexual behavior survey, when anal sex is included, 70 percent of women report pain in their sexual encounters. Even when it’s not, about a third of young women experience pain, as opposed to about 5 percent of men. What’s more, according to Sara McClelland, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, college women are more likely than men to use their partner’s physical pleasure as the yardstick for their satisfaction, saying things like “If he’s sexually satisfied, then I’m sexually satisfied.” Men are more likely to measure satisfaction by their own orgasm.

Professor McClelland writes about sexuality as a matter of “intimate justice.” It touches on fundamental issues of gender inequality, economic disparity, violence, bodily integrity, physical and mental health, self-efficacy and power dynamics in our most personal relationships, whether they last two hours or 20 years. She asks us to consider: Who has the right to engage in sexual behavior? Who has the right to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary of the experience? Who feels deserving? How does each partner define “good enough”? Those are thorny questions when looking at female sexuality at any age, but particularly when considering girls’ formative experiences.

We are learning to support girls as they “lean in” educationally and professionally, yet in this most personal of realms, we allow them to topple. It is almost as if parents believe that if they don’t tell their daughters that sex should feel good, they won’t find out. And perhaps that’s correct: They don’t, not easily anyway. But the outcome is hardly what adults could have hoped.

What if we went the other way? What if we spoke to kids about sex more instead of less, what if we could normalize it, integrate it into everyday life and shift our thinking in the ways that we (mostly) have about women’s public roles? Because the truth is, the more frankly and fully teachers, parents and doctors talk to young people about sexuality, the more likely kids are both to delay sexual activity and to behave responsibly and ethically when they do engage in it.

Consider a 2010 study published in The International Journal of Sexual Health comparing the early experiences of nearly 300 randomly chosen American and Dutch women at two similar colleges — mostly white, middle class, with similar religious backgrounds. So, apples to apples. The Americans had become sexually active at a younger age than the Dutch, had had more encounters with more partners and were less likely to use birth control. They were also more likely to say that they’d first had intercourse because of pressure from friends or partners.

In subsequent interviews with some of the participants, the Americans, much like the ones I met, described interactions that were “driven by hormones,” in which the guys determined relationships, both sexes prioritized male pleasure, and reciprocity was rare. As for the Dutch? Their early sexual activity took place in caring, respectful relationships in which they communicated openly with their partners (whom they said they knew “very well”) about what felt good and what didn’t, about how far they wanted to go, and about what kind of protection they would need along the way. They reported more comfort with their bodies and their desires than the Americans and were more in touch with their own pleasure.

What’s their secret? The Dutch said that teachers and doctors had talked candidly to them about sex, pleasure and the importance of a mutual trust, even love. More than that, though, there was a stark difference in how their parents approached those topics.

While the survey did not reveal a significant difference in how comfortable parents were talking about sex, the subsequent interviews showed that the American moms had focused on the potential risks and dangers, while their dads, if they said anything at all, stuck to lame jokes.

Dutch parents, by contrast, had talked to their daughters from an early age about both joy and responsibility. As a result, one Dutch woman said she told her mother immediately after she first had intercourse, and that “my friend’s mother also asked me how it was, if I had an orgasm and if he had one.”

Meanwhile, according to Amy T. Schalet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, ” young Dutch men expect to combine sex and love. In interviews, they generally credited their fathers with teaching them that their partners must be equally up for any sexual activity, that the women could (and should) enjoy themselves as much as men, and that, as one respondent said, he would be stupid to have sex “with a drunken head.” Although she found that young Dutch and American men both often yearned for love, only the Americans considered that a personal quirk.

I thought about all of that that recently when, driving home with my daughter, who is now in middle school, we passed a billboard whose giant letters on a neon-orange background read, “Porn kills love.” I asked her if she knew what pornography was. She rolled her eyes and said in that jaded tone that parents of preteenagers know so well, “Yes, Mom, but I’ve never seen it.”

I could’ve let the matter drop, felt relieved that she might yet make it to her first kiss unencumbered by those images.

Goodness knows, that would’ve been easier. Instead I took a deep breath and started the conversation: “I know, Honey, but you will, and there are a few things you need to know.”

Peggy Orenstein, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, is the author, most recently, of “Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape,” from which this essay is adapted.

Poverty Leading to Unabated Sex in Africa

Transactional sex in the Democratic Republic of the Congo helps in understanding women’s choices.

Clip_6 (2)Transactional sex is part of everyday urban life in South Kivu – taking place in situations as varied as marketplaces, offices and churches. A new study, based on a survey of 480 sex workers and focus group discussions, examines women’s motivations and agency.

It finds an enormous and complex spectrum of sexual activity captured in the term “transactional sex” – with its upsurge related to conflict. While many women engage in transactional sex out of choice and in strategic ways to secure their future or expand their options in life, the majority of women are just coping with extreme poverty. Making transactional sex less exploitative “will entail a long, slow process of tackling deeply-embedded gender norms and social relations”, the report says.

Love thy neighbour

Africa is often portrayed as an intolerant continent – one of “ancient, atavistic hatreds”. But an Afrobarometer survey in 33 countries shows instead high degrees of acceptance of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, immigrants, and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Large majorities of African citizens exhibit high tolerance (gauged by the question “would you like to have them as a neighbour?”) for people from different ethnic groups (91%), people of different religions (87%), immigrants (81%), and people living with HIV/AIDS (68%). The survey found tolerance levels are particularly high in regions and countries that are ethnically and religiously diverse, “suggesting that experience is an important factor in inculcating an attitude of tolerance”.

Where the love tends to curdle is over homosexuality. Across the 33 countries, an average of 78% of respondents said they would “somewhat dislike” or “strongly dislike” having a homosexual neighbour. But some countries buck that trend. Majorities in four countries (Cape Verde, South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia), and more than four in 10 citizens in three other countries, would like or not mind having gay neighbours. “This suggests attitudes and values are not immutable; instead, they can be learned and unlearned,” says Afrobarometer.

Migrants Forced to Prostitute in Sabha, Libya

Clip_20 (2)The outskirts of Libya’s main southern town and Saharan smuggling hub look post-apocalyptic. Charred frames of burnt-out cars are lodged on top of smouldering rubbish heaped by the roadside, and tracks snake off through the dirty scrubland towards half-finished houses.

This is where people smugglers, who cram up to 31 people at a time into Toyota pick-up trucks for the three-day journey from Niger through the Sahara Desert, drop their customers.

Some are met by friends, relatives or smugglers, while others walk towards the town. But, although initially thankful to have survived the harsh desert crossing, migrants found that the arrival in Sabha heralded the worst part of their journey to the eastern Mediterranean.

“When we arrived, we were immediately taken to a kind of prison, a house where there were about 200 other migrants,” said 19-year-old Bouba from Senegal. “They made us call our families back home and demanded that they sent 2,000 Libyan dinar ($1,458) for each person.”

Jens, 24, from Guinea Bissau showed scars on his arms and back, which he said were from brutal beatings inflicted by his captors. “They beat me and kept saying: ‘What’s wrong with you? Why don’t your parents send the money? Don’t they love you?’ It was horrible, but my family has so little money that it took them two months to borrow enough to pay for my release.”

Tribal complications

Passage through Libya has long been the main route from Africa to Europe. Today, the main path for sub-Saharan Africans to reach the Mediterranean coast is organised between several regional tribes and runs from the city of Agadez in central Niger to Sabha.

The desert route is worked almost exclusively by the Tabu, a semi-nomadic Saharan tribe populating harsh and inhospitable terrain with few opportunities in Libya, Chad and Niger.

With other powerful Arab tribes dominating the smuggling of goods, people smuggling is one of few lucrative job prospects. But after a series of fierce tribal conflicts in the town, much of Sabha is now off-limits to the Tabu.

“Often the migrants have a contact number of someone in Sabha and I just drop them there, on the outskirts. If they don’t know anyone, I leave them with some Arab guy but that is not my business,” 29-year-old people smuggler Adem said. “My job is to get these people from Agadez to Sabha. That’s it. After that, I don’t care.”

For their onward journey, migrants are forced to rely on members of several Arab tribes, some of whom work with middlemen.

Miserable way station

“Sabha is just a terrible place,” said Nigerian electrician Sammy, 35, now working in Tripoli. “When I arrived there, the Nigerian middleman said I owed him money for the journey he helped organise. I had my passport taken and was imprisoned. They demanded $2,000 and I had to phone my mother and ask her to sell all my possessions, including the family’s generator. But that only made the equivalent of 300 dinar ($219).”

Clip_26He described how he was forced to work for eight months in Sabha to make enough money to pay the outstanding balance. “I worked like a slave in a house for where I cleaned and worked for African prostitutes,, cooked for the women and washed their clothes,” he said. “They were prisoners too, but captured migrant women are forced to be prostitutes in Sabha. Some of them were from Nigeria, like me. Imagine: I had to watch my sisters being used in this way. They were paid $10 to have sex with disgusting old men. It made me feel sick, but I could do nothing to help them.”

A young Nigerian woman, Marie, 23, said she narrowly escaped this fate after the woman who arranged her journey to Libya, with the false promise of a retail job in Europe, turned on her in Sabha. “Her Libyan boyfriend came to meet us and they told me I had to pay 2,000 dinar ($1,458) if I wanted to continue my journey. When I said I couldn’t pay, he said: ‘you will use your body to get the money’. But I refused,” she said.

“They made me call my mum and put the phone on speaker and beat me so my mum could hear me screaming.” Her captors eventually accepted a smaller sum, which a distant relative brought, in person, from Tripoli.

There are several huge warehouses where migrants, especially women, were kept. At night, he said, the warehouses became ‘dens of inequity,’ where alcohol and prostitutes were available, and music blasted out across the town. One tribe runs that area and no one from any other tribe can enter. Even the army cannot go there.

Lawless and powerless

Sabha is one of Libya’s most lawless towns, where deep-running tribal divisions mean large parts of the city are inaccessible to residents, depending on their tribal background. “Nobody controls Sabha and no one feels safe here,” said Ahmed. “The Third Force [a ‘peacekeeping’ force from Libya’s third city of Misrata] say they are in control, but they actually only control one neighbourhood.”

Frustrated security officials admit that undocumented migrants are the least of their problems. “The crime rate here is not 100 percent, it is 150 percent,” said a senior police officer in Sabha.

“Even to leave the house wearing a police or military uniform puts you in immediate danger,” he explained, adding that for the last two years he has slept in a different place every night, to avoid being killed.

Underfunded, ill-equipped and with staff too afraid to work, the local Department for Combatting Illegal Immigration has not functioned properly for several years. Sabha’s migrant detention centre, eight kilometres outside the town, stands empty, only reachable with a heavily-armed escort.

The police officer said controlling the people-smuggling operations in Sabha was impossible. “Even the migrants know we are powerless,” he said. “Before, when they saw us, they ran away. But now they just stand there and stare at us.”

Child Pornography Victimizes the Depicted Ones

Every time child pornography is viewed, it victimizes those depicted.

Clip_32That basic insight is deeply embedded in modern American law. In 1982, in New York v. Ferber, the Supreme Court held that child pornography was not protected under the First Amendment. The majority opinion recognized the unique harms associated with continuous distribution of child pornography. The court quoted academic research, which concluded that “Because the child’s actions are reduced to a recording, the pornography may haunt him in future years, long after the original misdeed took place.” And that was before child pornography went digital.

Child pornography is not like guns or drugs. It can be infinitely copied and distributed. Every time it is viewed, it victimizes those depicted.

More recently, Congress and the court have taken even greater steps to prevent and discourage unnecessary reviewing of child pornography in the Internet era. In 2006, as part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, Congress enacted restrictions on a defendant’s access to child pornography evidence stopping the practice of defendants automatically receiving digital mirror copies of the evidence. In 2014, the court held, inParoline v. United States, that victims could receive restitution from those who possessed, but did not distribute or create, child pornography portraying them.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion clearly stated that “the harms caused by child pornography … are still more extensive because child pornography is a permanent record of the depicted child’s abuse, and the harm to the child is exacerbated by its circulation.”

One need not agree with the court’s decisions or the Adam Walsh Act to recognize the underlying idea that every distribution and possession of child pornography carries a new victimization with it.

If you put yourself in the shoes of a child pornography victim, you should recognize the incredible helplessness they experience as a record of their victimization is continually circulated among criminals who derive sexual pleasure from viewing their past exploitation.

Child pornography is not like guns or drugs. It can be infinitely copied and distributed. When the government distributes tangible contraband as part of a sting operation, it cannot hope to contain or limit the dissemination of the illegal goods.

If the allegations against the FBI are true regarding its control of the network for approximately two weeks, it actively participated in the revictimization of those depicted in child pornography with no possibility of controlling distribution. Such conduct is immoral and inexcusable. The FBI should have pursued its sting operations without child pornography distribution by utilizing alternatives such as virtual child pornography or by getting warrants based upon the identifying Internet information they could otherwise gather.

 

Calcutta’s Red Light Area

by Reema Abbasi

Clip_222Sonagachi in Calcutta wears indulgence without apology or remorse. Thin lanes stretch like veins in a 300-year-old district. It makes a single statement — freedom has to be seized for it’s the only possession that will stay forever.

The name means ‘tree of gold’; folklore has it that it was christened after a saint, Sanaullah Ghazi, entombed close to the Shiva temple in the colony. South Asia’s largest sex worker colony, Sonagachi is where over 18,000 women make a living in more than 7,000 four-storey brothels. And from all that the eyes and ears captured, this little city was not joyless.

Fabled buildings that lent their names to movies — Neel Kamal, Lal Kamal, Prem Kamal, Ganga Jamuna, Night Lovers Sangam and Nanda Ranir Bari — live on undiminished. Girls in Neel and Lal Kamal are mostly Agrawalis or Marwaris, who, it is speculated, prefer Muslim or Marwari clientele for affluence.

Clip_88“They take up to 8,000 rupees for a night but can throw you out after an hour,” says a boy lurking in the alley. He speaks of their beauty and insolence, recommending Nanda Ranir Bari for honest Bengali and Nepalese women.

Just then, a dusky girl with a large nose ring, in black leather jeans and boots, moves closer; her tattoos emerge as tales of feral power. “Nothing unique about us; you eat when you are hungry,” she smirks before walking away.

Clip_96The wider lanes are sets of seduction. The azure of the sky is barely visible through strings of red, silver and ochre that shimmer in the burnt gold of dusk. Jasmine and marigolds are spread on dewy mounds of foliage, iridescent musk stands and paan carts line up, and grille balconies double as boudoirs edged with dancing neon. The old carved facades are coated in pinks, greens and yellows, and in crevices business moves to pavements dotted with bedding, like the tight path of Shanti Palace.

As afternoon dulls, the paths are choked with women and brokers. Saris sparkle and guile populates finer quarters, whereas lower cadres are in scanty garb in deeper areas. Doors are left ajar to reveal seedy scenes to lure customers; decibel levels of negotiations rise by the second. It’s their daily cycle of life.

Inside, charm cohabits with crudity; customary patterns in alpana decorate doorsills and ceilings with marigolds and rose petals, against brocade curtains in reds and indigo. These tiny spaces have fragments of life separated in three tiers — at the top is the family platform, the middle has a worship niche and stove and the ground level is the service area.

Ironically, Subhanker, my volunteer, is prey to be shielded. “Don’t leave him outside. Women will lynch him if he refuses,” says Poonam who has spent 25 years here. “I came here after divorce and go to meet my six children once a week. They live with my mother and I live with my babu [partner] who cooks, does the chores and sends money to his family from my earnings. Most older denizens have babus,” she says.

Clip_68The air of empowerment is Sonagachi’s newest avatar; past lifetimes have left wounds that bleed into generations. Paromita, 55, meets me at the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an initiative which has turned the colony’s fate around. “I got into this trade when there was child trafficking here to support my siblings. They moved on with normal lives; mine stood still. I have a babu and am a bai [madame] now,” she narrates. “We lived in dismal conditions — police raids, rape, child prostitution. Now there is a large Durga platform and processions, but until the late ’90s we were considered too impure to worship a goddess who is incomplete till the mud from a prostitute’s home isn’t mixed in her clay.”

Pramila Singh, having spent 40 years here, doesn’t mind if her educated daughter “comes into this line”. She vouches for DMSC too. “Now girls are free to roam and earn without fear of abuse.”

DMSC, founded by Dr Smarjit Jana, a public health scientist, in 1992, is now run by the community. A marginal community development programme, it ensures prevention from violence, child labour, HIV and STDs, provides micro loans, vocational, sports and arts training.

“No girl will entertain a customer who refuses precaution and there’s a price chart for fetishes,” says Paromita. “We have three-monthly blood tests and a doctor on call round the clock. A board monitors new girls. If she is unwilling or underage, we organise paperwork to return them to guardians. Our union ensures basic civil rights and a secure future for sex workers.”

Usha Bank and Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society were established in 1995 and employ sex workers or relatives and sends out over 50 collectors for door-to-door service.

The collective addresses the soul too. “We have weekly meetings where sex workers are counselled for past traumas,” says Paromita. “Without recognising sex work as an occupation, support services will not empower women in sex work to live with dignity. It requires courage to challenge our mindset. This will help women in general and sex workers in particular to regain their sociopolitical space,” says Dr Jana.

Shohini Ghosh, director of the award-winning documentary on Sonagachi, Tales of the Night Fairies,supports Jana. “I made the film to make an intervention in the feminist debate on sex work, where the abolitionist position was dominant.”

The model has been replicated in South Africa and in Bangladesh. There is little reason for it not to inspire Pakistan’s health activists to adapt it so that thousands can be saved from violence and disease.

In Paromita’s words, “There’s no one way to see us. From one angle we are a tragedy, from another, we’re free. In the end we’re all dust.”

Many believe there is an end. But choice cannot be extinguished.

Twitter: @ReemaAbbasi

Hyderabad’s Red Light Areas

by Reema Abbasi

Clip_119The business of flesh hangs on despite the ravages of circumstance in the city of Hyderabad, with alluring names like Shahi Mohalla, Bulbuli Hazaar Dastaan, and Bazaari Husn, formerly Sundarta Bazaar.

Walking past the colonial quarters of Hirabad in Hyderabad, where intricate balconies and stone filigree jostle with modern-day eyesores.

Bazaar-i-Husn is said to be some 250 years old with over 600 multi-storey brothels and a hierarchy: the affluent leave their doors ajar — gaudy rooms in pink or red with ornate women who perform in cities or in faraway lands; some leave for a respectable life as the night ages.

By a corner of the ‘offices’, I met the man who has carried the taazia from here for decades. In a sharia-compliant pajama and a white beard, when questioned he went into contortions of denial: “I have nothing to do with this area. Talk to me about religion. I appear on TV for my expertise,” he roared.

But one could hardly slide away without catching his murmurs — “Firdaus hai aaj? Ya sab maiyyat mei gaee hain?” (Is Firdaus available today or is everyone at the funeral?)

Clip_12Some two doors from this sanctimony is veteran stage artist and dancer Jamila, known as Apa Peeno. A friend of the erstwhile movie star and one of the bazaar’s bygone caches, Chakori, Peeno belongs to days when the alleys had splendour.

“We learnt from Maharaj Samrat, and danced in beautiful clothes, heavy anklets, in the company of the genteel. It’s filthy now so I don’t live here,” she says as she takes us for a walk. We stop at a square with a shiny alam, above it a girl combs her hair on a balcony, and strikes a pose to grab lucrative attention.

“This alam stands all year; we bring it down 10 days before Muharram to decorate it afresh,” Peeno says after a quick prayer beneath it. “Saturday is not a night for chatter,” she smirks and leaves with her son.

But for some, every night is a night of exorcism of inner demons. Alia, a retired madam, joins us. “The rich ones will shut their doors now. I can take you to poor homes but they do nights. The government has banned us without another option. So we compromise our health and security,” is a wise gem from her.

A long stroll leads to a squalid hovel jammed with people. An irritable, gnarled woman is perched on the ledge outside it — she has brought a fresh recruit from Punjab. “Go and talk but she doesn’t sell,” says Bhootni Buriya — an apt name.

Her pit of sad darkness has seen glory — exquisite colonial floor tiles, lattice-worked walls, high ceilings and, like a patio, the upper floor opens into it with a grille balcony. It reeks of weed and alcohol; some refuse to awaken even in the din; a zombie-like man stares and two girls sit near the door. It was once home to former film star Neeli; the man with the vacant look is her uncle. A photograph of the girl who disowned them, adorns a wall. “Neeli now lives in Qasimabad and comes for Muharram,” discloses Alia.

Just then a policeman arrives. They are discreetly forbidden to talk; a girl disappears upstairs. “They take bhatta from us with free service,” cribs the old woman.
Clip_163For lower sex workers, the balance of power does not tip in their favor. However, Pathani, Alia and their ilk can call the shots. They were both abducted at 10 and 12 years of age. At a distance of a few yards from Neeli’s past is Pathani’s duplex where she rents a stark room. Still a beautiful woman, Pathani has spent 30 years in the trade.

At her place, the two embark on their tales of love and betrayal. “I have nine children. I was so happy when my ex-husband proposed. It was a way out. But he was another salesman like Alia’s; she stayed and I separated,” Pathani says with tears then cracks crass jokes about men.

“We do a lot of nasha. Where else will relief come from? Some men pay to talk for hours. Are doctors in short supply?” she laughs. Little does she realise that they are vessels of grime that send out cleansed souls.

Clip_115These are also places where you least expect a wish list of love. “Now I have a nice man. He is good to my children; no one can harm me. He will not marry me but I pray he ensures a respectable life for my brood.”

Pathani is Erum Bubbly’s relative — many years ago, Erum Bubbly shook Hyderabad when she took a bullet from her DSP boyfriend.

“She is a good woman who is happily married. Fairy tales happen,” Pathani smiles.

Bazaar-i-Husn bucks many trends. It is still a hub of syphilis as screening is rare, with negligible knowledge about precautions — despite the presence of a health NGO office nearby. “We know girls can’t be healthy after 13-hour workdays but if they are careful, business will dwindle,” Alia confesses.

Sadly, the area is a watermark of the time when it was washed with rosewater and sandalwood. Its women no longer stop to smell the roses.

Clip_4 (2)

These prostitute dens have alluring names — Shahi Mohalla, Bulbul-i-Hazaar Dastaan, and Hyderabad’s Bazaari Husn, formerly Sundarta Bazaar — old settlements where the business of flesh hangs on despite the ravages of circumstance.

Walking past the colonial quarters of Hirabad in Hyderabad, where intricate balconies and stone filigree jostle with modern-day eyesores, we arrive in a tangle of damp lanes.

Bazaari Husn is said to be some 250 years old with over 600 multi-storey brothels and a hierarchy: the affluent leave their doors ajar — gaudy rooms in pink or red with ornate women who perform in cities or in faraway lands; some leave for a respectable life as the night ages.

Encounters with dead ends, where no one saw the point in a conversation at prime time, threw up an amusing surprise.

By a corner of the ‘offices’, I met the man who has carried the taazia from here for decades. In a sharia-compliant pajama and a white beard, when questioned he went into contortions of denial: “I have nothing to do with this area. Talk to me about religion. I appear on TV for my expertise,” he roared.

But one could hardly slide away without catching his murmurs — “Firdaus hai aaj? Ya sab maiyyat mei gaee hain?” (Is Firdaus available today or is everyone at the funeral?)

Some two doors from this sanctimony is veteran stage artist and dancer Jamila, known as Apa Peeno. A friend of the erstwhile movie star and one of the bazaar’s bygone caches, Chakori, Peeno belongs to days when the alleys had splendour.

“We learnt from Maharaj Samrat, and danced in beautiful clothes, heavy anklets, in the company of the genteel. It’s filthy now so I don’t live here,” she says as she takes us for a walk. We stop at a square with a shiny alam, above it a girl combs her hair on a balcony, and strikes a pose to grab lucrative attention.

“This alam stands all year; we bring it down 10 days before Muharram to decorate it afresh,” Peeno says after a quick prayer beneath it. “Saturday is not a night for chatter,” she smirks and leaves with her son.

But for some, every night is a night of exorcism of inner demons. Alia, a retired madam, joins us. “The rich ones will shut their doors now. I can take you to poor homes but they do nights. The government has banned us without another option. So we compromise our health and security,” is a wise gem from her.

A long stroll leads to a squalid hovel jammed with people. An irritable, gnarled woman is perched on the ledge outside it — she has brought a fresh recruit from Punjab. “Go and talk but she doesn’t sell,” says Bhootni Buriya — an apt name.

Her pit of sad darkness has seen glory — exquisite colonial floor tiles, lattice-worked walls, high ceilings and, like a patio, the upper floor opens into it with a grille balcony. It reeks of weed and alcohol; some refuse to awaken even in the din; a zombie-like man stares and two girls sit near the door. It was once home to former film star Neeli; the man with the vacant look is her uncle. A photograph of the girl who disowned them, adorns a wall. “Neeli now lives in Qasimabad and comes for Muharram,” discloses Alia.

Just then a policeman arrives. They are discreetly forbidden to talk; a girl disappears upstairs. “They take bhatta from us with free service,” cribs the old woman.

For lower sex workers, the balance of power does not tip in their favour. However, Pathani, Alia and their ilk can call the shots. They were both abducted at 10 and 12 years of age. At a distance of a few yards from Neeli’s past is Pathani’s duplex where she rents a stark room. Still a beautiful woman, Pathani has spent 30 years in the trade.

At her place, the two embark on their tales of love and betrayal. “I have nine children. I was so happy when my ex-husband proposed. It was a way out. But he was another salesman like Alia’s; she stayed and I separated,” Pathani says with tears then cracks crass jokes about men.

“We do a lot of nasha. Where else will relief come from? Some men pay to talk for hours. Are doctors in short supply?” she laughs. Little does she realise that they are vessels of grime that send out cleansed souls.

These are also places where you least expect a wish list of love. “Now I have a nice man. He is good to my children; no one can harm me. He will not marry me but I pray he ensures a respectable life for my brood.”

Pathani is Erum Bubbly’s relative — many years ago, Erum Bubbly shook Hyderabad when she took a bullet from her DSP boyfriend.

“She is a good woman who is happily married. Fairy tales happen,” Pathani smiles.

Bazaari Husn bucks many trends. It is still a hub of syphilis as screening is rare, with negligible knowledge about precautions — despite the presence of a health NGO office nearby. “We know girls can’t be healthy after 13-hour workdays but if they are careful, business will dwindle,” Alia confesses.

Sadly, the area is a watermark of the time when it was washed with rosewater and sandalwood. Its women no longer stop to smell the roses.

 

 

Twitter: @Reema Abbasi

 

Central Asian Prostitutes in New Delhi

Clip_10 (2)Shakhnoza and Naaz were close friends and belly dancers from Uzbekistan. When their badly mutilated bodies were discovered in the capi­tal, investigators suspec­ted a money-related feud. Shakhno­za’s mother Shukurova and her two sisters, Zamika and Nadira, can’t bel­ieve she’s dead. They are camping in a tiny flat in Lajpat Nagar looking for justice and an answer to the many questions the murd­ers have raised—the trafficking mafia, prostitution, exp­loi­tation. “We’ll find the truth. We will help police solve the case,” says Nadira, who can converse in English.

Clip_4It’s not going to be easy. In many cities in India, the white flesh trade is now a lucrative business. And young girls from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) dominate the domestic prostitution racket in the cities, as also the social landscape of the nouveau riche. They are paid fixtures at birthday parties, marriage receptions, commercial events, rave parties, even at private dinners at the ubiquitous farmhouses. It seems everyone has a story or two to tell about their ‘white woman’ enc­ounter, like the one that was dancing in a martini glass, or serving drinks in diaphanous tun­ics. They are clearly there to add the sex quotient, dancing, entertaining, even playing host. Now the line that divides these activities with prostitution is very thin. In some circles, they are even gaining respectability. For last year’s Navy Day celebrat­ions in Delhi, two Uzbek women per­f­or­med a belly dance for 20 minutes and charged Rs 4,00,000. A senior naval officer justified the expense saying: “There’s nothing bad about it. Belly dancing is an art form.”  They are also hired and supplied by India’s leading event management company Wizcraft. A senior executive, Michelle Rocha, respo­nded to anOutlook query by saying: “The girls are hired in Delhi.” Even the Uzbek embassy refused to comment.

While organisations like the Navy may be just navel-gazing, this fetish for the white skin has bred a multi-pronged racket. A white woman can charge many times more than a local girl and there’s a rate list for every demand, depending on the looks, age, needs of the client, venue, duration, number of people and nature of activity. There’s even a rate for selfies with a bikini-clad blo­nde: Rs 2,000. And there’s no dearth of supply to meet the demand. An IB official estimates that there are some 5,000 girls from CIS countries in India, almost all here on tourist or medical-related visas. They are clearly all not just belly dancing. And a lot of it happens with the authorities looking the other way. Former special commissioner, Delhi police, N. Dilip Kumar, is forthright, “Organised crime cannot sustain its­elf without the complicity of enforcement agencies. An upright officer is attacked within the system if he or she creates hurdles.”  The system facilitates organised crime and works at all levels, from arranging visas to protection rackets.

Each day, there are any number of classif­ied ads in the leading dailies offering ‘Rus­sian massage’. The asking rate here could be anything from Rs 15,000 per hour in the afternoon to Rs 1,00,000 for the whole night. ‘Russian’ refers to anyone from the CIS region. One of the capital’s leading pimps is ‘Choudhury’, and he operates in south Delhi. Officially, he’s an instructor in a posh gymnasium and dabb­les in modelling. His most trusted ‘Russian’ is Diana, an Uzbek from Tashkent. She has many names, and lived in Delhi and Mumbai for three years before she left for Tashkent some time ago.  She’ll be back again soon.

Diana is in her early 30s and is typical of the kind of women who have taken over the flesh trade in the more affluent sections of Indian male society. She first arrived in Delhi with two cousins and a friend on tourist visas. They were part of a group of a dozen girls her age. They stayed in crowded Karol Bagh with a middle-aged woman from Tashkent who had Indian citizenship and was called Auntie. There are some 50 “aunties” in the capital today. They play friend and guide to these girls, luring them into prostitution. Many of these girls are here to earn money to pay off debts back home. Once they arrive, they hand over their passports to the auntie for ‘safe custody’ and she organises assignments. Like Diana, they go through a two-day orientation programme where they are told how to deal with Indian men. They are advised to say no to coercion or roughness. Even personal hygiene can be a strong enough consideration to refuse contact. They are given a safety kit, they carry pepper spray, premium condoms, and some carry a small knife as well. They move around the city in yellow-black cabs. The driver is a confida­nte, and they are usually accompanied by another man who waits in the car, in case of trouble. Their earnings are repatriated dir­ectly to their families back home. All their local needs are met by the auntie.

Diana realised the money paid to her family was a minuscule part of what she earns. So when she met Choudhury, she branched out. On her second visit, he helped her rent a house. Getting out of the organised cartel and dealing with an Indian pimp directly is lucrative, but it lacks security—Shakhnoza and Naaz paid with their lives. A large share of the earnings (60 per cent) now came to Diana, in addition to a monthly salary (Rs 15,000) and free digs. She made big money and was motivated to come back again and again. Tashkent now was just an annual sabbatical.

Clip_6Nowadays, Diana visits India with her boyfriend, Roger—a college dropout from Tashkent. They stay in an urban village in south Delhi in a small apartment. They want to secure their future by making some quick money; buy a house in Tashkent in the next two years. Roger, a lanky, bespectacled man with shoulder-length hair, and Diana make a great couple. Just that one is in the flesh trade, the other in the leather trade. On an average, she would meet two clients a day. On weekends, it’s as many as six meetings. She says she has so far ‘interacted’ with over 200 men here, intimately. A dozen are regular clients. One of them, a 37-year-old bachelor, is emotionally attached to her, has even offered to marry her. She told him about Roger. He was perple­xed, a prostitute in a relationship? “It’s impossible,” he told her. Roger never calls her when she’s at work. He considers her liaisons with other men a professional requirement. Diana put me in touch with two other girls, Svetlana, 24 and Ruby, 33. Dressed in tight black trousers, Svetlana first came to Delhi two years ago with her father; now Diana is her local family. Ruby lost her virginity at the age of 17 to a distant cousin. This went on for two years before they were caught in the act one night; she was banished to India.

The girls have a fair idea what to expect from men just by looking at them. While Svetlana finds it diffic­ult to converse in English, Ruby is reasonably fluent. Their Hindi is quite bad, mostly restricted to curse words. Their regulars are mostly rich college brats. The white girls are a nice diversion for them. Svetlana lived for six months in Lajpat Nagar during her first stay in ’13. She would spend the aft­ernoons in a flat in Kalkaji where men would arrive after work to relax in the company of a white woman. Ruby would often join Svetlana. One of the houses is actually run by a Punjabi couple with two teenaged children. There are four rooms in the house, three bedrooms with attached showers. “The wife would do the collection, charges are Rs 1,500 per hour,” informs Choudhury. She’s a mercenary in a sense, he says, forcing the guests out by 3 pm, before her children got back from sch­ool. Swetlana says it’s a watch-the-clock activity there, the men are always stressed, distracted by their phones. She particularly remembers a tall, fair man with a pot belly; he would visit during extended lunch bre­aks every other week. “I would sit by his side while he loosened my dress. He would tap my breasts like dialling a number on a smartphone,” she remembers fondly. Most times he only wanted to talk about his problems, his separated wife, his only daughter—a budding writer who’s pursuing a degree in an Ivy League college in the US.

For women like Svetlana, the work is the same, only the location and country have changed. They originally operated in Dubai and moved to India when the UAE started to crack down on such activity. The murder of  Shakhnoza and Naaz has now added an unwanted dimension to this cosy underground club that has become an integral part of the Indian urban landscape.

The general type they meet are pleasant, not very demanding, always grateful. Their sexual passion is like a plateau, doesn’t soar to any heights, but lasts longer. As usual, they want the best value for money. They aren’t interested in building personal rapports. They’re punctual, stick to the time allotted, payment is prompt, tip well, take extra care, arrange for transportation, usually prefer a five-star hotel.

Punjabis are the worst. They are so happy to be in the company of a blo­nde that they’ll want all their friends to know about it. They are hairy, and very demanding; brash in bed, rash in dispensation. “Do something nice, something new,” they would instruct sitting on a couch sipping rum. A Sikh trader who lives in the capital’s posh Defence colony, called a friend to brag, “Guess who I am with?” He promised that the next time “the two brothers will do it together”. He even made Diana chat with his friend, prompting her to tell him, “I’m having the best time of my life.”

In general, Indian men are either emotio­nal fools or misogynists. The former are keen to talk about themselves, their life-his­tory, struggles and quests. Like sleeping with the white girl was like a dream come true, a reward for all the struggles in their lives. They are also inquisitive about Uzbek girls—asking them about their parents, sib­lings, family, lovers, religion etc. The latter don’t talk much. They order the girls around, do this or that, as if they own them. Usually passive, they want the women to do all the work. They treat them with disdain but love clicking selfies. Skin colour is an obsess­ion. A local businessman app­a­rently told Ruby, “I have enough money to hire you for the rest of your life. But you Russians are like  candy—too sweet—can’t have you everyday.”

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