MYTH BUSTING – QUEERNESS & SEX WORK
Adrita Zaima, Ayaan Shams
In Bangladesh’s (and the entire Indian subcontinent’s as well, for that matter) context, sex work and queerness are seen as stigmatised and irredeemable vices of human nature. The institutionalised hate that is channelled towards these individuals generally stems from a barrage of myths and misconceptions revolving around them. Some of the most widely perpetuated myths, along with the actual facts, have been presented below.
Myth 1: Queerness is a western import and it is they who spread the “propaganda” in our society.
Prior to the criminalisation of homosexuality and the Hijra community during the colonial era, the Indian sub-continent was laden with diversity, from the very language we use to communicate to the androgynous clothing back then.
For starters, the Bangla language is inclusive in its use of non-gendered pronouns, with terms like “সে” taking centre stage. Moreover, pre-colonial literature also contained an abundance of queer content as works like পুরানো দিনগুলি and ইন্দিরা spoke of romantic encounters between people of the same sex. The androgynous clothing of courtiers, as observed today in history books and museums, spoke of a more inclusive attitude towards gender expression than to that of now.
Additionally, before colonialist restrictions and ideologies were strictly imposed, the Hijra were treated with far more respect, being invited to bless pregnancies, marriages, and childbirths. Thus, it can be argued that queerness as a whole isn’t a western import, but the stigma and against queerness is.
Myth 2: Queerness is a moral transgression
Queerness is not a question of morality or ethics since these concepts personify principles concerning the differences between right and wrong. Objective morality, as a concept of the distinction between right and wrong, and societal morality, as what we consider as proper societal norms, are completely separate. Queerness does not fit society’s image of propriety but that does not make it a “moral transgression” as many people claim it to be.
Myth 3: Exposure to queer culture teaches children to be queer
A person’s sexual orientation is not attained through external influences. Although children and adolescents may imitate or influence one other, exposure to queer people or their culture does not shape their orientation. It may, however, lead them to be more empathetic and accepting towards people belonging to diverse backgrounds.
Myth 4: Queerness is an illness
In the International Classification of Diseases sanctioned by the World Health Organisation, homosexuality and sexual orientation were coined as disorders back in the late 70s. However, it has thus been disproven and the current list explicitly states that “sexual orientation by itself is not to be considered a disorder”. Since then, the WHO has further emphasised that homosexuality and queerness are natural variations of sexuality.
Myth 5: Queerness is a personal choice that can be prevented, and criminalising homosexuality can stop people from being queer
Sexual orientation is not a choice — rather, it is a natural phenomenon that is caused genetically by factors such as the biology of brain development. Queerness is no more a choice or decision than being straight. Attempting to utilise therapy to change someone’s sexual orientation is not only futile, but it may also reap negative and harmful results.
Furthermore, criminalising homosexual acts can be seen as a basic violation of human rights, and it is not at all effective in stopping people from being queer. Queerness was highly prevalent prior to the criminalisation in colonial times under article 377. And even in the present era, when homosexuality is recognised as a punishable offence, it is not as if queer people are not acknowledged in Bangladesh. If anything, queer visibility is becoming more and more pronounced as people are speaking out for their basic rights.
Not only does criminalising homosexuality not do much to eradicate it from society as many people have ardently claimed, legalising it neither promotes queerness nor encourages people to be queer. Because, as has been stated above, queerness is not a personal choice. The only thing resulting from the criminalisation of homosexuality is an increase in violence towards queer people.
Myth 6: Queerness promotes polygamy, incest and all queer people have and spread STDs.
Claiming that homosexuality promotes polygamy and incest is a baseless accusation that has long been disproven. The right to love someone of one’s own sex does not imply that polygamy or incest is right or should be legalised.
And, even though rates of HIV and STDs are disproportionately higher among members of the LGBTQIA+ community, not every queer person contracts these diseases. Moreover, these are neither confined to queer people only. Anyone — regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or other factors — can acquire STDs.
Myth 7: Sex work is not real work
Perhaps the most significant disagreement when it comes to sex work is whether it can be considered real work or not. Before moving into the more societal part of things, it is imperative to address the technical aspects — namely, what constitutes work in the first place.
Put simply, fulfilling duties regularly for wages or salary can be considered as work. And sex work ticks those boxes. The popular arguments generally revolve around what can be considered “real” work. The concept of real work is deeply conditioned and inextricably linked to our cultural definitions of “dignity”. Many argue that since sex workers sell their bodies in order to earn an income— their work is undignified, and therefore, is not real work.
In addition, popular opinion is that since sex workers do not put in any “hard work” into making the money that they do end up making, their work should not be regarded on the same level as, say, a blue-collar worker or a computer engineer. However, everyone is practically using their body to earn a living, be it a blue-collar worker using their muscles to lift heavy loads or a computer engineer using their brains to work out a code. Despite this simple fact, we refuse to respect, or even acknowledge, sex workers as members of our society.
Myth 8: Sex work is a choice of lifestyle and, therefore, it should be stopped
In Bangladesh and many other lower-income countries, the truth is that most sex workers do not have a say in the sort of work they engage in. More often than not, human trafficking, child trafficking, and non-consensual sales to brothels play a large part in these workers’ journeys. There are also those for whom there exist no other means to earn bread than to do survival sex work because of the shortage of opportunities that exist in this country for unskilled or low-skilled individuals. When people argue that there are many out there who are selling their bodies as a personal choice or because they want to earn easy money and, thus, it should be shamed and criminalised, they are also directly causing a detrimental impact on the lives of those who have no choice but to work as sex workers.
Myth 9: Criminalising sex work will stop it
There are many who are of the belief that if sex work is made illegal, it will simply put an end to all forms of the job in the country. However, this is wholly incorrect because even in countries where selling sex or owning a brothel is punishable by law, these do exist. The only certain outcome of criminalisation of sex work is an escalation in negative feelings towards sex workers. It generates even more stigma against them, resulting in sex workers being deprived of basic rights such as healthcare, family planning services, and education. It also leads to a higher frequency of violence against sex workers since they are practically deprived of legal aid if they come to harm during their line of work.
Myth 10: Sex work is easy money
The sex work industry is already over-saturated. Back in 2016, UNAIDS estimated that there were about 140,000 female sex workers in the country alone. Therefore, in order to adapt to the industry, different aspects of sex work demand different skills — ranging from interpersonal skills to business management and technical skills. More often than not, these facets are brushed under the rug. On the other hand, sex workers continuously face numerous challenges in terms of managing personal relationships, jarring living conditions, negotiating stigmas, and dealing with stress and mental health issues. Therefore, sex work is anything but “easy money”.
Myth 11: Women doing sex work is anti-feminist
At its core, feminism is the belief in full social, economic, and political equality for women. One of the fundamental beliefs of feminism is an active choice in what one can wear, look like, or do. Shaming or stigmatising consensual sex work stubs sex workers’ right to have a choice. That, by itself, is the antithesis of what feminism stands for.
The writers are part of TDA Editorial Team.