Centre for Internet & Society

On February 20th I had the opportunity to speak with Shubha Chacko on privacy and sex workers. Ms. Chacko is an activist who works for Aneka, an NGO based in Bangalore, which fights for the human rights of sexual minorities. In my interview with Ms. Chacko I tried to understand how privacy impacts the lives of sex workers in India. The below is an account of our conversation.


In our research we have been exploring where and how privacy is found in different areas of Indian society, law, and culture. As part of our research we have been holding public conferences across the country to raise awareness and gather opinions around privacy. One area that was discussed in the public conference in Bangalore was the privacy of sex workers. Shubha Chacko, who is from  Aneka - an NGO located in Bangalore which fights for the human rights of sexual minorities, made a presentation that focused on the privacy challenges that sex workers in India face. In our interview Ms. Chacko pointed out many misconceptions that society holds about sex workers’ lives. She also detailed the challenges of stigma and discrimination that sex workers face, and described the precarious position that sex workers find themselves in as their work is constantly being pushed out of the public sphere by the law and society. I later interviewed Ms. Chacko to follow up on her presentation on privacy and sex workers. During the interview I had the opportunity to speak with both Ms. Chacko and a board member from the Karnataka Sex Workers Union. The following is meant to provide a perspective on how and in what ways society, law, media and tradition invades the privacy of sex workers. Though the piece is focused on the lives of sex workers, many of the issues raised are not limited to only sex workers, but characterize other marginalized communities as well. 

When I began the interview with Ms. Chacko I was hoping to do a piece that looked at the different elements of a sex worker’s life, and identified the points at which their privacy was invaded – such as in contacting a client, going to the doctors, etc. After I began my interview only, I realized how privacy impacts sex workers is much more complicated than a life cycle analysis. Among other things, privacy issues for sex workers prompt questions challenging social definitions of public and private, having the right to an identity and a recognized profession, and having the autonomy to control decisions about oneself.

Basic Facts and Background Information:

  • Karnataka has been found to have 85,000 sex workers, and India has an estimated 2 million female sex workers [1]
  • Sex work is not against the law in India, but any commercialized aspect of the trade is prohibited – including running a brothel or soliciting a client.
  • Sex work is a multi-faceted profession with many positive and negative complexities that are rarely known to the public.

Understanding the Challenge of the Public and the Private

My interview with Ms. Chacko began with my seeking an understanding of the challenges that traditional notions of the public sphere and the private sphere pose for sex workers. Ms. Chacko explained that to understand how privacy impacts the life of a sex worker, it is important to first understand that sex workers by profession confront and question traditional conceptions of the public and the private. Sex and everything associated with it is seen as something that is to be kept only in the private sphere. The work of sex workers brings sex into the public sphere, and thus the workers are seen as being public women not entitled to privacy, because they stand on street corners and conduct their work in the public. This notion that sex workers are public women without a right to privacy shows through in the way they are treated by the media, the police, NGOs,  and researchers. An example of this tension and society’s response can be seen in the recent elections. On April 6th, a Times of India news article reported that the election commission will be setting up “special booths” for sex workers to vote in because “while the sex workers had been waiting in queues to cast their votes, common people were not comfortable with that”[2]

What is the Challenge of the Public and the Private?

“It starts with a conception of issues around privacy vis-à-vis sex workers. The general perception is that sex workers are considered “public women”, because they are considered available to the public and because they sell sexual services on the streets (and are seen in contrast to the “good” woman who is confined to the private world of the home This then leads people to assume that then sex workers have are not entitled to privacy. Also sex workers are forced to reckon with issues of sex and sexuality, and if you talk about issues of sexuality - issues that are considered private are forced into the public domain, so sex workers by their presence force these issues into the public domain. So notions of privacy become complicated by this challenge of what is public and private, because the sex workers’ presence brings into the public domain what is private.”

How does this tension of the public and the private translate into privacy violations?

"Due to the stigma around sex work all rights of sex workers are seriously compromised; with impunity. Thus, privacy is a threshold issue.

The violation of privacy happens at various points, for example the way the media deals with them – publishing their photographs, outing them without their consent, talking about them without their consent. There are the police who are often engaged in so called “rescue and rehabilitation” work, but in the process of rescuing the sex workers, disregard the harmful impacts that compromising their right to privacy will do to them. The HIV prevention intervention programs that are in place now that target sex workers (along with other ‘high risk groups”) also erode their right to confidentiality. Besides intimate details of their lives being recorded, their address and other coordinates are noted.  This information along with other sensitive information including  their HIV status, is often accessible to a host of people and is a potential threat to their privacy and anonymity. Researchers and NGOs too often quiz sex workers about a range of intimate details about their lives with little sensitivity and expect them to be totally candid.  These interviews also raise questions that relate to privacy."

Stigma, Discrimination, and Identity

Ms. Chacko also spoke about how the stigma and discrimination that sex workers face invades their privacy. Society views sex workers in one light – as immoral women. This stigma is attached to them permanently and is a source of violence and discrimination in the home, from the state, and from society. The sex workers’ right to anonymity and identity is also restricted because of the stigma attached to their work. Sex workers do not have the ability to control information about themselves, and they face challenges in obtaining official documents like a PAN card or a passport. This stigma and its consequences impedes sex workers from functioning comfortably in society and creates a difficult tension for sex workers to live with. Society denies the presence of sex workers, and police patrol parks and other public areas chasing away individuals whom they believe to be sex workers.  The increased passivisation of public spaces – parks, (for example) and the over gentrification of the neighborhoods squeeze them out

In New York, one way that sex workers have overcome this constant and sometimes violent confrontation with society is through the use of mobile phones. Sex workers will contact clients only through mobile phones. This allows them to find their clients in private and anonymous ways, and it eliminates the need of a pimp or other type of ring leader. When I asked Ms. Chacko if sex workers are using this same technique in India, she recognized that they are, but said that it is not a yet widely practiced - especially among women in rural areas.

How Restricting is the Stigma?

“Huge - hardly ever does a person’s entire identity get conflated with her with occupation or livelihood option; the way it does with sex workers. … I mean, for example, if you go to a movie - people would not say; oh, look, there is a researcher come to see a movie - people would call you by name, but if a sex worker goes to a movie they always say: oh, look, there is a sex worker. There is only one side to her identity according to society. And everyone wants to know the same thing - How did they get into sex work. There is an excessive interest in this aspect alone (and generally they are seeking simple answers)  - they never ask other questions about them as a person, only about them as a sex worker. Thus, real issues of violence and exploitation are never dealt with”.

HIV Initiatives, Medical Counseling , and Privacy

Medical consultations, especially those related to HIV/AIDS, in many ways violate the privacy of sex workers.

HIV Initiatives

HIV initiatives run by the Government are often invasive and function off of privacy-violating techniques. The government runs many HIV initiatives where sex workers are employed to be “peer educators.” A peer educator’s job is to spread awareness about HIV, distribute condoms, and bring sex workers for HIV testing. The privacy and anonymity of peer educators is compromised in the job title itself. Everyone in the community knows that to be a peer educator, one must also be a sex worker. Thus, if a person is a peer educator or with a peer educator, she is immediately outed and identified as a sex worker. Furthermore, HIV testing is compulsory for sex workers, though on paper it looks as though it is a choice. Because there are quotas that must be filled, sex workers often go through HIV testing without full consent.

How do Government HIV Initiatives Violate Privacy?

“The whole HIV intervention itself violates sex workers’ privacy. Both in the sense that people get jobs as peer educators and they have to carry condoms around and talk to other sex workers, and everyone thinks that if you are a peer educator then you are a sex worker, and there is no protection for these people even though it is sponsored by the state government.”

Line Listing

The HIV programs and testing centers also violate the privacy of sex workers. The clinics have a system known as line listing, which is meant to ensure that there are no duplications in data. In order to ensure this they collect identifying information from sex workers including address and phone number. The information is not protected and is easily accessible to whoever wishes to see it.

Line Listing and Privacy

“HIV programs have a process called line listing, which is to ensure that there is no duplication. So they take all your facts from you, and from that a sex workers address and such go out, and it’s put out with no safeguards.”

HIV Counselors and Doctors

HIV counselors also violate the privacy of sex workers. Though a patient’s HIV status is only supposed to be known to the counselor at the testing clinic and the lab technician, it often becomes the case that HIV results are widely shared. As per protocol, doctors and counselors must follow up with sex workers every three months if a sex worker is HIV negative. This is to ensure that they are still HIV negative, and to provide them treatment at the soonest if they do contract the disease. To carry out this follow-up work, counselors keep a list of patients whom they have seen. This list is supposed to be confidential, but other personnel in the hospital are assigned to do the follow-up phone calls, and thus the list is in fact easily accessible. If a person’s name disappears from the list, it is obvious that the person is now HIV positive, and that person’s privacy is violated and her status known.

How does HIV Counseling compromise Privacy?

“…only the counselor and the lab technician is supposed to know about it, but it turns out a whole number of people know about it, because of follow up. The counselor is supposed to follow up on the list with people every three months for further testing, but if you are positive then you do not need to follow up. Plus, these results are shared with everyone. Because of the stigma attached to HIV there is a need for privacy to be protected, so confidentiality is routinely violated.”

Media and Research


Media was another area of contention that Ms.Chacko pointed out. Though the media plays an important role as being a channel for the voice of sex workers, it can also be intrusive on the sex worker by publishing stories without their consent, or reporting in ways that can be misconstrued. Through their coverage, the media can also deepen the stigma against sex workers and place them under an unwanted social spotlight. For example, a news article in The Hindu spoke about the World Cup bringing an “off day” for sex workers.

“With hoards of supporters glued to their television screens for the World Cup cricket final between India and Sri Lanka on Saturday, sex workers are anticipating a slow day, but they are not disappointed. It is a rare weekend for them with their children. The prospects of fewer clients coming in only buoyed the enthusiasm of the women in Sonagachi, the largest red-light area in the city…”[3]

The media is also often a part of raids by cover stories of brothels being uncovered, and in doing so expose the lives of sex workers, often printing sensitive information, including addresses, while portraying the sex workers as victims. The media, along with NGOs and the police will conduct raids that severely violate the privacy of sex workers. For example, in an Express India article a raid was described that took place in Pune with NGOs and the police in which sex workers were dragged out, beaten, and molested by the police against their will [4].

How does the media violate the privacy of sex workers?

“The media conducts raids, and so do NGOs in an attempt to rescue them. Once they are rescued and taken back with police escorts to their village, the whole village knows that she was in sex work, and then her privacy is violated because she was publicly returned. My problem is not about them being rescued, but they need to have consent from the person. If a person wants to do sex work – this decision needs to be respected. The media is difficult because you don’t want to ask for a ban, so we don’t ask for banning, but we do put pressure on the media to be more responsible in their reporting.”


Ms. Chacko also spoke about how research often violates the privacy of sex workers, in ways that range from the words that are used to describe sex workers to the one-sided victim story that is too often used to describe the lives of sex workers, to the methods researchers use to find their facts. Thus, perhaps without meaning to, research can de-legitimatize the work that sex workers do, and can work to increase the amount of violence or abuse that they are exposed to.

Research and Privacy

“Researchers who are writing a report on sex workers - land up in some village and end up violating their privacy as everyone in the village wants to know why the researchers came. The researchers also ask invasive questions. They want to know details about the sex workers’ lives: what kind of sex they have and with whom? What do they experience with their clients? What is their relationship with their partners? What is the status of their relationship.? They do not have a sense of whether the workers will want to talk about their lives or not…Some people make films and some make them in extremely exploitative ways. Films are also often incorrect and invasive of privacy in that way as well.”

The Role of a Privacy Legislation

In our research, we are looking at how a privacy legislation could help remedy the challenges to privacy that different people face in society; or ,if a privacy legislation cannot offer a solution, if there are other ways in which a legislation or society can offer solutions. When I asked Ms. Chacko if a privacy legislation or the right to privacy could improve the lives of sex workers, she was not certain if a privacy legislation would make a difference directly, and thought it might in fact overlook sex workers because currently they are seen in society as immoral women that are not to be afforded the right to privacy. In fact, it is the law and enforcers of the law itself that is invading their privacy. For example, in a study done by the World Health Organization it was found that in India 70 per cent of sex workers in a survey reported being beaten by the police, and more than 80 per cent had been arrested without evidence [5]. Thus, before a right to privacy can apply to sex workers, sex work itself must be decriminalized and recognized as a legitimate profession worthy of labor rights and other rights. Furthermore the debate around sex work needs to move away from the traditional dialogue of who is having sex and who is not to one that looks at what rights should be protected for every person. At that point perhaps a law which protects dignity and regulates the use of information could be useful. On another note, the UID (the Unique Identification Project) could be a potential benefit for sex workers as it would serve as identity that would give only a yes or no response at the time of a transaction. 

Could a Privacy Legislation help?

“Some of the privacy is violated by the raids that happen by the police. So those raids are problematic. What kind of laws would help? One would be to decriminalize sex work itself and also work with society to gain understanding and perspective. Because now people think: they are immoral women ,so what privacy do they deserve? The sexual debate should not be about who is having sex and who is not, but about who has the power…”

The Current Law

In India, the Immoral Trafficking prevention Act ( ITPA) is the law that governs sex work. The ITPA does not make prostitution illegal, but instead tries to target the commercialized aspects of the trade such as brothel keeping, pimping, and soliciting. Though the law does not attack the sex workers as individuals, and its stated purpose is to prevent the trafficking of sex workers, the law has become a tool of harassment and abuse by law enforcement agencies. Sections 5A, 5B, 5C, which pertain to trafficking are the most troublesome, because the clauses do not distinguish between trafficking and sex work, but instead defines them as the same[6]. Thus, the new definitions of prostitution and trafficking leave room for reading all sex work as within the meaning of trafficking, and thus criminalizing sex work by defacto.[7] In addition, under the new Section 5C, clients visiting or found in a brothel will face imprisonment and/or fines [8]. Penalization of clients is a significant modification to the the ITPA, which formally targeted 'third parties' profiting from prostitution and not sex workers or clients themselves [9]. Sex workers have fought for a long time to overturn the ITPA. In June 2008, sex workers went on a hunger strike in the hopes of forcing the bill to be discarded [10]. In 2010 sex workers demonstrated against the amendment of the ITPA that would hold the clients of sex workers liable. Despite their protests and demands for their occupation to be treated equally, the Indian courts are slow to move forward and recognize sex work as a dignified profession. “A woman is compelled to indulge in prostitution not for pleasure but because of abject poverty,” the court said last month. “If such woman is granted opportunity to avail some technical or vocational training, she would be able to earn her livelihood by such vocational training and skill instead of selling her body.” The court has also promised to initiate a program in May for vocational training of sex workers [11]. Unfortunately, vocational training fails to address the actual issues and violations that sex workers face – a fact that was demonstrated by one sex worker’s saying: “If we can’t solicit clients without getting arrested, we will naturally rely on pimps to carry on our trade…What we need are practical measures that free us from exploitation created by the law itself.”


One of the most impactful source of aid for sex workers currently is the sex workers union. I had the opportunity to speak with a member from the board of the Karnataka Sex Workers
union. She spoke about the challenges that sex workers face and how the Union provides assistance to the sex workers. The union helps them obtain benefits, helps with enrolling their children in schools, and answers questions that they would not be able to seek legal or other assistance on. The union is a confidential and safe space for sex workers to function in society. The person interviewed feels as though the information about herself that should be kept confidential is: her medical information, her clients, where she meets her clients, and information about her family. Ms. Chacko also spoke about the positives that an identity scheme like the UID could have on sex workers, because the transactions would be done through a yes/ no response, and no one will be denied a UID number. Most importantly, Ms. Chacko stressed that it is important to recognize sex work as a legitimate profession,and focus on the actual problems, rather than limiting the debate to stigmas around sex. The interview with Ms. Chacko demonstrated that protection of sex workers’ and sexual minorities’ privacy cannot be addressed simply by a law, but must be embodied by an ethos and a culture before that law is meaningful.


  1. http://www.dnaindia.com/bangalore/report_karnataka-sex-workers-want-right-to-work_1517602
  2. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/specials/assembly-elections-2011/west-bengal/Special-booth-for-sex-workers/articleshow/7880039.cms
  3. http://www.thehindu.com/news/article1594609.ece
  4. http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/sex-workers-allege-excesses-in-police-raid-to-submit-evidence-to-commissioner/739326/  
  5. http://www.who.int/gender/documents/sexworkers.pdfhttp://ncpcr.gov.in/Acts/Immoral_Traffic_Prevention_Act_%28ITPA%29_1956.pdf
  6. http://ncpcr.gov.i /Acts/Immoral_Traffic_Prevention_Act_%28ITPA%29_1956.pdf
  7. http://cflr.org/ITPA%20Amendment%20bill.htm
  8. http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/1167469313/1167469313_immoral_traffic_prevention_amendment_bill2006.pdf
  9. http://theindiapost.com/2008/07/21/itpa-amendment-has-a-provision-of-jail-term-and-penalties-for-the-clients-of-prostitutes-who-were-so-far-kept-out-of-the-ambit-of-prosecution/
  10. http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/Sex-workers-to-go-on-hungerstrike-over-ITPA/330250/
  11. http://www.trust.org/trustlaw/blogs/the-word-on-women/rehabilitation-cuts-no-ice-with-indias-sex-workers
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