Centre for Internet & Society

Our research on the use of mobile phones by sex workers, as part of the project on Feminist Information Infrastructure in collaboration with Sangama, was cited in an article in the Economic Times.

The article by Tushar Kaushik was published in the Economic Times on July 23, 2019. CIS research was quoted.

A mobile phone makes sex workers more vulnerable to harassment and abuse; however, it also helps them protect themselves better, according to recent reports. The report compiled by research and advocacy group Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in May was based on surveys and interviews of 64 sex workers in rural Bengaluru and Hassan conducted by the nonprofit Sangama, which works with sexual minorities and sex workers. It said most sex workers use basic phones rather than smartphones.

Some respondents said phones helped them conduct sex work discreetly and avoid solicitation on roads and in public spaces. “This was especially advantageous for workers employed in addition to sex work, allowing them to schedule appointments for sex work for short periods during the day,” the report said. Some respondents said it helped them stay connected with friends and family while working.

But, in some cases, clients circulated workers’ contacts, leading to frequent calls and messages, some of which turned abusive. Some said clients would circulate photos and videos that had them in a compromising situation, or record calls with them, and threaten to circulate the content among families and communities of the workers. Pooja S (name changed), 27, said many clients shared her numbers with others, who would then call and harass her. “Clients have sometimes taken my photos and videos without my knowledge,” she said. However, Pooja is also aware of the advantage of having a mobile phone — in case of any problem with any client, she can immediately call someone for help.

Many transgender sex workers also said the advantages of a mobile phone far outweigh the disadvantages. Trans-activist Uma Umesh, who works to help many sex workers from the community, said, “Some clients call workers for frivolous reasons, and when workers don’t respond well, clients turn abusive.” Some sex workers use a separate sim card when with clients, she said.

A journal published in February, titled ‘Female Sex Workers’ Use of Mobile Phones in India,’ made similar conclusions based on discussions with 67 sex workers and 18 staff members from local NGOs in Mumbai and parts of Karnataka between January and May 2015. The journal highlighted how phones helped workers to be less dependent on brokers. It also mentioned cases where the police, upon apprehending sex workers, called clients whose contacts were saved on the workers’ phone to use them as a witness.

Shubha Chacko, one of the authors and executive director at Solidarity Foundation, which works with sex workers, said the workers are being trained to use phones to minimise threats. “For instance, some clients don’t pay. We advise workers to seek digital payment in advance.”

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