A Job Half-Done: Sex Workers Can’t Press Rape Charges if Customers Don’t Pay

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of University Express.

The Supreme Court recently made a landmark judgment, when it ruled that sex workers couldn’t press rape charges if their customer refused to pay them. While this ruling has set a healthy precedent in determining what exactly constitutes rape, it has also left thousands of sex workers, who need protection from predatory customers in limbo.

The court ruled that any trial court could not accept the woman’s allegations as “gospel truth” and stressed upon the need to acquire comprehensive evidence. This should help prevent the occurrence of frivolous rape-related lawsuits. More importantly, it re-establishes the long-held judicial maxim that “a person is innocent unless proven guilty”, and not vice-versa.

However, the flip side of this declaration is that sex-workers are now unsure as to the kind of protection they are eligible for in instances where they get cheated off their money. While prostitution is legal in India, pimping is not. This means that, in India sex-workers set their own prices for their services. The difficulty in this is that the law does not set any specific penalty in instances of non-payment for sexual services. Moreover since brothels are illegal, many sex-workers work alone and thus may find it difficult to ensure that their customers pay them their due.

A reasonable way to solve this dilemma would be to think of and characterize prostitution as any other service where products are sold in exchange for money. The product in this case being the woman’s body itself. However, not only does this characterization further ingrain the objectification of women, but also is considered to be morally reprehensible by a sizable section of India’s population.

Despite these drawbacks, such a classification has many practical benefits. Prostitution, despite being widely known as the world’s oldest profession, is not seen as a valid occupation in India. Categorizing prostitution as a legally binding contract between the woman and the customer allows the law to deal with any breach of this contract in the same manner that it deals with other such arrangements (Example: The way a shopkeeper can report you if you take their product without paying for it).

This is the manner in which any breach of the contract between sex-workers and their customers is enforced by the law in many countries. While some sex workers in India may already be trying to seek protection in this manner, the vast majority almost certainly doesn’t solicit legal safeguards in this manner. This is largely due to the huge taboo regarding prostitution as an occupation in India.

So while the Supreme Court made a worthwhile distinction regarding what constitutes rape in this scenario, it left the job half-done by its inability to prescribe specific legal safeguards for the protection of sex-workers.

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