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Mar 30 2013

I Get Mail – Sex for the Gods

Notice

Testing out my three tier comments policy. Expect fancier artwork to be put in place when I can get some up but consider this topic a Yellow one. Stay on target, and discuss away. And at all points will there be no personal attacks and no bigotry. The following topic is NSFW as it contains a discussion about the sex trade. If you like what you read then pass it on, as I do feel there are a fair few misconceptions

This was watched and reviewed at the Bengaluru/Bangalore Meeting of Freethinkers and it got me thinking and one of it’s members asked me if I could have look at it. It’s about the Devdasi or the sacred prostitutes of India. I am not against it, it’s not incorrect but it has a few misconceptions that we can clear up.

I do have some issues with it.

  1. The narrator mentioned that the banana leaf is a symbol of “poor India” which is a puzzle to me since many restaurants that are considered “expensive” such Anjappar use the Banana Leaf still. The Banana Leaf is a symbol of traditional India and is in effect a disposable plate. It’s actually used in mass catering more than by poor people who prefer steel “thali” plates which are large, multipurpose and don’t break. It’s just a puzzling thing to say.
  2. The problem with the simplistic depiction of the Devdasi system is precisely that there are more nuances to it than depicted by the movie. The problem here rises from the depiction of prostitution as a social evil without realising there are underlying causes. The  Devdasi system was a method of “getting rid” of unmarried girls AND parents who only had female children who wished for the property to remain in the family. Devdasi in Hinduism can own property. It’s complex but the issue is economics rather than religious.
  3. The issue is “Pre-pubescent and Teenage girls” are dedicated. Now there are two reasons for this. Firstly? Many Devdasi sent their own kids to become one since it was traditionally a “role of power for women” more so than other women in the village. And Secondly? Indians never considered until recently to be “kids”. We were throwing our children down the mines in the early 1900s ourselves. India never had the luxury of not doing so and people are still fighting to get child labour halted. Child labour is harder to halt in a society which doesn’t consider them “children”. They have always gotten married aged 14! What’s this malarky about not being an adult? Remember our classification of adult is extremely arbitrary ourselves and we just set it at 18-21. Now this is a social change because honestly the people don’t see why we should stop treating 14 year olds as adults. Remember, Many Roman Legionnaires turned out to be very very young (11′s the lowest we have heard about) and it wasn’t regarded as outliers. If you showed up to the Romans and told them that 14 year olds have no place in war they would call you an idiot because they clearly beat all comers using these soldiers. To them these were not children but “less hairy men”. We think kids should grow old slowly and get their responsibility over time. Not just be thrust into adult life this way.
  4. There is nothing wrong with being a “Street Hooker” in a world where women are not forced into prostitution. Yes the Devdasi were once “powerful” and yes today their power is a far cry from it’s hey day, but you have to realise that the reality of opinions on them have been poisoned by the work of missionaries and indeed the interviewer’s attitude to wards sex work is negative. One must remember that sex work need not be due to trafficking. It’s kind of weird that the interviewer is not as sex positive as Anita. Sangram are a NGO with major successes in improving the lives of sex workers through the use of sex positive messages.
  5. Get a better translator. It’s pointless grabbing a translator who is shocked by the subject material and who cannot speak English. It’s bad for your documentary when you have to second guess the message. I understand that translators who are willing to meet sex workers are rare but they do exist.
  6. £4 for sex work = Rs. 300. It’s a surprisingly hefty amount of money for a few hour’s work. By contrast? If one remembers “V” he was living on Rs. 500 a month. This is where the issue comes in. Many Indians are heavily against the sex trade and wish to ban it totally in the whole “Puritan Rescuing Women” sense but the reason these women do not want rescuing is that they earn money in a job where they are independant IF they find areas protected by Sangram. Even in areas where they are not protected the cut their pimps take still leaves women with more money than most other people would get in a month.
  7. Power in Numbers and Sangram turn traditionally weak women into a force. Sangram help fight HIV and AIDS and they do so through sex workers. Where many Indian NGOs feel “shy” to appear in a truck stop and give a lecture about safe sex, the lovely lovely men and women from the sex trade give no fucks about showing up and demonstrating condom usage and passing around photos of STDs. This has a knock on effect as truck drivers from all parts of India slowly learn and spread condom usage through word of mouth.
  8. The interviewer doesn’t “grasp” poverty. It’s not an excuse to pimp out your daughters but a horrid calculus of money. Do you starve or do you turn a social liability into a strength? The Devdasi system is almost entirely reliant on a social stigma towards female children since they are economic liabilities compared to male children due to the above social stigma. Devdasi will die out if women are shown to be as capable as the boys at earning a wage but honestly the issue is that there are no jobs and there is no future for these girls (and some boys) apart from this. In addition if Hinduism undergoes a “change” and declares that women can do the final rites for their parents and have it carry the same “spiritual weight” as the boys. Yellama isn’t a strict goddess but is a symptom of the real issue.
  9. It sounds daft to a lot of people but it’s advocacy and ideas like the “Sangli Condom Trick” that make condom usage fun and interesting and above all GETS PEOPLE TO WEAR THEM. A large part of HIV advocacy has been down to the usage of condoms and a lot of it involves thinking laterally about getting a society that doesn’t use them to use them.
  10. The few that I have met don’t consider the smashing of bangles to be that of widowhood but of freedom. Remember that in a heavily patriarchal society, Devdasi have a type of power and their “fuck everything” attitude has resulted in a kind of freedom for them. As Sangram says. “Save us from Saviours”. Those without any inkling of what these people feel have often resulted in people “rescuing” Devdasi and making it “worse” by removing their income. Think of it in this way. You don’t like the exploitative nature of McDonalds. So if you smash up their restaurant and force it to shut down… then are the workers free or are they now without jobs?
  11. I repeat this again because it needs to be said. What we consider child prostitution is due to our culture. My grandmother had sex aged 13 to a man aged 16. Why? Westerners say “Child Prostitution”. I know the answer is that you aren’t considered a child anymore by the reckoning of society. Being horrified about another culture would be like these people being horrified that you eat cows and throw your parents into prisons for the elderly rather than being good children to your parents. Cultural differences are precisely that. In India you are a man in many parts of it aged 13 and you are a woman after your first period. India is trying to get people to “stop” doing this and considering the teenage years as part of childhood but you are changing culture and that takes time. Remember the land that is Mumbai was traded on a child marriage in Western Europe. Culture changes over time as seen by the cessation of Sati. However to make that change you need a concerted effort through all parts of society. Simple Bans didn’t make Sati go away. It was the accompanying Hindu reform movement and change of social attitude to such actions that made the change. Likewise, child prostitution in the form of the Devadasi will not go away UNLESS you create a societal change that gets people to stick to statutory ages. Which means “womanhood” needs to be decoupled from menses and the ability to bear child as we have done in the west.
  12. When you have an entire caste whose ultimate role in life is to acquire wealth, you must realise that Indians understand capitalism in a much much more thorough way than “Western Capitalism” seems to think we do. Ever wonder why a lot of Indians end up being small business owners? They aren’t half bad at it because they know how to run it.

The cultural grasp of western ideas is slowly percolating through Indian culture and this widens the gap between rich and poor making the poor more vulnerable to such abuse.

The major driving force here is the death of serf agriculture as India mordernises. This is worsened by the frankly astronomical population explosion which primarily affects the poorest and indeed the agricultural parts of society which keeps them poor and further exacerbates the problem. Elimination of Yellama will simply mean that the prostitutes will stop being “Devdasi” and start being “Prostitutes”. The number of Devdasi has gone down but the number of prostitutes has gone up because prostitution is mainly economical in nature for these women and in some cases because this is the best level of freedom they can accomplish. If you want to rescue these women then don’t tilt at windmills dear white k

Many women who were prostitutes and who left the trade have generally done so because they have achieved economic stability that matches the stability of prostitution. Sangram’s training of sex workers as educators and midwives and adult teachers has helped improve their lives outside their “attractive prime”.

That’s the sort of thing we need. The sex workers need to be free from harassment and exploitation and have access to healthcare and condoms and indeed the power to enforce their use. The sex workers need to have economic choices that are viable. The economic choice within society needs to improve. The treatment of girls and women needs to improve and a cultural shift needs to occur where Hinduism declares that women and men are equal in terms of last rites. In addition you need to break the caste system.

Then you may see a fall in the number of Devdasi and indeed the changes to the demography of sex work. Religion plays a part for sure but it is a very small part compared to other stuff.

If you want to know more? Check out the work of Sangram.

24 comments

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  1. 1
    otranreg

    I wonder where the trick part is in the “Sangli Condom Trick”. So they put a condom in their mouths and unfold it inside with their fingers. And? Am I missing something?

  2. 2
    Avicenna

    Imagine the fingers are a penis…

  3. 3
    otranreg

    Well, if one sees (or uses) a condom for the first time in their life, it might look like a trick. Or is it ‘trick’ in the sense ‘trick the customer into using it’?

  4. 4
    otranreg

    I also agree with your point No. 10: the show makes this weird conclusion in the final scene with that middle-aged woman and her mother — that this whole institution should be destroyed, even though as she was telling the story of her life the first thing that comes to your mind is ‘why wouldn’t she look for a different job?’ ‘why wouldn’t she look look for some sort of education that would in the end bring her acceptable and sustainable income?’. This institution clearly (okay, ‘clearly’ on the basis of this movie) exists because of the answers to these questions.

  5. 5
    Delft

    I am sure the feature doesn’t completely reflect all the nuances of Indian culture. I also agree that the way to fight prostitution and better the sex-worker’s lives is not to shame them.

    The issue is “Pre-pubescent and Teenage girls” are dedicated. Now there are two reasons for this.

    Arguing “it’s OK to abuse children, because we’ve always done that” or because of “culture” is not just immoral, it’s really bad logic.

    There is nothing wrong with being a “Street Hooker” in a world where women are not forced into prostitution.

    The point of the feature is that the girls and women are forced into prostitution, either by their parents, pressurising them to sacrifice themselves to feed their younger siblings, or by economic necessity.
    It’s also abundantly clear that the girls find it shameful, and are devastated by it.

    Being horrified about another culture would be like these people being horrified that you eat cows and throw your parents into prisons for the elderly rather than being good children to your parents. Cultural differences are precisely that.

    Umm. No.
    “Culture” is not a get-out-of-jail card any more than religion is. Stoning women who have been raped for “adultery” or selling young girls into prostitution is terrible, regardless of culture.

  6. 6
    LykeX

    @otranreg

    Or is it ‘trick’ in the sense ‘trick the customer into using it’?

    I think that’s the point. Tell a guy you want to put some rubber on his penis, he might think it’s odd. Tell him you want to put his penis in your mouth and you won’t hear any complaints. It changes condom use from a boring technicality to a fun part of foreplay.

  7. 7
    kevinkirkpatrick

    I’ll listen to current and former prostitutes make a case for whether prostitution in a given context is (or even can be) a good thing; and will weigh that against the full volume of evidence of utterly destroyed lives of those who didn’t get such a good run of things… Avicenna, IMO, your insight into Indian culture does not qualify you to talk about what this experience of “Devadasi prostitution” is to the women who go through it; you are not the proper person to be explaining it to someone from a Western culture.

    As for girls having sex at the age of 13… I could give a shit about culture definitions of womanhood starting with menstruation. Are these 13 year old girls seeking out sexual relationships with men much older? Is this what they find themselves wanting the morning they awake having experienced their first period? If not, then fuck everything else, the cultural traditions that results in these young girls being fucked by older men is a humanitarian travesty. Enthusiastic consent is not a cultural artifact. Full stop.

  8. 8
    Avicenna

    1. My insight into Indian culture comes from “being one myself”. I am British Indian.

    2. I provided healthcare to such women for the past 4 years. In fact I specifically got ostracised by a lot of people for it and am regarded as one of the more progressive healthcare workers in the region.

    3. Surprising as it may sound, but these women don’t speak English but speak Tamil and I speak Tamil and speak English so no matter what you are still going to have an intermediary. It just won’t be me. And they have spoken out before, it’s just that they didn’t speak out on anything a western audience would read and indeed I will point out that my audience is global. I have Indian readers too. It’s not just for Americans.

    4. I pointed out their relative economic stability. Pray tell me what job would you have them do instead in a culture that doesn’t pay ANYONE well? I wrote an article on starvation and the cost of living in India. 70% of India earns less than Rs 150 a day. Many of these women make Rs. 500 or more a day. They are often the sole bread winners in their families and keeping their lives afloat. Hell the entire slogan of “Save us from our Saviours” points out that these women are sick and tired of people like yourselves “Saving them” from prostitution and leaving them financially less well off.

    5. I pointed out schemes to empower them to either take control of their own choices or give them a secure way out that India is implementing.

    6. Western Culture also considered that just 200 years ago. Forgive me for pointing out but most of India was being oppressed in a feudal society or a colonial society over most of that 200 years so there was no development to increase the age limit. India is TRYING to change that but frankly it took nearly 200 years for the west to change it’s attitudes to child marriage and you somehow expect India’s billion odd people who are desperately starving and who lack the riches and wealth of colonialism to affect such changes to do so in less time? Think rationally. The people don’t see it as child abuse because you are applying your culture to theirs and demanding it change. It will, it just won’t do so because you kick and stamp your feet. The marriage ages of women in India has been constantly rising with education and encouragement but we cannot be everywhere at once. There are 1.2 billion people. A number bigger than the entire North American continent. Most of these people live far away from infrastructure and to make that change takes time. I can cajole, coerce and educate but frankly you seem to think jail terms would achieve that. Cultural change does not occur overnight.

    Put it this way. I still campaign for people to wear shoes. You know the things you take for granted and have many pairs of? I have to explain reasons to wear them to people. Education makes long term changes. Brutal laws do not particularly when you have no way of enforcing them with any regularity.

  9. 9
    otranreg

    @5&7

    Care to try to tell that womanhood doesn’t start with menstruation to each Indian (or to whomever who comes from a region where such beliefs are widespread)? Personally? With the same ‘I think you’re a wanker from a different place’ attitude?

    As far as I can see, no one here denies that this phenomenon is something that should be destroyed. But this is not something that can happen overnight with a big legal ban (things like this are much better at filling the pockets of corrupt officials than what they are really designed for), and definitely not something that can happen without any regard for the culture that produces this practice, the things that cause and reinforce it — and to address them first.

    Sure, ban it outright: and teenagers will still be turned into prostitutes and fucked by adults, but in shadier places and worse conditions, and most of the pedos in prisons will just be those who didn’t have the money on them to pay the bribe to that dirty cop whose turf the brothel is on.

  10. 10
    Delft

    @9
    You clearly didn’t actually read my comment.
    That I condemn the practice of selling girls into prostitution – which is defended in this post – says nothing about what I believe are the ways and means of fighting it. I even explicitly agree about some points of pragmatism.

    As far as I can see, no one here denies that this phenomenon is something that should be destroyed.

    While griping about the significance of the banana leaf in Indian culture, Avicenna in fact does not state that what is happening is wrong, does not concede that the women/girls are being forced into prostitution by their families, in fact, even implies they should count themselves lucky.
    .
    Unfortunately, 99% of those who argue “it’s because of culture, and how dare you criticise” do so because they think it’s OK. Avicenna may not be one of them, but this article gives me no reason to think otherwise.
    For me, basic human rights are not debatable, and culture is no excuse for disregarding them. Nor is what anyone else is doing or has done in the past.

  11. 11
    otranreg

    does not concede that the women/girls are being forced into prostitution by their families, in fact, even implies they should count themselves lucky.

    Yeah, they become sex workers because they just can’t be a burden on their parents’ cigar, cocaine and monocle supply.

    A choice between death from starvation and being a sex worker is not a choice at all (when it is as binary as this).

  12. 12
    Avicenna

    How can I say it’s wrong? It puts food on their table and gives them some economic independence. Their own charity says “Save us from our Saviours”. Would you rather stop them working and watch them starve? The method of “freeing” them involves giving them power and autonomy and education.

    The problem is a lot lot more complicated than your grasp of it and indeed blundering in there and doing what you have done has often lead to sex workers starving.

    Women in India have no leverage through skill and education. That is being rectified but it is slow. Don’t look so smug. India has more female engingeers than any other country. Maths is Hard Barbie didn’t come out here.

    We are in this “mess” because people thought like yourself. All it did was make it harder to police and entrenched the culture behind closed and very profitable doors.

  13. 13
    Delft

    It’s not the girls who are making a choice, but their parents, and it’s not as binary as you believe it to be. E.g. not having more children than you have the means to support is a perfectly viable alternative.
    Before berating me for the idea, you should know that a few years back there was a campaign by the Indian government to try and achieve this, “We two and our two”.
    Refusing to acknowledge that the practice of selling girls or young women into prostitution is reprehensible, culture notwithstanding, is enabling parents to continue doing this instead of seeking alternative solutions.

  14. 14
    Avicenna

    An important thing to remember is “Your principles do not put food on someone else’s table”.

  15. 15
    Avicenna

    Not having more children than you can afford is all fine and dandy if you live in an area where there are facilities to help and contraception is available. If there is no such care available then you are discussing abstinence only education.

    Listen, if well educated people in the USA cannot make abstinence only education work you somehow expect poorly educated Indians to do achieve it?

    All these are taking place but you know what? It requires participation. Many people happily bob their heads to the slogans and chanting of We Two/Ours One but promptly go off and have 4 children. Oh and please on Rs. 35 a day you cannot afford even one child.

    The fact of the matter is that the slogan was incredibly naive and a propoganda campaign. The real heavy lifting is done through rural healthcare workers who encourage more long term spacing methods and contraception such as the IUD. Hell? How on earth do you expect the common man to follow that slogan when the people chanting it had more than one kid?

  16. 16
    Delft

    How can I say it’s wrong?

    I’m glad we’ve clarified that you are in favour of selling girls into prostitution.
    Not of women making a choice, as you pretend, but of girls being sold by their parents, in a culture that particularly stresses filial obedience to boot. To pretend the women are making their own choice is disingenuous to say the very least.

  17. 17
    Avicenna

    And yet I gave an actual way to stamp it out.

    I said I understand WHY they do something. Calling it WRONG is to try and find someone to blame for it when it is an issue of economics and society rather than the individual. The parents are trying to survive. The women and men are trying to make a living. Pointing fingers doesn’t change anything.

    You have to realise you are dealing with centuries of this and no education. It is not my job to educate the people, my job is to treat people. I try and encourage education but I honestly do not have the luxury of time.

    Economics, Education and Empowerment are the methods of beating the sex traffic and enforced prostitution. Sangram has brought more women out of prostitution successfully than the various “moral” stances and cheap slogans.

    Actual work in the field requires you understand why people do something. Money sounds crass to you but you HAVE money. These people have “none” in a “Zero Purchasing Power” kind of way.

    Surprisingly enough? With in areas where Sagram (and indeed me) are active, child marriage goes down, female ratios go up and economic opportunities for women improve. Why? Empowerment. You are trying to tell people who have no other choices in life that what they are doing is wrong. Their response is “that’s an awfully big horse you are sitting on”.

  18. 18
    Delft

    I said I understand WHY they do something. Calling it WRONG is to try and find someone to blame

    Calling something wrong has nothing to do with seeking to blame anyone, or not understanding why they do it. You are confusing wrong with evil: Wrong = NOT A GOOD THING.
    Refusing to call it wrong is supporting the status quo. As long as it’s not wrong = it’s A GOOD THING, there is no reason to change it, and you’re not asking people to change it, or even to try and find other solutions. You’re just saying “it’s fine, go ahead” It may not be your “job” as you put it to educate people, but human rights are everyone’s job.

    I’ve said very clearly a number of times I’m not discussing how to fight it, that I’m not in favour of making the women’s life more difficult by shaming them, “saving” them etc. Those are pragmatic questions one can argue about.
    But “whether human rights” in this case “whether selling children into slavery/prostitution is wrong” brooks no disagreement.

  19. 19
    otranreg

    Refusing to call it wrong is supporting the status quo. As long as it’s not wrong = it’s A GOOD THING

    Yes, and when you can’t explain something then ‘goddidit’. Such binary attitude is just like that of godbots.

    It’s a spectrum, and it can easily be worse. Dead kinda worse. Although it is a solution, innit? Just let them fucking die, they won’t care then, right? And send the NO GOOD parents to rot in prison, and tell the rest of the kids to beg and take it up their holes every now and then for food. Oh, wait.

    I’ve said very clearly a number of times I’m not discussing how to fight it, that I’m not in favour of making the women’s life more difficult by shaming them, “saving” them etc.

    Yet you profess a view that implies these immediate and brainless ‘measures’.

  20. 20
    Delft

    Why would either of you worry about how to fight a practice you don’t disagree with?
    Avicenna:

    How can I say it’s wrong? It puts food on their table

    Are you equally appreciative of drug-dealing, extortion, and contract killing? After all, it puts food on their table.
    .
    Clearly it offends you both, when anyone asserts women’s and girls’ right to bodily autonomy, which includes the right not to be sold into prostitution.

    If it walks like a misogynist and quacks like a misogynist, no prizes for guessing what it is.

  21. 21
    Avicenna

    If you have to do those things to survive then I cannot hold that against you. You are a product of a broken system that needs to be fought. The afghani man must be prepared to murder another to live in the system. Him behaving like a public school boy from Eton is a good way to get himself and his family killed.

    You make it sound like Drug Dealers are nefarious moustache twirling master villains rather than the majority being ridiculously poor and a product of entrenched poverty, racism and economic disparity which over a period has created a crab bucket culture that pulls people who try and escape such poverty down. Most of these “villains” live with their mums. Fuck the ultimate joke is that drug dealers are more likely to live with their mums than nerd stereotype.

    And what would you do? Arrest the parents? Okay. Arrest the Pimps? Well the police are corrupt and are often the pimps. Now what? We have jailed the parents and the pimps and given these girls “freedom”. We can fuck off and leave right?

    The system in place will still mean they will probably go into prostitution or actual slavery (debt slavery still exists despite being illegal) in order to pay off bills or simply be another farmer suicide or a casualty of chronic starvation.

    All your choices are bad. If understanding the plight of such people and why they make the decision makes me a misogynist then so be it.

    But through my misogyny I have encourage more girls to go to school, more women to not terminate daughters, birth control, adult education, empowerment of women, men to treat women better and economic improvement. My stance on “prostitutes” has resulted in more of them having better healthcare, reduced rates of HIV, reduced transmission, empowerment, more of them leaving. I also provide care to the hijra.

    And all of this means a net result of “fewer prostitutes” and indeed since education is so important more kids remain in school till the age of 16. In addition those sex workers that we do have are empowered, have a place they can get non-judgemental healthcare and assistance and use contraception while having a way to “leave” sex work through various groups that are willing to hire and empower and give these people “new lives”. They also have lower rates of HIV and so are safer themselves.

    Or you know. I could just run around demanding they stop doing something without doing anything else. Because that will get people to invite me to their houses and find at risk people and try and keep them safe.

    I would rather be a misogynist and achieve tangible, permanent and positive results.

  22. 22
    Delft

    You really don’t get it, do you?
    .
    Try this thought experiment.
    Later today you are raped by a gang of men. Imagine exactly how you would feel: the pain, the horror, the shame, the fear, the disgust.
    Then a smug asshole walks in and lectures you: he cannot call it “wrong” to rape you, after all the poor rapists…, and *culture*… He totally understands why they did it, and there would be no point in punishing them. Anyway, he spends his time distributing mosquito nets and condoms, which both do much more to protect rape victims from getting malaria and HIV. How this is much better than calling it “wrong” and demanding this kind of thing stop. Also the best thing for rape victims is to get a more sex-positive attitude.
    .
    Dang! That is your attitude to rape, isn’t it, so you won’t understand how awful those attitudes are.
    Stop being proud of your lack of empathy with the victims – you have plenty for the perpetrators, just none for the victims.
    .
    And stop confusing judging actions and judging people. It makes you look like an idiot.

  23. 23
    Delft

    Oh, and, not only asshole sees no point in punishing your tormentors, he also doesn’t want to tell them what they did was wrong, because – boohoo – they might not invite him into their houses anymore. So he just tells them they did great. Of course that way he gets to meet lots of future victims: he actually gives himself credit for meeting victims whose victimization he furthers.

  24. 24
    Avicenna

    Sigh…

    I keep pointing out…. that people tried your way.

    Then they tried this. And this worked better. All the ethics and the high ground you hold doesn’t help those who need help. You can say all that but the bottom line is that empowerment did more to reduce this than being indignant.

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