The Enduring Harm of the West’s Moral Crusades

The Enduring Harm of the West’s Moral Crusades

The Enduring Harm of the West’s Moral Crusades

On Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, the US should reconsider its global war against sex work.


In 1982, as a young undergraduate, I fled from my Delhi college to Tufts University, desperately hoping that in the liberal West my self-loathing and terrors about being gay would fade into irrelevance.

But, to my shock and disbelief, I found that in the United States the hatred for homosexuality was many magnitudes greater than in India. I learned that homosexuality was a criminal offense in a majority of American states, including Massachusetts. I read that US immigration law barred “suspected or self-declared” foreign homosexuals from entering the country—even merely as tourists—for being “afflicted with sexual deviation.” I recoiled at the hatred that animated the description of AIDS as “the gay plague” and “God’s punishment for homosexuals.” I flinched upon learning of the frequency of “gay bashing” and of the barbaric schoolyard game “smear the queer.”

The animus was inescapable on the Tufts campus. Not one same-sex couple could ever be spotted among the throngs necking on the lawns. The handful of gay men and women I eventually came to know had invariably moved out from the dorms, as did I, because of the hostility we encountered. Just a year before I enrolled, “Fags Must Die” had been spray-painted across the Memorial Steps. The few men who glimpsed that I found them attractive recoiled, their disgust writ large. America was not the beacon of freedom and justice—or of sexual emancipation—that I had been taught it was.

Much of my life had passed by before the United States or India, the two countries that are my home, made significant progress in their treatment of people like me. I was in my early 40s by the time the US Supreme Court ended sodomy laws nationwide, and in my mid-50s when the court declared marriage equality to be the law of the nation. I was turning 57 when India’s Supreme Court decriminalized same-sex relations, just last September.

This glacial pace to correcting what is now widely considered a gross injustice underlines a cautionary lesson. In both these former colonies of Britain, variants of the medieval English law mandating execution for “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery” had lived on endlessly—in the United States, since the 1600s; in India, from 1860, 101 years before my birth. The sheer longevity of these laws meant that Britain’s pathological condemnation of male same-sex desire took on the legitimacy of indigenous moral values in both India and the United States, as well as across Britain’s nearly 100 other colonies across the globe. (In most of what else remained of the world, Spanish and Portuguese colonizers—fired up with Catholic bigotry—were equally zealous about putting sodomites to the sword and flame.)

In India, the prejudice and persecution spawned by the criminalizing of homosexual sex—which was singled out for a maximum punishment of life imprisonment—nearly destroyed an age-old acceptance of same-sex desire, which Hindu epics and traditions treat evenhandedly as simply another manifestation of the creative role of sexual desire. A related colonial law, mandating imprisonment for any man found “dressed or ornamented like a woman in a public street,” similarly decimated traditional acceptance of diverse gender identities as well as of femininity in men, an acceptance that stems from the metaphysical understanding in Hinduism as well as in Sufi Islam that all beings combine female and male energies. Time has proven that imperial Britain’s hectoring insistence that India’s natives cleanse themselves of the “Oriental vices” and embrace strait-laced Christian living did not amount to civilizing progress but rather to regress toward barbarism.

The tragedy is that powerful Western nations have still not learned that their views on sexual matters are not only fallible but can have vast destructive consequences when imposed on far-flung nations. The most dangerous contemporary example of this habit is the ongoing American-led global campaign against sex workers and their basic rights—it has all the elements of imperial Britain’s ruinous crusade against homosexuals.

Ironically, President George W. Bush began the anti-sex-work crusade in the very year—2003—that the US Supreme Court invalidated the country’s sodomy laws, in effect replacing one misguided moral crusade against a persecuted sexual minority with another. Playing to his evangelical base and desperately seeking to wrest back some moral high ground as his “war on terror” scandals were being exposed—at the Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons and in the catastrophe unfolding across Iraq—Bush proclaimed that the United States would lead the world in eradicating sex work, which he claimed was a “special evil” amounting to “modern-day slavery.”

Henceforth, all recipients of US foreign assistance were required to sign a pledge “explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking” or be denied funding. Additionally, countries that failed a unilateral, annual US assessment of their performance on combating trafficking—chiefly sex trafficking—faced US-imposed sanctions that could lead to the withdrawal of US foreign assistance and even of billions from the World Bank and IMF. Even the Republican, Christian-right crusade to deny the world’s women safe abortions has never yet been so concerted or so powerfully backed by the US government’s financial might.

The damage done to the well-being of sex workers worldwide has been so far-reaching as to defy cataloguing. Even in a country as democratic and independent as India, the impact of the US crusade has been breathtaking—and that enormous harm is dwarfed by that inflicted on nations that are so small and poor that the United States can endlessly bully them.

In India, the American anti-prostitution campaign unraveled the remarkable gains made by the country’s sex workers in the 1990s, when public health and human rights advocates rose up to support them in tackling the depredations of AIDS. Sex workers in several parts of the country formed remarkable collectives that they soon ran themselves—the largest one, in Kolkata, rapidly had over 30,000 members. The strength of numbers meant they could finally tackle the violence and exploitation they habitually faced from the police and thugs. The collectives provided vital support and services that the women had never known before, including legal representation, banking, health care, and care and education for their children. (The wretched condition of India’s sex workers also dated back to the colonial era, as the East India Company and then the colonial government promoted regulated brothel prostitution to service British soldiers at the same time as criminalizing these women and stigmatizing them as belonging to “prostitute castes.”)

By working closely with government officials, the collectives stemmed the trafficking and abuse of women and girls. These groups began to catalyze once-unimaginable changes—from forcing India’s government and women’s movement to accept their right to self-determination all the way to profoundly influencing global thinking about sex work.

Unforgettably, in late 1997, just months after India had celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, India Home Minister Indrajit Gupta—a legendary freedom fighter and Communist leader who now held the most influential national post after the prime minister—officiated as the chief guest at the first national conference of sex workers, declaring to the thousands of women, transwomen, and male sex workers who had assembled in Kolkata that he supported their demands for decriminalizing sex work and for the full panoply of workers’ rights and would take their fight for justice to Parliament. More than anything else I’d seen, such progress for people who had long been reviled and disempowered testified to the health of participatory democracy in India.

But, as Bush’s anti-prostitution campaign gathered momentum, this progress began to be reversed. Beginning in 2004, the US State Department put India on its human trafficking “watch list,” one of the worst possible tiers.

To placate the Bush administration, India’s Congress Party–led government agreed to consider punitive amendments to the legislation governing sex work and trafficking. If passed, the amendments would have transformed Indian law on sex work from the ambivalent criminalization that India had inherited from the British colonial era—the act of selling sex itself is not criminalized but every activity related to it is, such as soliciting—to the harshly prohibitionist US approach where both sex workers and their clients are explicitly criminalized.

The proposed amendments were stunning in their cruelty: Sex workers would be punished with up to seven years imprisonment in corrective institutions; even adults who expressly stated that they were selling sex entirely of their own accord could be forcibly removed and incarcerated. A firestorm of opposition—notably even from the powerful Ministry of Home Affairs, which warned that the planned changes would distract attention from genuine victims of trafficking as well as worsen exploitation by the police—kept the amendments from being passed into law. But the four-year battle killed any chance of sex work being decriminalized and legitimized discussion of ever more punitive prohibition.

In addition to the onslaught on Indian laws, the Bush administration had simultaneously targeted India’s pathbreaking sex-worker collectives. Several of these groups had been financially supported by USAID and held up as models of effective HIV prevention, but their refusal to disavow sex workers’ rights led to these vital funds’ being cut off. Then, beggaring belief, in 2005 US anti-trafficking czar John R. Miller publicly accused Meena Seshu, a globally respected social worker who had founded one of the earliest collectives, of being complicit in sex trafficking. A number of US Republican senators leveled similarly absurd accusations against Dr. Smarajit Jana, a former public health official who had founded India’s largest sex-worker collective. And then, surreally, these and other collectives—rather than the crime-ridden hotspots in Mumbai where trafficking is indeed rampant—were targeted for Indiana Jones–esque raids, with white American evangelists inexplicably ordering around the Indian police.

Inevitably, the anti-prostitution sentiment fanned by the American campaign ignited unprecedented violence against sex workers. Particularly in the states where right-wing Hindu supremacist parties held power, there was an upsurge in police and mob violence, arrests, and even the razing of entire red-light areas that left hundreds of women and their children homeless. While the abuses in the past had been episodic and uncoordinated, the efforts this time appeared almost aimed at eradicating the women themselves, as if they were foul blots on Indian culture that had to be erased.

Ordinarily, such misadventures by a warmongering Republican president and his evangelical supporters would have triggered opposition by liberal, internationalist Americans. But this corrective did not occur, as a long list of influential American liberals cheered on this particular Bush crusade.

Chief among them were New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Kristof exudes a strong Christian messiah streak, possibly imagining himself to be a 21st-century William Wilberforce, and he embraced the Bush’s war on sex work with its perfectly cast parts for defenseless female victims, fiendish slave-traders, and, crucially, enlightened white male abolitionists. Steinem’s opposition to sex work is rooted in the current of American feminism that condemns pornography and prostitution as the most extreme manifestations of male exploitation, inherently nonconsensual and thus amounting to “commercial rape.” With Kristof and Steinem legitimizing the Bush crusade, it was embraced by a constellation of Hollywood stars (from Ashley Judd and Ashton Kutcher to Meryl Streep), business luminaries like Sheryl Sandberg, and new generation philanthrocapitalists such as Peter Buffett.

What would have otherwise been a morally suspect campaign of a disliked president had been transformed into an unimpeachable Western cause backed by everyone from feminists to billionaires. It was tailor-made for this new unipolar era where only America knew best.

Thus, Kristof’s gory New York Times columns convinced many that the Bush administration was correct to see no difference between sex work and sex trafficking, and that prostitution had filled the world with “modern-day slavery.” “The brothels of India are the slave plantations of the 21st century,” Kristof charged in one column, while in another he pronounced, “India probably has more modern slaves than any country in the world. It has millions of women and girls in its brothels.” In another piece he wrote that although in other developing countries “many women genuinely choose to be prostitutes because of economic pressures or opportunities…. in India, I have yet to find a single woman who made that choice—every single one of them first entered after being forced by a trafficker, her parents, or her husband.”

Steinem, for her part, on a 2012 visit to India railed at the sex-work collectives for creating “a big new source of income for brothel owners, pimps and traffickers who are called ‘peer educators.’” In rubbishing the explicitly stated views of the countless impoverished women running these collectives, Steinem showed that “imperial feminism” still flourished. In 2016, she pronounced, “There is no one this side of the Taliban who isn’t trying to get rid of archaic laws that arrest and imprison prostituted people,” conveniently overlooking that her own government insisted on criminalizing sex workers both domestically and abroad.

And Buffett’s NoVo Foundation and others helpfully provided millions to finance sex-work prohibitionists the world over. The largesse and lack of accountability were such that India’s hard-line Aapne Aap Women Worldwide group, founded by journalist Ruchira Gupta, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent a plush office in New Delhi’s most expensive enclave rather than getting this money to the poor women it claims to protect. After a 2016 New York Times Magazine article reported on these expenses, Apne Aap barred access to financial reports on its global website—even while continuing to actively solicit donations—a practice that I have never seen elsewhere in all my decades of work in development.

The truth was one of the main victims of this crusade. The truth—as opposed to Kristof’s speculative claims—is that only a tiny proportion of sex workers in India ever work in a brothel (which are by now rare in most parts of the country), and the overwhelming majority of women selling sex have turned to it out of a mix of financial need, limited choices, and the far higher earnings. Revealingly, nowhere in his writing did Kristof even mention, let alone reference, the wealth of empirical knowledge about contemporary sex work patterns in India, undertaken by internationally respected researchers, all of which contradicted his claims. If he had written the same way about domestic US issues, not referring to available data and scholarship, he would have been excoriated for dealing in Kellyanne Conway–style “alternative facts.” Already, Kristof was being criticized for his shoddy reporting on sex slavery in Cambodia. He lionized Somaly Mam, a hardline foe of sex-worker rights, calling her “a heroine from the brothels.” But it turned out that she had fabricated the claims that several of her protégés—and she herself—had been child sex slaves.

Another victim, of course, is the cause of justice for sex workers. Even with the two changes in US administrations and efforts by the UN and Amnesty International to counter the disinformation on sex work, the anti-prostitution crusade has taken on a vigorous life in India and elsewhere, much like the hatred of homosexuals burned on long after England’s Henry VIII first ignited it.

Decriminalization of sex work is now a dead letter in India. But every year or two, the opponents of justice for sex workers try to ram through punitive prohibitionist laws. The most recent draft legislation was so violative of human rights that the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons and the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery felt compelled to issue a joint public statement emphasizing that the “over-broad and vague nature” of the bill “may conflate sex work with trafficking.” In contrast, Apne Aap Women Worldwide called for up to five years of imprisonment for clients of sex workers, even when there is no evidence of trafficking. India’s criminal justice system does not come close to the US’s for injustice and brutality as yet, but barbaric laws like this, if passed, will ensure that American-style mass incarceration will soon flourish in India.

Without decriminalization, the old abuses of the past—the raids on brothels and homes, the arrests and imprisonment of dozens of women at a time—recur with depressing regularity, reported in newspapers across the country. The new vocabulary of “anti-trafficking” provides fresh cover for the old abuses, with the police now insisting they are breaking up traffickers’ rings and rescuing women. But, as in the past, the women are arrested, cursorily tried, and imprisoned in reformatories, all the while subjected to every kind of exploitation and abuse, making a mockery of the police and anti-traffickers’ claims of helping them.

Such is the price the world pays for Western moral crusades.

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