It is seen as a job no woman would want to do. A job no woman would willingly do.
Yet, spending time in one of Asia’s largest red light districts gives a view of prostitution that jars with what many feminists, gender rights activists and, in fact, society in general believe.
The Sonagachi district - a labyrinth of narrow bustling lanes lined with tea and cigarette stalls, three-storey brothels, and beauty parlours - in the east Indian city of Kolkata raises eyebrows with many who know this place.
It is a place for "fallen women" or "potita" as they say in Bengali, the local language.
Here, heavily made-up women clad in bright saris stand outside dark doorways, leading up narrow staircases into small rooms furnished with just a bed and perhaps a television.
Earning an average of 15,000 rupees ($270) a month, living in often unhygienic conditions and having sex with random men who wander the alleys looking for “love” doesn’t sound like much of a job.
And there is an initial feeling that this kind of life can’t be one of choice.
But some of the women here tell a different story.
“It’s a job, just like any other job,” says 36-year-old Sapna Gayan, one of 12,000 sex workers working in Sonagachi, as she checks the make-up on her face in the tiny mirror of her powder compact in a brothel in the early evening hours.
“I used to be a domestic servant earning next to nothing, working long hours, beaten and even molested by my madam’s husband. This is better,” she tells me.
“No one forced me. No one controls me. I decide which customers and when … there are no pimps, no madams making me do this.”
A sex worker for 15 years, Sapna is also now a vocal campaigner for rights of sex workers with the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an Indian collective of 65,000 sex workers.
Sex work is illegal in most countries across the world – largely due to its link with human trafficking, but also due to societal and religious beliefs which see the buying and selling of sex as immoral.
There is an argument, and a valid one, which says sex work encourages human trafficking.
Around 2.4 million people are victims of human trafficking at any given time, 80 percent of them sexual slaves, according to the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime.
India sees thousands of young girls being trafficked, including many from Nepal and Bangladesh, forced into bonded sex work unable to escape and return home for years, if at all.
Rural girls from poor families, lured by female traffickers with promises of jobs as maids in the cities, end up locked in unhygienic rooms in flea-pit guesthouses, forced to have sex with many men without any sexual protection.
Anti-trafficking groups say most women do not want to work as prostitutes, adding that they are victims and that they should not be punished by the law and treated as criminals, but rehabilitated and given other options of work.
But they also believe that prostitution should be eradicated and that by punishing the clients, traffickers and brothel owners you will stamp out demand.
But then there are others.
Women like Sapna in Sonagachi and others I met at the Sex Workers Freedom Festival last week who say they have freely chosen sex work and want to continue with it.
You can never end this trade and there will always be demand, they say, adding that decriminalising sex work would regulate the sector, ensure better protection for those trafficked into the industry and bring key freedoms and rights for sex workers.
Most importantly, they say, legalising prostitution would encourage society to respect sex workers as human beings and afford them equal dignity.
PIGS’ URINE, CIGARETTE BURNS
These are strong women – mothers to fatherless children, and breadwinners for their poor parents and younger siblings who live in rural areas and are dependent on monthly contributions sent by their daughters.
They have the same aspirations as the rest of us: to earn enough to put their children in good schools and ensure them a promising future, and save a little money to buy land and build a house and have financial security.
Yet even in the most liberal western societies, sex workers are shunned, ostracised and often discriminated against. Not only because it is illegal, but also because society moralises and stands in judgement.
Sex workers tell stories of being thrown out of their homes by their parents, raped by police after being arrested, beaten by clients for refusing to have sex without a condom.
Others talk of having pigs’ urine thrown at them by neighbours or show me cigarette burns on their legs because of police brutality. They speak of their children being denied medical treatment or a place in school because they are born of prostitutes.
“There is this judgemental mindset about sex workers. That they are immoral, that they threaten the traditional structure of the family unit, but this is all nonsense,” says the DMSC’s Samarajit Jana, who has worked with sex workers in Sonagachi for 20 years.
“Just as you use your hand to write stories to provide a service, they use other organs to provide another type of service,” he tells me. “It is about their bodies and their rights.”