SC issues directions related to rights of sex workers, how media should cover community

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The right to human dignity extends to sex workers and the police must not abuse them verbally or physically, the Supreme Court has said recently. A bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai and AS Bopanna observed that the police’s attitude towards sex workers is often “brutal and violent”.

Also read: Supreme Court says sex work is legal, asks police to not abuse consenting sex workers

The top court also ordered that sex workers should not be arrested, penalised, harassed, or victimised in raids on brothels since voluntary sex work is not illegal and only running the brothel is unlawful.

Police should treat all sex workers with dignity and should not abuse them, both verbally and physically, subject them to violence or coerce them into any sexual activity, the bench said.

The court also said the Press Council of India should be urged to issue appropriate guidelines for the media to take utmost care not to reveal the identities of sex workers, during arrest, raid and rescue operations, whether as victims or accused and not to publish or telecast any photos that would result in disclosure of such identities.

The court said that Section 354C of the Indian Penal Code (voyeurism) should be invoked if a media outlet publishes such photographs.

Other directions given by the court on the rights of sex workers include:

  • A sex worker who has faced sexual assault should be provided with all facilities available to other such women, including immediate medical attention.
  • State governments should carry out surveys of protection homes under the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act so that cases of adult women detained forcibly in such facilities can be processed for their release.
  • The Unique Identification Authority of India should issue Aadhaar cards to sex workers on the basis of a certificate submitted by a gazetted officer at the National AIDS Control Society or the project director of the State AIDS Control Society.

In India, sex workers have rarely been offered inclusion in the social, political and economic spheres. Despite the size of the sector, sex workers remain stigmatised and the community faces high levels of discrimination, legal oppression and other human rights violations.

Mainstream reporting bears the effects of centuries of stigmatisation towards sex work. News coverage often falls into sensationalistic or judgemental narratives, which can cause harm and endanger people working in the industry.

As per the international journalists' network, here are some tips journalists should keep in mind while covering sex workers:

Avoid describing sex work as “prostitution”

When referring to someone who engages in sex work, avoid terms like “victim” or “prostitute.” Despite its common use, the word “prostitution” is not neutral. It reinforces the centuries-old stigma that has been cast on sex workers and continues to other the community.

Feature sex workers’ voices

Journalists are taught to regularly include quotes from interviewees in their reporting. However, when it comes to sex work, reporters tend to talk to authorities before reaching out to sex workers — if they reach out at all. This often results in people who sell sexual services being completely silenced in the news.

When reporting about the sex industry, don’t consider the story complete without an interview or comment by an actual worker.

Prioritise the safety of your interviewees

People who engage in sex work regularly face discrimination and violence, not only from clients, but also from the police. For this reason, reporters need to protect the identity of their interviewees.

Give preference to balance over sensationalism and clickbait

Journalists should avoid polarising reporting about sex workers. The media often depicts sex work either as a tragic reality made of victims or an empowering activity chosen by people who just enjoy sex. The reality, however, is much more nuanced.

Work with the picture desk

Pictures play an important role in shaping the public’s perception. Don’t choose pictures that objectify sex workers.

Interrogate the data

In many countries, sex work is illegal and stigmatised. For this reason, data collection proves to be quite difficult. In the past, both The Atlantic and The Washington Post have demonstrated how some of the statistics and facts widely used by the media were, in fact, incorrect or biased.

In conclusion, much of the harm in sensationalist and impertinent reporting on sex work would be avoided if journalists challenged their own preconceived ideas about sex workers as undeserving of their humanity and dignity.

With inputs from agencies

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SC issues directions related to rights of sex workers, how media should cover community
SC issues directions related to rights of sex workers, how media should cover community
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