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Exploring the intricacies of Self Esteem and Psychological Well Being in the Sex Workers’ Community

Self-esteem plays a vital role in developing one’s self-concept, influencing our actions, thoughts, and psychological well being. This irrefutable phenomenon is in a compromised state in the community of sex workers in India, owing to the instability in their conditions of living and working. Hence, acute psychological distress in the community is prevalent and can be further drawn back to lack of societal acceptance and outright social marginalization.

Credits: Wiktor Szymanowicz

The very drive of an individual’s existence could be narrowed down to their self-esteem. It stands to be one of the most integral parts of the human psyche. “Esteem” is a crucial component of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a concept of motivation highly recognised by psychologists. Based on this theory, and several others, it can be said that without Esteem, an individual will never be able to bridge the gap between their perceived reality and the opportunity to fulfill their highest potential. Although this theory is debatable in the general sense, when contextualizing it towards the state of female sex workers in India, the existing literature validates a major part of it. It is almost unsurprising if seen from a humanitarian perspective, the fact that self-esteem and self-worth in sex workers have always been susceptible to serious damage. One factor responsible for causing this damage is the derogatory branding and labeling of sex-workers done by other sections of society. Moreover, the prevailing usage of common colloquial terms for ‘sex workers’ by people as a means of insult is equally hurtful to the collective self-worth of the community. The relief provided to the community by not-for-profit reform groups and similar organizations is either temporary in nature or isn’t substantial to tackle the vast target group. Moreover, a majority of these organizations lack the resources and the power to intervene and alleviate the sex workers’ distraught working conditions at a large scale. The dearth of capable administrative bodies that could solely focus on empowering this marginalized community is also a reason for concern. As we can still witness widespread defamation of sex workers and stigmatization of sex work in general; it signifies nothing but a sign of inadequate social security being provided to the community. Women in the sex work community are labeled with terms that make them seem anything but normal in front of society. The repercussions of which include sex workers being marginalized into a separate “outcaste” community. This denies them the basic necessities which in turn would be at one’s disposal if it were for any other civilian.

Credits: FrontlineAIDS

The dehumanizing attitude of the world decreases the worth of sex workers in society. So much so that they are targeted by persecutory authorities under false claims of being accomplices in trafficking. When in fact, they are the hapless victims of trafficking in the first place. Further feeding the flame is a vague legal framework that neither denies nor does it fully accept sex work as a legitimate mode of income and occupation. Keeping these instances in mind, low self-esteem in sex workers might just be considered a foreseeable occurrence. However, it is worth mentioning here that several studies have reported that sex workers may not necessarily find their work detrimental to their self-worth. It carries a sense of accomplishment for them; they develop a sense of power over their clientele. Which in turn makes them value themselves more than the value they’ve been “assigned”?

Results of focus groups have identified that hostile living conditions and the stigma associated with their profession get ingrained within the psyche of sex workers, thus taking a toll on their self-esteem. The lack of safe spaces, for both physical and emotional well being adds to this. It has been found that when sex workers fail to get their emotions gratified, it adds to their plight. The women with children are made to feel like “immoral” mothers. They are made to believe that their children will grow up to have damaged personas; hence their self-worth as mothers also falls drastically. There has been a lack of autonomy in most sex worker’s lives right from their early years. With a restricted sense of free will, their self worth has been subjected to the direct influence of employers. It is disheartening realities that sex workers who have been bludgeoned into this profession depend on their clients to validate their self-esteem. The objectification they experience knows no bounds, so much so that some of them may internalize this behavior as the only way to know their worth. Having a lowered level of self-esteem in the first place may lead them to seek gratification from clients. This depends on the “status” of clients, the amount of money they’re willing to pay and the frequency of their visits. Low self-esteem has paved the way for unhealthy coping mechanisms in sex workers. Referring to the excerpts of a focus group discussion, several women claimed to have suicidal thoughts whenever the going tends to get tough for them. Sex workers are generally bound by the stronghold of a brothel environment. This becomes an additional factor of restriction, prohibiting them from a life beyond their perceived reality.

Credits: juno mac

At the most basic level, the lack of acceptance of sex work as a legitimate profession is one of the main stressors that lead to the lowering of self-worth within sex workers. This creates a conflicting situation as the adversity of a brothel atmosphere generally gives a perception of sex workers as being enslaved and coerced, which is even true in several cases. But a major factor of their low self worth relies on their acceptance in society as legitimate professionals, which in retrospect might be deemed paradoxical.

Sex workers also face caste-based exploitation which is tougher to break free from. Women who are conditioned to be recruited in sex work right from their adolescent days are accustomed to vulnerability and the deprived quality of life. Limiting themselves to this way of life and being treated like objects that are “for sale” may act as major jabs on their self-esteem. The crux of the matter stands to be sex workers being romanticized or victimized in front of the world. The masses, although well-meaning, often fail to understand their plight. Certain elements and individual entities of society make their attempts to empathize with sex workers. But in a state of entrapment, where dreams are obliterated, empathy is of little to no use. Their reality remains distorted for the world. Of the several battles the community struggles to triumph, the one that they fight with themselves has the potential to overshadow the rest.

Diptarka Chatterjee is a student pursuing Psychology from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Rutba Iqbal

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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