Kaushik is a lorry driver who doesn’t visit prostitutes in the city anymore. Having made over 60 long haul trips from all parts of Maharashtra to the South, it’s not like the 32-year-old has suddenly developed a distaste for sex, a sense of moral outrage or a fear of contracting HIV. Like most other things, even this tough decision was an economic one, “Till 2012, I used to be a regular,” he admits cagily outside the truckers terminal at Madhavaram, “But now it’s too much for me. Like vegetables and diesel even these prices have gone to the skies,” he gestures upward and spits on the ground, his distaste at having to forego one of the trucking community’s few pleasures evident.
Prostitutes in England may be cutting costs, offering better service and even looking for additional work to make ends meet, but for women plying the ‘oldest profession in the world’ in the city, rates have risen exponentially with the inflation. After The Economist reported the recession in Britian’s sex industry, we went hunting to find out whether the recession had hit the city’s sex workers, but what we found was quite contrary: even street-level hookers, who are at the bottom of the sex trade’s food chain have hiked prices by 300 per cent or more compared to three years ago.
When we ‘solicited’ transgenders on Nelson Manickam road and on Nungambakkam High Road on a weeknight and asked them how much they charged, the prices varied from Rs 1500-3000, but came down to as much as Rs 750 when we said we were leaving as it was too expensive. Considering most of them were charging Rs 250-1000 for an hour’s ‘service’ in 2010, the hike in prices are undoubtedly high. One of the transgenders, admittedly a pretty one, said that the prices we asked for wouldn’t even cover their basic expenses like make-up, clothing, transport and protection allowance. “I have had an operation and spent a lot for it. If you don’t pay me how will I recover that,” she says almost teasingly, as we departed.
The reason, at the expense of sounding redundant, is elementary - inflation. “Why should we not raise our prices?” asks Vimala*, a sex worker who operates out of an ostensibly normal house near Padi. “My children’s school fees have increased four-fold. I bought a kilo of carrots for Rs 65. My rent is increased by Rs 3000-Rs 5000/per month every year. What is the harm in my increasing my service fee from Rs 2000 to Rs 5000?” she queries. Commissions, condoms and refreshments are other expenses. Having been in the trade for 11 years, Vimala has moved on from random outside calls to having a measured practice, catering to ‘regulars’. In order to support her son and herself, she says she will keep increasing rates as her expenses go up. Increases in prices may be hitting the average customer hard, but for people who engage prostitutes through high-end escort services, these fluctuations hardly matter. A police official who worked with the Anti-Vice Squad reveals, “Whether they’re models or small-time actresses or just sex workers, when their pimps are paid over Rs15,000 or even Rs 35,000, you know that the customers won’t mind paying extra for a room at an expensive hotel.” He adds that sometimes high-end clients don’t mind paying Rs 5,000 extra as a ‘cancellation fee’ to get the same girl they were with previously, even if she happens to be engaged elsewhere.
Have the rates dented the market? The producer of Tamil serials adds in confidence, “Most of the girls who work with me as extras for Rs 2000-Rs 3000 a day are extremely confident about their market. They tell me sometimes that they’re not coming for shooting because they’ve got an opportunity to make three days salary in three hours!” he says. Geetha, who is a board member with the All Indian Network for Sex Workers says that despite competition being what it is, sex workers are confident of their market and could work in peace if they were given benefits and protection from violence.