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Sex worker in Asia’s largest Red Light District recounts sex, drugs, and abuse

They slap us the moment we say anything. Next, they grab our hair so tightly that we cannot even breathe, and then they start slapping and beating us in the stomach. The violence ends with violent sex. 

  • 3 weeks ago
  • May 28, 2024
8 min read
Kakoli Das works as a sex worker in Sonagachi, Asia’s biggest red-light district in Kolkata, India. | Photo courtesy of Priyanka Chandani Kakoli Das works as a sex worker in Sonagachi, Asia’s biggest red-light district in Kolkata, India. | Photo courtesy of Priyanka Chandani
Kakoli Das works as a sex worker in Sonagachhi, Asia’s biggest red light district
JOURNALIST’S NOTES
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Kakoli Das, 46, is a sex worker in Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light area in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Kakoli was 16 years old when she landed in Sonagachhi and was never able to escape. Instead, she chose drugs as a distraction and pain reliever for the job. She eventually got sober and helps other women, but continues with prostitution, sending money home to her family regularly.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Sonagachi, located in Kolkata, West Bengal, India, is home to more than 17,000 sex workers and is Asia’s largest red-light area. Women here are often trafficked, and some come willingly to earn money. The lanes of Sonagachhi are filled with stories, particularly of women who have been forced to live in despair and isolation from society. Until a few years ago, they had no identity or voting rights, but that has since changed. Their existence in society is often neglected and considered a permanent stain.
Read more: Inside Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red light district with hundreds of brothels | Daily Mail Online

Trigger Warning: This story contains a graphic description of prostitution/sex work and may not be suitable for some readers.

KOLKATA, India — People easily look down upon us [as sex workers], casting judgment from the comfort of their homes. Yet, how well do they truly know us, the ones they consider a permanent blotch on society? My life is not about selling my body for pleasure. Circumstances shaped me and led me to this deep and unforgiving grave. Once I arrived, I saw no means to escape my life as a sex worker. Yet, I hold my head high.

Before my life in the brothel, no one helped me when I needed it most. People betrayed me, leaving me with no choice but to navigate a treacherous path alone. The brothel became my home and my refuge. It offered me shelter and a means to survive, though my survival came a cost.

Read more stories from India at Orato World Media.

Life as a sex worker in Asia’s largest red-light district in India 

At 16 years old, I found myself in Sonagachi, one of Asia’s largest red-light districts, located in Kolkata in West Bengal, India. A tragic accident left my father without legs. As a daily wage worker, his already insufficient earnings failed to support our family of five. I needed to search for employment, and I went to Kolkata. Nieve and uneducated, I failed to discern the intentions of those around me. In a short period of time, certain individuals led me down a path I never intended to take. That was two decades ago.

As a teenager, I was not ignorant to the fact I was being sold into sex work. Yet, as those who purchased me brought me into the forbidden lanes of Sonagacchi, I lacked the means to escape. Surveillance remains constant, with individuals like spies constantly monitoring our every movement. Like all new girls coming in, the pimps and brothel owners maintained a tight grip on me. They punished any escape attempt with brutality.

I contemplated fleeing this place at one time, but the tales of girls killed or suffering the consequences of their actions terrified me. I believed living in this hellish place preferable to death. Today, I am one of 17,000 sex workers trapped in the web of despair enveloping the district. The outside world, as it casts judgements and accusations, fails to see the reality of our lives behind the facade.

Hundreds of people surrounded me when I arrived in the Red Light District, yet they seemed indifferent to my plight. Feeling trapped, desperation gnawed away at me. I knew no one was coming to my aid. If I managed to escape the walls of the brothel, danger awaited outside. Surely, someone would catch me and drag me back to my prison or abuse me on the streets. 

Trapped in a Brothel: slipping into drug addiction 

In time, I resigned myself to this grim existence and accepted my fate as a sex worker. Emotional and physical pain became constant companions. On my 18th birthday, the girls from the brothel decided to venture out for dinner. We confined our outings to the nearby streets, but even there, we found a semblance of normalcy. At a modest restaurant nearby, the owner, waitstaff, and patrons all shared the same world as ours. We momentarily forgot our circumstances.

After overcoming her drug addiction, Kakoli now counsels other sex workers toward sobriety. | Photo courtesy of Priyanka Chandani

That night, as we prepared to leave dinner, some customers arrived at the brothel. By the time we returned, we went straight to our rooms, each one fulfilling her role with the clients in a lifeless, detached, and automated way. During this routine, one customer stood out. He offered me cocaine as an escape from reality. The first time I took it, the drug hit me hard, leaving me nauseated.

Yet, gradually over time, the addiction took hold, and it blurred the edges of my pain. Drugs offered me temporary solace. It numbed the anguish I felt every day. Soon, its alluring mask hid me from the darkness I was enveloped in. Drugs eventually enslaved me. I begged for money and traded with customers to get my fix. While the brothel owners orchestrated all dealings with the clients, in those desperate days, I pleaded with customers to secretly tip me, ensuring the brothel owner remained unaware of my extra earnings.

An NGO helps sex worker escape drug addiction

I lost weight, my face became pale, and I frequently fell ill as my appearance deteriorated. The drugs consumed me. “If you fail to bring in business,” the brother owner warned, “you will face isolation.” The misery I felt as a mere prostitute before the drug addiction, magnified as I consumed more cocaine. When I encountered an NGO willing to support me through numerous treatments and therapies to overcome my two-year addiction, I participated willingly.

Shedding my dependence on cocaine and other cheap drugs, I gained back some freedom. While drugs distracted me from the truth and pain of my existence, it also detached me from humanity. I stopped caring about anyone or anything. In sobriety, I developed a deep desire to help others who suffer like I did. Now I counsel women in the brothel and in other areas of our community about addiction, focusing on helping others to avoid the path I once walked.

Since my early days in sex work 20 years ago, times changed. Today, we assert our worth, set our prices, and only pay the brothel owner rent for the room. We serve every kind of customer. Young, old, middle-aged, rich, poor, single, married, divorced, sober, drunk – every kind of person from “respectable society” comes to this place. Sometimes, they even talk to us about their problems with their wives or business partners.

Over the years, I dealt with a few violent customers, leaving the room bruised and beaten or with blood all over my legs. This mostly happened with drunk customers or when I insisted on taking precautions. Some customers slap you the moment you say anything. They grab your hair so tightly you can barely breathe and start slapping and beating you in the stomach. The violence ends with violent sex.  

Abuse can be life threatening, but the district became her home

One haunting memory stands out above all others when a customer forced me to have anal sex. He abused me from the moment he entered the room. Drunk and reeking, he had just killed another person with a knife. His blood-stained shirt concealed the knife in his pants pocket. Fear gripped me, but I knew it would not last long. As he assaulted me, I screamed as if my life depended on it.  

His penis felt like iron, causing excruciating pain. Despite my agony, I escaped, fleeing from the room. The brothel erupted in chaos. The man, now naked and wielding a knife, hunted me down. The brothel owner summoned the pimps, who apprehended him and reported him to the police. That night etched itself into my memory as I vigorously fought for survival. 

In Sonagachi, our rates vary. Some charge 3,000-4,000 rupees ($36-$48 USD) per hour, while others demand less. There are even those who offer their services for as little as 200 rupees ($2.40). Many women lack a permanent residence, renting rooms instead. Others solicit customers from the streets, returning home after a day’s work, carrying their earnings. Their families remain unaware of their activities.

Some women have children with lucrative jobs outside Kolkata, yet they continue prostitution. It feels hard to understand why, but perhaps they have grown accustomed to this lifestyle. Unlike these women, I have no other place to call home. My family lives in a small village near Orissa, and they know about my work here. I send them money every month, which they gladly accept. They would not welcome me back. Our families prefer to keep their distance from us. Despite my efforts, I am forever labeled a prostitute, a tag that follows me like a shadow. Sonagachi is now my home, and the women here are my family. 

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