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Sex workers and periods

“When we talk about menstruation or hygiene, people think our opinions don’t matter because we are sex workers.”

It’s 2020, but sex and periods still remain the two most stigmatized issues. While both continue to be addressed in hushed tones, speaking up has attracted nothing more than silence. There are loads of initiatives working on health and sanitation for the people. But when it comes to sex workers, there are rarely any studies that determine their health and hygiene problems, let alone menstrual hygiene management.

Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is a lack of formal education, poverty, and the shame attached to their profession that stops them from practicing their rights. Periods and all that they bring along with them (physical and emotional) always mean a few difficult days, no matter where you work or where you live. When it comes to the sex industry, it’s a bit more than just dealing with them every month. In an effort to effectively erase any traces of menstruation from the depictions of sex, there comes a need to ‘schedule’ menstruation and many a times use sponges instead of proper hygiene products.

Surprisingly, for an industry populated by menstruators, periods get zero consideration. The reason for this seems to have less to do with the platforms’ own bias regarding menstruation, and more to do with the constraints placed on the industry. In a broad sense, there is very little room left to negotiate their periods when nudity and sex is part of the way they make a living—or in other words, how menstruation impacts the financial and emotional well-being of sex workers, and what steps they have to take to mitigate its impact. Learning how to come to terms with this surely seem like a process over the course of one’s life.

While some sex workers opt to get their uterus removed altogether, some live with it as a recurring crisis. Despite the many tactics sex workers have learned to stop or hide menstruation, sometimes, this is not possible. And in cases like these, negotiating their boundaries with clients brings up another challenge. In our cultural imagination, it is easy to think about period blood as something that would automatically turn someone off, causing sex workers to lose income. Not to mention that periods themselves would be so debilitating that they have the same impact. What this conveys is that the relationship between work and periods is more complex. Like periods themselves, which vary from person to person, the impact varies from sex worker to sex worker. Moreover, individual sex workers may negotiate their cycles differently. It’s a personal experience, and yet a universal one, negotiating their periods one month, one partner, at a time.

While the perception of morality varies from one perspective to another, the provoking thought here is the unavailability of proper menstrual hygiene and respect to sex workers, which in retrospect, should not even be a ‘question’ to begin with. When backed by staggering data and almost no access to facilities like sanitary napkins and toilets, it’s tough to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. With sex workers more prone to sexually transmitted diseases, vaginal infections, and living in hardly sanitary conditions, it’s time to start a conversation about hygiene. Government initiatives like ‘Sukhad’ have paved the path for a good path as they provide these workers with pads, soaps, and disposal envelopes.

When it comes to menstrual hygiene, the popular adage of ‘health is wealth’ falls apart, and an uncomfortable silence takes its place. Little, inaccurate, or incomplete knowledge about menstruation is a great hindrance in the path of personal and menstrual hygiene management. With no exposure to hygiene management and taxes making pads seem like a luxury, there’s a lot of progress to be made.

They say the sex industry is dangerous because of how you treat sex workers. It’s time stains and sex stopped defining purity. There is unviable power in ownership, and there is nothing wrong with owning sexuality. Screams of traded dignity already account for their circumstances. Menstrual hygiene and respect are basic rights, and must proudly be a part of all those who menstruate.

Sex worker rights are human rights.

Written by Nibha Patil

Cover by Khyati Patkar

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