How to negotiate—and other business lessons from Indian sex workers

Work is work.
Work is work.
Image: AP Photo/Bikas Das
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Every time I met and interacted with sex workers I would ponder over a fundamental question: Why did sex workers show so many more leadership attributes than a business leader?

The answer is straightforward—out of necessity. A business leader has as many leadership attributes as he needs to have, and in his circumstances, very often, just one or two might suffice. He may be a great visionary, but a bad executor. He may inspire people through his sheer passion, but often behave like a jerk. He could be a great builder of coalitions, but not an ideas person. Rarely does he have to be an all-rounder in terms of leadership attributes because he has enough people to cover for him.

The female sex worker does not have this luxury. Her world is far more complex, much more challenging. She must deal with emotional, health, and financial crises all the time. There is the constant threat of violence, and her first mission is really to survive. She has no power, but still must stay in control. She has no support system, but she must cope. She simply cannot win with just one or two shots in her game; she needs a whole repertoire. It’s not the kind of leadership that manifests itself in single dramatic incidents; it is leadership that is happening every day, all the time, part of her life.

I reflected on the many facets of leadership, and human qualities, that I had been discovering in female sex workers – judgement, courage, negotiating skills, humour, and selflessness.

Sex workers are great judges of character

In Sonagachi one winter afternoon, Dr Smarajit Jana and I entered a cold, dark room to talk with Rakhi, a sex worker. She had been told by her gharwali, the madam who ran that section of the brothel, that someone from an NGO would be coming to meet her and ask a few questions. She didn’t know that the unassuming-looking man before her was the person who had created the Sonagachi programme. The busy time for a sex worker is generally from six in the evening onward. She may see the occasional client during the day, but for the most part of the afternoon she has free time to attend to personal matters. Rakhi was a migrant from Nepal, looked about twenty, and spoke adequate Bengali. Plump, fair-skinned—a premium feature for clients—with a doll-like face, she was painting her toenails a neon red with great concentration when we entered. Her long hair, still wet from a bath, was left open. An infant about three months old slept peacefully beside her.

Jana explained: “Sex workers are tremendous judges of body language. They must develop that faculty to survive. They are, after all, a group of people who are exploited by almost everyone they meet—clients, pimps, madams, lovers. As a result, they don’t trust anyone blindly. They must depend on their instincts about people, also because most are illiterate and can’t rely on other faculties such as reading and acquired knowledge. So I find that they are amazing judges of people, especially of men. They can size you up in a moment, literally from twenty feet, and if they think you are a genuine person, and can trust you, they will be totally open with you. They speak without wasting time getting to the point, because time is also precious for them. Winning that trust is key if you want to work with these people.”

Sex workers are good negotiators

A sex worker negotiates all the time with her clients for safe sex. She must be very good at it, because her life may literally depend on whether the man agrees to use protection. At the height of the HIV epidemic why did men so often insist on unprotected sex? Often, the reason is that men are totally drunk when they go to a sex worker and throw all inhibition to the winds. Sex workers have stories of men who even allow the sex worker to put a condom on their penis, and then at the last minute pull it off and plunge right in.

I was in Chennai visiting the APAC HIV prevention programme, run by USAID. Dr R Lakshmi bai, their charismatic, dynamic programmes and research manager, and I were talking with some of the APAC peer workers. Two of them were complete contrasts. One was plump and extroverted, and the other thin and shy. The plump one had us in splits as she play-acted the thin one’s negotiation strategy. “Oh no, sir, why would you want to have sex, why do you want to tire yourself out, when I can do something very special for you…?”

The sex worker negotiates the client down through a safer and safer sequence: sex with a condom, or oral sex, or a deluxe hand job. Success is if they can get the client to simply self-masturbate, and even better to get the man to fall asleep drunk when she gets paid for nothing, and he wakes up remembering nothing, but being assured that he performed like a tiger.

This condom negotiation is at the heart of HIV prevention. It is deadly serious, though with the client the sex worker will try to make it look like play. It could lead to violence and forced sex, especially if the sex worker had not sized up her client well or if she was not skilled in negotiation.

Sex workers have a sense of humour

Why is sense of humour a leadership quality? A sex worker’s life is a tough one, and leaders adopt different ways to cope with adversity. Laughter is the sex worker’s natural way of coping, an attitude that tells life that we refuse to be knocked down by you. They all seem to have a great sense of humour. They like to laugh, sing, dance, and drink with each other if someone in their group has had a windfall.

So many of our meetings have dissolved when the group got bored, and someone just shouted out, “Let’s dance!” A drum would appear from nowhere, bawdy songs would be sung, and some would do a take-off on the latest dance moves of popular movie heroines.

Sex workers are charismatic leaders who can charm you or quickly have you bent double laughing. They have a wicked sense of humour, and they party hard. Theirs is a tough life, and that attitude towards the outside world is one of their ways of coping. They truly live for the day.

Sex workers are selfless

No woman wants to get into sex work. It’s not that they made a choice, but rather that they had no choice to make. Their life is tough, but sex workers so often just live to create a better future for their kids. It is the single overriding reason why they carry on. If you meet a sex worker, it is quite likely that there will be a little kid, probably under six, somewhere close by. I’ve often found sex workers’ children incredibly cute. They rollick and play in brothel corridors, disappear under their mother’s bed and keep very quiet, when told to. They have all the needs—for stories, toys, playmates—that any small child has. Their mothers try their best to provide a life as “normal” as possible for them.

I have put this question to sex workers all over India: What do you want for your child? If the child is a girl, almost unanimously, they say they don’t want their children to become sex workers. They are driven by the belief that their kids will do well in school, go to college, get a steady job—everything any mother would want, and more.

One of my colleagues told me once that she was talking to a sex worker about her life when the woman snapped her fingers and said quietly: “That’s all it takes. You could have been sitting in my place, and I in yours.” If life had dealt them better cards, they could have been leaders somewhere else, in another India.

Excerpted with the permission of Juggernaut Books from A Stranger Truth by Ashok Alexander. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com