Business Today

Beyond the tough life, sex workers are natural leaders

The writer talks about sex workers in India.

Ashok Alexander        Last Updated: December 6, 2018  | 17:41 IST
Beyond the tough life, sex workers are natural leaders

I've spent a career studying leadership at close quarters. The first part of my working life was the 17 years I spent with McKinsey and Company the august management consulting firm. There, I had the opportunity to work with many captains of industry and study their leadership at close quarters.

For 10 years after that, I worked with another type of leader--thousands of commercial sex workers, mainly women, across six states in India. I was the head of the Bill and Melinda gates Foundation in India, and in charge over saw Avahan, the foundation's India AIDS prevention initiative. Our program grew rapidly to become the world's largest ever privately sponsored HIV prevention program, and was credited with having averted several hundred thousand HIV infections.

Working with sex workers intensively in the field, I marvelled at the nuances as well as the incisiveness, of the leadership skills of these highly marginalised women. Through Avahan I have had the opportunity for continuing education in the nuances of leadership.

Leadership is the ability of an individual to command his or her circumstances, in such a way that seemingly impossible goals are achieved. What character traits should a leader have to do this? The answer of course depends on which sector they work in, because leadership is contextual.  But sex workers and industry captains can indeed be compared, for in their own ways, they are both in business.

There are several traits that business leaders of either kind must possess. These include: the ability to assess people; courage in tough circumstances; negotiation skills; versatility of style; sense of larger purpose; ability to inspire. A business leader rarely has all these traits. He may be a great visionary, but a bad executor; inspire people with his sheer passion but be overly tough; a builder of coalitions, but not an ideas person.

If all the biographies of Steve Jobs are to be believed, he had an almost contagious, sense of larger purpose, but could be  appalling and this aspect of his style, often got him into trouble. Business leaders can sometimes get away with this uneven set of attributes essentially because they work in teams, and they have others to cover for them.

A sex worker, in contrast, does not have this luxury, because her world is far more challenging, and she is alone. 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 must still stay in control. She simply cannot win with one or two shots in her game, she must have the whole repertoire. It's not the kind of leadership that manifests itself in single dramatic events; it is leadership that is happening every day, all the time, part of her life. The leadership of sex workers has too many dimensions to list in an article, but I'll call out three that stand out for me.

The first is raw courage. At the time when I worked on Avahan, life for a sex worker was a litany of violence. Almost every day, she faced violence from goons, boyfriends, clients, even the police who were meant to protect her. The violence was often of an extreme kind, including gang-rape and torture. For example, I spoke to Parvati, whose crazed former boyfriend hired goons to have her scarred with acid, and sexually abused, just off Bangalore's MG Road. In Medak, Kamla was raped by five-men on the outskirts of town, even as her two children lay helplessly in the sand. Then, when this kind of horror had reached its zenith, sex workers in many places found that ten of them together could thrash and overpower even the biggest goon, till he begged them to stop. Thus began a campaign of physically fighting back that had ruffians running scared. This in turn led to more organized 'crisis response teams' by groups of sex workers, that mushroomed across the country. To face up to violence when you have no power -indeed to fight back and win-is heroism of the highest order.

The second, is advanced negotiation skills. Every day, sometimes several times over, sex workers, had to win one negotiation that was critical, because her life could depend on it. This was the negotiation with the client, to persuade him to have sex using a condom. The methods used included appealing to the client's vanity ('real men these days use condoms'), fears ('I may be HIV positive') or emotional appeal ('think of your children back home'). Or she might ply him with drinks to the point where he passed out, and woke up thinking he had been king. Unlike the businessman who can simply say 'last offer!' she had to win, always. Having come that far, she was not in no position to get up and leave.

The third is a sense of humour.  But why is that a leadership quality? A sex worker's life is a tough one, and leaders adopt different ways to cope with adversity. A sense of humour is her powerful way of breaking the ice, defusing volatile situations, and winning negotiations. Laughter is also  the sex worker's natural way of coping, an attitude that tells life that we refuse to be knocked down by you. I've been coerced into mock marriage ceremonies more than once ('we won't tell your wife!'),  with garlands and drums, to tell me that 'we don't take you too seriously, let's talk as equals -we're married after all!'

I hung out with sex workers for a decade, earned their trust, and observed their methods, always with awe. Life gets tough for all of us at times. At those times I think of any one of the sex workers I have known and think of how they deal with far worse situations, and it helps me cope.

When I worked on Avahan, my friends would ask the question: "Why are you doing this stuff, Ashok? Doesn't it get you down?" The answer, one that I rarely articulated, was that I was constantly learning about life, leadership, and values, from the commercial sex worker. That's what made it such a great journey.

The writer is the author of A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India's Sex Workers (Juggernaut Books)

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