The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Call girl to e-mail girl

The trade was never this easy. All that you have to do is e-mail an “escort” service. You get a prompt reply with a cell phone number. You call the number and a “hostess” answers, asking for your preferences. “We have top beauties — executives, housewives, models — who offer personal elite escort service to discerning gentlemen,” she says.

A week later, Rina, the escort, calls up. In her mid-20s — or so she claims — Rina stresses that she’s been an escort for years but has just got listed on the Web. “Now I’ll have my own site,” she exults. “On the Net you get to screen clients.”

Rina — or her escort service — won’t say it upfront, but she is the new face of the Calcutta sex worker. Unlike her older mates, she doesn’t hang around shady corners at dusk or sit provocatively in hotel lounges. She advertises herself on the Net — but as an escort. Scores of online services promise escorts to suit every occasion.

Rina came to know about the online agencies from Neha, a college student who has just joined the sex trade. Neha says she has her own site, linked to top escort agencies.

The money, clearly, is good. To meet a premium escort, you need to deposit Rs 15,000 in a specified account. One night with an escort can cost upwards of Rs 25,000. Rina says agents grab 80 per cent of an escort’s fees.

The agents are, not surprisingly, tightlipped about the racket. “We do use the Net, but you can’t prove we’re selling sex,” says Rina’s agent, Rocky. One of Calcutta’s top agents for escorts, Rajesh, is, however, convinced about the benefits of hooking clients through the Net. “You get premium customers who can pay loads,” he says.

Indeed, the phenomenon is far from being confined to Calcutta. Web-based escort services are also reaching out to places outside Calcutta such as Alipurduar, Berhampore, Naihati and Purulia. “Escorts can always become available at home, office or hotel as fast as (in) 20 minutes,” one web site proudly announces.

A project conducted in Naihati, a town 40 km from Calcutta, finds that most sex workers are housewives or students. Sujoy Singh of Naihati ProLife, who has been associated with the national project, says that women join sex rackets to make money to be able to buy smart phones or luxury cars. “Many of them not only use the Net to develop contacts but have joined porn rackets for some extra money,” says Singh.

Debashree Chattopadhyay, officer in charge of the immoral traffic section of the Calcutta Police, says she has received preliminary reports about a flourishing pornography industry in rural Bengal. The Suprova Panchashila Mahila Udyog Samity, an organisation working on an HIV intervention programme in Behrampore in rural Bengal, has found cases of students of technology colleges participating in sex rings.

“Until recently, most sex workers were either trafficked or compelled by poverty to join the profession,” says Subodh Das, the author of a four-volume book Chaloman Jounokormi (Stories of Mobile Sex Workers). “But now these streetwalkers are facing stiff competition from affluent call girls who can access the Net to hook new age clients.”

The law enforcement agencies are not unduly bothered by the Net-based prostitution rings masquerading as escort agencies. Chattopadhyay of the Calcutta Police is aware of online escorts in the city — she even knows which hotels they operate from — but states that the law (the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act) doesn’t recognise them as criminals. “Call girl service advertising on the Net isn’t illegal as long as it doesn’t involve children or exploitation,” she says.

There is little that the West Bengal Women’s Commission can do either. “Our law has yet to catch up with pimping or soliciting over the Net,” says commission chairperson Malini Bhattacharya. “But we need to investigate because after all the Net is a public domain and online networks can easily target Net-savvy adolescents,” she adds.

Some organisations, however, have started dealing with Net-based prostitution. “Although it is not our priority, we plan to explore its role in girl trafficking,” says Anindit Roy-Chowdhury of Sanlaap, an organisation battling commercial sexual exploitation. He recalls the case of an 18-year-old woman who was rescued after she was trafficked by a Delhi-based prostitution ring operating through an online matrimonial agency. “If you’re a troubled teenager, it’s an easy way to make quick money. There are chatrooms which often lure unsuspecting adolescents into prostitution,” says Roy-Chowdhury.

That Calcutta and its suburbs are being drawn into the online prostitution was first documented in 2004 by the Bhoruka Public Welfare Trust (BPWT), a body working on an HIV/AIDS intervention programmes for Calcutta’s sex workers. “We’d bumped into websites that solicited sex,” says Ishita Majumder, senior project manager, BPWT. “Deals are discreetly done through e-mails till the agent is convinced of the client’s intentions.”

Majumder points out that it was difficult getting into the networks that operate clandestinely, unlike traditional sex workers who are out in the open. “Since most women (who use Net services) belong to educated middle-class families, they dread any kind of exposure,” she says.

It took them more than six years to reach out to 1,189 women, 201 agents and 506 clients. Among the women were housewives, office workers and even school students. “Although most of them do it for the money, some get into it for the self esteem of being employed and in control of their sexuality,” she says. As these women have access to the Net and can afford several mobile phones, they naturally join online agencies. Many clients too prefer the Net to develop contacts.

Another organisation, the Society of Human Genetics and Population Health (Sohgaph), has been dealing with HIV/AIDS prevention among sex workers in Salt Lake. “We spoke to 1,800 call girls and 15 agents,” says Samadrita Sardar Mukherjee, secretary, Sohgaph. “Some are tech savvy, make extensive use of Net-based services and are independent.”

Two surveys commissioned by the ministry of women and child development demonstrate the modernisation of the sex trade in India. The countrywide 2004 and 2008 surveys of 20,000 sex workers reveal the use of the Internet and the mobile phone “to develop and maintain contacts.” According to K.K. Mukherjee, who led the surveys, brothel-based prostitution is fast disappearing from India.

“Consumerism has changed our values. Now young women from upper class families are getting hooked on to the sex trade and the clients too have a similar background,” says Mukherjee. “Young men are exposed to pornography or sex chat forums from an early age; escort agencies reach these clients through links to these sleazy sites.”

Clearly, the old brothel is making way for sex facilitated by the Internet. The red light district is losing its boundaries.

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