Asadul Islam and Russell Smyth, “Economics of Sex Work in Bangladesh” in Scott
Cunningham and Manisha Shah, The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Prostitution
(New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) chapter 10 pp. 210-228.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. Poverty, low social status and lack of
opportunities for education and alternative employment have meant that Bangladesh has a
large number of sex workers. There are as many as 150,000-200,000 female sex workers in
Bangladesh, and most of these are adolescents or young women with the majority aged 15 to
18. Many girls enter prostitution in Bangladesh before the age of 12 (ECPAT 2006) and, in
most cases, will have retired by age 30 (Alam 2010). Traditionally, the social status of sex
workers in Bangladesh was extremely low and, regardless of their religion, sex workers were
even denied basic funeral rights. For example, when sex workers died in Daulatdia,
Bangladesh’s largest brothel, their bodies were just thrown in the nearby river"(Mondal and
Islam 2006). The social status of sex workers, however, has gradually improved over time. A
major turning point was a decision of the Bangladeshi High Court in 2000 that sex work is
legal if the brothel or red light area is properly licensed. This makes Bangladesh one of the
few Islamic countries that permit prostitution. Concerned with the potential spread of
HIV/AIDS among sex workers as a high-risk group, NGOs have been active in promoting
self-empowerment and safe sex awareness among this population since the mid-1990s. This
said, sex workers in Bangladesh remain marginalised from mainstream society. While sex
workers earn many times more than others of comparable skills, in many cases much of this
income is extorted by corrupt local officials and police who take advantage of the stigmatised
position of sex workers. For most part, the living standards of sex workers are low and few
are able to save for their retirement, and this puts them in a very vulnerable position.
10.2 Market structure
There are two major categories of female sex workers in Bangladesh, that is, those who work
in brothels, and those who work as floating sex workers. Floating sex workers are either
hotel-based or street-based. There are 14 official brothels in Bangladesh and 18 official red
light districts, which are mostly located in either the commercial center of cities or at river
junctions or seaports where there are a lot of through traffic and transient clients. Clusters of
small rented rooms usually constitute a brothel, which is regulated by the local authority.
There are typically large numbers of alleys with cubicles on either side. Daulatdia, the largest
brothel in Bangladesh and one of the largest in the world, is typical. It is situated on the
meeting point of two rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges, about 100 kilometres from Dhaka. It
is a hub for ferries and trucks that queue for two to three days to cross the river for the drive
to Dhaka. Hence, there are large numbers of potential clients. It is so large it is a village in its
own right, with numerous alleyways containing 2,300 single-story rooms that are used to
service clients. In many respects it has the appearance of a normal village, with a vast street
market lined with fruit and vegetable stalls. The only visible difference between Daulatdia
and other villages in Bangladesh is the presence of large numbers of women on the street. In
Daulatdia there are more than 2,000 female sex workers who sell sex to approximately 3,000
men every day. In addition, approximately 300 children live in Daulatdia brothel with their
mothers (Hammond 2008).
There is considerable variation in the number of clients that sex workers service, as well as in
the practice of safe sex, between brothel-based and floating sex workers (see World Bank
2009 for an overview). Brothel-based female sex workers each see approximately 18 clients
per week, while street-based and hotel-based sex workers each see an average of 17 and 44
clients per week respectively. According to sixth round Behavioral Surveillance Survey (BSS
2006-2007) data, condom use was 70 per cent for clients of brothels, and ranged between 51
per cent and 81 per cent for clients of street workers. Condom use was lowest among hotel-
based sex workers in Dhaka and Chittagong at 40 per cent and 36 per cent respectively.
Hotel-based sex workers are particularly vulnerable to HIV as they have the largest number
of clients. The higher rate of condom use in brothels reflects the fact that licensed brothels are
legal; hence it is easier for health officials to distribute condoms (BBC 2000). Consistent
condom use with regular clients is lower for sex workers in brothels, hotels and on the street.
Within brothels there is a clear institutionalized hierarchy (see Kotiswaran 2008). At the top
of the hierarchy are the local landowners (jamidars) who lease land to the homeowners
(bariwali). The bariwali build housing that is rented to the brothel managers (sardarnis). The
sardarnis employ sex workers (adhiya) who, in exchange for a place to stay, give half of their
earnings to the sardarnis. The sardarnis will typically charge the adhiya extra for clothing,
food and medical care, and the adhiya bears the burden of illness. At the bottom of the
hierarchy are bonded sex workers (chukris), who are bonded to the sardarnis. The sardarnis
usually make a down payment for contracting the services of sex workers to either the agents
who sell sex workers or the sex workers’ relatives or associates. The bonded sex worker
(chukris) is required to work for the sardarnis until she earns enough for the latter to pay off
the down payment. The sardarnis attempts to extract as much income as possible. The
chukris has no time for leisure, often has no choice over clients or sexual practices, and is
unable to insist that the client uses a condom. When chukris have paid off their debts, they
will often work for a sardarnis on an adhiya basis. In contrast to sex workers in brothels,
however, most floating sex workers negotiate with their clients without the services of a
pimp. As Edlund and Korn (2002) noted, the spot-like nature of the transaction on the street
limits the role of middlemen. This is similar to the situation elsewhere. Studies of other sex
markets, such as in Malaysia and Los Angeles in the United States, also suggest limited use
of pimps among floating sex workers (see the discussion in Edlund and Korn 2002). In other
cities in the United States, such as Chicago, use of pimps among floating sex workers has
been shown to vary considerably among locations in the same city (Levitt and Venkatesh
10.3 Motives for women entering the sex industry in Bangladesh
Much of the literature on the economics of sex work focuses on the motives for sex workers
entering and remaining in the profession. Analysis is usually conducted using standard labour
supply models (see e.g. Edlund and Korn 2002). While labour supply models have been
useful in this area, many would also agree that non-economic incentives are important in
explaining why women enter this sort of employment (Moffatt and Peters 2004). Below, we
outline some of the major reasons why women become sex workers in Bangladesh, based on
a survey of brothel-based and floating sex workers administered by the Bangladesh Institute
for Development Studies (BIDS) with financial assistance from UNDP in 2005 (Mondal and
Islam 2006). The survey was administered in three brothels and four official red light
districts. The three brothels were located in Daulatdia, Jessore and Mymensingh. A total of
283 sex workers were interviewed, with about 40 sex workers from each of the brothels and
red light districts. Hence, of the 283 sex workers surveyed, 122 were from the three brothels
and the remainder were floating sex workers from the red light districts in Dhaka.
Insert Table 1
The results of the survey are reported in Table 1. According to the survey, the most important
reason that women become sex workers is economic necessity borne out of poverty, followed
by forced labour and trafficking. While forced labour and trafficking accounts for the largest
number of cases among brothel-based sex workers, economic necessity is the major
motivation for floating sex workers. Less than 10 per cent reported that they became sex
workers voluntarily. Other major motivations to become sex workers were divorce or
separation (5.3 per cent), domestic quarrelling (5.3 per cent), and being the victim of gang
rape (4.3 per cent). It is estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 women and children are trafficked
for sex in Bangladesh each year, either to be exploited in Bangladesh or elsewhere in South
Asia or the Middle East (ADB 2005). There are several reported instances where women
have been promised high-paying jobs in Bangladesh or elsewhere, such as the Gulf States,
only to find themselves in sexual servitude (EPCAT 2006). Trafficking is not restricted to sex
work, narrowly defined. For example, Blanchet (2003) found that there was a well-
established marriage market for Bangladeshi wives in North India, in particular in Uttar
Pradash. Young Bangladeshi girls, aged 14-16, are purchased through brokers by much older
men for as little as one thousand rupees (approximately US$25).
Fleeing domestic violence of one form or another is another important motivation for
becoming a sex worker. The estimated prevalence of physical violence against women by
husbands in Bangladesh varies between 30 and 50 per cent and extends to domestic violence,
marital rape and other forms of sexual assault, acid throwing and burning (Wahed and Bhuiya
2007). The effect of shocks on the labour supply decisions of sex workers has been studied in
other contexts (see e.g. Robinson and Yeh 2011). Being forced to leave the marital home to
escape domestic violence or other forms of abuse represents an exogenous shock.
Bangladeshi women, like the Kenyan women Robinson and Yeh (2011) studied, lack savings
or access to formal credit markets to support themselves. Sex work is often the only option
for survival available to those fleeing violence. Most married sex workers in Bangladesh are
in the profession because of an exogenous shock such as fleeing a violent husband or because
their husband has died (Wahed and Bhuiya 2007). There is evidence from Bangladesh and
India that women who were married but become sex workers as a result of an exogenous
shock such as fleeing their husbands or because their husband has died, earn more than those
who were never married (Rao et al. 2003; Islam and Smyth 2012). Such women may have
attributes that are considered more desirable by potential clients than sex workers who have
perhaps joined the profession because they failed in the marriage market (Rao et al. 2003).
Another motivation for becoming a sex worker in Bangladesh that is not as evident from
Table 1 is matrilineal-based practice. More than 20,000 children live in brothels and red light
districts in Bangladesh and many of the girls are expected to follow their mothers into
prostitution. Boys growing up in brothels often become pimps when they are older, while
many girls become sex workers before the age of 12 (ECPAT 2006). There is substantial
evidence that sex workers in brothels such as Daulatdia want to have daughters as a form of
insurance against old age. Sex workers expect that their daughters will enter the profession
and support them when they can no longer earn a living from sex work (Hammond 2008).
Ethnographic fieldwork documents the existence of successive generations of sex workers
within the one family at the high end of the market, where mothers provide networks for their
daughters and introduce them to rich clients (Brown 2005, 2007; Orchard 2007). Jarillo
(1988) demonstrated how such networks increase efficiency through reducing transaction
10.4 Socioeconomic status of sex workers
Social exclusion and social stigma is an important component of several economic models of
sex work (see e.g. Cameron 2002; Edlund and Korn 2002; Giusta et al. 2009). In these
models, stigma plays a role in preventing sex workers from entering other professions or the
marriage market. While legalisation of licensed brothels and red light districts, together with
the work of NGOs, has improved the socioeconomic status of sex workers in Bangladesh
over the last decade, sex workers in Bangladesh are still very much marginalised (ECPAT
2006). In the BIDS survey, almost one third of respondents (62.3 per cent) reported that they
could never leave the sex industry, while 69.8 per cent of respondents hid their profession
from their families because they were ashamed of their work (Mondal and Islam 2006).
Most brothel-based sex workers live in the brothel. According to the BIDS survey in 2005,
among floating sex workers, 37 per cent lived in rented accommodation, 22 per cent lived on
the streets or in parks, 17 per cent lived in NGO drop-in centres (and sometimes on the street
or in parks), and just three per cent owned their own house (Mondal and Islam 2006). Edlund
and Korn (2002) suggested that the reason female sex workers earned so much with only
basic human capital is that high wages represent compensation for the forgone benefits of
selling their fertility in the marriage market. However, in Ecuador and Mexico, Arunachalam
and Shah (2008) showed that 29 per cent and 20 per cent of sex workers respectively are in
fact married, and that sex workers are more likely to be married at younger ages than non-sex
workers. In the BIDS survey in 2005, 45 per cent of sex workers were currently married, 34
per cent of sex workers were divorced, had fled from violent husbands or were widowed, and
just 21 per cent had never been married (Mondal and Islam 2006), which is inconsistent with
Edlund and Korn’s (2002) thesis. Similarly, in the BIDS survey, 66.5 per cent of sex workers
had one or more children with 30.2 per cent of sex workers having two or more children.
Where the Edlund and Korn (2002) thesis has some traction is for the daughters of sex
workers who become sex workers themselves. Evidence from South Asia suggests that it is
very difficult for daughters of sex workers to find partners in the marriage market (Cornish
2006). High wages for the daughters of sex workers who become sex workers themselves can
be seen as a compensating differential for the foregone benefits of marriage. Similarly, in the
high end sex market in South Asia where daughters are born into prostitution, high wages can
be regarded as a compensating differential for the foregone benefits of marriage. There is no
ethnographic research on matrilineal lineage in the high end sex market in Bangladesh, but
this is the case, for instance, with respect to the elite tawa’if (courtesans) in Lahore (Brown
2007). Casual observation suggests that the situation is similar in Bangladesh.
Insert Tables 2 & 3
Sex workers in Bangladesh are frequently subjected to workplace violence. The findings
from the BIDS survey reported in Table 2 shed some light on this issue. In the BIDS survey,
37.4 per cent of respondents reported being assaulted by a client, while 53.8 per cent reported
being assaulted by the homeowners (bariwali). Table 3 reports the number of times sex
workers in the BIDS survey had been raped while working. The majority of respondents
(62.1 per cent) reported being raped at least once, while more than one-fifth of respondents
(22.1 percent) reported being raped seven times or more. Similarly, sex workers in
Bangladesh suffer a high level of police harassment. The BIDs survey suggested that police
harassment and corruption was the single thing that sex workers disliked most about their
profession. Many sex workers in the BIDS survey complained that much of the fruits of their
labour went into the pockets of corrupt police and local officials (Mondal and Islam 2006).
An earlier study found that 30 per cent of sex work in Bangladesh is controlled by corrupt
police who extort money from the brothels and floating sex workers in the form of bribes
(Khan 1988). This study found that sex workers were also frequent victims of demands for
free sex and physical violence at the hands of the police (Khan 1988). Studies carried out in
other South Asian countries, such as on the Sonagachi sex industry in Calcutta, similarly
report the presence of high levels of police corruption and harassment (see e.g. Kotiswaran
Abortion and miscarriage are relatively common phenomena among sex workers. In the
BIDS survey, 34.9 per cent of respondents reported having had one or more abortions, while
17.1 per cent reported having had at least one miscarriage (Mondal and Islam 2006). There is
a much higher incidence of STDs among sex workers than the general population. One
estimate is that as many as 40 per cent of sex workers have an STD (Alam 2010). In the
BIDS survey, 31 per cent of the 281 respondents reported having a STD. The highest
incidence of STD was syphilis (14.2 per cent), followed by gonorrhoea (8.9 per cent), genital
warts (6.4 per cent), and hepatitis-B (1.4 per cent) (Mondal and Islam 2006). Syphilis rates
are relatively high among sex workers in all categories, but particularly among hotel and
street-based workers, indicating the presence of risky sexual practices facilitating the spread
of HIV (World Bank 2009). The extent to which sex workers receive regular health check-
ups in Bangladesh varies. In the BIDS survey, 9.6 per cent of respondents reported receiving
a health check-up once a week, 1.4 per cent of respondents stated that they received a health
check-up once a fortnight, 4.3 per cent of respondents reported receiving a health check-up
once every three weeks, and 28.1 per cent of respondents reported receiving a health check-
up at least once a month. However, 45.2 per cent of respondents reported receiving a health
check-up either only ‘every now and then’ or never (Mondal and Islam 2006).
10.5 Economic returns to sex work in Bangladesh
The BIDS data suggests that most sex workers in Bangladesh work exclusively as sex
workers with relatively few involved in other earnings activities such as handicrafts and
tailoring. In the BIDS survey, 71.2 per cent of respondents stated that income from sex work
was their only source of income (Mondal and Islam 2006). There was some variation in the
BIDS survey across the brothels surveyed, with a higher proportion of women in Daulatdia
deriving income from non-sex work. Most of this income, though, is drug-related. There is
much evidence of thriving drug syndicates operating in Daulatdia with the tacit approval and
involvement of the local government and police (Mondal and Islam 2006).
The explanation for why most sex workers rely on income from sex work does not seem to be
that sex workers lack training in other areas. In the BIDS survey, almost two-thirds of
respondents (63 per cent) reported having received vocational training in areas such as
embroidery, handicrafts and tailoring (Mondal and Islam 2006). One reason why few sex
workers have income outside the profession might be that, as several studies have suggested,
economic returns to sex work are several multiples of fulltime earnings in professions with
comparable skill requirements (see, in general, Edlund and Korn 2002: 188-192). This is also
the case in Bangladesh. Based on the BIDS data for 2005, sex workers in brothels earned
7355 taka (US$113.3) per month, while floating sex workers earned 8776 takas (US$134.9)
per month from sex work (Mondal and Islam 2006). This income from sex work compares
favourably with what females earn in the rest of the labour market for non-sex work. The
median average monthly income for females in Bangladesh was less than 750 takas (or
US$11.50) per month and just 1.5 per cent of females earned in excess of 7500 takas (or
US$115.3) per month in 2005 (ADB 2005). Another reason why a high proportion of sex
workers in Bangladesh work exclusively as sex workers is the stigma attached to the
profession; as a result it is very difficult for sex workers to get outside employment.
However, despite having relatively high incomes, few sex workers are able to save for the
future. In the BIDS survey, less than half of sex workers (46.7 per cent) reported having any
savings, and 27 per cent of respondents reported being in debt (Mondal and Islam 2006). The
incidence of debt is higher among brothel-based workers than floating sex workers, many of
whom are paying off bariwalis/sardarnis and are more vulnerable to police extortion.
Islam and Smyth (2012) used the BIDS data to examine the economic returns to beauty and
unprotected sex among sex workers in Bangladesh. In that study, the basic empirical
specification entailed regressing the log of monthly earnings from sex work on a variable
depicting whether the sex worker is attractive (on a scale of one to four where 1= “not
attractive” and 4= “most attractive”) as assessed by the enumerator from the perspective of a
potential client, a dummy variable equal to one if the sex worker practices safe sex, and a
series of control variables. The control variables were: human capital characteristics (age,
education, experience, health status, that is, have regular health check- ups, test for HIV,
blood test, have an STD); labour supply and personal characteristics (marital status, children,
religion, sterilized, use oral contraception, had abortion, miscarried, income from other
sources, clients per day, days worked, number of partners in private sex life, sex worker is
happy, sex worker suffers discrimination, sex worker is abused by police, and whether the
sex worker works in a brothel or is floating); sex worker’s familial situation (mother was a
sex worker, parents approve of their daughter being a sex worker); and client characteristics
(has permanent clients, clients are rich, clients are attractive, clients use condoms, sex worker
charges less if clients use condoms, client age, and sex worker is abused by clients). The
regressions also controlled for the sex worker’s place of birth, occupation of her clients and
type of sex act (anal, hand simulation, oral, vaginal, hugging and kissing). Participation in a
safe sex training program was used as an instrument for condom use. Enumerator specific
fixed effects were used to control for enumerators’ unobserved characteristics.
The main findings reported in Islam and Smyth (2012) were similar to those reported in
studies of the economic returns to sex work elsewhere. Condom use was found to have a
strong negative relationship with average monthly earnings. Relative to sex workers whose
clients regularly used condoms, the average monthly income of sex workers who have clients
who do not regularly use condoms was between 81 per cent and 154 per cent higher,
depending on the exact empirical specification. The coefficient on beauty was positive and
significant in each specification. The earnings premium for beauty was 15-20 per cent. This
result is similar to Arunachalam and Shah’s (2010) finding for sex workers in Ecuador and
Mexico, and is in the same range as the earnings premium for beauty for females in non-sex
work. Another key finding in Smyth and Islam (2012) was that more attractive sex workers
charge a higher premium for unprotected sex. It was found that attractive sex workers
received a premium in the range 23 per cent to 37 per cent for having unprotected sex.
There are at least two possible explanations for this result. One is that attractive sex workers
have more bargaining power when negotiating the transaction price with clients. In this
respect, more attractive people are considered to be better placed to bargain with others,
possibly because more attractive people are better negotiators (Rosenblat 2008). Several
arguments have been proffered linking one’s looks with negotiating skills (Rosenblat 2008).
First, physical attractiveness and vocal attractiveness are correlated (Zuckerman & Driver
1989). Hence, physically attractive people are likely to be regarded as more effective
communicators. Second, physically attractive people receive more attention from parents,
friends and co-workers, which can enhance their acquisition of social skills in childhood and
adolescence (Hatfield & Sprecher 1986). Because perceptions of physical attractiveness are
stable through childhood and adulthood (Adams 1977a, 1977b), it is likely that people who
are considered to be good looking will have better communications skills when bargaining
(Rosenblat 2008). Third, attractiveness is a strong predictor of self-esteem; this, in turn,
influences dominance behaviour, and manifests in a person acting in an assertive manner
when bargaining (Santor and Walker 1999). Fourth, employers might regard attractive
employees as more persuasive, even if the message that they are delivering has similar
content to employees who are less attractive. This is because a ‘beauty-is-good’ stereotype
acts as a cue that enhances the effectiveness of attractive people as negotiators (Langlois et al.
Hakim (2010) recently introduced the term ‘erotic capital’ into sociology literature. While
both men and women can have erotic capital, Hakim (2010) argued that women have more
and that this gives them a significant advantage in negotiations with men. While there are
different aspects of erotic capital, beauty is a central feature. The main argument is that in
choosing a mate men prefer women who are physically attractive, while women choose men
who are desirable mates overall. Moreover, women are aware that being attractive ‘buys’
desirable males. Hakim (2010) applied the concept of erotic capital to bargaining between
partners in a couple. She argued that sexual access is typically a wife’s principal bargaining
tool. Thus, a wife might withhold or offer sex in order to persuade her spouse to give her
what she wants (Arndt 2009). This works because men’s demand for sexual activity exceeds
that of women. Based on an extensive survey of myriad sources, Baumeister et al. (2001)
concluded that male sex drive is more intense and uncompromising than female sex drive.
However, while the transaction over sex in the marriage market is likely to be subtle, it is
explicit in the commercial sex market. Hakim (2010) suggested that sex work is a prime
example of an occupation in which attractive females are able to exploit their erotic capital.
Andreoni and Petrie (2008) found that attractive people are expected to be more cooperative.
On the surface, this finding would suggest that clients would expect attractive sex workers to
agree to unprotected sex over and above unattractive sex workers. All thing being equal, then,
this makes it more difficult for an attractive sex worker to charge a premium for engaging in
the risky act of unprotected sex"because clients expect them to be cooperative. But all things
are not equal, and if attractiveness increases negotiating power, this might explain why
attractive people can get away with being less cooperative. Alternatively, it may be that
attractive sex workers are not, in fact, cooperative at all. Van Kleef et al. (2007) found that
people with a peripheral group status within an attractive group send less cooperative
messages to opponents than prototypical group members. If one considers that the very
attractive are at the peripheral of the sex worker group, then it follows that beautiful sex
workers are more likely to demand ‘uncooperative’ higher premiums.
Another explanation for this result is that attractiveness and risky sex are complements in the
client’s utility function (Gertler et al. 2005). Evidence from experiments suggests that risk-
taking behaviour among males increases in the presence of attractive females. Bertrand et al.
(2009) found that males were much more willing to borrow money when the bank’s
advertising material included a photo of an attractive female. Including a photo of an
attractive female in the advertising material was found to increase loan demand by males by
an amount equivalent to about a 25 per cent reduction in the interest rate. Wilson and Daly
(2004) also found that males discount future monetary outcomes more steeply in the presence
of attractive females. Their study initially assessed participants’ temporal discounting rates
using choices between smaller sooner amounts of money and larger but more delayed
amounts. Participants then viewed pictures of attractive or unattractive members of the
opposite sex, while a control group viewed pictures of appealing or unappealing cars.
Participants then re-evaluated immediate and delayed monetary choices and a second, post-
task, discount rate was calculated. Only men who viewed attractive women displayed a
significant increase in impatience and were more likely to accept smaller immediate
outcomes. Females and controls did not exhibit this effect.
Wilson and Daly (2004) argued that their result was because attractive females activate a
mating mindset in males causing them to overvalue immediate rewards. If risk-taking
behaviour is a desirable characteristic in a mate, then males may become more risk-tolerant in
the presence of attractive females as a signal to potential mates (cf. McAlvanah 2009). While
clients would not be exhibiting risky behaviour as a signalling device to the sex worker in
order to impress her to get her to mate with him, the mating mindset dictates that individuals
will look for characteristics in the opposite sex that suggest they may have ‘good genes’
(Gangestad and Simpson 2000). For women, male attributes that suggest ‘good genes’ tend to
centre on strength and stature. For men, female attributes which suggest ‘good genes’ centre
on physical attractiveness. Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that men place much
more emphasis than women on physical attractiveness in looking for a mate to pass on his
gene pool. Men will want to mate with women who are attractive and who will produce
attractive offspring who, in turn, will find it easier to carry on their genetic line (Buss 1999).
Men who frequent brothels and red light districts are not are not necessarily doing so with the
conscious intention of impregnating attractive sex workers. The mating mindset, though,
works at a subconscious level. As Scruton (2004:18) put it: “Human beings are animals…we
are governed by the laws of biology, and even our thoughts and emotions are the result of
electrochemical processes in the brain.” That for men the evolutionary mechanism is
subconsciously associated with impregnating an attractive female, suggests that female
attractiveness and risky sex will be complements when purchasing sex from sex workers.
Beauty potentially serves as a proxy for self-confidence or other characteristics that command
a premium in the labour market. Previous studies that have attempted to control for such
characteristics have generally found that they have little or no effect on the beauty premium
for non-sex work. However, Arunachalam and Shah (2010) control for the sex worker’s
communication skills, personality, and physical attributes such as height and weight, and find
that the beauty premium is reduced for sex workers in Ecuador and Mexico. In Islam and
Smyth (2012) we did not have data on physical characteristics of the sex workers, but we
included variables measuring self-reported happiness, discrimination, and if the sex worker
reports being abused by clients and the police. The reasoning is that respondents who report
higher happiness, feel less discrimination, and suffer less abuse by clients and the police, are
likely to have more pleasant dispositions when interacting with clients. Of these variables, the
only variable that was significant was police abuse. Sex workers who reported being abused
by the police earned 32 per cent less than those who did not suffer police abuse. The beauty
premium, though, was similar with the addition of these variables. Hence, controlling for this
characteristic has little effect on the returns to beauty.
In Islam and Smyth (2012) we examined whether the earnings premium for beauty is due to
employer discrimination (i.e. employers derive a taste-based utility for interacting with
beautiful employees). In Bangladesh most floating sex workers make arrangements with
clients without going through intermediaries (pimps); thus, they can be regarded as being
self-employed. Sex workers in brothels (adhiya and chukris) are in a labour relation with the
sardarnis and, as such, can be regarded as employed (Kotiswaran 2008). In the case of the
adhiya, the sardarnis take half the price per transaction in return for providing them with a
room, while in the case of the chukris, the sardarnis contract with agents or the girls’
relatives for the sex workers’ services. Floating sex workers in Bangladesh scored lower on
beauty in the BIDS data. This finding is consistent with Arunachalam and Shah’s (2010)
findings for sex workers in Ecuador and Mexico. It suggests that the sardarnis might be
discriminating against less attractive sex workers when employing adhiya or contracting for
the services of chukris. In Islam and Smyth (2012) we found weak evidence that floating sex
workers earn more than sex workers in brothels, but that the beauty premium for brothel sex
workers and floating sex workers was not statistically different. Overall, these findings are
consistent with employer discrimination to explain the beauty premium.
In Islam and Smyth (2012) we also found that for each additional client a sex worker saw on
an average day, she earned 10 per cent to 11 per cent more, while for each additional day a
sex worker works, she earned 6 per cent to 7 per cent more over the course of the month.
Among other control variables, workers who had children earned 20 per cent to 26 per cent
more than sex workers who do not have children. There are two possible explanations for this
last finding, which are particularly pertinent in the Bangladeshi context. First, many sex
workers who have children have, at least initially, been successful in the marriage market and
are in the profession as a result of an exogenous shock in that they have fled violent
relationships to protect their children. Second, having children is a major cause of weight
gain among women (see studies reviewed in Weng et al. 2004). In Bangladesh the most
attractive sex workers are regarded as those who are slightly overweight, while retaining their
girlish good looks. There was also an earnings premium for sex workers who are health
conscious. Sex workers who have regular blood tests earned between 45 per cent and 54 per
cent more while sex workers who have regular health check-ups earned 38 per cent to 52 per
cent more. That there was a positive correlation between good health and earnings makes
sense given that it is likely that clients will be willing to pay a premium to reduce the risk of
contracting an STD or HIV (Gertler et al. 2005). Other control variables, such as age,
education, experience and religion were either not significant or not robust across alternative
The finding in Islam and Smyth (2012) that the number of clients a sex worker has is a major
predictor of average monthly earnings suggests that there is an excess supply of sex workers.
This is consistent with the sex worker industry in Bangladesh being very competitive. It
follows that competition may force the less attractive sex workers to exit the profession. If
this is correct, the beauty premium could manifest itself not only in wages, but also in who is
in the industry at the time of the survey. As a result, the least attractive sex workers will not
be sampled if they have already exited the industry. If this is the case, this may suggest a
much higher premium to beauty than can be estimated with current sex workers. In Islam and
Smyth (2012) we examined this issue by comparing the beauty premium for sex workers
whose mothers were and were not sex workers. If competition is forcing less attractive sex
workers out of the industry, one would expect that beauty would be more important for sex
workers who entered the industry without their mother’s connections. However, in Islam and
Smyth (2012) we found that this was not the case. Of the 283 sex workers in the BIDS
dataset, just 18 had mothers who were also sex workers. We did not find that sex workers
without mothers in the industry were more attractive than sex workers whose mothers were
also sex workers. Rather, we found that sex workers with mothers in the industry were more
attractive (average attractiveness on a scale of 1-4 was 2.72 for sex workers with mothers in
the industry as opposed to 2.25 for sex workers whose mothers were not in the industry). An
explanation for this result could that in general more attractive girls will have more success in
the marriage market, while less attractive girls will become sex workers, but girls whose
mothers are sex workers will have less marriage opportunities because of the social stigma.
10.6 The client sex worker relationship
Clients play an important role in sex workers’ lives. The socioeconomic and political cultures
of the brothel are largely influenced by the clientele and their interaction with the sex
workers. The client flow in the brothel varies among the different alleyways. The clients are
divided into different categories, that is, there are fixed, regular, and occasional clients. The
fixed clients are usually more comfortable with one woman, with whom they have developed
a friendly understanding and with whom they may or may not have an emotional attachment.
The regular clients, or babus, are partners who are treated as husbands and who have an
emotional attachment to the women. In addition to fixed and regular clients, there are
occasional clients who sometimes visit brothels, and clients who sex workers see only once in
A study conducted by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) researchers found
that a sex worker typically has 4 to 5 clients during the day (Karim et al. 2008). However, the
number of clients varies with the age and attractiveness of the sex worker. The younger,
attractive, sex workers have a larger number of clients, seeing as many as 15 to 20 men in a
day. The older, and less attractive, get much fewer, which might not exceed 2 or 3 clients in a
given day. The findings from the BIDS study were similar (Mondal and Islam 2006). There
is also a high level of competition to attract clients in the brothel. Many of the older and/or
less attractive sex workers are less able to negotiate on price or condom use for fear of losing
clients to their younger and/or more attractive competitors.
The inflow of clients also varies from time to time, with larger flows during festive seasons
such as Muslim’s Eid and Hindu’s Puja. The peak hours in the brothel are during the mid
mornings and late afternoons. At night, the babus usually stay with the sex workers in the
brothel, although clients wanting to spend the night in the brothel can do so at a higher rate.
However, sex workers need to bribe the police if they wish to have clients remain for the
whole night. Therefore, relatively few sex workers have clients remain for the whole night.
The BRAC study found that the rates for clients in the brothel vary depending on the time
spent and type of sexual act performed (Karim et al. 2008). The study found that many sex
workers charge according to the time she spends with the client (e.g. hourly rate), while
others prefer to charge according to the sexual act. The rate also depends on the type of
clients, as mentioned above, and on whether the client uses a condom. The rate per act
usually varies between Tk. 50 and Tk. 500. The average rate is Tk.100 for daytime, while at
night the rate can be up to Tk. 200. Sometimes a sex worker will ask a base price of about Tk.
100, and then attempt to impress the client with her sexual appeal to increase the price.
In the BIDS survey, sex workers were asked about the types of customers who visited them.
The majority of the clients (52.3 per cent) were blue collar workers, while salaried white
collar workers accounted for about 25 per cent of customers, followed by students (12.6 per
cent) and businessmen (11 per cent) (Mondal and Islam 2006). In the BIDS study, the
average age of customers was about 30 years, with customers in the age group 23-35 years
accounting for about 86 per cent of all customers. Approximately 40 per cent of the 281 sex
workers in the BIDS survey reported that they frequently fell in love with their clients, while
7 per cent stated that they fell in love with their clients all the time. The BIDS survey found
that floating sex workers were more prone to falling in love with their clients. About 48 per
cent of them frequently fell in love with their clients as opposed to 37 per cent of sex workers
An important component of the lives of brothel-based sex workers is their relationships with
babus to whom they are emotionally attached. Most of the sex workers interviewed in both
the BIDS and BRAC studies did not use condoms when having sex with their babu, even
knowing that babus also sometimes had sex with other women in the same brothel. The
relationship between a sex worker and her babu is similar to that between a wife and
husband. Often sex workers using condoms with other clients will not use condoms with their
babu. In many cases, babus also have a family with wife and children outside the brothel. In
some cases, the sex workers know that their babus have families outside the brothel.
However, they still consider babus as partners or lovers whom they feel and care for. As one
young sex worker, Jahnara (aged in her late 20s) told interviewers in the BIDS survey, “I
know he [babu] has a wife, but he has no physical relationship with her.” Sex workers also
have children with their babu. As one young sex worker interviewed for the BIDS survey
puts it, “I want to have a child with my babu because I love him. That’s why I use condoms
with all my other clients and not with him, so when I conceive I know it is his child. I want to
marry my babu and leave this brothel some day” (Mondal and Islam 2006).
In most cases, sex workers who have a babu see him as a way to escape their life in the
brothel. As noted above, some women plan to marry their babu and leave the brothel for
good. However, while older women prefer to have babus, the younger girls are less inclined.
An older independent sex worker explained to interviewers for the BIDS survey that having a
babu gives women a sense of security and makes them feel loved and special. No matter
what, “with a babu, at least I won’t be without food”. In contrast, one young girl interviewed
for the BIDS survey said that she does not want a babu because she thinks they are too
controlling, and with a babu she would not have the freedom to be with other men.
10.7 Role of government and NGOs
There are many NGOs working for both brothel and floating-based sex workers in
Bangladesh. The majority of NGO activities focus on advocacy, increasing awareness,
providing educational opportunities for children of sex workers, providing skill training,
providing healthcare, and raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and STDs. The BIDS survey
indicated that sex workers receive support services from various NGOs, but most of these
NGOs work on an ad-hoc basis. Several sex worker organisations have also started to
develop with the support of NGOs. According to the BIDS survey of 281 sex workers, 47.3
percent of sex workers met local NGO officers regularly, 25.6 percent met NGO officers
occasionally, 17.1 percent had contact with NGO officers only a few times, and just 9.6
percent of the total respondents reported that they did not have any contact with NGOs.
A study conducted by Islam (2005) for a local NGO (PIACT) found that sex workers face
considerable obstacles when seeking treatment in local community hospitals and clinics
surrounding the Daulatdia brothel. The study found that many sex workers do not bother to
go to local public hospitals or clinics as the doctors normally declined to offer them
treatment. Instead, they go to hospital geographically removed from the Daulatdia brothel and
attempt to conceal their identity to get treatment. Until recently, local imams and
communities in Bangladesh refused to bury deceased sex workers in local graveyards.
However, Islam (2005) observed out that this"situation is now gradually changing. With the
assistance of local NGOs, sex workers organizations have been able to convince locals to
allocate specific parcels of land as graveyards for sex workers. In addition, because of the
work of NGOs, there has been a recent, positive change in attitude among local doctors and
nurses towards providing treatment to sex workers.
The BIDS survey indicates that most sex workers expect that vocational training, information
on HIV/AIDS and non-formal education should be provided by the government. In the BIDS
survey, sex workers with children were more anxious to move out of the profession, were
more willing to undergo vocational training, and were interested in educational opportunities
for their children. In practice, there exist barriers to the children of sex workers studying in
public schools, as parents of other children do not want them to mix with their children. Thus,
school teachers are often reluctant to enrol them. Islam (2005) found that there was an urgent
need for the government to put resources into heightening local community awareness to
enable the children of sex workers to integrate better into the wider community.
In the long term, perhaps one of the most fruitful areas of collaboration for improving the
social status of sex workers is to focus on human rights. The national and international
conferences during the United Nations Decade for Women and women’s activism around the
Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)1 have
assisted women’s movements in their struggle to acquire improved human rights within
government structures. A collaborative approach to improving the status of sex workers could
focus on using the women’s human rights platform to bring together the different social
actors such as the government, the national and international NGOs, and the women’s
movements, to focus on basic needs such as shelter for the sex workers and their children.
The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh is relatively low. At the end of 2007, less than
0.1 per cent of the general population had HIV/AIDS (World Bank 2009). However, among
the chief risk factors that could fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS among high-risk groups is
Bangladesh’s large commercial sex market. As a result, NGOs have been active in
Bangladesh in promoting the benefits of safe sex among sex workers. The educational role of
the NGOs, together with the legalisation of sex work in licensed brothels and red light
districts, has improved the socioeconomic status of sex workers. However, on the whole, sex
workers in Bangladesh remain marginalised and stigmatised. While female sex workers earn
many times more than females not engaged in sex work, living standards of sex workers in
Bangladesh are relatively low. Sex workers suffer from high levels of police extortion and
harassment. The incidence of violence and, in particular, sexual assault perpetrated against
sex workers is high. There are certainly some segments of sex workers, such as the bonded
sex workers (chukris), who have few to no rights and cannot insist that clients wear a
condom. This segment of sex workers is particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and other
STDs. For other sex workers with more bargaining power, the economic returns to
unprotected sex in Bangladesh are high, meaning that those who insist that their clients use
1 CEDAW was established in 1979 by the United Nations to promote women’s human rights and equality.
condoms face large income losses. This is a very similar story to Calcutta in India (see Rao et
al. 2003) and studies for elsewhere in the world (Gertler et al. 2005). The policy implications
of the economics of sex work in South Asia are fairly clear from the literature (see e.g. Rao et
al. 2003; Islam and Smyth 2012). On the demand side, NGOs need to mount, and are
mounting, large-scale educational campaigns among clients to increase their willingness to
use condoms. On the supply-side, policies need to focus on reducing competition between
sex workers who do and do not use condoms, and highlight the dangers of not using
condoms. These policies are being implemented in Bangladesh and India to differing degrees
(for a discussion of policies designed to empower sex workers to reduce their risk of
contracting HIV/AIDS in India under the label of the ‘Sonagachi Project’, see Swendeman et
Adams, G. “Physical Attractiveness, Personality and Social Reactions to Peer Pressure.”
Journal of Psychology 96.2 (1977a): 87-296.
Adams, G. “Physical Attractiveness Research: Towards a Developmental Social Psychology
of Beauty.” Human Development 20 (1977b): 217-239.
Alam, K. “Girl Prostitution is Booming in Bangladesh.”
http://priyo.com/blog/women-trafficking/28050.html. (May 5, 2010).
Andreoni, J. and R. Petrie. “Beauty, Gender and Stereotypes: Evidence from Laboratory
Experiments.” Journal of Economic Psychology 29.1 (2008): 79-93.
Arndt, B. The Sex Diaries. London: Hamlyn, 2009.
Arunachalam, R. and M. Shah. “Prostitutes and Brides?” American Economic Review:
Papers and Proceedings 98.2 (2008): 516-522.
Arunachalam, R. and M. Shah. “The Prostitute’s Allure: The Return to Beauty in
Commercial Sex Work.” Unpublished Manuscript, University of Michigan and UC,
Asian Development Bank (ADB). Bangladesh: Gender, Poverty and the MDGs. Manilla:
Asian Development Bank, 2005.
BBC News Online (BBC). “Bangladesh Says Prostitution Legal.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/677280.stm. (May 22, 2010).
Baumeister, R.F., K.R. Cantanese and K.D. Vohs. “Is There a Gender Difference in Strength
of Sex Drive? Theoretical Views, Conceptual Distinctions and a Review of Relevant
Evidence.” Personality & Social Psychology Review 5 (2001): 242-273.
Bertrand, M., D. Karlan, S. Mullainathan, E. Shafir and J. Zinman. “What’s Advertising
Content Worth? Evidence From a Consumer Credit Marketing Field Experiment.”
Blanchet, T. Bangladesh Girls Sold as Wives in North India. Drishti Research Centre, Dhaka,
Brown, L. The Dancing Girls of Lahore. New York: Fourth Estate, 2005.
Brown, L. “Performance, Status and Hybridity in a Pakistani Red-Light District: The Cultural
Production of the Courtesan.” Sexualities, 10 (2007): 409-423.
Buss, D.M. Evolutionary Psychology, The New Science of the Mind. Boston: Allyn and
Cameron, S. Economics of Sin: Rational Choice or No Choice at All? Edward Elgar:
Cornish, F. “Challenging the Stigma of Sex Work in India: Material Context and Symbolic
Change.” Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 16 (2006): 462-471.
Della Giusta, M.D., M.L. Di Tommaso and S. Strom. “Who’s Watching? The Market for
Prostitution Services.” Journal of Population Economics 22 (2009): 501-516.
Edlund, L. and E. Korn. “A Theory of Prostitution.” Journal of Political Economy 110.1
End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual
Purposes (ECPAT). Global Monitoring Report on the Status of Action Against
Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: Bangladesh. Bangkok: ECPAT, 2006.
Gangestad, S. and J. Simpson. “The Evolution of Human Mating: Trade-offs and Strategic
Pluralism.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23 (2000): 573-644.
Gertler, P., M. Shah and S. Bertozzi. “Risky Business: The Market for Unprotected Sex.”
Journal of Political Economy 113.3 (2005): 518-550.
Hammond, C. “I’m Just Here For Survival.” The Guardian, January 9, 2008.
Hakim, C. “Erotic Capital.” European Sociological Review 26.5 (2010): 499-518.
Hatfield, E. and S. Sprecher. Mirror, Mirror ...... The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life.
Albany: SUNY Press, 1986.
Islam, A. “Establishing Basic Human Rights of CSWs and protecting them from Oppression
and Exploitation.” Project Research Report, BIDS, 2005.
Islam, A. and R. Smyth. “The Economic Returns to Good Looks and Risky Sex in the
Bangladesh Commercial Sex Market.” The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis &
Policy (Contributions) 12.1 (2012): Article 22.
Jarillo, J.C. “On Strategic Networks.” Strategic Management Journal 9.3 (1988): 3-41.
Karim R., N. Selim and S. Rashid. “Sex Workers and Condom Use - the Political Economy
of HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh.” Working paper No.4, Research and Evaluation
Division, BRAC, 2008.
Khan, S. The Fifty Per cent: Women in Development and Policy in Bangladesh. Dhaka,
Kotiswaran, P. “Born Unto Brothels – Toward a Legal Ethnography of Sex Work in an
Indian Red-Light Area.” Law and Social Inquiry 33 (2008): 579-629.
Langlois, J., L. Kalakanis, A. Rubenstein, A. Larson and M. Hallam. “Maxims of Myths of
Beauty? A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review.” Psychological Bulletin 126.3
Levitt, S. and S.A. Venkatesh. “An empirical analysis of street-level prostitution.”
Unpublished Manuscript, University of Chicago and Columbia University, 2007.
McAlvanah, P. “Are People More Risk Taking in the Presence of the Opposite Sex?” Journal
of Economic Psychology 30 (2009): 136-146.
Moffatt, P.G. and S.A. Peters. “Pricing Personal Services: An Empirical Study of Earnings in
the UK Prostitution Industry.” Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 51.5 (2004):
Mondal, A.H. and A. Islam. “Policy Research on the Crucial Issues of the Socially
Disadvantaged Women (Commercial Sex Workers) and their Children in
Bangladesh.” Report of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, Dhaka,
February 22, 2006.
Orchard, T.R. “Girl, Woman, Lover, Mother: Towards a New Understanding of Child
Prostitution Among Young Devadasis in Rural Karnataka, India.” Social Science and
Medicine 64.12 (2007): 2379-2390.
Rao, V., I. Gupta, M. Lokshin and S. Jana. ‘”Sex Workers and the Cost of Safe Sex: The
Compensating Differential for Condom Use Among Calcutta Prostitutes.” Journal of
Development Economics 71 (2003): 585-603.
Robinson, J. and E. Yeh. “Transactional Sex as a Response to Risk in Western Kenya.”
American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3.1 (2011): 35-64.
Rosenblat, T.S. “The Beauty Premium: Physical Attractiveness and Gender in Dictator
Games.” Negotiation Journal 24.4 (2008): 465-481.
Santor, D. and J. Walker. “Garnering the Interest of Others: Mediating the Effects Among
Physical Attractiveness, Self-worth and Dominance.” British Journal of Social
Psychology 38.4 (1999): 461-477.
Scruton, R. “What it Means to be Human.” The Spectator, March 20, 2004:18-20
Swendeman, D., I. Basu, S. Das, S. Jana and M.J. Rotheram-Borus. “Empowering Sex
Workers to Reduce Vulnerability to HIV and STDs.” Social Science and Medicine 69
Van Kleef, G.A., W. Steinel1, D. van Knippenberg, M.A. Hogg and A. Svensson. “Group
Member Prototypicality and Intergroup Negotiation: How One’s Standing in the
Group Affects Negotiation Behaviour.” British Journal of Social Psychology 46
Wahed, T. and A. Bhuiya. “Battered Bodies and Shattered Minds: Violence Against Women
in Bangladesh.” Indian Journal of Medical Research 126.4 (2007): 341-354.
Weng, H.H., L.A. Bastian, D.H. Taylor, B.K. Moser and T. Ostbye. “Number of Children
Associated with Obesity in Middle-aged Women and Men: Results from the Health
and Retirement Study.” Journal of Women’s Health 13 (2004): 85-91.
Wilson, M. and M. Daly. “Do Pretty Women Inspire Men to Discount the Future?”
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 271 (2004): S177-S179.
World Bank. HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh. Washington DC: The World Bank, 2009.
Zuckerman, M., and R. Driver. “What Sounds Beautiful is Good: The Vocal Attractiveness
Stereotype.” Journal of Non-Verbal Behavior 13 (1989): 67-82.
Table 10.1: Motivation for Becoming a Sex Worker (BIDS Survey, 2005)
Source: Mondal and Islam (2006)
Table 10.2 Incidence of Assault of Sex Workers by Clients/Bariwalis (BIDS Survey, 2005)
Table 10.3: The Number of Times Sex Workers were Raped whilst Working (BIDS Survey, 2005)
Source: Mondal and Islam (2006)