“There Was An Uproar”: Reading The Arcane of Reproduction Through Sex Work in India

sexwork

“if your life is a strug­gle to sur­vive and to sup­port oth­ers, then you won’t be con­cerned with whether the work you can get is dig­ni­fied or not… One must empha­size the mean­ing­less of this divide over and over again, in dif­fer­ent ways… There are two ways you can pluck a ripe man­go.  You can either strike it down the hard way, with a stone, or you can pluck it soft­ly, han­dle it gen­tly.  In the end, the man­go will be eat­en, any­way!”

– Nalini Jamee­la, The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of a Sex Work­er, 20071

In June 1936, a group of wom­en invit­ed B.R. Ambed­kar2 to a meet­ing in the dis­trict of Kamath­ipu­ra in Mum­bai. Ambed­kar, in the mid­st of a busy peri­od3 of meet­ings and con­fer­ences that drew audi­ences in the tens of thou­sands, often spoke of the promise of women’s uplift­ment, so the invi­ta­tion was not in itself sur­pris­ing.  But Kamath­ipu­ra —today the scene of rapid gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, once home to some 10,000 sex work­ers4 in one of the largest red-light dis­tricts in India — was an unlike­ly stop.

Formed in the shad­ow of British impe­ri­al expan­sion, Kamath­ipu­ra remains today the par­a­dig­mat­ic back­drop for grim­ly hope­ful Nicholas Kristof columns, stock sce­nes of seedy char­ac­ters in Bol­ly­wood movies, and media exposés.  In the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry, Kamath­ipu­ra was a place of recre­ation for sol­diers, sailors, and migrant work­ers drawn to colo­nial Bom­bay by the bur­geon­ing cot­ton trade.5 The sex­u­al econ­o­my of Kamath­ipu­ra, and the wom­en and fam­i­lies who lived there, lay at the tan­gled heart of colo­nial anx­i­eties about race and sex, dis­ease and moral degra­da­tion, and, lat­er, formed the bleak coun­ter­point to nation­al­ist visions of the mod­ern Indi­an wom­an.6

Many of the wom­en attend­ing the meet­ing were Dal­its.7 Many were also part of hered­i­tary sys­tems of reli­gious ded­i­ca­tion to tem­ple deities often linked to pros­ti­tu­tion,8 such as devadasi, murali and jogti prac­tices, which involve large­ly Dal­it and low­er-caste wom­en.9 The wom­en said they want­ed to join Ambedkar’s move­ment for Dal­it con­ver­sion to Bud­dhism. They also hoped he would exer­cise his clout to help them protest police bru­tal­i­ty.  But Ambedkar’s speech, by most accounts, sur­prised the wom­en with the vehe­mence of his dis­missal.  He informed the wom­en that they were “a shame to the com­mu­ni­ty” and must leave behind their “dis­gust­ing pro­fes­sion.”10 The soci­ol­o­gist Gail Omvedt writes, “there was an uproar, and the wom­en poured into the streets, curs­ing and yelling…”11

Two aspects of this inci­dent are worth par­tic­u­lar note.  One is the col­lec­tive mobi­liza­tion of pros­ti­tutes in India again­st police bru­tal­i­ty more than forty years before the Scar­lot Har­lot would orig­i­nate the term “sex work” in San Fran­cis­co to chal­lenge the stigma­ti­za­tion of sex work,12 and orga­nized sex work­ers’ move­ments would gain momen­tum around the world.13 Despite the ubiq­ui­tous char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of sex work­ers in the “Third World” as silent vic­tims in the accounts of anti-traf­fick­ing advo­cates,14 sex work­ers in the red-light areas, tem­ples, and oth­er pub­lic spaces in India have long protest­ed abuse in spo­radic and some­times more sys­tem­at­ic ways.15 Sec­ond are the terms on which this mobi­liza­tion erupt­ed.  The devada­sis, mural­is, and jogtis of Kamath­ipu­ra, rather than high­light­ing their unique forms of mar­gin­al­iza­tion, instead sought to posi­tion them­selves alongside oth­er Dal­its, and align the prob­lem of police bru­tal­i­ty with oth­er Dal­it con­cerns.

Even as the wom­en endeav­ored to undo their excep­tion­al­iza­tion, how­ev­er, Ambed­kar imposed on it a caste-inflect­ed moral cri­tique.  It is no secret that Ambedkar’s notion of fem­i­nine uplift­ment had its roots in ide­als of upper-caste fem­i­nin­i­ty, despite his sophis­ti­cat­ed under­stand­ing of the ways in which Dal­it women’s degra­da­tion and sex­u­al exploita­tion under­pinned caste oppres­sion.  In 1927, for exam­ple, he exhort­ed Dal­it wom­en to “wear your sari in the way that upper-caste wom­en wear their saris,’”16 and “’pay atten­tion to clean­li­ness.”17 Ambedkar’s cri­tique of pros­ti­tu­tion built on the­se classed moral divi­sions: “You will ask me how you are to make your liv­ing.  There are hun­dreds of ways of doing it… You must mar­ry and set­tle down to nor­mal domes­tic life as wom­en of oth­er class­es do…”18 Here, then, was the specter of the oth­er pro­to­typ­i­cal insti­tu­tion of social repro­duc­tion: the wom­en of Kamath­ipu­ra could choose to be whores, or they could choose to be wives.19

This polar­ized oppo­si­tion between house­work and prostitution—the divi­sion Ambed­kar reinforced—is still under­ex­plored in Marx­ist fem­i­nist think­ing on repro­duc­tion. Prab­ha Kotiswaran argues that the (most­ly Euro­pean) debates on domes­tic work in the 1970s “lacked a the­o­ry of sex”20—they estab­lished pros­ti­tu­tion as part of gen­dered cir­cuits of repro­duc­tion, but had lit­tle to say on its rela­tion­ship to (or dif­fer­ence from) house­work.  Pros­ti­tu­tion, at best, was vague­ly fold­ed into oth­er forms of housework—all mar­riages were also rela­tion­ships of pros­ti­tu­tion, or else pros­ti­tu­tion filled the sex­u­al deficits with­in marriage—but not ana­lyzed as a form of labor with ana­lyt­i­cal­ly dis­tinct fea­tures.  Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, for exam­ple, ana­lyzes sex work­ers and house­wives as the­o­ret­i­cal­ly equiv­a­lent: “sex is work”21 for all wom­en, who are “in a ser­vant rela­tion to the entire male world,”22 and thus “pros­ti­tu­tion under­li­nes every sex­u­al encoun­ter.”23 The real tar­get of Wages for (or again­st) House­work, then, is the gen­der­ing of repro­duc­tion in gen­er­al.  Because “the attrib­ut­es of fem­i­nin­i­ty are in fact work func­tions,”24 the idea of gen­dered dif­fer­ence nat­u­ral­izes women’s role as repro­duc­ers.  Fed­eri­ci attrib­ut­es this nat­u­ral­iza­tion to the lack of wage; thus, the aim of Wages for House­work is not to make repro­duc­tion obso­lete, at least in the short term, but rather to break the tie between fem­i­nin­i­ty and repro­duc­tive labor. 

Aside from the sym­bol­ic pros­ti­tu­tion of repro­duc­tive relationships—a com­mon the­me in fem­i­nist writings—this con­clu­sion leads to some prac­ti­cal ambi­gu­i­ties in ana­lyz­ing actu­al­ly exist­ing sex work.  If it is wages for house­work that denat­u­ral­ize repro­duc­tion, then why is sex work, a paid activ­i­ty, still ren­dered invis­i­ble with­in the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, and large­ly (though cer­tain­ly not exclu­sive­ly) per­formed by wom­en?  Why is sex work crim­i­nal­ized in most of the world, while mar­riage is gen­er­al­ly reward­ed?  What would wages for house­work mean for sex work—would house­wives and sex work­ers now become for­mal­ly equiv­a­lent?  What is the rela­tion­ship between house­work and paid domes­tic work?  What real­ly sep­a­rates sex work­ers and housewives—or are they the­o­ret­i­cal­ly inter­change­able?25

Leopold­ina Fortunati’s The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion offers some hints toward answer­ing the­se ques­tions.26 In empha­siz­ing the rela­tion­ships of each set of repro­duc­tive workers—housewives and sex workers—to the male work­er as a way of prov­ing that they pro­duce sur­plus val­ue, For­tu­nati leaves less room for a dis­cus­sion of types of repro­duc­tive work­ers to each oth­er, but she does offer a few points.  Ini­tial­ly, she describes pros­ti­tu­tion as a corol­lary to housework—it makes up the deficits in domes­tic sex­u­al­i­ty.27 Though pros­ti­tu­tion bears some fea­tures that resem­ble wage labor—it is paid for with money—it is still essen­tial­ly a non-waged but indi­rect­ly waged rela­tion­ship, con­nect­ed to cir­cuits of pro­duc­tion through the male labor­er, and with few­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for bar­gain­ing over or exit­ing a con­tract than are avail­able to him.  Lat­er, For­tu­nati notes the over­laps between the­se cat­e­gories: fac­to­ry-work­ing wom­en can be both moth­ers and pros­ti­tutes, and fac­to­ries can become cen­ters of pros­ti­tu­tion.  Thus, cap­i­tal “has nev­er hes­i­tat­ed to exploit wom­en as pros­ti­tute, house­work­er and pro­duc­tion work­er as and when it required, and often as all three simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.“28 Final­ly, For­tu­nati notes that the com­ple­men­tar­i­ty of pros­ti­tu­tion and house­work is cen­tral to the sus­te­nance of the fam­i­ly as an insti­tu­tion: “The wave of repres­sion of pros­ti­tutes is in real­i­ty capital’s attempt to re-estab­lish the com­ple­men­tary aspects of the exchange, and to once more place pros­ti­tu­tion work in a sec­ondary posi­tion to house­work in terms of the male worker’s quan­ti­ta­tive con­sump­tion of it.”29 The fact that “the divi­sion in the female job-mar­ket between the pros­ti­tute and the non-pros­ti­tute is thus blur­ring”30 pos­es a threat to cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions, because it is the sep­a­ra­tion of pros­ti­tu­tion and house­work that makes the anchor­ing of social repro­duc­tion to female labor­ers in the house­hold pos­si­ble.

For­tu­nati is argu­ing that just as the role of repro­duc­tive labor with­in cir­cuits of pro­duc­tion is obscured, the role of pros­ti­tu­tion in pro­vid­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal basis for the fam­i­ly is obscured, too.  With­in cap­i­tal­ism, there is no lov­ing mar­riage with­out the specter of the degrad­ed, moral­ly degen­er­ate rela­tion­ship between the sex work­er and her client.31 Even if the two groups are more sim­i­lar than different—both because the groups may actu­al­ly over­lap, and because they both involve sex­u­al, emo­tion­al, and inti­mate reproduction—it is part of the mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of repro­duc­tion to main­tain their dis­tinc­tion.  For­tu­nati con­cludes that “it is in capital’s inter­est to keep the female house­work­ers sep­a­rate, reduc­ing their pos­si­bil­i­ties to orga­nize amongst them­selves,”32 and thus “the only thing that will bring free­dom from pros­ti­tu­tion work is the com­mon strug­gle of all wom­en unit­ed in strug­gle again­st the non-direct­ly-waged work-rela­tion.”33 Fortunati’s points here offer an open­ing to well-devel­oped fem­i­nist insights on the pro­duc­tion of femininity—not just fem­i­nin­i­ty as the dif­fer­ence between wom­en and men, repro­duc­ers and pro­duc­ers, but the pro­duc­tion of dis­tinct forms of fem­i­nin­i­ty that, in com­ple­ment­ing and oppos­ing one anoth­er, sus­tain women’s sub­or­di­na­tion with­in the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion.  The excep­tion­al­iza­tion of one form of repro­duc­tive labor, in this account, sus­tains the nat­u­ral­iza­tion of the oth­er.  

Return­ing to Kamath­ipu­ra sug­gests the spa­tial dimen­sions of this excep­tion­al­iza­tion.  As the “penul­ti­mate, icon­ic Indi­an red-light dis­trict,” the ethno­g­ra­pher Svati Shah writes, Kamath­ipu­ra has been “spec­tac­u­lar­ized” through mul­ti­ple visu­al­iza­tions and retellings.34 The­se lay­ers of spa­tial dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, Shah argues, mark sex work as vis­i­bly mar­gin­al, dis­tinct from the cir­cuits of migrant labor and respectable fam­i­ly rela­tions that define the rest of the city, rather than fun­da­men­tal­ly linked to them. This inscrip­tion of Kamath­ipu­ra as a per­ma­nent­ly mar­gin­al space has been cen­tral in the man­age­ment of moral pan­ic and the fear of con­ta­gious dis­ease35, and now in under­gird­ing Mumbai’s aspi­ra­tions to sta­tus as a world-class city.  Mum­bai cer­tain­ly does not rep­re­sent the arche­typ­al econ­o­my Fed­eri­ci and For­tu­nati ana­lyze, built around nuclear fam­i­lies and for­mal wage labor in mir­rored pro­duc­tive cir­cuits.  In India, employ­ment in the for­mal econ­o­my is a rel­a­tive rar­i­ty: 93% of the labor force is infor­mal, or not for­mal­ly pro­tect­ed.36 Yet the res­o­nances with Fortunati’s reflec­tions are nev­er­the­less clear: sex work in India, as else­where, is close­ly inter­twined with the fac­to­ry work, con­struc­tion work, domes­tic work, and oth­er infor­mal sec­tor work that sus­tain the for­mal econ­o­my even as it is ren­dered moral­ly excep­tion­al.37 A sur­vey of 3000 Indi­an wom­en in sex work in 14 Indi­an states found that 61% had expe­ri­ence of oth­er labor mar­kets, and 21% con­tin­ued to have “dual work iden­ti­ties.”38  Not to men­tion that the major­i­ty of sex work­ers in many state-lev­el sur­veys in India are mar­ried and per­form repro­duc­tive labor at home.

The sep­a­ra­tion of sex work­ers from oth­er work­ers, repro­duc­tive and pro­duc­tive, is not only a moral one; it is enact­ed through the law.  Engels wrote in 1878 that mar­riage was mere­ly “the legal­ly rec­og­nized form, the offi­cial cloak of pros­ti­tu­tion”39; a report from the sex work­er col­lec­tive Veshya Anyay Muk­shi Parishad (VAMP) argues that “the uncer­tain legal sta­tus attached to [sex work­ers’] work and identity…‘invisibilises’ them as cit­i­zens.”40 The laws gov­ern­ing sex work in India, the Indi­an Penal Code and the Immoral Traf­fick­ing (Pre­ven­tion) Act, are large­ly colo­nial holdovers that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly acknowl­edge the prac­tice of sex work—by not, for exam­ple, crim­i­nal­iz­ing the exchange of sex for mon­ey itself—and restrict its prac­tice by crim­i­nal­iz­ing sex-work-relat­ed activ­i­ties like solic­it­ing in pub­lic places and liv­ing off the earn­ings of a pros­ti­tute.41 Though the­se ambi­gu­i­ties aim to pre­vent abus­es of sex work­ers by pimps and bro­kers, in prac­tice they expand the pos­si­bil­i­ties for police abuse, while they rein­scribe sex work’s excep­tion­al sta­tus.

Apart from the per­sis­tent voic­es of anti-traf­fick­ing abo­li­tion­ists who argue that all pros­ti­tu­tion is sex­u­al vio­lence, sex work­ers’ groups in India have made high­ly var­ied activist claims.42 The­se dif­fer­ences reflect diver­si­ty in forms and sites of sex work, as well as dis­tinct region­al polit­i­cal for­ma­tions and dis­tinct analy­ses of the nature of sex work. Of an esti­mat­ed 868,000 sex work­ers in India,43 those in some large cities with his­to­ries of direct colo­nial rule, such as Kolkata, Mum­bai, and Del­hi, have major red-light dis­tricts in which sex work appears spa­tial­ly dis­tinct from oth­er labor mar­kets, while oth­ers, like Ban­ga­lore and Chen­nai, have more dis­persed sex work prac­tices that cen­ter in scat­tered small-scale broth­els or pub­lic places like parks, bus stands, train sta­tions, or mar­ket­places.  Tra­di­tion­al sys­tems of pros­ti­tu­tion, such as the devadasi tra­di­tion, though for­mal­ly ille­gal, exist alongside oth­er forms of sex­u­al exchange not linked to reli­gious prac­tice.  In Kolkata, with its his­to­ry of left activism and trade union­ism, sex work­ers read­i­ly posi­tioned them­selves as wom­en work­ers; in oth­er parts of India, the lan­guage of gen­der jus­tice, human rights or women’s empow­er­ment emerged more eas­i­ly among sex work­er activists.  Some groups, like those in Kolkata and in Ker­ala, have argued that sex work is a plea­sur­able and appeal­ing occu­pa­tion, while oth­ers avoid this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and empha­size its sim­i­lar­i­ties with oth­er pre­car­i­ous and often abu­sive occu­pa­tions, and most some com­bi­na­tion of the two.  A com­mon thread, how­ev­er, is the effort to ren­der sex work unexceptional—a thread that runs back from Indi­an devadasi reform­ers in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, who posi­tioned them­selves with­in a glo­ri­ous Hin­du reli­gious tra­di­tion and denounced “immoral” sex­u­al­i­ty,44 to con­tem­po­rary sex work­er activists like Nalini Jamee­la, who, when describ­ing her first encoun­ter with sex work in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy, calls it “using the wom­an the way the hus­band does.”45  

Whether or not the­se accounts see sex work as prefer­able or desir­able work, then, they nev­er­the­less coun­ter the obscur­ing of its rela­tion­ship to mar­riage, oth­er forms of labor, or reli­gious prac­tice.  The man­i­festo pro­duced at the First Nation­al Con­fer­ence of Sex Work­ers in India, con­vened in 1997 in Kolkata by the Dur­bar Mahi­la Saman­waya Com­mit­tee, argues,

Wom­en are pit­ted again­st each oth­er as wife again­st the pros­ti­tute, again­st the chaste and the immoral — both rep­re­sent­ed as fight­ing over the atten­tion and lust of men. A chaste wife is grant­ed no sex­u­al­i­ty, only a de-sexed moth­er­hood and domes­tic­i­ty. At the oth­er end of the spec­trum is the “fal­l­en” wom­an — a sex machine, unfet­tered by any domes­tic incli­na­tion or “fem­i­nine” emo­tion… In all cas­es female sex­u­al­i­ty is con­trolled and shaped by patri­archy to repro­duce the exist­ing polit­i­cal econ­o­my of sex­u­al­i­ty and safe­guard the inter­est of men.46

While some cri­tique the man­i­festo as “lib­er­al fem­i­nist,”47 it pro­vides a basis for link­ing sex work to the more gen­er­al­ized con­di­tion of fem­i­nine repro­duc­tive laborers—if not, as Marx called it, a “speci­fic expres­sion of the gen­er­al pros­ti­tu­tion of the labor­er.” It builds on a long fem­i­nist tra­di­tion of ana­lyz­ing the specter of sex work as a mode of dis­ci­plin­ing all women’s sex­u­al­i­ty, but links it to the actu­al con­di­tions of work of actu­al sex work­ers.  The Kar­nataka Sex Work­ers Union argues that “we are noth­ing less or more than any oth­er work­er.”48  

The dis­com­fort Indi­an sex work­ers have faced in seek­ing alliances with fem­i­nist, labor, and Dal­it activists large­ly stem from the excep­tion­al­iza­tion of sex work in rela­tion to oth­er forms of gen­dered repro­duc­tive labor.  Some fem­i­nists object to sex work out of hand and argue for its abo­li­tion; oth­ers, like Rajesh­wari Sun­der Rajan, argue for “abol­ish­ing the sys­tem while empow­er­ing the prac­tice.”49 India’s orga­nized labor move­ment has only recent­ly begun to engage with fem­i­nized infor­mal labor, let alone the pol­i­tics of sex work.  Fur­ther objec­tions to sex work come from Dal­it activists and schol­ars who, fol­low­ing Ambedkar’s crit­i­cisms, note that sex work is often per­formed by Dal­it wom­en for the sex­u­al plea­sure of upper-caste men; thus sex work­ers are “ser­vants of the state and upper caste men,”50 and sex work sim­ply anoth­er instan­ti­a­tion of caste oppres­sion.  In Dal­it move­ments, tra­di­tions like the devadasi tra­di­tion become sym­bol­ic lim­it cas­es of the oppres­sion of Dal­it wom­en.51

The­o­ries of repro­duc­tive labor like Fortunati’s—or the more recent work on “inti­mate labors”52 —offer a way out of the­se moral nego­ti­a­tions about the “right” or “wrong” of sex work or pros­ti­tu­tion as an insti­tu­tion iso­lat­ed from the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of house­work and repro­duc­tive labor. Instead, they take the exploita­tive nature of sex work as given with­out mark­ing it as a tar­get of unique crim­i­nal restric­tions or social stig­ma.  Exchang­ing sex work for anoth­er form of work—through the respectabil­i­ty of mar­riage, or the dig­ni­ty of wage labor, or both—does not change the under­ly­ing con­di­tions of exploita­tion: as Fed­eri­ci writes, “work in a cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem is exploita­tion and there is no plea­sure, pride, or cre­ativ­i­ty in being exploit­ed.”53 In this vein, the way out for sex work activism is not to rein­force the sep­a­ra­tion of sex work­ers and care­work­ers, but to expose the mech­a­nisms by which this sep­a­ra­tion is repro­duced, and redi­rect atten­tion to the under­ly­ing con­di­tions of exploita­tion and pover­ty.

Read in this light, the nar­ra­tives of failed or absent hus­bands I have heard from many sex work­ers in inter­views in Kar­nataka become more than a long­ing for male pro­tec­tion.  They point to the fail­ure of mar­riage and the lic­it econ­o­my to provide the promised means for basic sur­vival. Sex work becomes a nec­es­sary exten­sion of marriage—it allows wom­en to feed them­selves and their chil­dren, while main­tain­ing the illu­sion that “respectable” jobs and “respectable” mar­riages will suf­fice.  Sam­i­na (name changed), a sex work­er in Kar­nataka, explains:

I was scared when I was a girl.  My hus­band was like God.  I shouldn’t say any­thing.   I thought if I died, I should die in his lap… I shouldn’t lift my eyes up and look at any­one oth­er than him.  That’s how I thought about it.  Now, my mind has blos­somed, like a lotus flow­er. Lotus­es grow in the swamp, right?  Even though we’re in a swamp, just like lotus flow­ers, we’ve made peo­ple think well of us… [they see that] the­se wom­en are good… their hus­bands don’t earn… Only if you know the sto­ry do you know how things are.54

Samina’s dec­la­ra­tion of “how things are” echoes in the work of sex work­er groups in India who seek to coun­ter their excep­tion­al­iza­tion by artic­u­lat­ing rela­tion­ships to oth­er seg­ments of work­ers and poor wom­en.  In Kolkata, the Dur­bar Mahi­la Saman­waya Com­mit­tee (DMSC) ini­tial­ly posi­tioned sex work as pro­fes­sion­al ser­vice labor or enter­tain­ment labor, and has more recent­ly argued for their sim­i­lar­i­ties to man­u­al work­ers as part of the New Trade Union Ini­tia­tive (NTUI). Sex work­ers at the Kar­nataka Sex Work­ers’ Union (KSWU) have empha­sized their sim­i­lar­i­ties to infor­mal work­ers, like wastepick­ers, as well as their sim­i­lar­i­ties to work­ing-class sex­u­al and gen­der minori­ties.55 The Veshya Anyay Muk­ti Parishad (VAMP) in San­gli, Maha­rash­tra, draw­ing on its links to fem­i­nist move­ments across India, decid­ed again­st char­ac­ter­iz­ing itself as a union and instead orga­nizes as a sex work­er col­lec­tive.  Asho­daya Samithi in Mysore, India posi­tions itself as a com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides sex work­ers with ser­vices as well as advo­cat­ing for sex work­ers’ human rights.  Sev­er­al oth­er col­lec­tives of sex work­ers in India see sex work as the high­ly con­strained (but nev­er­the­less legit­i­mate) choice of wom­en in pover­ty who iden­ti­fy as moth­ers and wives first, and who must also be pro­vid­ed with oth­er eco­nom­ic options, such as micro­cre­d­it and sav­ings.

While the­se vari­a­tions reflect a range of polit­i­cal world­views, insti­tu­tion­al affil­i­a­tions, donor rela­tion­ships, and alliances, they share a uni­fy­ing insight: that sex work is a speci­fic con­fig­u­ra­tion of a gen­er­al con­di­tion, and that sex work­ers’ strug­gles and aspi­ra­tions align with those of oth­er repro­duc­tive labor­ers.  To iso­late sex work from the web of polit­i­cal eco­nom­ic rela­tions in which it takes place is to deny the ways in which poor wom­en and men seek eco­nom­ic sur­vival, inti­ma­cy, sex, and love, in often bru­tal cir­cum­stances.


  1. Nalini Jamee­la, The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of a Sex Work­er, trans. J. Devika (New Del­hi: West­land, 2007), 174–5. 

  2. Ambed­kar was a Dal­it lead­er, schol­ar, and politi­cian, and framer of the Indi­an con­sti­tu­tion. 

  3. Gail Omvedt, Ambed­kar: Towards an Enlight­ened India (New Del­hi: Pen­guin, 2004), 62. 

  4. Svati Shah, “Pro­duc­ing The Spec­ta­cle of Kamath­ipu­ra: The Pol­i­tics of Red Light Vis­i­bil­i­ty in Mum­bai,” Cul­tur­al Dynam­ics 18, no. 3 (2006): 275. 

  5. Ash­wini Tam­be, “The Elu­sive Ingénue: A Transna­tion­al Fem­i­nist Analy­sis of Euro­pean Pros­ti­tu­tion in Colo­nial Bom­bay,” Gen­der & Soci­ety 19, no. 2 (2005): 163. 

  6. Partha Chat­ter­jee, “Colo­nial­ism, Nation­al­ism, and Colo­nial­ized Wom­en: The Con­test in India,” Amer­i­can Eth­nol­o­gist 16, no. 4 (1989): 627; Priyadarshini Vijais­ri, “Con­tend­ing Iden­ti­ties: Sacred Pros­ti­tu­tion and Reform in Colo­nial South India,” South Asia: Jour­nal of South Asian Stud­ies 28, no. 3 (2005): 387–411. 

  7. Dal­it, mean­ing “oppressed” or “crushed,” refers to those groups con­sid­ered “untouch­able” with­in the Hin­du caste sys­tem. 

  8. I use the term “pros­ti­tute” only where the term “sex work­er” would be anachro­nis­tic. 

  9. Dav­esh Sone­ji, Unfin­ished Ges­tures: Devada­sis, Mem­o­ry, and Moder­ni­ty in South India (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago Press, 2011); Lucin­da Ram­berg, Given to the God­dess: South Indi­an Devada­sis and the Sex­u­al­i­ty of Reli­gion (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014). 

  10. Anu­pa­ma Rao, The Caste Ques­tion: Dal­its and the Pol­i­tics of Mod­ern India (Berke­ley, CA: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2009), 66. 

  11. Omvedt, Ambed­kar, 64. 

  12. Car­ol Leigh, “Invent­ing Sex Work,” in Whores and Oth­er Fem­i­nists, ed. Jill Nagle (New York: Rout­ledge, 1997), 223–31. 

  13. Kamala Kem­padoo and Jo Doeze­ma, Glob­al Sex Work­ers: Rights, Resis­tance, and Rede­f­i­n­i­tion (New York, NY: Rout­ledge, 1998). 

  14. see Jo Doeze­ma, “Ouch!: West­ern Fem­i­nists’ ‘Wound­ed Attach­ment’ to the ‘Third World Pros­ti­tute,’” Fem­i­nist Review 67 (2001): 16–38; Gretchen Soder­lund, “Run­ning from the Res­cuers: New US Cru­sades again­st Sex Traf­fick­ing and the Rhetoric of Abo­li­tion,” NWSA Jour­nal 17, no. 3 (2005): 64–87; Ronald Weitzer, “The Social Con­struc­tion of Sex Traf­fick­ing: Ide­ol­o­gy and Insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of a Moral Cru­sade,” Pol­i­tics & Soci­ety 35, no. 3 (2007): 447–75; Lau­ra María Agustín, Sex at the Mar­gins: Migra­tion, Labour Mar­kets and the Res­cue Indus­try (New York: Zed Books, 2007); Eliz­a­beth Bern­stein, “Carcer­al Pol­i­tics as Gen­der Jus­tice? The ‘Traf­fic in Wom­en’ and Neolib­er­al Cir­cuits of Crime, Sex, and Rights,” The­o­ry and Soci­ety 41, no. 3 (2012): 233–59; Ele­na Shih, “The Anti-Traf­fick­ing Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Com­plex,” Con­texts 13, no. 1 (2014) for cri­tiques of this vic­tim nar­ra­tive. 

  15. A com­mon strat­e­gy of anti-traf­fick­ing advo­cates in dis­count­ing sex work­er activists in Europe and North Amer­i­ca has been to argue that their sex-rad­i­cal pol­i­tics of sex work­ers is irrel­e­vant to the lives of Third World wom­en, though oth­ers argue that pros­ti­tu­tion is sex­u­al vio­lence by def­i­n­i­tion (see Andrea Dwork­in, “Pros­ti­tu­tion and Male Suprema­cy,” Michi­gan Jour­nal of Gen­der & Law 1 (1993): 1–12; Sheila Jef­freys, The Idea of Pros­ti­tu­tion (Spinifex Press, 1997); Catharine MacK­in­non, “Traf­fick­ing, Pros­ti­tu­tion, and Inequal­i­ty,” Har­vard Civil Rights-Civil Lib­er­ties Law Review 46 (2011): 271–309.) 

  16. Thanks to Lucin­da Ram­berg for this ref­er­ence. 

  17. Rao, The Caste Ques­tion: Dal­its and the Pol­i­tics of Mod­ern India, 67. 

  18. Prab­ha Kotiswaran, “Wives and Whores: Prospects for a Fem­i­nist The­o­ry of Redis­tri­b­u­tion,” in Sex­u­al­i­ty and the Law: Fem­i­nist Engage­ments, ed. Vanes­sa Munro and Carl Stych­in (Lon­don: Rout­ledge-Cavendish, 2007). 

  19. FPrab­ha Kotiswaran, “Wives and Whores: Prospects for a Fem­i­nist The­o­ry of Redis­tri­b­u­tion,” in Sex­u­al­i­ty and the Law: Fem­i­nist Engage­ments, ed. Vanes­sa Munro and Carl Stych­in (Lon­don: Rout­ledge-Cavendish, 2007). 

  20. Prab­ha Kotiswaran, Dan­ger­ous Sex, Invis­i­ble Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India (Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011), 59. 

  21. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero: House­work, Repro­duc­tion, and Fem­i­nist Strug­gle (Oak­land, CA: PM Press, 2012), 24. 

  22. Ibid., 18. 

  23. Ibid., 25. 

  24. Ibid., 8. 

  25. Kotiswaran (2007) looks to the fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture on sex work to out­line dis­tinct strands in rela­tion to this ques­tion: an “over­lap approach” (all house­wives are sex work­ers and vice ver­sa, either func­tion­al­ly or fig­u­ra­tive­ly), a “con­tin­u­um approach (sex work and mar­riage occu­py two ends of a con­tin­u­um) or the “bar­gain­ing approach” (sex work­ers’ inter­ests con­flict with those of house­wives). 

  26. Leopold­ina For­tu­nati, The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion: House­work, Pros­ti­tu­tion, Labor and Cap­i­tal, ed. Jim Flem­ing, trans. Hillary Creek (New York: Autono­me­dia, 1995). The book over­all aims to estab­lish the fact that repro­duc­tive labor pro­duces value—it is, For­tu­nati insists, “productive”—and thus must be of inter­est to any the­o­ry of rev­o­lu­tion. Indeed, For­tu­nati argues, a key effect of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions is the obscur­ing of the val­ue pro­duced by repro­duc­tive labor, such that what occurs in the home or the broth­el appears to be out­side the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, but yet forms a nec­es­sary cir­cuit in the pro­duc­tive process. 

  27. For­tu­nati, The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion: House­work, Pros­ti­tu­tion, Labor and Cap­i­tal, 17. 

  28. Ibid., 41. 

  29. Ibid., 45. 

  30. Ibid., 44. 

  31. Mar­garet A. Bald­win, “Split at the Root: Pros­ti­tu­tion and Fem­i­nist Dis­cours­es of Law Reform,” Yale Jour­nal of Law & Fem­i­nism 5 (1992): 47; Anne McClin­tock, “Sex Work and Sex Work­ers: Intro­duc­tion,” Social Text 37 (1993): 1–10; Gail Pheter­son, “The Whore Stig­ma: Female Dis­hon­or and Male Unwor­thi­ness,” Social Text 37 (1993): 39–64. 

  32. For­tu­nati, The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion: House­work, Pros­ti­tu­tion, Labor and Cap­i­tal, 114. 

  33. Ibid 

  34. Svati Shah, Street Cor­ner Secrets: Sex, Work, and Migra­tion in the City of Mum­bai (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014), 153–4; see also Shah, “Pro­duc­ing The Spec­ta­cle of Kamath­ipu­ra: The Pol­i­tics of Red Light Vis­i­bil­i­ty in Mum­bai.” 

  35. See also Ash­wini Tam­be, Codes of Mis­con­duct: Reg­u­lat­ing Pros­ti­tu­tion in Late Colo­nial Bom­bay (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2009). 

  36. Rina Agar­wala, Infor­mal Labor, For­mal Pol­i­tics, and Dig­ni­fied Dis­con­tent in India (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013), 1. 

  37. This is an insight Kotiswaran (2011) relates to what she calls “depen­den­cy fem­i­nism,” which broad­ly empha­sizes the role of infor­mal, fem­i­nized “Third World” labor in sus­tain­ing cap­i­tal­ism. 

  38. Rohini Sah­ni and V. Kalyan Shankar, “Sex Work and Its Link­ages with Infor­mal Labour Mar­kets in India: Find­ings from the First Pan-India Sur­vey of Female Sex Work­ers,” 2013, 22, http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/123456789/2369. 

  39. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Read­er, Robert Tuck­er, Ed. Sec­ond Edi­tion (New York, NY: W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny, 1978), 686. 

  40. http://www.sangram.org/resources/status-of-women-in-sex-work-in-india-submission-to-CEDAW-committee.pdf 

  41. Ash­wini Tam­be, Codes of Mis­con­duct: Reg­u­lat­ing Pros­ti­tu­tion in Late Colo­nial Bom­bay (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2009); Prab­ha Kotiswaran, Dan­ger­ous Sex, Invis­i­ble Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India (Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011). 

  42. Not to men­tion fem­i­nist schol­ar­ly debate, e.g. Jean D’Cunha, “Pros­ti­tu­tion Laws: Ide­o­log­i­cal Dimen­sions and Enforce­ment Prac­tices,” Eco­nom­ic and Polit­i­cal Week­ly 27, no. 17 (1992): WS34–44; Rajeswari Sun­der Rajan, “The Pros­ti­tu­tion Question(s): Female Agen­cy, Sex­u­al­i­ty, and Work,” in The Scan­dal of the State: Wom­en, Law, and Cit­i­zen­ship in Post­colo­nial India (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003), 117–46; Annie George, U. Vin­d­hya, and Sawmya Ray, “Sex Traf­fick­ing and Sex Work: Def­i­n­i­tions, Debates and dynamics—A Review of Lit­er­a­ture,” Eco­nom­ic and Polit­i­cal Week­ly 45, no. 17 (2010): 24–30; Apoor­va Kai­war and Sujata Gothoskar, “Who Says We Do Not Work?,” Eco­nom­ic and Polit­i­cal Week­ly 49, no. 46 (Novem­ber 14, 2014): 54–61. 

  43. NACO, Annu­al Report 2011-12 (New Del­hi: Nation­al AIDS Con­trol Orga­ni­za­tion, Depart­ment of AIDS Con­trol, & Min­istry of Health and Fam­i­ly Wel­fare, 2012), 8. 

  44. Dav­esh Sone­ji, “Śiva’s Cour­te­sans: Reli­gion, Rhetoric, and Self-Rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Ear­ly Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Writ­ing by Devadāsīs,” Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Hin­du Stud­ies 14, no. 1 (2010): 31–70. 

  45. Nalini Jamee­la, The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of a Sex Work­er, trans. J. Devika (New Del­hi: West­land, 2007). 

  46. http://www.nswp.org/sites/nswp.org/files/Sex%20Workers%20Manifesto%20-%20Meeting%20in%20India.pdf 

  47. Swati Ghosh, “Elu­sive Choice and Agen­cy: A Fem­i­nist Re-Read­ing of the Sex Work­ers’ Man­i­festo,” in Pros­ti­tu­tion and Beyond: An Analy­sis of Sex Work­ers in India, by Rohini Sah­ni and V. Kalyan Shankar (New Del­hi: Sage, 2008). 

  48. Prab­ha Kotiswaran, ed., Sex Work, Issues in Con­tem­po­rary Indi­an Fem­i­nism 7 (New Del­hi: Wom­en Unlim­it­ed, 2011), 266. 

  49. Sun­der Rajan, “The Pros­ti­tu­tion Question(s): Female Agen­cy, Sex­u­al­i­ty, and Work,” 145. 

  50. Gail Omvedt, “Towards a The­o­ry of ‘Brah­man­ic Patri­archy,’” Eco­nom­ic & Polit­i­cal Week­ly 35, no. 4 (2000): 188. 

  51. Uma Chakravar­ti, Gen­der­ing Caste: Through a Fem­i­nist Lens (Cal­cut­ta: Stree, 2003), 89. 

  52. Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Par­reñas, eds., Inti­mate Labors: Cul­tures, Tech­nolo­gies, and the Pol­i­tics of Care (Stan­ford, CA: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010). 

  53. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero: House­work, Repro­duc­tion, and Fem­i­nist Strug­gle (Oak­land, CA: PM Press, 2012), 59. 

  54. Inter­view with the author, 2012. 

  55. See Ash­wini Suk­thankar, “Queer­ing Approach­es to Sex, Gen­der, and Labor in India: Exam­in­ing Paths to Sex Work­er Union­ism,” in South Asian Fem­i­nisms, ed. Ania Loom­ba and Rit­ty A. Lukose (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012), 306–32 for a com­par­ison of the­se two approach­es. 

Author of the article

is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley studying the sociology of gender, sexuality, development, transnational politics, labor, and medicine.