Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India

Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India

Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India

Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India

Synopsis

Popular representations of third-world sex workers as sex slaves and vectors of HIV have spawned abolitionist legal reforms that are harmful and ineffective, and public health initiatives that provide only marginal protection of sex workers' rights. In this book, Prabha Kotiswaran asks how we might understand sex workers' demands that they be treated as workers. She contemplates questions of redistribution through law within the sex industry by examining the political economies and legal ethnographies of two archetypical urban sex markets in India.


Kotiswaran conducted in-depth fieldwork among sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata's largest red-light area, and Tirupati, a temple town in southern India. Providing new insights into the lives of these women--many of whom are demanding the respect and legal protection that other workers get--Kotiswaran builds a persuasive theoretical case for recognizing these women's sexual labor. Moving beyond standard feminist discourse on prostitution, she draws on a critical genealogy of materialist feminism for its sophisticated vocabulary of female reproductive and sexual labor, and uses a legal realist approach to show why criminalization cannot succeed amid the informal social networks and economic structures of sex markets. Based on this, Kotiswaran assesses the law's redistributive potential by analyzing the possible economic consequences of partial decriminalization, complete decriminalization, and legalization. She concludes with a theory of sex work from a postcolonial materialist feminist perspective.

Excerpt

All day long, there was a buzz in the office. A rally had been called. Shanti, a sex worker in the Bow Bazaar area of central Kolkata, had been assaulted by her landlady, Ritu. Shanti had been behind on her rent for the past three weeks, and when she asked Ritu for more time since she didn’t have any customers, Ritu had taken her to a nearby alley and beat her black and blue with a thick bamboo stick. Shanti showed us the bruises on her back, hands, and legs. She had been in the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) office all day with her lover and ten-month-old son. A meeting was held in the director’s office in the morning. And by 3:00 PM, sex workers and project staff from all twenty-one Kolkata field areas of the DMSC converged on Bow Bazaar. When there is a protest rally at the DMSC, everyone, including the accountants, project coordinators, administrative staff, computer room staff, and “visitors” like myself, is required to join it. Projects are important, but at the DMSC there is a belief that its most important goal is to fight for sex workers’ empowerment. By the time I reached Bow Bazaar with Mitra Routh, a field supervisor for Sonagachi, another major red-light area in North Kolkata, the narrow Prem Chand Boral Street was filled with sex workers and DMSC staff. At the end of the street, a small makeshift stage had been set up. The Polli Milan Sangh, a local club where the DMSC clinic is held, was teeming with sex workers taking shelter from the sweltering July heat.

Soon the meeting started, and many sex workers went up to the stage to address the gathering. This included leaders like Swapna Gayen, a sex worker and secretary of the DMSC and a longtime resident of Bow Bazaar, through whom the DMSC got to know about Shanti’s abuse. Then there were branch committee members for the red-light area and older sex workers who were resident there who spoke out against Ritu’s abusive behavior. Being at DMSC events, it is easy to forget how unusual it is for Indian sex workers to grab the mike and come out in front of hundreds of people to say they are sex workers, that they have been abused, and that we should do something about it. It is not surprising that the DMSC often uses these protest rallies as a training ground to improve . . .

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