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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 46 November 5, 2022

Review: Bangalore’s Street-Based Sex Workers - Experiences of Urban Transition | Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Friday 4 November 2022, by Deepti Priya Mehrotra



Review by Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Urban Undesirables: City Transition and Street-Based Sex Work in Bangalore
By Neethi P. and Anant Kamath

Cambridge University Press, New Delhi
2022, Pages 211,
Hard Bound, Price 895.00
ISBN: 9781009180214

This book seeks to redraw the map of Bangalore, based on the experiences of street-based sex workers—so that we begin to see the city through their eyes. Their livelihoods rendered increasingly precarious due to neo-liberal urban transition, workspaces radically reduced by concurrent processes of gentrification and revanchism, their narratives describe multidimensional crises.

Street-based sex workers are struggling to reclaim space in the city; Neethi and Kamath construct counter-maps showing vast swathes literally snatched away by gated parks and colonies, CCTVs, malls, metros and other grand projects, designed to make the city accessible only to an ‘ideal public’. Loss of workspace is particularly disastrous since there is no culture of brothels in Karnataka, unlike several other parts of the country.

More Unequal than Other Unequals

The bulk of the “entire workforce of a guesstimated hundred thousand...” is women; but there are men and transgenders as well. The vast majority of Bangalore’s street-based sex workers hails from Dalit castes, and has chosen this occupation in contexts of economic desperation. Most leave their homes each day for work and return to spouses, children, parents, siblings, interact with neighbors and participate in religious events and local politics. Male sex workers are generally economically ‘better off’, safer on the streets, and some have chosen sex work as a means for sexual gratification, especially true for a cohort that is homosexual/ bisexual but trapped in heterosexual marriage.

Transgender workers typically live at the outskirts of the city, in quarters called hamams, each hamam headed by an older transgender individual referred to as ‘guru’ or ‘mother’. Along with other members of the hamam family, who may be pursuing varied occupations, the sex workers bring in income and share it with everybody, for common living expenses.

Sex workers’ lives and their very existence are far removed from most other workers who are in ‘decent’ occupations. Located at the negative end on a spectrum of moral acceptability and legitimacy, they endure aggravated marginality, vulnerability and pseudo-invisibility. In fact they are seldom viewed in the frame of ‘workers’, more often they are projected as immoral, shameless or/and helpless victims of human trafficking.

It is true that sex workers generally have a more constrained choice set than most other workers, and the work carries significantly greater job risks than many jobs. Yet clearly sex work is a livelihood strategy, chosen as are other livelihood strategies, within various constraints, liabilities, concerns, beliefs and contexts both personal and social. But their labor does not match with the informal work deemed appropriate within contemporary urban modernity, such as cab driving, food delivery or mobile repairing.

Though sex workers are as much part and parcel of the city as other informal sector workers, they are deemed ‘undesirable’ by the powers-that-be. With city spaces steadily transitioning from a patchwork of local commons to bulwarks of global commerce, during the last three decades their working conditions have changed for the worse: surveillance mechanisms such as the ubiquitous CCTVs have made it increasingly risky, and often impossible, to walk the streets to solicit customers. Ironically enough, technology claiming to ensure citizens’ security leaves these citizens far more insecure. As a female sex worker remarks,

“I really felt on many occasions that the camera was groping me. It didn’t move but it had to look at me.”

Sex Workers’ Voices and Collective Resistance 

Sex workers are empirical subjects coping with extreme subaltern positioning, but at the same time they are political subjects aspiring towards greater citizenship, including the right to work and live with dignity. Among academics—as Neethi and Kamath—and social activists, the discourse around sex work has moved from emphasizing sex workers as victims (of poverty/ human trafficking/ patriarchy), to understanding sex workers qua workers, deserving of the whole bundle of citizenship rights.

In various parts of India, sex workers are collectivizing and engaging in movements challenging the perceptions and actions of dominant sections of society, who tend to wield control over their lives. These movements are informed by nuanced analysis developed largely within third-wave feminism, which understands sex work as an occupational choice with sexual self-determination, wherein sexual skills are commercialized (as other workers sell manual/ mental skills), and where consent, negotiation, remuneration, unionization and welfare measures all have a rightful place.

Sex workers’ own perceptions, voices and views are central to the process of politicization and reclamation. Nalini Jameela’s The Autobiography of a Sex Worker (2007) for instance describes clearly the `ordinariness’ of this occupational choice, within the complex circumstances of her life.

Sex workers’ movements have adopted a rights-based approach, demanding state and institutional accountability and guarantees. Their positions challenge and blur sexual, gender, familial and cultural norms, thus creating potential for more inclusive politics, by opening the door to unaddressed issues in the rights of women, sexual minorities and cultural minorities. Fundamental questions are raised, for instance, here is one combative voice, asking:

“If they want to save oppressed people, why don’t they rehabilitate garment workers, construction workers or even male sex workers? Why don’t they liberate and rehabilitate oppressed wives? So many married women are less free than we are.”

Sex workers have formed networks and unions at national, regional and local levels, such as the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), the Karnataka Sex Workers’ Union (KSWU), and local mutual support groups on WhatsApp or other digital platforms. By and large they strategize and negotiate within the legal framework. Activist organizations such as Alternative Law Forum (ALF), Sadhana Mahila Sangh (SMS), People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Sangama, Vimochana, Aneka, Manthan Law and Reach Law extend solidarity and support to their struggles.

It is noteworthy that sex workers, while unionizing, usually choose not to formalize; in this they differ from most other categories of workers. The sex workers’ cause is towards security, dignity and autonomy, and given the nature and conditions of their occupation, they would rather not be registered in any regular directory of workers. Such official registries would compromise on their privacy, and most likely subject them to further moral judgment, surveillance and top-down ‘reforms’.

Research: Ethics, Theories and Legacies

Urban Undesirables adds to the scholarly literature that is contributing to sharper understanding of sex work, and the agency of sex workers—especially insightful is its nuanced discussion of spatial ecosystems, and the impact of technologies on Bangalore’s street-based sex workers. Earlier literature notably includes Jean D’Cunha’s study of legalization of sex work; Ratna Kapur’s discussion of ‘erotic justice law’ and postcolonial politics; Prabha Kotiswaran’s ethnography of sex markets in Sonagachi brothels and the temple town of Tirupati; and Svati Sariola’s analysis of sexual politics and sex work in Chennai.

Neethi and Kamath’s fieldwork relies on oral history: “nearly sixty individuals ... narrated stories and anecdotes from their life,” during unstructured interviews, conversations and focus-group discussions. Respondents were located via organizations such as ALF, Sangama, Aneka, Solidarity Foundation, Payana; media articles, reports and booklets were similarly accessed through in-house archives. The authors especially acknowledge their debt to Sangama and its head, Rajesh Srinivas, “who has been our guide through the entire process logistically, motivationally and, to a great extent, intellectually.”

The book combines the interests of its two authors—one a specialist in labor informality particularly women’s informal work; the other a sociologist with concern for subaltern technological experiences. In a book on work, one is intrigued by the joint work by two writers. It would have been apposite to include some reflexive insights into the process—how did they arrive at a common theoretical framework and research agenda, did they divvy up different aspects of fieldwork, and the writing of different chapters? What, if any, existential concerns or deeper engagements motivated (each of) them to take up such a difficult and delicate theme for in-depth study?

Fieldwork appears to have been fraught, not least because the researchers were a privileged set, while the respondents were an advanced-marginalized cohort, situated towards the bottom of the social hierarchy. The writers realized that “the power inequities between us visibly lingered and swirled about the room during our interactions with them and during the narrations.... Our positions based on our identities (by class, caste and gender) clashed at every single moment of our fieldwork.”

At the same time, they tried to meticulously follow ethical practices respecting consent, privacy and confidentiality. Audio recording was avoided, videos and photography were taboo, no identifying information was collected, workers were ensured anonymity and most interactions were within the sanctuaries of supportive civil society organizations.

Research involving marginalized individuals requires not only acknowledgment of inherent power differentials, but also evidence of strategies taken to mitigate the impact of these differentials, and establish epistemic integrity. One such strategy is mentioned, that is requesting their research assistant Prabhavati (of subaltern caste, and working class) “to conduct the interactions by herself”, but it proved ineffective since “her enquiries still ended up carrying our vicarious presence and its embedded inequalities.” Substantive questions arise: In what ways did cultural and class biases affect not only the context of knowledge production, but also the data gathered? To what extent was the data shaped by authorial priorities rather than the sex workers’ concerns?

It is interesting that Neethi and Kamath summarily reject radical feminists as failing “to listen attentively to what the workers really wanted,” instead indulging in “cherry-picking of gruesome stories....” Similarly they condemn “‘rescue’-feminists and activists” for creating “tragedy porn.” These judgments elide the fact of honorable legacies, which have their flaws but also strengths. Radical feminist scholarship was amongst the earliest to listen to, and circulate, the voices and perspectives of sex workers; a classic such as Kate Millet’s The Prostitution Papers (1973) laid the ground and set the stage for further research. Fifty years on, some of the analysis has grown in sophistication, but that does not nullify the richness of pioneering research that involved candid conversations, camaraderie between researcher and respondents, passionate listening, audio-taped narratives based on trust and consent, listened to repeatedly, transcribed, and directly reported, along with exploration of the position of women across sex work and marriage.

Histories of collective resistance by sex workers are apposite too: Millet noted for instance legal battles fought and won by COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”), formed by Margo St. James in America; and the spectacular occupation of churches in France, by thousands of sex workers demanding recognition and legal protection in the face of discrimination and violence. The term ‘sex work’ was itself coined in 1978, by Carol Leigh, a sex worker activist.

Guided by sex workers, it is important to treat sex work as legitimate work, as well as a putative site of exploitation. Urban Undesirables focuses on the work aspect, but falls short of grappling with complex sexual politics, and therefore the psychological and bodily impacts of commercial sex work, as alienated labor within the wider structures of capitalist patriarchy.

That said, this book is well worth a read, and will hopefully contribute to improving policy as well as popular perception around sex work.

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