Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2022 > Lived Body Experience of Women in Prostitution: Estrangement and Agency | (...)

Mainstream, VOL LX No 14, New Delhi, March 26, 2022

Lived Body Experience of Women in Prostitution: Estrangement and Agency | Piyali Sur and Stuti Chakraborty

Friday 25 March 2022, by Piyali Sur, Stuti Chakraborty



This article is an inquiry into the lived experience of nine women in prostitution, their feelings of alienation from their bodies as well as feelings of empowerment and control. The focus is on the strategies used by women prostitutes to distance themselves from their bodies while selling sex and how they reconnect with their bodies.

Keywords: prostitutes; estrangement; beautification.


Though all women are reduced to their sexualized bodies, the objectification multiplies when the bodies of women in prostitution is considered. The bodies of prostitutes are commodified and men are ensured an access to, and power over, women’s bodies. The appropriation of the prostitute’s body creates a sense of powerlessness and feeling of alienation from their own bodies in them (Coy 2009). Women involved in the sex trade have evolved distancing strategies when dealing with customers and they separate more and more from their bodies, experiencing a sense of disembodiment. At the same time, to survive in the sex trade, women are forced to continuously scrutinize their body with an obligation to meet the beauty standards of looking desirable in the sex market. In beautifying themselves, prostitutes take charge of their bodies, (re)creating their bodies to solicit male gaze. This article is an inquiry into the lived experience of nine women in prostitution, their feelings of alienation from their bodies when strangers exercise control over their bodies for a limited period as well as feelings of empowerment and control.

In this article, there is conscious use of the terminology ‘prostitute’ as identifier of the position that sale of sex entails women’s objectification, violence and exploitation though at no point prostitutes are held as mere passive victims with no choice or agency. ‘Prostitutes’, in this article, refer only to women who sell sex for money within the institution of prostitution. Kotiswaran (2010) in her descriptive ethnography of sex industry at Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light area, points out that sex workers [1] themselves are not a monolithic category and are internally differentiated according to how much they earn and their modes of organisation. In her classification, the ‘chhukris’ are bonded labourers, and have no control over their earnings or how many customers they would entertain in a single day, ‘adhiya’ share their earnings with brothel owners as well as pay rent to them, then there are independent sex workers, some who reside permanently in Sonagachi and rent their lodgings from landlords, while others are ‘flying’ sex workers returning home after engaging in sex work.

Prostitution and Embodiment

To Pateman (1999), a prostitute does not merely sell her “labour power”, but her body itself which cannot be separated from her person as selves are inseparable from bodies. To delve into the relationship that sex workers have with their bodies as bodies are brought into commercial sex transaction, Coy (2009, p. 66) points out the ‘absent presence’ of bodies in the lives of sex workers. According to Coy, prostitutes experience disembodiment during the sexual labour they provide but may experience their bodies as empowering when they perceive they have the agency to attract customers. Sex workers both experience disassociation from their bodies in the context of abuse, violence, self -harm but may also experience their bodies as empowered and in control.

Along with the knowledge about the discourse of the association and dissociation of the prostitutes from their bodies it is also important to know how do they invest in the presentation of their selves to belong in the sex market. Wolkowitz et al. in their book ‘Body/ Sex/Work: Intimate, Embodied and Sexualized Labour’ (2013) described how the female sex workers or females associated with any type of sexualised work prepare themselves for commercial gain. They prepare and maintain themselves aesthetically and create a sexualised version of themselves to portray a particular image that would be appropriate and desirable for the clients. This eventually creates a “manufactured identity” [2] in Sanders’s (2005) words which is meant to produce and provide a “girlfriend experience” to their customers during working hours. This sexualised persona is a superimposition on their real self mostly, because they have to hold it for all their customers, and this often creates disembodiment from themselves as they have to fake it all through due to commercial purpose.

Methodological Parameters

 This article is based on the interviews of prostitutes living in Sonagachi and flying prostitutes of Kalighat. Sonagachhi located in north Kolkata is Asia’s largest red -light district and is home to more than 10,000 women in prostitution, pimps, and customers. Four young female prostitutes who stay in brothels under the supervision of the brothelkeepers were interviewed at Sonagachi. Their malkins or madams provided them with clients and took a part of their earnings as commission for giving them clients, and also collected rent from the prostitutes. At Sonagachi there are different lanes or gally for women from different states. The rate of the prostitutes varies from one gally to another based on the hierarchy of beauty standards as women from certain states are held to be more desirable. For instance, the gallies where women from Nepal reside are costlier than other gallies and moneyed men frequent there. The gally chosen for the present study was where girls and women mostly from Bangladesh or areas bordering Bangladesh originally belonged. The interview was taken in one of the rooms of an old brothel in the Box Gally of Sonagachhi.

In the south of Kolkata, near the banks of Adi Ganga there is another old red -light neighbourhood in Kalighat. Five flying sex workers from Kalighat were interviewed. The interview took place in one rented room during the afternoons.

In-depth interviews were narrative based and nine prostitutes from Sonagachi and Kalighat, aged between 20 to 36 were interviewed. Most of them were Muslims and lower- caste Hindus. The younger prostitutes were still controlled by their Malkins and pimps and they could retain a very small amount of their earnings and sometimes none. Comparatively, the older prostitutes were more economically independent and worked independently. All of them belonged to very poor families before coming to this profession and had histories of violence, exploitation, financial instability during their childhood and early adolescence. All of the research participants were either trafficked or sold, only two of the young prostitutes revealed that they had come to the profession by choice to escape cruelty from their family members.

Estrangement and Agency 

This study attempted to understand the relationship that prostitutes have with their bodies or their experiences of lived embodiment, the control and lack of control they have over their bodies. Sex buyers have command over the prostitutes’ bodies as that is what they pay for and disembodiment is central to the experiences of prostitutes (Coy 2009). The necessity arises of separating the self from the body, leaving the body emotionally when some male stranger is controlling the body, and bodily disassociation is a coping mechanism used by women in commercial sex transactions. Most of the young prostitutes used drugs and drinks during sex transactions to disassociate their selves from their bodies. While older sex workers specifically mentioned that they stayed sober during sex exchanges so that no one could misuse their bodies. The young prostitutes, being new in commercial sex transactions felt a type of pressure to satisfy the customers, that came not only from the customers themselves but also from their pimps and the brothelkeepers who too at times provided customers to these young sex workers. This type of pressure often restricted them from expressing their ownership over their bodies during the sexual transactions. They could not always protest or forbid the customers from doing activities that they did not like or that made them feel uncomfortable. This created a feeling of having no control over their bodies and they distanced themselves from their physical body to cope during commercial sex exchanges. Most young prostitutes in this study were on heavy drugs and one young sex worker mentioned during the interview,

When I start working after taking Charas, there is no sense of time anymore. I fix my vision to an object of the room and keep looking at it, until the work is done. I don’t even realise what is happening over my body if it is something not too painful.

The senior prostitutes by virtue of being in this trade longer, felt no desire to impress customers as they had fixed clients and had different coping mechanisms. There was a disassociation of self from the body by the senior women prostitutes by remaining emotionally unattached with customers. One of them mentioned,

During young days, I have fallen in love with one or two of my customers, because I got emotionally attached with them through having sexual relations. But that has never resulted well. I have only hurt myself that way. Now after being into the profession for almost 8 years, I have realized it is my work, and you can never grow intimacy with the work you do every day and that too without your free will. Now I just give entry to the customers for 15-20 minutes maximum, most of the time even less. They mostly come drunk, do their work, I just work as a machine and they are gone.

Attaching no emotions to the commercial sex exchange was a defence mechanism used by the women prostitutes when selling sex. Certain restrictions were maintained by the women participants like not revealing personal information and details. However, to respond to their client’s emotions, they had to fake every time a new client came into the room. To enable women in sexual exchanges to separate their selves from their bodies, they covered their eyes and faces with dupattas as they did not like observing the clients from a close distance or keeping the lights off during sexual exchanges.

Feelings of Empowerment

Women in prostitution also reclaim their bodies by perceiving their bodies as sexualized and that are valued by buyers of sex. They felt empowered by flaunting off their sexuality for financial gain. For instance, the younger sex workers with leaner bodies often wore more revealing clothes, used padded bras or push up bras during the work in order to look more desirable. They often did the make up in such a way to look fairer. While asked if the customers liked them, one of them wittily exclaimed,

The drunk men come to the brothels having in mind a picture of Katrina or Kareena, so we have to prepare ourselves so that we look somewhat like them, these are our tricks to look like the sexy actresses who customers dream of having sex with at a cheaper rate.

In attempting to allure male clients, they became victims of the beauty standards set by the wider patriarchal society, and acted according to the preferences of their customers. They mentioned while standing on the streets to get clients they often used tummy tuckers because, they should be in “perfect shape until the light goes off”. Their beautification of themselves to persist in the labour market as a “desirable prostitute” made them reconnect with their bodies and experience their bodies as in control.


This article has attempted to understand women’s contradictory lived body experience in prostitution. In this study, women in prostitution spoke with dismay about their commodified bodies rented out to anonymous men interested only in gratifying their own sexual desires and were willing to pay money to do so. Phoenix (1999) stated defining their bodies as ‘objects of temporary exchange’(131), women in prostitution speak about having no ownership or control over their bodies, having ownership but no control over their bodies and having ownership and control over their bodies. There was a symbolic mind-body split where women in prostitution spoke out how they removed themselves from their bodies during sexual transactions, by not being there. They did this by blanking out techniques, avoiding emotional relationships, rigidly maintaining bodily exclusion zones. Agency is also expressed through bodies when women prostitutes buy products to adorn and beautify themselves with their own earnings and feel that through their bodies, they would earn a profit.

Kotiswaran prefers to use the terminology sex worker and not prostitute. The terminology ‘sex worker’ is used to emphasize agency and choice in entering commercial sex transactions and construct the sale of sex as work akin to the sale of non-sexual labour.
An identity is fabricated, according to Sanders, supported by pseudonym, fictitious life story, family background and a childhood history.

(Authors: Piyali Sur, Professor of Sociology, Jadavpur University; Stuti Chakraborty, Research Scholar, Jadavpur University)


  • Coy, Maddy. 2002. “The Body Which Is Not Mine: The notion of the habit body, prostitution and (dis)embodiment.” Feminist Theory 10(1): 61-75.
  • Kotiswaran, Prabha. 2008. “Born Unto Brothels – Toward a Legal Ethnography of Sex Work
  • in an Indian Red-Light Area.” Law of Social Inquiry 33(3): 579-629.
  • Patemane, Carole. 1999. “What’s Wrong with Prostitution?” Women’s Studies Quarterly
  • 27:1/2: 53-64.
  • Phoenix, Joanna. 1999. Making Sense of Prostitution. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Sanders, Teela. 2005. “‘It’s Just Acting’: Sex Workers’ Strategies for Capitalizing on
  • Sexuality.” Gender, Work and Organization 12(4): 319-342
  • Wolkowitz 2013. Body/Sex/Work: Intimate, Embodied and Sexualized Labour.
  • New York: Palgrave Macmillan

[1Kotiswaran prefers to use the terminology sex worker and not prostitute. The terminology ‘sex worker’ is used to emphasize agency and choice in entering commercial sex transactions and construct the sale of sex as work akin to the sale of non-sexual labour

[2An identity is fabricated, according to Sanders, supported by pseudonym, fictitious life story, family background and a childhood history.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.