Sexuality & Culture

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 3-27

First online:

In this life: The impact of gender and tradition on sexuality and relationships forDevadasi sex workers in rural India

  • Treena OrchardAffiliated withB.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS

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In the popular imagination and certain academic fields, sex workers’ experiences of sexuality and intimate relationships are often “naturalized,” to the point where they are assumed to be deviant or completely different than those of women in mainstream society. Researchers and sex worker organizations are challenging these reified constructions by examining more diverse and representative models of sexuality and relationships. However, the experiences of women selling sex in the “third world” are consistently portrayed as violent, non-pleasurable, and oppressive, characteristics often applied universally to “third world women.” Using data from ethnographic field work with girls and women who belong to theDevadasi (servant/slave of the God) tradition of sex work in rural Karnataka, India, this paper examines the cultural dynamics of sexuality and relationships. Gender and dominant models of feminine identity emerge as powerful factors in shaping these facets of life, producing experiences amongDevadasis that are similar to those of other Indian women. Yet,Devadasis also encounter additional constraints in their lives because of their participation in the morally and culturally contestedDevadasi system. These data contribute to emerging research that destabilizes images of sex workers as “different” from other women, while also highlighting the impact of tradition on sexual mores and relationship structure in this unique cultural context.