Is Sex Work Sex or Work? Forming Collective Identity in Bangalore
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While sex worker activism grows increasingly vibrant around the world, the forms and practices of sex work vary widely, and are often secret. How do sex workers come to see themselves as sex worker activists? What tensions emerge in the formation of collective identity within sex worker activist organizations, especially when the term “sex work” has often traveled linked to transnational organizations and funding? To answer these questions, this article analyzes in-depth interviews and participant observation on sex worker activism in Bangalore, India. Focusing on an organization I call the Union, I argue that it was first within the “shop floor” of transnationally funded HIV prevention organizations, and then within the activist work of the Union, that sex workers came to identify collectively as activists at a large scale. However, distinct configurations of practice among gendered groups of sex workers in Bangalore meant each group related differently to the formation of a sex worker activist collective identity. Two aspects of sex workers’ practice emerged as particularly central: varying experiences of sex work as “sex” or as “work,” and varying levels of anonymity and visibility in public spaces. Organizing through transnationally funded HIV prevention programs helped solidify these categories of differentiation even as it provided opportunities to develop shared self-hood.
KeywordsSex work Collective identity Social movements HIV/AIDS India
My thanks to Raka Ray, Peter Evans, Gillian Hart, and Lawrence Cohen for their guidance on this project, and Shubha Chacko and Subadra Panchanadeswaran for their support throughout. This article also benefited from insightful readings by Kimberly Kay Hoang and three anonymous reviewers, as well as the members of Raka Ray's dissertation group. An early version received brilliant and crucial feedback from a group of scholars at a workshop hosted by the Center for the Study of Sexual Cultures and the Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkeley. The fieldwork for this article was completed while the author received financial support from the Social Science Research Council and the National Science Foundation. Finally, my deepest thanks to those interviewed for the project, who were so willing to share their lives and ideas with me. All errors, of course, are my own.
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