Is Sex Work Sex or Work? Forming Collective Identity in Bangalore

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Shanti used the slogan “Our body, our rights” in Kannada—nanna deha, nanna hakku.

  2. 2.

    I have chosen to describe this group as “transgender women,” though some would primarily identify as transgender or TG, some as hijra, and many shifted personal identifications depending on the context. Hijras are part of a ritual community of “third gender” people with its own religious practices and kinship structure. Hijras have a history in South Asia dating back to at least the sixteenth century (Reddy 2005). Almost all those I interviewed who were transgender women had participated in the hijra community at some point, but some had left the community and no longer identified primarily as hijra. Thus, I use the broader category of “transgender women” to refer to this group—some would primarily identify as transgender or TG, some as hijra, some as kothi, and many shifted personal identifications depending on the context.

  3. 3.

    By “cisgender women,” I refer both to people who were assigned the category “female” at birth and people who were not, but currently identify as women. However, the term “cisgender” is not familiar to those I interviewed, and the binary of “cisgender” and “transgender” does not quite fit the configuration of sexuality and gender they experience. Thus, where referring interviewees’ own identification, I use the term “women.” I recognize the limitations of both terms in this context.

  4. 4.

    The category of the man in sex work in the Union is slippery, partly because of an entanglement of biomedical classification, social movements, and colloquial language that has produced a proliferation of overlapping categorizations (Cohen 2005; Boyce 2007). Those I include within the category of “men” identified as “men who have sex with men” when asked to do so in public health programs, but also identified as double-decker (men who engaged both in receptive and penetrative sex with male and sometimes female partners), bisexual, gay, and kothi (effeminate men who engaged in receptive sex with men). Many of these men placed themselves on a continuum of gender expression, for example identifying as relatively more "masculine" or "feminine" in different situations or at different points in their lives. Thus, I do not use the term “cisgender” to describe them. All were members of the Union or had supported their work in some way, but their relationships to sex work varied, as shown later.

  5. 5.

    The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance (Ministry of Law and Justice 2013a) was a hurried response to the notorious 2012 Delhi gang rape and the wave of protest that followed. In the aftermath of the rape, the government formed a Committee, chaired by Justice J.S. Verma, to investigate amendments to criminal law “to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assault of extreme nature against women” (Verma et al. 2013). The Committee released its comprehensive report on January 23, 2013. In a departure from existing law, it included prostitution within its definition of exploitation (Verma et al. 2013, 438). The report became the basis for the subsequent Ordinance, which the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, signed on February 3 (Mohini 2013). The Ordinance was criticized by many Indian feminists for various reasons (Menon 2013), and it incorporated the Committee’s language on prostitution. On hearing of the Ordinance, The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), of which the Union is a member, began organizing protests such as the one I describe here. A few days later, NNSW issued a formal press release asking the Verma Committee for “clarification” of the language that had been incorporated into the Ordinance, arguing that “The formulation in the Ordinance is a setback to sex workers who are fighting for legal and societal recognition of their fundamental rights to dignity and pursuit of a livelihood” (National Network of Sex Workers 2013). In response, the Verma Commission did issue such a clarification (Chakrabarty 2013), and prostitution was removed from the definition of exploitation in the final Criminal Law (Amendment) Act (Ministry of Law and Justice 2013b), which became law in April 2013.

  6. 6.

    This article focuses on the formation of “sex worker” collective identity within a particular social movement organization. It has less to say about sex worker identity in other organizations or outside of activism.

  7. 7.

    Devadasi is a broad term used to describe women ritually dedicated to local deities and associated with temples. Devadasis historically have been involved in sex work, though not all are. See Ramberg (2014) for a nuanced exploration.

  8. 8.

    Notably, Ashodaya Samiti in Mysore works with all three of these groups, but combines HIV prevention work with activism.

  9. 9.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for helping me to clarify this point.

  10. 10.

    Dalit, meaning “oppressed” or “broken,” describes those castes outside the traditional Hindu four-caste system or belonging to the lowest castes. The official government term is “scheduled castes.”

  11. 11.

    Kothi literally means “monkey,” and describes effeminate men who engage in receptive sex with men. See note 4 above for a more detailed discussion.

  12. 12.

    I always heard this formulation the same way: with the noun “sex” in English, and the verb “to do” in Kannada (sex maadodhu).

  13. 13.

    Notably, here Nagaraj is talking about the “category” using the terminology he became familiar with in the NGO world.

  14. 14.

    For many transgender interviewees, it was important to distinguish being part of “hijra culture” and being a transgender woman. To be hijra meant a particular mode of dressing, kinship system, and religious practice, as Reddy (2005) details, but other trans women did not participate in this system. The lines between hijra, kothi, and transgender were somewhat porous. Among these interviewees, several “pant-shirt kothis,” hoped to join the hijra community at some point in the future, or had previously been part of the system. Some left the hijra community to live with a male partner as a wife. Most transgender women I met had at some point lived in the hijra community, and, even if they now lived independently, still had some relation to it.

  15. 15.

    Once hijras join the community, they traditionally undergo a castration operation, or nirvan.

  16. 16.

    As my interviews were all members of the Union, this observation obviously cannot be generalized to all trans women, who do not all do sex work.

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Acknowledgments

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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Vijayakumar, G. Is Sex Work Sex or Work? Forming Collective Identity in Bangalore. Qual Sociol 41, 337–360 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-018-9390-2

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Keywords

  • Sex work
  • Collective identity
  • Social movements
  • HIV/AIDS
  • India