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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Shanti used the slogan “Our body, our rights” in Kannada—nanna deha, nanna hakku.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Notably, Ashodaya Samiti in Mysore works with all three of these groups, but combines HIV prevention work with activism.
I thank an anonymous reviewer for helping me to clarify this point.
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.”
Kothi literally means “monkey,” and describes effeminate men who engage in receptive sex with men. See note 4 above for a more detailed discussion.
I always heard this formulation the same way: with the noun “sex” in English, and the verb “to do” in Kannada (sex maadodhu).
Notably, here Nagaraj is talking about the “category” using the terminology he became familiar with in the NGO world.
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.
Once hijras join the community, they traditionally undergo a castration operation, or nirvan.
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.
Altman, Dennis. 1996. Rupture or continuity? The internationalization of gay identities. Social Text 14 (3): 77–94.
Altman, Dennis. 1999. Globalization, political economy, and HIV/AIDS. Theory and Society 28: 559–584.
Armstrong, Elizabeth A. 2002. Forging gay identities: Organizing sexuality in San Francisco, 1950–1994. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Arondekar, Anjali. 2009. For the record: On sexuality and the colonial archive in India. Durham. Duke University Press.
Arondekar, Anjali. 2012. Subject to sex: A small history of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj. In South Asian feminisms: Contemporary interventions, ed. Ania Loomba and Ritty A. Lukose, 244–263. Durham: Duke University Press.
Berg, Heather. 2014. Working for love, loving for work: Discourses of labor in feminist sex-work activism. Feminist Studies 40 (3): 693–721.
Bernstein, Mary. 1997. Celebration and suppression: The strategic uses of identity by the lesbian and gay movement. American Journal of Sociology 103 (3): 531–565.
Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2007. Sex work for the middle classes. Sexualities 10 (4): 473–488.
Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2010. Temporarily yours: Intimacy, authenticity, and the commerce of sex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bindman, Julia, and Jo Doezema. 1997. Redefining prostitution as sex work on the international agenda. London: Anti-Slavery International.
Biradavolu, Monica, Kim Blankenship, Annie George, and Nimesh Dhungana. 2015. Unintended consequences of community-based monitoring systems: Lessons for an HIV prevention intervention for sex workers in South India. World Development 67: 1–10.
Boyce, Paul. 2007. Conceiving “kothis”: Men who have sex with men in India and the cultural subject of HIV prevention. Medical Anthropology 26 (2): 175–203.
Buzdugan, Raluca, Andrew Copas, Stephen Moses, James Blanchard, Shajy Isac, Banadakoppa M. Ramesh, Reynold Washington, Shiva S. Halli, and Frances M. Cowan. 2010. Devising a female sex work typology using data from Karnataka, India. International Journal of Epidemiology 39 (2): 439–448.
Chakrabarty, R. 2013. Section 370 not for voluntary sex work: Verma panel. Times of India, 12 February.
Chapkis, Wendy. 1997. Live sex acts: Women performing erotic labor. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Chateauvert, Melinda. 2014. Sex workers unite: A history of the movement from stonewall to SlutWalk. Boston: Beacon Press.
Cohen, Lawrence. 2005. The kothi wars: AIDS cosmopolitanism and the morality of classification. In Sex in development: Science, sexuality and morality in global perspective, ed. Stacy Leigh Pigg and Vincanne Adams, 269–303. Durham: Duke University Press.
D’Cunha, Jean. 1992. Prostitution laws: Ideological dimensions and enforcement practices. Economic and Political Weekly 27 (17): WS34–WS44.
Dasgupta, Simanti. 2014. Sovereign silence: Immoral traffic (prevention) act and legalizing sex work in Sonagachi. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37 (1): 109–125.
Delacoste, Frederique, and Priscilla Alexander. 1998. Sex work: Writings by women in the sex industry. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
Epstein, Steven. 1988. Gay politics, ethnic identity: The limits of social constructionism. Socialist Review 93: 9–54.
Gall, Gregor. 2007. Sex worker unionisation: An exploratory study of emerging collective organisation. Industrial Relations Journal 38 (1): 70–88.
Gall, Gregor. 2012. An agency of their own: Sex worker union organizing. Washington, DC: Zero Books.
Gamson, Joshua. 1995. Must identity movements self-destruct? A queer dilemma. Social Problems 42 (3): 390–407.
George, Annie, U. Vindhya, and Sawmya Ray. 2010. Sex trafficking and sex work: Definitions, debates and dynamics—A review of literature. Economic and Political Weekly 45 (17): 24–30.
Ghaziani, Amin. 2011. Post-gay collective identity construction. Social Problems 58 (1): 99–125.
Ghose, Toorjo, Dallas Swendeman, Sheba George, and Debasish Chowdhury. 2008. Mobilizing collective identity to reduce HIV risk among sex workers in Sonagachi, India: The boundaries, consciousness, negotiation framework. Social Science & Medicine 67 (2): 311–320.
Ghosh, Swati. 2003. The flying prostitute: Identity of the (im)possible other. Hecate 29 (2): 199–214.
Ghosh, Swati. 2004. The shadow lines of citizenship: Prostitutes’ struggle over workers’ rights. Identity, Culture and Politics 5 (1–2): 105–123.
Ghosh, Swati. 2005. Surveillance in decolonized social space: The case of sex workers in Bengal. Social Text 23 (2): 55.
Ghosh, Apoorva. 2015. LGBTQ activist organizations as “respectably queer” in India: Contesting a western view. Gender, Work & Organization 22 (1): 51–66.
Grant, Melissa Gira. 2014. Playing the whore: The work of sex work. New York: Verso.
Grewal, Inderpal, and Caren Kaplan. 2001. Global identities: Theorizing transnational studies of sexuality. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7 (4): 663–679.
Hardy, Kate. 2010. Incorporating sex workers into the argentine labor movement. International Labor and Working-Class History 77 (1): 89–108.
Hoang, Kimberly Kay. 2010. Economies of emotion, familiarity, fantasy, and desire: Emotional labor in ho chi Minh City’s sex industry. Sexualities 13 (2): 255–272.
Hoang, Kimberly Kay. 2011. She’s not a low-class dirty girl!’: Sex work in ho chi Minh City, Vietnam. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 40 (4): 367–396.
Hoang, Kimberly Kay. 2015. Dealing in desire: Asian ascendancy, western decline, and the hidden currencies of global sex work. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hunt, Scott A., and Robert D. Benford. 2004. Collective identity, solidarity, and commitment. In The Blackwell companion to social movements, ed. David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, 433–457. Malden: Blackwell.
Jameela N. 2007. The autobiography of a sex worker (trans: Devika, J.). New Delhi: Westland.
Jana, Smarajit, Ishika Basu, Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus, and Peter A. Newman. 2004. The Sonagachi project: A sustainable community intervention program. AIDS Education and Prevention 16 (5): 405–414.
Jenness, Valerie. 1993. Making it work. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Kaiwar, Apoorva, and Sujata Gothoskar. 2014. Who says we do not work? Economic and Political Weekly 49 (46): 54–61.
Karnik, Niranjan. 2001. Locating HIV/AIDS and India: Cautionary notes on the globalization of categories. Science, Technology & Human Values 26 (3): 322–348.
Kempadoo, Kamala. 2003. Globalizing sex workers’ rights. Canadian Woman Studies 22 (3–4): 143–150.
Kempadoo, Kamala, and Jo Doezema. 1998. Global sex workers: Rights, resistance, and redefinition. New York: Routledge.
Khanna, Akshay. 2011. The social lives of 377: Constitution of the law by the queer movement. In Law like love: Queer perspectives on the law, ed. Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narrain, 174–202. New Delhi: Yoda Press.
Khanna, Akshay. 2013. Three hundred and seventy seven ways of being: Sexualness of the citizen in India. Journal of Historical Sociology 26 (1): 120–142.
Kimmel, Michael S. 1993. Sexual balkanization: Gender and sexuality as the new ethnicities. Social Research 60 (3): 571–587.
Klandermans, Bert. 1996. The social psychology of protest. Cambridge: Blackwell.
Klandermans, Bert. 2002. How group identification helps to overcome the dilemma of collective action. American Behavioral Scientist 45 (5): 887–900.
Kole, Subir K. 2007. Globalizing queer? AIDS, homophobia and the politics of sexual identity in India. Globalization and Health 3 (8): 1–16.
Kole, Subir K. 2009. From “veshyas” to “entertainment workers”: Evolving discourses of bodies, rights, and prostitution in India. Asian Politics & Policy 1 (2): 255–281.
Kotiswaran, Prabha. 2011a. Dangerous sex, invisible labor: Sex work and the law in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kotiswaran, Prabha, ed. 2011b. Sex work. New Delhi: Women Unlimited.
KSAPS. 2011. Annual action plan 2012–2013. Bangalore: Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society.
Lakkimsetti, Chaitanya. 2014. “HIV is our friend”: Prostitution, power and state in postcolonial India. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40 (1): 201–226.
Lakkimsetti, Chaitanya. 2016. Empowered criminals and global subjects: Transnational norms and sexual minorities in India. Qualitative Sociology 39 (4): 375–396.
Leigh, Carol. 1997. Inventing sex work. In Whores and other feminists, ed. Jill Nagle, 223–231. New York: Routledge.
Lorway, Robert, and Shamshad Khan. 2014. Reassembling epidemiology: Mapping, monitoring and making up people in the context of HIV prevention in India. Social Science & Medicine 112: 51–62.
Lorway, Robert, Sushena Reza-Paul, and Akram Pasha. 2009. On becoming a male sex worker in Mysore: Sexual subjectivity, “empowerment,” and community-based HIV prevention research. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 23 (2): 142–160.
Melucci, Alberto. 1985. The symbolic challenge of contemporary movements. Social Research 52 (4): 789–816.
Melucci, Alberto. 1995. The process of collective identity. Social Movements and Culture 4: 41–63.
Menon, Nivedita. 2009. Sexuality, caste, governmentality: Contests over “gender” in India. Feminist Review 91 (1): 94–112.
Menon N. 2013. Gender just, gender sensitive, NOT gender neutral rape laws. Kafila. March 8. https://kafila.online/2013/03/08/gender-just-gender-sensitive-not-gender-neutral-rape-laws/.
Mgbako, Chi. 2016. To live freely in this world: Sex worker activism in Africa. New York: NYU Press.
Ministry of Law and Justice. 2013a. Criminal law (amendment) ordinance, 2013. http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Ordinances/Criminal%20Law%20Ordinance%202013.pdf. Accessed 25 June 2018.
Ministry of Law and Justice. 2013b. Criminal law (amendment) act, 2013. http://indiacode.nic.in/acts-in-pdf/132013.pdf. Accessed 25 June 2018.
Mohini, Vishwa. 2013. President Pranab Mukherjee gives nod to tough anti-rape ordinance. Times of India, 4 February 2013.
Moon, Dawne. 2012. Who am I and who are we? Conflicting narratives of collective selfhood in stigmatized groups. American Journal of Sociology 117 (5): 1336–1379.
Moussawi, Ghassan. 2015. (Un) critically queer organizing: Towards a more complex analysis of LGBTQ organizing in Lebanon. Sexualities 18 (5–6): 593–617.
Munson, Ziad W. 2010. The making of pro-life activists: How social movement mobilization works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nagle, Jill. 1997. Whores and other feminists. New York: Routledge.
Nanda, Serena. 1990. Neither man nor woman: The hijras of India. New York: Wadsworth.
National Network of Sex Workers. 2013. Clarification sought from the Justice Verma committee. http://nnswindia.org/upload/News/Press-Release/JVC-Section-370IPC-Clarification.pdf. Accessed 25 June 2018.
Nepstad, Sharon Erickson. 2004. Persistent resistance: Commitment and community in the plowshares movement. Social Problems 51 (1): 43–60.
Ng, Marie, Emmanuela Gakidou, Alison Levin-Rector, Ajay Khera, Christopher J.L. Murray, and Lalit Dandona. 2011. Assessment of population-level effect of Avahan, an HIV-prevention initiative in India. Lancet 378 (9803): 1643–1652.
Oselin, Sharon S., and Ronald Weitzer. 2013. Organizations working on behalf of prostitutes: An analysis of goals, practices, and strategies. Sexualities 16 (3–4): 445–466.
Polletta, F., and James M. Jasper. 2001. Collective identity and social movements. Annual Review of Sociology 27: 283–305.
Puri, Jyoti. 2016. Sexual states: Governance and the struggle over the antisodomy law in India. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sunder Rajan, Rajeswari. 2003. The prostitution question(s): Female agency, sexuality, and work. In The scandal of the state: Women, law, and citizenship in postcolonial India, ed. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, 117–146. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ramberg, Lucinda. 2014. Given to the goddess: South Indian devadasis and the sexuality of religion. Durham: Duke University Press.
Rao, Prasada J.V.R. 2010. Avahan: The transition to a publicly funded programme as a next stage. Sexually Transmitted Infections 86 (1): 7–8.
Reddy, Gayatri. 2005. With respect to sex: Negotiating hijra identity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Reddy, Gayatri. 2010. Hijras, “AIDS cosmopolitanism,” and questions of izzat in Hyderabad. In Routledge handbook of sexuality, health, and rights, ed. Peter Aggleton and Richard Parker, 97–107. New York: Routledge.
Rupp, Leila J., and Verta Taylor. 1999. Forging feminist identity in an international movement: A collective identity approach to twentieth-century feminism. Signs 24 (2): 363–386.
Sahni, Rohini, and V. Kalyan Shankar. 2013. Sex work and its linkages with informal labour markets in India: Findings from the first pan-India survey of female sex workers. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.
Seshu, Meena, and Shohini Ghosh. 2008. Shades of grey: Selling sex--work, business, or a profession? Talking about reproductive and sexual health issues (TARSHI). http://www.tarshi.net/index.asp?pid=215.
Shah, Nayan. 1998. Sexuality, identity and the uses of history. In Q&a: Queer in Asian America, ed. David L. Eng and Alice Y. Hom, 141–156. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Shah, Svati. 2014. Street corner secrets: Sex, work, and migration in the city of Mumbai. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sukthankar, Ashwini. 2012. Queering approaches to sex, gender, and labor in India: Examining paths to sex worker unionism. In South Asian feminisms, ed. Ania Loomba and Ritty A. Lukose, 306–332. Durham: Duke University Press.
Tambe, Ashwini. 2006. Brothels as families: Reflections on the history of Bombay’s kothas. International Feminist Journal of Politics 8 (2): 219–242.
Tambe, Ashwini. 2009. Codes of misconduct: Regulating prostitution in late colonial Bombay. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Taylor, Verta, and Nancy E. Whittier. 1992. Collective identity in social movement communities: Lesbian feminist mobilization. In Frontiers of social movement theory, ed. Aldon D. Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller, 104–129. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Verma, J.S., Leila Seth, and Gopal Subramanium. 2013. Report of the committee on amendments to criminal law. PRS India. http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Justice%20verma%20committee/js%20verma%20committe%20report.pdf. Accessed 25 June 2018.
Weitzer, Ronald. 1991. Prostitutes’ rights in the United States: Failure of a movement. The Sociological Quarterly 32 (1): 23–41.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Sex work
- Collective identity
- Social movements