April 17, 2014

Review of Prabha Kotiswaran’s “Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India”

Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms Magazine and a veteran of the U.S. feminist movement, during her recent trip to India expressed her strong concern over the ‘global epidemic of trafficking’ and mentioned that Indian sex workers are the most exploited and underprivileged group in the country. She calls prostitution as “bodily invasion” and conflates prostitution and trafficking. Steinem is not the first to conflate prostitution and trafficking and to speak about the ‘fate’ of Indian sex workers; her remarks do fall under a radical feminist understanding of prostitution as violence against women. While Steinem’s remarks are received with considerable skepticism within India, her voice is still powerful and feeds into transnational discourses that all sex workers from non-west and particularly South Asia are always trafficked.

Steinem may have spoken with or observed Indian sex workers on her trip but her remarks are not based on any empirical evidence.  Yet, she speaks as an ‘expert’ on prostitution and trafficking in South Asia, which can have far reaching implications for policy reforms around sex work. In contrast, the book under review “Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor” dispels this myth of sex workers as predominantly trafficked and as quintessential victims of violence.

Kotiswaran undertakes a rigorous empirical and theoretical analysis of sex markets in two cities in India based on ethnographic research conducted between 2004 and 2009. Her research reveals that, contrary to common myths, sex markets are not all the same. They are varied and diverse and, even within the same institutional set up (such as brothels), the relational and structural dynamics of the sex markets operate differently for different sex workers depending on the power relations. Another predominant myth that Kotiswaran’s work dispels is that sex work in India is primarily brothel based. In fact, brothels only cater to 9 to 10% of the sex workers in India.

Kotiswaran’s overall goal in this book is to offer a grounded analysis of the labor practices and institutional arrangements that prevail in the sex markets for a better understanding of the economic dimension of sex work. This focus is very critical and counters much of the debates on sex work currently that are only focused on violence and patriarchal exploitation of women. Kotiswaran, through her theoretical and empirical work, offers a different dimension of sex work and sex workers i.e. the economic activity and as economic actors.

In part I (1, 2, 3 chapters) of the book, Kotiswaran provides a historical and theoretical over view of various feminist positions (radical, socialist and materialist) with regard to prostitution and sex work. While doing so, she thoroughly reviews and revisits socialist feminist positions on women’s work under conditions of patriarchy and capitalism. In contrast to radical feminist positions that see prostitution as exceptional from marriage, socialist feminist (Alexandra Kollontai) place it in continuum with women’s economic exploitation that also includes marriage.

Kotiswaran draws on feminist insights that situate sex work in broader debates around women’s reproductive labor to move away from a narrow focus of radical feminist who see prostitution as nothing but sexual violence. The radical feminist argument that prostitution is essentially violence against women, as Kotiswaran emphatically argues, ignores broader forms of exploitation (such as capitalist labor relations which also gains from women’s unpaid reproductive labor) that women’s labor is embedded in. Kotiswaran thus brings back the discussion on women’s work and labor relations into productive dialogue with literature on sex work so as to better understand the conditions under which women undertake paid sexual labor.

It is only through understanding sex work as work, as Kotiswaran consistently demonstrates in her book, feminist analysts and policy makers can have more grounded and systematic analysis of specific forms of institutional arrangements, labor conditions (which may also include exploitative conditions) and market mediated practices that sex work and sex workers are embedded in. Lacking such understanding, as this section poignantly reveals, would only reinforces stereotypes of sex workers as quintessential victims of patriarchal violence and sex work as most degrading practice.

Part II of the book (chapters 4 & 5) is ethnography of the sex markets in two very different cities – Tirupati and Kolkata. In Tirupati (a major Hindu pilgrim center in South India), sex work takes place in diverse institutional settings ranging from street-based, home-based and hospitality-based settings with a high percentage of self-employed sex workers (82-83 %). There are no separately demarcated red light areas in Tirupati. Here, most street-based sex workers are self-employed, as are home-based and lodge-based sex workers.  In addition to surveying the institutional settings (street economy, household economy, and hospitality economy) and different contractual arrangements in which sex work takes place in Tirupati, Kotiswaran also maps the internal stakeholders (brokers, landlords, hotel owners and other) and external stakeholders (police) of the sex markets.

Kotiswaran also discusses various contractual arrangements women enter into within these settings for example, women who choose to work in the institutional setting of house based economy can contract their labor to a owner operator (who may also be a sex worker herself) or work independently if they have enough contacts and social capital to work on their own. For example, Rehana rents a space in a house and uses it during the working hours on weekdays to see her clients.  When she is not doing sex work Rehana lives in a one-room apartment with her husband and her son. To substitute her husband’s intermittent income as a painter she worked in a garment industry in the South Indian city of Chennai, but she returned back to Tirupati as she was subjected to constant sexual harassment at the garment factory. Upon returning, she is introduced to sex work by a friend. Her husband does not know that she is a sex worker and she feels that she would not have gone into sex work if her husband earned sufficient income. Rehana previously worked with several owner operators before she got her own room for rent.

Kotiswaran’s ethnographic data also reveals how notions such as dignity play out in interesting and contradictory ways in the lives of secret sex workers like Rehana who see their entry into sex work as the only way to uphold the ‘dignity’ of their families. Kotiswaran’s observations reveal sex workers striving to undertake sex work in a ‘dignified manner’.  These ethnographic observations help understand how notions such as respect, dignity and safety are constantly negotiated and reworked as sex workers’ make sense of the economic hardships and personal tragedies that they and their families face and live through.

According to the data gathered by WINS (Women’s Initiative) an NGO working with sex workers on HIV/AIDS prevention, sex workers’ in Tirupati reported very negligible amounts of violence from customers; 82.4 percent of street-based sex workers, 91.7 percent of family-based sex workers, and 89.2 percent of house-based sex workers reported that they had never been abused by a customer (p.114). It is also telling that much of the violence that sex workers’ reported in Tirupathi is the violence they face from police.

In contrast to Tirpuati’s sex market, Kolkata’s (Sonagachi red light area) sex market is brothel based with an estimated 7,091 brothel-based and 3,262 floating sex workers (also referred as flying sex workers) who travel throughout the city to work. Kotiswaran maps various relational dynamics of the sex market in this brothel setting in Sonagachi, for example, between the women, the brothel owners; brothel owners and landlords; women and clients. Her data shows diverse labor relationships in this sex market and that even within the brothel set up there are different forms of contractual arrangements that women enter into.

For example, roughly 29.3% or one-third of sex workers are self-employed or operating independently in Sonagachi. Kotiswaran demonstrates that the women calculate risk and economic gain in choosing their work, depending on the different kinds of labor, service and tenant relationships available. For example a self-employed sex worker (who is also referred to as flying sex worker) who rents a room when ever she visits red light area from a landlord or a brothel keeper may end up spending lot more money on renting a place on a hourly or daily basis than a sex worker who may contract her labor to a brothel owner but has more security from police harassment in Sonagachi than if she works as a street-based sex. Street-based sex workers face more vulnerability and risk arrest from the police.

Kotiswaran’s critical intervention as a legal scholar and legal ethnographer comes out starkly in this chapter as she engages with various criminal and civil laws that shape the institutional set up of a brothel based sex market. She demonstrates the impact of the tenancy laws on the supply and demand in the sex market because the laws impact the women’s ability to negotiate with the brothel owners and clients. In her ethnographic account, sex workers come alive as economic actors capable of strategizing against eviction, securing tenancy rights, and becoming property and land owners as they invest the income they earn from sex work to secure property for themselves and their families.

Kotiswaran’s research defies the myths that sex workers are always victims (as Steinem claims) and that brothels are primarily places of violence and oppression. She documents how women are able to move freely between various forms of contractual arrangements in this sex market and the collective actions that women undertake under the banner of DMSC (Durbar Mahila Samanya Committee) to protect themselves from regular police harassment and arrests in brothels.

Kotiswaran’s data also indicates that trafficking is not the primary mode through which women enter sex work in Sonagachi. Although instances of women being trafficked do exist – as when a brothel owner buys a sex worker by paying lump sum to her relatives or other intermediaries – this is not a widespread practice. Furthermore, DMSC’s data also indicates that sex workers collectivization has lead to high condom use in Sonagachi, which increased from 1.11 per cent in 1992 to 81.87 percent in 2001 (P: 202).

The final section of the book Part III (chapters 6 & 7) offers concrete suggestions for legal reform based on Kotiswaran’s mapping of the relational dynamics in the Sonagachi sex markets. She applies caution in recommending legal reforms and explains that partial or complete decriminalization could impact differently on street based or brothel based sex workers.  On the other hand, she describes how legalization, if framed from the perspective of sex workers empowerment, could protect them from damages from customers and brothel owners. This chapter then serves as a caution to policy makers and reformers who suggest reforms to prostitution laws without having an understanding of the relational dynamics of the sex markets.

Chapter 7 captures the redistributive and labor aspects of sex work by drawing on the sex workers’ own definition of their work. Kotiswaran shows how women driven into sex markets due to economic compulsions are very well aware of the constraints of the labor markets. It is telling that, in various narratives by the sex workers themselves, they primarily define sex work as an occupation or a business rather than a profession as some of their western counter parts do. For them, sex work can be a time bound and temporary occupation that they engage with while engaging with other means of livelihood. Furthermore, they assess themselves on par with domestic workers, scavengers, street vendors, and other workers of informal sector who also work under unequal bargaining conditions.

Kotiswaran emphatically refutes the assumptions of poverty and lack of choice that are found in the “outsider” narratives as being colonialist in nature. Through her empirical analysis and evidence, she show how an emphasis on poverty as a primary lens for examining the sex markets in a non-western context misses the concrete realities of the lives of women in the sex markets, and the specific modes and forms of exploitation that occur in the developing world.

The biggest strength of this book is the way in which Kotiswaran has made the voices of sex workers and their organizations visible and central. She carefully documents the strategies they employ as they negotiate for safer work conditions in these highly regulated sex markets. The book leaves readers with a greater appreciation of the diverse roles sex workers play in shaping their lives within the sex sector and in being active members of their larger communities.

Kotiswaran offers an important framework and a model in which to engage with sex work that is not caught in the polarities of victimhood and liberated sexual subjects. She turns our attention to a feminist analysis that seriously takes into consideration dimensions of work and labor practices in sex work for a better understanding of labor conditions, and unequal bargaining conditions that prevent sex workers from access economic rights and redistributive justice.

For rights and justice to happen, we cannot operate on myths and assumption that sex workers are only victims of patriarchal violence. It is important to have more of the type of robust empirical and theoretical work achieved by Kotiswaran in analyzing the ‘work’ aspect of sex work. Hence, in her postcolonial materialist feminist approach, Kotiswaran proposes that we recognize sex work as legitimate work.

This is a path-breaking book, which adds significantly to the emerging literature on ‘intimate labor’. Kotiswaran’s legal ethnography should also be of interest to lawyers, legal advocates, policy makes, and feminist scholars and activists who are interested in sex work and law.


Chaitanya Lakkimsetti is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at The Center for Feminist Research and the Gender Studies Program at the University of Southern California. Her areas of research include gender, sexuality, globalization and postcolonial studies. Her email is clakkimsetti@gmail.com.

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