Theorizing the Continuities between Marriage and Sex Work in the Experience of Female Sex Workers in Pune, Maharashtra

by Shakthi Nataraj and Sutapa Majumdar

Marriage is near-universal in India, where most cisgender women sex workers have been married at some point in their lives, while also navigating responsibilities to family and children. In this paper, we explore how cisgender women sex workers in Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, experience continuities between sex work and marriage, while navigating an ideological landscape where sex work and marriage are positioned as opposites. Returning to feminist theoretical models that highlight the economic underpinnings of marriage, we outline three arenas in the Indian context where marriage and sex work overlap rather than remaining opposed and separate entities: (a) migration, (b) attributions of respect and stigma, coded through symbols of marriage and sexual availability, and (c) building and dissolving kinship networks that contest the primacy of biological or affinal kin. In each of these realms the distinction between marriage and sex work is a fraught and contested issue, and the roles of wife, mother, and sex worker can shade into one another based on context. We then examine how three women navigate these contradictions, arguing that focusing on kinship and marriage can circumvent the limitations of the choice versus coercion paradigm that structures current debates on sex work. 

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