Precarious Pasts, Emancipatory Futures: Interdisciplinary Conversations on Sex Work in India

July 22 – 24 2020 

In July 2020, we at the Laws of Social Reproduction Project held a three-day interdisciplinary workshop on the state of sex work-related research and mobilisation in India. The workshop had an exciting range of panellists from activist, legal and academic backgrounds, and included panels on the state of the Indian sex workers’ movement, intersections of caste identity and sex work, the political economy of sex work, mobilisation and advocacy, and the challenges of countering anti-trafficking and neo-abolitionist organizations. 

Diverse Trajectories, Resilient Struggles: Taking Stock of the Indian Sex Workers’ Movement 

In the past decade, the question of sex workers’ rights in India has grown ever-more fraught, provoking  heated  debates  amongst  feminists  about  both  the  emancipatory  possibilities  and limits of recognizing sex work as “work”. Sex worker-led collectives (VAMP, DMSC, NNSW, and AINSW) and materialist feminists have long argued that sex work should be considered work, meriting greater legal protection and a recognition of women’s economic agency. They argue that millions of migrant workers, mostly women, find sex work to be a better livelihood option than other kinds of precarious labour. On the other hand, abolitionist groups in India such as Apne Aap Women Worldwide, Prajwala, and Shakthi Vahini are gaining ever-more influence, joined  by  global  anti-trafficking activists  and  governance  feminists  who conflate  all  sex  work with “modern slavery” and “trafficking”. Anti-caste activists and dalit feminists have offered a critical third perspective, arguing that when sex work is performed as a caste-based practice, legitimizing it as “work” might implicitly endorse caste domination.  

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