Gender Identity, Sex Work and the Dissonance of Government in Pandemic Times

black and white photo of person looking at the window

In thinking with the problematics of sex work, this paper reconsiders commensuration as the structuring relation between the rhetoric of liberal governance and the exercise of state-sanctioned power in everyday life. Within debates on sex work, understanding the dissonance between the law’s rhetoric and the ways laws are interpreted, ignored or violated on the street necessitates interrogating our reliance on gender identity as binary, fixed, ahistorical, and ‘biological’. The ways in which recent debates on transgender law in In­dia became sites for the reinstantiation of binary gender norms is a case in point. This reification of binary gender is produced in tandem with racialization as a way of seeing. The difficulty of integrating cisgender men, trans­women, and non-binary people as ‘sex workers’ within normative debates on sexual commerce in India points to the ways in which binary gender identity is produced via a preoccupation with maintaining caste-based distinc­tions. In other words, while we may recognize the processual nature of gender, race and caste, treating these as examples of ‘difference in itself’ reifies binary gender via a stricter semblance of juridical recognition, and con­comitant assumptions about the symmetry between the law and its enforcement. I identify these problems as foundational to the prevailing epistemic conditions of discourses on transacted sex. Understanding the stakes of binary gender within the project of juridical recognition offers critical tools for apprehending multiple crises of governance that were exacerbated in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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