Sex Work is a highly contentious sector of women’s reproductive labour. Feminists around the world have long debated the normative status of sex work. Radical feminists argue that sex work, whether consensual or not is fundamentally against human dignity and that therefore it must be abolished. Sex workers themselves must not be criminalized but customers of sex workers must be punished so that over time the demand for sex work is reduced leading to the elimination of the sector. Sex workers’ groups and sex-positive feminists on the other hand, argue that sex work is an occupational choice made under constraints of a capitalist patriarchal society but wherein sex workers nevertheless exercise some agency which ought to be recognised.
Indian feminists and sex workers have had similar debates on sex work. The Indian sex sector is said to have anywhere between 3 million to 16 million sex workers. Sex work has consistently been the target of proposed regulation by the Indian state. Since the discovery of HIV/AIDS in the mid-1980s, followed subsequently by the adoption of the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in 2000, there have been numerous proposals to amend the Indian anti-sex work criminal law, the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1986. A Swedish-style amendment to the ITPA to criminalise demand for sex work was nearly passed in 2005. In 2013 in the wake of the rape and murder of an Indian student, sweeping law reforms were introduced which included a stand-alone offence of trafficking in the Indian Penal Code, 1860. More recently, the government has sought to introduce the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 which sex workers’ groups argue will be used to harass voluntary sex workers in the name of combatting trafficking. As an academic-activist I have written extensively on this Bill, more about which you can read here.
In the course of the Laws of Social Reproduction project, I propose to revisit and update a materialist feminist theory of sex work which I outlined in 2011 in my book Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labour: Sex Work and the Law in India. My goal was to carve a third path, distinct from that of radical feminists and sex-positive feminists, to offer a robust study of the political economy of sex work. Rather than focus solely on the ITPA to explain away problems within the sector, I undertook legal ethnography to map the dense legal networks within brothel-based sex work (in Sonagachi, Kolkata) and street-based sex work (in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh). I then tested various policy approaches including complete criminalization, partial decriminalization, complete decriminalization and legalization to assess what would most enhance the economic bargaining power of sex workers. The project will continue work on this materialist feminist analysis of sex work in other parts of India with the hope of reimagining the law of sex work.