Intimate City: Looking anew at long-held feminist understandings of sex work, choice, consent and agency
It is evident that engagement with sex work has broadened feminists’ ideas of who should have ‘rights’; revealed women’s agency as being diverse and unruly; expanded and complicated conventional notions of choice and consent; and offered us another model of bodily autonomy.
In Intimate City (Zubaan, 2021), feminist researcher, writer, activist Manjima Bhattacharjya examines how globalisation and technology have changed where and how sexual commerce is transacted. From changing red light areas to the world of escort services, massage boys and men in search of casual encounters cruising the internet highways, Intimate City maps offline and online geographies of sex work and unearths voices never heard before.
Through these narratives, Bhattacharjya tries to understand how the internet has re-configured intimacies in the digital age. In doing so, she offers a new lens to look at long-held feminist understandings of sex work, choice, consent and agency against the backdrop of the ‘maximum city’: Mumbai.
Bhattacharjya has previously authored Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018).
This excerpt from Intimate City is being republished on International Sex Worker Rights Day, with due permission from the author and Zubaan.
‘Work is work: you have good days and bad days, but my worst day at work is still better than the best day selling shoes at Kinney’s.’
— A comment by a well-known porn star in Wendy Chapkis’ book Live Sex Acts (1997)
Notes in the Margins #1: A New Landscape for Feminists
Is selling shoes the same as selling sex? When a sex worker tells us that it is comparable and that, in fact, one is preferred over the other because it pays more, is flexible and she has more control over the terms of her work (guess which one) – why is it so hard for people, for us, to believe her?
‘It’s like calculus,’ says escort and adult film star Lorelei Lee on a 2019 podcast called Call Your Girlfriend. Other people are always trying to calculate (when people find out what she does) if there was real consent. ‘Did you join on your own? Do you work through a pimp or a manager?’ she is asked, as if these will provide clues to whether her claims are real.
In the podcast interview, Lee talks about the ‘sex work is work’ framework as being stifling in its own way. It has two main elements that bother her – one is the empowerment narrative, implying that somehow speaking in these terms will be empowering. And the other is that labelled so, it becomes imperative that what sex workers do has value for society and is framed as productive work. ‘Both are reductive narratives,’ she says. ‘You have to prove you enjoy your work every single day’ or you’ll be hounded by the other lobby (the anti sex work or powerful anti-trafficking lobby) to exit. Lee has a long history of participating in different kinds of wage work – waitressing and many others – and knows what she is talking about.
Speaking the language of work is necessary, but not sufficient to feel empowered, especially if the conditions within which this “work” takes place replicates oppression and hierarchies. This makes reading the wider context critical to understanding the experiences of people in sex work.
Prostitution went through a ‘re-branding’ in the new economic era in the West. The red light area was re-branded through gentrification, the sex worker through new business models, and sex work itself went from prostitution to sex work to the Girlfriend Experience, sexual entertainment and so on. This shift was not universal, although it did have global influence. Post-industrial sexual commerce may have replaced older ways of doing sex work in the West, but as in other areas of social change, the old and the new coexist in India.
There is a visible sexualisation of culture – an acceptance of a former adult actor in Bollywood, the seasonal occupation of public space by ‘sexual dissidents’ in Pride parades, a slow queering of metropolises and movements – but sex work continues to operate within a certain set-up in India: it is still poor women and poor men who sell and buy sex in red light areas, although the identities of these poor women and men may have changed because of a change in who is the most vulnerable in society, based on migration flows and the impact of displacement or violence or floods or riots.
Alongside this is a vibrant sex workers’ rights movement that burgeoned with HIV/AIDS machinery, organising and collectivising women in these areas to empower them through collective solidarity, offering solace and services, and programmes and opportunities to educate and support their children. The sex-work-as-choice position (that people enter sex work voluntarily, see it as a livelihood, and seek rights as workers) has wedged its way into prominence because of the sheer strength of these movements.
But newer forms of sex work mediated by technologies have also emerged, forms we know little about.
This is a new landscape for feminists. Here, the question of sexual commerce has moved beyond the old debate of whether it is work or violence. It is a livelihood and form of work, an enterprise and business linked to global flows and local realities. It is a real and discursive space that is contested, in which labour rights and human rights are sought, solidarities built even as violence and oppression is experienced.[i] There is simultaneously a powerful ‘rescue industry’ out there that dismisses these discursive advances, obsessed with containing the movement of adult women, believing it to be a form of protection, for women’s own good.
Sex work has divided feminists like no other issue, in India as much as elsewhere. And there have been many pages devoted to exploring the relationship between feminists and sex workers.[ii] This is because sex work gets at the heart of several important feminist areas of debate: agency, choice, consent, and bodily autonomy.
It has influenced the evolution of new kinds of feminism: ‘whore feminism’ (a term to capture the reclaiming of feminism amongst sex workers by embracing the slur given to them), as well as ‘carceral feminism’ and ‘governance feminism’ (terms that denote groups working with zeal to provide services like shelter home management on behalf of the state, and given responsibilities to rehabilitate and reintegrate trafficking survivors).
The starting point for us cannot be work-or-violence in this landscape. Where we stand now, it is evident that engagement with sex work has broadened feminists’ ideas of who should have ‘rights’; revealed women’s agency as being diverse and unruly; expanded and complicated conventional notions of choice and consent;[iii] and offered us another model of bodily autonomy. This is the new starting point for us today.
[i] Violence is not the domain of sex workers alone. In her paper on doing feminist research with women in sex work in eastern India, Mirna Guha (2019) challenges the framing of violence in sex work as exceptional.
[ii] Geetanjali Gangoli’s excellent paper outlines feminist positions in India in the early 2000s as being between ‘immorality, hurt and choice’ (2007). Laxmi Murthy and Meena Seshu offer an updated review of the relationship between feminist and sex worker movements in India in their edited volume The Business of Sex (2013). MS Sreerekha (2008) explores sex work and feminist positions through the lens of queer politics.
[iii] Srilatha Batliwala (2013) writes that sex workers have expanded feminist notions of choice and consent.
Batliwala, Srilatha. 2013. ‘How Sex Workers Expand Feminist Concepts of Choice and Consent’, in L. Murthy and M.S. Seshu (eds.), The Business of Sex, pp. 125-147. New Delhi: Zubaan.
Gangoli, G. 2007. ‘Immorality, Hurt or Choice: How Indian Feminists Engage with Prostitution’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 9(1): 1-19.
Guha, M. 2019. ‘”Do You Really Want to Hear About My Life?”: Doing “Feminist Research” with Women in Sex Work in Eastern India’, Gender & Development, 27(3): 505-21.
Murthy, Laxmi and Meena Saraswathi Seshu. eds. 2013. The Business of Sex. New Delhi: Zubaan.
Sreerekha, M.S. 2008. ‘Understanding Being Queer: Exploring Sexuality and Sex Work’, The Indian Historical Review, XXXV(2): 27-48.
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