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Let's talk about sex, work and dignity

A new book captures the many shades of sex work, from red-light areas to escort services, in modern-day Mumbai

Sex workers in Mumbai’s red-light district of Kamathipura, December 2011. 
Sex workers in Mumbai’s red-light district of Kamathipura, December 2011.  (Getty Images)

Among the male clients of sex workers whom feminist writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya mentions in her book Intimate City is Nik, an NRI who works in the shipping industry and is a frequent visitor to Mumbai. Away from his family, he avails himself of the service of escorts, who typically charge 15,000-25,000 for a couple of hours. “There’s a big difference in clients of Kamathipura (Mumbai’s historic ‘red-light’ area) and those of higher-end escorts,” Nik tells Bhattacharjya. “It’s a class difference. It’s like the difference between eating in an expensive restaurant or a vendor on the footpath.”

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Intimate City is the outcome of a project undertaken around 2012 to map the changing dynamics of sex work in India, using Mumbai as a case study. “The sex industry has not become homogenized or McDonaldized over time but has instead diversified,” writes Bhattacharjya, “with specialist and more personalized services carried out in new ways through the use of technology.” These shifts, in India and the world, are also harbingers of perceptual changes through decades of activism.

The idea of sex work as exploitation and violence is entrenched in socialist discourses of feminism. To this day, in India, sex work operates in a nebulous paralegal framework: It is not illegal per se but soliciting for sex is. A large machinery—comprising NGOs, funding bodies, rescue shelters and government agencies—is based on the ideology that sex work is inherently exploitative. The status quo conflates sex work with trafficking, which has a cascading effect, legally and socially, to say nothing of the psychological impact on the people who pursue this work.

Consider the example of the draft Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021, which may be executed by the National Investigative Agency when it is cleared. It effectively erases the voices of the rescued women when it comes to the mode of rehabilitation that will be imposed on them by the state. Such lacunae make even the best intentions appear like patriarchal bias in policymaking, which makes no distinction between rescuing trafficked minors and “saving” adult women in sex work of their own accord.

“There’s a reason why the saying, ‘Save us from the saviours’, is prevalent among a section of sex workers,” Bhattacharjya says on the phone. Over the last two decades, she adds, “a generational shift” has been ushered in by waves of sex-positive feminism. Sex work, Dalit-Bahujan feminists have rightly pointed out, is encased in the trappings of caste-based exploitation, which the abolitionists propose to dismantle. Yet, it is also impossible to disregard a parallel movement to bring dignity to the occupation—to treat sex work as any other profession, formalised and protected by labour laws. “It’s difficult to think of these as starkly opposing positions any longer,” says Bhattacharjya.

Intimate City: By Manjima Bhattacharjya, Zubaan, 240 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>595.
Intimate City: By Manjima Bhattacharjya, Zubaan, 240 pages, 595.

Early sections of her book look at the changing geographies of red-light areas, while the latter parts explore the implications of digital literacy and internet penetration. “That sex work is as much a part of the informal sector as any other profession became evident during the pandemic,” says Bhattacharjya. Since its outbreak, sex workers, like daily-wage earners and small business owners, have suffered devastating loss of income. “The impact on trans and male sex workers has been especially hard because most of them work in public places (unlike the women who live in self-contained red-light districts) as they haven’t been able to move about,” she adds. A section of the women who work on Mumbai’s Grant Road, as Lounge reported in May 2020, pivoted to entertaining clients via phone and video calls—transactions that weren’t hitherto germane to their lives. It’s hard to predict, though, if adoption of technology will have a lasting effect on sex work in the red-light areas, the way it has already affected elite sex work.

Some of Bhattacharjya’s most fascinating findings pertain to the sex industry on the internet, run by individuals and agencies and offered as a “lifestyle experience” to globe-trotting businessmen like Nik or tourists looking for fun. The men pay not only for sex but also for GFE, or “girlfriend experience”, a brief but memorable liaison full of conversation and companionship. This veneer of gentility apart, Bhattacharjya notes a preponderance of upper-caste aliases used by the escorts, promising safe access to “good girls” with high-class antecedents, in the same way that Indian matrimonial ads do. But the reality, as she finds out after interviewing one “Mugdha Desai”, is far more complicated, fraught with questions of consent and conflicted attitudes to the gig economy of sex work.

Illuminating as it is, Bhattacharjya’s book doesn’t include the voices of the clients of male and transgender sex workers—the result of logistical limitations, she says. But, for what it does, Intimate City shines a light on to the diverse landscapes of sex work in India. It opens up an exciting path for future scholars.

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