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Comprehending Sex Work

Padmini Swaminathan

Edited by Prabha Kotiswaran
Women Unlimited (an associate of Kali for Women), New Delhi, 2011, pp. 298, Rs.650.00

By Prabha Kotiswaran
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 298, Rs.695.00


These two books read together provide breadth and depth on one of the most contentious sub-jects that continues to occupy the women’s movement as well as women’s studies scholars, domestically and globally. While Sex Work takes us through the debates on sex work in India, Dangerous Sex methodically and persuasively builds a theoretical case for recognizing sex work as WORK. In both the books the treatment of the subject of sex work is scholarly, sensitive and thought provoking. Sex Work is a collection of extracts from various writings covering the Indian sex work landscape. However, for a reader to get a sense of why these particular extracts were chosen and what informs the order in which they have been placed in the book, it is extremely important to engage with the Introduction to the book. Despite each piece by itself being interesting, the fact that each has been extracted from a larger piece of work, whose particular context and purpose very often does not get covered in the extracted piece, forces us to refer to the Introduction, time and again, to get a sense of the purpose of the extract. These extracts are organized into four major themes: the colonial legal histories of sex work, the post-Independent feminist debates on sex work, contemporary ethnographies of sex work, and the politics around mobilization of sex workers. The volume also contains documents and manifestos from sex workers’ movement and an appendix that traces law reform proposals that emerged through the 1990s. The colonial discourse around sex work is captured through what the author terms as the ‘colonial degradation thesis’ that brought about a shift in both legal regulation and societal perception of sex work from the pre-colonial period. Embedding the articles by Ashwini Tambe, Kalpana and Vasanth Kannabiran, and, Sumanta Banerjee within this discourse, Kotiswaran provides readers a flavour of the nature of this discourse that dealt with, ‘unintended micro-level consequences of anti-trafficking criminal laws, in this case, the League of Nations conventions on trafficking in colonial Mumbai of the 1920s’, to indigenous abolitionist accounts that viewed the Devadasi system as ‘backward traditionalism in contrast to the modern sensibilities of the Self-Respect Movement’ and that therefore called for ‘a multi-faceted social reform strategy which included physically isolating Devadasis in the Andamans, if need be’; Banerjee’s account is rich in its description of the highly differentiated nature of Kolkata’s ...

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