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Constrained Choices

Reshma Bharadwaj

By Svati P. Shah
Orient BlackSwan, Noida, 2015, pp. 296, Rs. 785.00


What has sex work got to do with private water tanks or making of hair pins or average rainfall in Marathwada? In Street Corner Secrets, Svati P. Shah critically engage with the academic knowledge production which ignores such connections. She debunks the figure of the lonely sex worker lurking timidly among the shadows by the street or who remains confined within brothels. Instead she situates women engaged in sexual commerce firmly amidst thick descriptions of migration, informal labour economy, land speculation, urban housing projects, infrastructure underdevelopment of rural areas, ecological degradation, water scarcity, displacement, caste politics and gendered inequalities in the wage labour market. These also mark the compulsions or constraints surrounding the livelihood choices of women including sex work. Shah situates the lives and livelihoods of women selling sexual services in the broader, more complicated, and thus more humanizing frames of labour, migration and informal economy. She argues that a ‘theory of sexuality must also be a theory of political economy’ (p. xi), and demonstrates how the presence of women in certain spatial temporal contexts ‘locks’ them into certain social types like ‘prostitute’ to the exclusion of the other ways in which they could self identify like labourers. Instead of the analytical framework which sees prostitution as a state of being from which women are to be rescued, Shah places sexual commerce as a livelihood strategy. She argues that neither identitarianism with its fixed subjective matrix of understanding the subject nor the anti-trafficking framework could effectively capture the layered negotiations entered into by women who opt into sexual commerce as one of the several other forms of economic survival. She questions ‘the ways in which sexual commerce and day wage labour are produced as mutually exclusive and even incommensurate categories of analysis in scholarship on prostitution’ (p. 3). This work could be seen as taking further the project ‘ethnography of the particular’, which by focusing on the nuanced everyday life of the women gives a more complex and layered understanding of subjectivity of women thus engaged (Abu-Lughod 2000; Dewey and Zheng 2013). While revealing the interconnections between structure and agency, the ethnography of the particular has avoided the pitfalls hidden within structural analysis. They have looked into how subtle and explicit forms of protest and agency takes place within structural factors, thus refusing to get caught between the dichotomy of the helpless victims and inhuman agents (Dewey and Zheng 2013, 5). The result is ...

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