Your web browser is out of date. Please upgrade it for a better experience viewing this website.

Indian Sex Workers and a Celebration of Sexual Diversity

Written By: Khushbu Srivastava
July 8, 2009

 

As an Indian woman living in America, I have visited sex worker programs across seven states in India. Most of these visits were conducted through official roles within international NGOs, but a few were personal visits to see friends who lived in red light districts and brothels. These experiences, whether discussing the effectiveness of condom distribution strategies in HIV prevention or sharing some local beer and ruminating about life, profoundly shaped my own thinking. Beyond a greater practical understanding of how it is critical to address issues of stigma in order to reach out to vulnerable high-risk groups, I also learned some things about what it means for movements to celebrate sexual diversity.

For instance, I spent considerable time with members of a very powerful sex workers’ organization, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), one of the largest sex worker collectives in the world, made up of over 65,000 sex workers across Kolkata. Since 1995, a core strategy of DMSC’s efforts to address the HIV/ AIDs epidemic has been the political mobilization and social empowerment of sex workers.

For myself, I valued the camaraderie of being around individuals who were so politically, artistically and sexually diverse and open. Together, we conducted outreach to government officials in Delhi, we sang songs and ate ice cream, too. These moments, in fact, were my first introduction to queer community in India. The experience of being in a peer group made of straight women, lesbians (including butch women), transgender women and gay men was a much-needed breath of fresh air.

At a recent January 2009 meeting in Bangalore organized by Action Plus, a network of civil society groups fighting to make India’s HIV/AIDS policy more responsive, one transgendered woman reminded us of the specific vulnerability caused by queerness. She shared her story that while growing up, she had excelled in her studies, but was forced to leave school given the daily violence she faced from students and teachers. She was later kicked out by her family and sexually tortured repeatedly by the police. To support herself, she entered sex work.

When we talk of sex workers in developed countries, many are from the most excluded groups, including low-caste and Dalit women, widows, those whose lands have been usurped by inequitable development and those who are migrant workers who cannot support themselves through seasonal work alone. Amongst the most vulnerable, are also those who are gay, lesbian and transgendered.

Queer sex workers who are part of DMSC had explained to me how they considered themselves lucky to have found DMSC, where their peers accepted their differences and where they could work together to fight police and client brutality. Within DMSC, while there were subsets of butch lesbians serving women, gay men serving men, transgendered women serving men and women serving men, all members conducted outreach and held meetings together. When there was violence against any sex worker, all members, regardless of their orientation, spoke with a single voice.

I was again reminded of the commitment that sex workers activists have towards LGBTQI rights during an April trip to Maharashtra, a state in Western India. There, we accompanied Meena Seshu, the visionary behind SANGRAM, to a sex workers meeting. SANGRAM is a phenomenal organization that empowers various vulnerable groups including sex workers, HIV positive women, positive youth, migrants and elderly care-takers in the fight against HIV/ AIDS.

On the hot balmy night, I listened attentively as the women explained recent developments to Meena, including their many successes negotiating with police and maintaining strong condom usage. Eventually, the discussion moved to the story of two women sex workers who had recently fallen in love. Once their relationship was discovered by the other sex workers, they were chastised. One woman in the lesbian relationship attempted suicide by badly slicing her arms, as she could not cope with either the ensuing rejection of her female lover or the stigma she faced from her own community.

Meena patiently asked the sex workers why they had rejected the couple. The women replied that while they felt it was acceptable for men to sleep with me, or transgendered women to sleep with men, women loving one another was something they had never seen. They felt that it was against the nature of women.

What ensued was a long and passionate debate, as Meena methodically explained the values of sexual diversity, the existence of lesbians and the right of women to love one another. “Just as you do not want people to judge you for the sexual choices you make in your profession, why would you judge the right of people to decide who they want to love?” Meena asked. After much agonizing back and forth, the conversation eventually ended with the sex workers promising to support the two women and move forward with greater solidarity. Both of the women seemed relieved to still have a home and place in their community, although still shaken from the episode.

As demonstrated in these exceptional examples, many of the strongest sex workers movements deeply embody the values of sexual diversity, in both theory and practice. Moving beyond strict ideological positions about the relationships of men and women that is all too-often pushed by conservative governments, religious leaders and feminists, sex workers movements offer some concrete suggestions for how we can all better celebrate diversity. If we take the time to listen, that is.

2 Responses to "Indian Sex Workers and a Celebration of Sexual Diversity"
  1. Hi

    Congratulations! Your post has been selected by BlogAdda as one of the top posts for this week's 'Spicy Saturday Picks'.

Leave a Reply