Last week, four episodes of a film entitled Prostitutes of Godwere posted on VBS.TV, which is owned by Vice Magazine. Prostitutes of God producer Sarah Harris, spent time with members of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (meaning ‘Prostitutes’ Freedom from Injustice’) or “VAMP,” and let her into their lives, their families and their workplace. The result? Films that are inaccurate and misrepresentative, and insulting to the people who agreed to participate and to the Hindu culture.
VAMP was formed in 1996 and now works with more than 5000 women, men, and transgenders in sex work to promote and protect their human rights and health. The group covers six districts in Western Maharashtra and two in North Karnataka. VAMP has been internationally recognised by groups like Human Rights Watch for their contribution to human rights and for their work in HIV/AIDS prevention.
However, you would not know any of this from Harris’ film, which is full of stereotypes and representations of Indian culture that are designed to mock and belittle. In addition, Harris’ film puts people in danger– of stigma, discrimination and misinformation—through her uninformed and judgemental editorial lens. In a recent interview of Harris in the UK Independent —in which she describes her interest in sex work as having originated when she spent time as a volunteer “with a charity in southern India which rescues victims of sex trafficking—Harris recounts someone who told her that HIV/AIDS is like “plucking a bunch of grapes. As soon as a woman is infected, then her whole family becomes infected.”
This ignorance and irresponsibility runs rampant throughout Prostitutes of God. One case in point is that of Belavva. The film maker wrongly states that the “Devadasi” religious ritual demands that poor families traffic their daughters into prostitution (that is dedicate them to the goddess Yellama). She then states that when Belavva was young her family sent her to work for a landlord who asked her parents to dedicate her – or pimp her out. This is stated, not implied. It is not true, neither in the instance of the individual concerned, nor with respect to Hinduism.
Sadly there are many more examples throughout the film, examples that prompted VAMP to issue the following rebuttal:
It is to be hoped that a person would pretty sure of their evidence when making these sorts of allegations to the world. Sarah Harris has managed to misconstrue most of what she has reported, has exploited a trusting community in the worst possible ways, and has produced a series of films that are extraordinarily offensive. She has demonstrated racism and has behaved in ways reminiscent of the most unpleasant forms of colonialism. She has abused the poorest of people for her own ends.
To manipulate poor people to meet one’s ends is blameworthy. It is reprehensible to betray the trust of a most vulnerable people merely to make a film. To, in addition, vilify and disparage a culture and religious beliefs, as Sarah Harris and VBS TV have done, requires either wilful ignorance or a determination to produce work that panders to the worst type of media sensationalism imaginable. The people in the film are part of a community that wishes to tell their stories and be understood by a broad audience, but we will not stand by while we are being misrepresented to the world.
Sarah Harris and VBS must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. VAMP members are people with rights including reputational rights.
Bebe Loff is Associate Professor and Director of the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University in Australia.