Counselling among sex workers on HIV/AIDS at the Association for Rural Mass India drop-in centre in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Flickr / Sanjit Das for Avahan, Gates Foundation
Counselling among sex workers on HIV/AIDS at the Association for Rural Mass India drop-in centre in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Flickr / Sanjit Das for Avahan, Gates Foundation

The feminist and the sex worker

Despite decades of tension between feminists and sex workers, it is finally becoming clear that the former has much to learn from the latter.

From the earliest days of 'second wave' feminism, the issues of choice and consent have been central to feminist thought throughout the world. Much of early feminist analysis focused on how patriarchies manifested themselves in terms of male control over women's lives including their sexuality and reproduction, their mobility, their work, employment and assets, and their access to and participation in the public realm. This control not only constricted the range of women's choices, but often denied their right to make choices at all. The issue of consent was fraught with far greater political complexity, and viewed by many feminists with some suspicion, since it was widely used by anti-feminist and religious ideologues to justify gender discrimination. Feminist thinking on consent – connoting acquiescence, willing acceptance or even active support – therefore appeared more often in the context of women's 'false consciousness', as a manifestation of women's co-option into maintaining patriarchal rule. In terms of both choice and consent, few issues have been more rigorously debated in recent decades than that of sex work; but today, it seems that feminism itself has quite a bit to learn from sex workers.

In the Indian context – on which this article focuses – analysis by both scholars and activists has addressed the question of feminism's ambivalent approach to sex work and sex workers, and the implicit lack of understanding of how choice and consent operate in this realm. There are several possible roots to the feminist dilemma: unconscious internalisation, for example, of Brahminical patriarchy and Hindu nationalist reconstructions of the home and family as a sanctified site of 'pure Indian-ness', and the role of women's chastity and sexual exclusivity in maintaining this purity. Similar constructions of women as guardians of communal identity, purity and the highest moral values were visible among Muslim and Christian communities as well.

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