Theorizing the Continuities Between Marriage and Sex Work in the Experience of Female Sex Workers in Pune, Maharashtra
I was married soon after I reached puberty, but my husband was very abusive, so I left him. I moved to Delhi with the help of a friend and joined sex work. I never saw my husband again, though I still wear my mangalsutra1 and toe ring. It helps me with my work. It keeps me safe from unwanted men and people respect me. I sent money back home regularly to get my siblings educated and married.My children are also married now.—K, age 38, Budhwar Peth, Pune
2. The Economic Underpinnings of Marriage
- Materialist feminism
- Gayle Rubin and the “Traffic in Women”
- Brahmanical Patriarchy
Applying These Models to the Indian Context
After five years I came back to the village to work in the fields and as a domestic worker. But the money was not enough, and people in the village already knew what I had been doing, so I came to Pune to work in Budhwar Peth. Initially I worked in a brothel on 50:50 basis and then started taking clients on my own as I got a room to myself. Sex work is just like running a garment shop. It is like a business and people will come to you if you behave well and are able to satisfy your customer. When I was young and had a lot of clients, I used to spend all money on drinking and in gambling. But then after joining Saheli, I realised the value of savings and that helped me transform. Now everyone here in Budhwar Peth loves me and respects me as they have seen how hard I have worked for my children and my family.
Since I am a devadasi, I could never marry him. He was in love with me and didn’t want to get married to anyone else. I didn’t want that and so came to Pune with my children. I wanted him to marry and start a family. I am a devadasi. Whoever gives me more money, I will go with him. I can’t stay with one man forever. That’s what we devadasis do.
Being married to Goddess Yellamma and being a devadasi separates me from the rest of the women in dhanda (sex work). My clients are mostly good, as they fear that being a devadasi, I could bring bad luck to them if they don’t keep me happy. I have special power you see!(laughs).
I was afraid being alone in the lodge and waited the whole day and the night for my husband to return, but he never came. I didn’t have mobile those days so had no way to contact him. It was late in the night when I heard someone knocking my door. I thought that it was my husband. I ran and opened the door to only see four unknown men, all drunk, smiling at me. I don’t remember much except how those four men came one after the other on me the rest of the night. The next afternoon, I found myself exhausted, bruised and in pain in a brothel in Sonagachi.
Those who come to do sex work, for them work is their only religion. If being a Hindu, I get more money, I will become a Hindu. If being in veil makes me sensuous and desirable to my clients, I will be a Muslim. If by chance I get to service a gora (white/foreign national), I will say hail Jesus!
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Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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Sacred thread signifying marriage.
The case studies cited in this paper were collected as part of the doctoral research work of Sutapa Majumdar, the coauthor of this paper. The title of her PhD work is “Unorganized Labour Markets in India, Incomes and Survival Strategies: A Gender Perspective post 1991.” She was enrolled in Department of Economics, Savitribai Phule Pune University, formally known as Pune University and was awarded her doctoral degree in May 2017. The case studies of female sex worker were collected after securing verbal consent of women in sex work and with support of the Saheli Sangh, a sex worker collective, which works in the red-light district of Pune city. Saheli Sangh has been thoroughly acknowledged in her doctoral work and beyond.
Saheli Sangh works with two lodges, 100 non-brothel-based sex workers (NBBSWs), and approximately 2000 women in sex work living in the Red Light Area of Pune to enhance and enable greater levels of self-protection among sex workers through a sense of togetherness, collective action, and most importantly creating an identity. Saheli is headed by Tejaswi Sevekari, Executive Director.
This paper limits itself to an analysis of cisgender women’s experience of sex work, and not those of transgender women, male sex workers, and other sexual and gender minorities. In the remainder of the paper, we use the term “woman” to refer to a cisgender woman. However, a critical question for further research is how marriage economies, migration, and informal labor structure sex work amongst other gendered communities.
For example, see Ghosh 2017, p. 197.
The National Family Health Survey—IV shows that by the age of 45–49, only 1% of women and 2% of men have never been married, and less than .5% of them report being divorced (IIPS 2017, p. 155).
Nalini Jameela, the noted author, activist, and sex worker from Kerala, has written extensively on the parallels between marriage and sex work. She herself started sex work after her husband’s death, when her mother-in-law started demanding money in exchange for taking care of Jameela’s children (cited in Kotiswaran 2008, p. 225).
For a more sustained elaboration of materialist feminist theorizations of sex work and marriage, see Kotiswaran 2006.
We use the term “prostitute” here only to replicate Fortunati’s own use of it. For our own work, we use the term ‘sex work’ as this corresponds with the sensibilities and experiences of the people we interviewed and it is a non-stigmatising term chosen by people directly concerned.
Devadasi is a pan-Indian term referring to a woman who is ritually married to a goddess, making her sexual labor available to patrons, often of a dominant caste. Devadasi women may be entitled to the privileges of sons after they are dedicated to the goddess.
The term dalit refers to those formerly classified as “untouchable” castes and was popularized by the architect of India’s constitution and anti-caste theorist B.R. Ambedkar in the 1930s. It was reclaimed in the 1970s as a term of self-identification and political empowerment and mobilization. Dalit-Bahujan refers to the grouping of untouchable castes who refer to themselves as Dalit and to the other backward castes who take on the term Bahujan.
For an overview of how debates around caste and sex work have unfolded within Indian feminist groups, see Gopal 2012.
For an introduction, see Rege et al. 2013.
For an overview of the Indian debates, see (Kotiswaran 2008), Introduction.
A note on our positionality: Dr. Sutapa Majumdar has a PhD in Economics and many years of experience working in the field of sex worker rights and strongly believes that sex workers too have equal rights to live a life of dignity and respect. Having worked so closely with sex workers outside of academia, she struggled with treating them as “research subjects”, straddling the line between objectivity and subjectivity. Dr. Shakthi Nataraj, co-author of this paper, has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, and has worked with sexual and gender minority activists in Tamil Nadu. Her doctoral research was on how thirunangai (transgender women) activists in Tamil Nadu reappropriate and reframe international discourses on transgender rights and sex worker rights. In collaborating with Sutapa on this paper, she brings her own interest in queer kinship and exchange theory to analyze how sexual labor is intertwined not only with adjacent labor markets, but also with marriage and kinship systems. Dr. Nataraj and Dr. Majumdar currently work together on the Laws of Social Reproduction project at King’s College, London (see more at https://lawsofsocialreproduction.net/).
According to the 2011 census, 62% of India’s internal migrants have migrated within the same district, 26% between districts in the same state, and only 12% between states. Only 5.3 million Indian residents are international migrants, comprising no more than 0.4% of the national population (De 2019). The largest proportion of international migrants come from Bangladesh (2.7 million) and Nepal (800,000 persons).
Patel connotes a caste community of land-owning farmers, businessman, agriculturalists, and merchants. Members of the Patel caste reside primarily in Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi. Traditionally the surname bestows status, referring to the village chieftains.
Flat bread made of millets
We use the term “continuum” following anthropologistSvati Shah, who has long argued that sexual commerce in India exists as part of a continuum of informal labour practices and livelihood strategies pursued by poor migrants (2014, p. 113, see also Shah 2007, 2008). her ethnography of sex work in Mumbai (2014) she discusses how brothel- and street-based sex work occur alongside construction work in the context of gentrification and rural-urban migration driven by agrarian distress. The Pan India survey of 3000 sex workers offers powerful quantitative evidence that most women in sex work have a long history of working in other labour markets, and often pursue sex work alongside other livelihood options including domestic work, petty vending, and other informal sector labour (Sahni and Shankar 2013, p. 45).
The terms Matang and Mang are used synonymously to refer to a Dalit caste, the members of which mainly reside in the Indian states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Mangs were identified as “criminal castes” by the British colonial Government, in addition to facing widespread persecution by upper-caste Hindus. In 1952, five years after India’s independence from colonial rule, the Mang caste was decriminalized, and in 1961 they were listed as a “scheduled caste”.
Jogati is a term for a person ritually married to the goddess Yellamma. Yellamma is a popular Hindu deity in in the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, associated with jogati and devadasi communities.
J’s comment about how migration is part of being a devadasi recalls an anecdote shared by Durgabai, one of the Yellamma women Lucinda Ramberg describes in her ethnography. Durgabai compares her own freedom to roam the fields like an “untethered bull”, to the restrictions placed on women married to men, who needed permission to “move an inch” from their house (Ramberg 2014, p. 154).
A beaded necklace signifying devadasi identity and marriage to the goddess.
J’s experience aligns with Ramberg’s argument that many Yellamma women have models of ethical aspiration that pose a queer challenge to secular liberal conceptions of what “real” marriage and progressive politics should be.
Nalini Jameela, author, activist, and sex worker, expresses this eloquently: “Getting married isn’t any guarantee against violence, but there is a general feeling that one can somehow bear violence from a husband, but not violence from a client” (Jameela 2007, pp. 139–40).
A form of body art where intricate designs are drawn on the hands and legs with a paste made from the leaves of the henna plant. Mehendi designs are not permanent, and only last a week or two. They are associated with festivals and auspicious occasions like marriage and childbirth.
For example, see (Ghosh 2017, p. 197).
A pan-Indian term referring to a person assigned male at birth but who identifies as feminine to some degree, and who is attracted to men. The term is often used as an “indigenous” translation of the public health term, “Men who have Sex with Men.”
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Nataraj, S.; Majumdar, S. Theorizing the Continuities Between Marriage and Sex Work in the Experience of Female Sex Workers in Pune, Maharashtra. Soc. Sci. 2021, 10, 52. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10020052
Nataraj S, Majumdar S. Theorizing the Continuities Between Marriage and Sex Work in the Experience of Female Sex Workers in Pune, Maharashtra. Social Sciences. 2021; 10(2):52. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10020052Chicago/Turabian Style
Nataraj, Shakthi, and Sutapa Majumdar. 2021. "Theorizing the Continuities Between Marriage and Sex Work in the Experience of Female Sex Workers in Pune, Maharashtra" Social Sciences 10, no. 2: 52. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10020052