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Sex and the Feminist

This article has been written as a response to a talk by Gloria Steinem in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, earlier this year. While the immense provocation of some of the political assumptions of the talk inform the tone of this piece, it also is an attempt to grapple with what is one of the least addressed areas of mainstream feminist theorising - the relationship between sex and work. This preliminary reflection is an attempt to rescue labour from modernist imperialist frames for instance, the rights discourse. It seeks to address frontally the ‘problem’ of sex most often theorised in the context of sexuality, family, or even ' love'. What happens then if we shift the ground and make sex the site for understanding labour? While the labouring body has been studied in many different contexts such as factories, fields etc., it is striking that there is a tremendous anxiety doing the same in the context of sex. It is this anxiety that this brief paper wishes to draw attention to, as indeed to the implications it has for messy terrain of what is seen as 'feminist' politics.

G. Arunima (arunima.gopinath@gmail.com) teaches at the Centre for Women's Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi

Why are feminists so afraid of sex? This is a question that has hovered in my consciousness for long, but was brought back frontally during Gloria Steinem’s talk. Yes, indeed, Gloria of Ms. Magazine and the modern feminist liberationist prefix fame. The one who ironically queried what the world would be like if men menstruated, and produced eminently readable and reasonably unobjectionable liberal feminist -of a particular American variety- prose for years. Yet it was witnessing the saviour Gloria a while back, at a talk in Jawaharlal Nehru University, rescuing hapless victims of ‘prostitution’ trafficked, abject and forever victimised that set me thinking, yet again, of what it is about sex work that makes not merely your average neighbourhood auntie but the feistiest of feminists so deeply uncomfortable.

The polarised positions on trafficking should be familiar to most readers of this piece. For those unaware of this, the anti-trafficking lobby maintains that prostitution is violence against women, tantamount to rape and coercion, and requires abolition. Although in the JNU discussion the position finally settled on penalising the buyer, and not the seller. In the Indian context the other side, mostly emergent unions of sex workers and their non-sex worker supporters, has very eloquently argued for decriminalisation of sex work, including in the long run making benefits available for sex workers, along the lines available in principle to other workers.1 In other words, it demands treating ‘prostitution’ as labour, and hence underscores the importance of, amongst other things, revising nomenclature as in the shift to the use of the term ‘sex work’ instead of prostitution.

Yet in the impassioned plea from the podium in which Ms. Steinem spoke of her growing realisation of women’s oppression -information gleaned from her many travels in different parts of the global south- what was clear was the need, nay desire, to ‘save’. Save women the world over from the perilous fate their lives lay in. So from her relief regarding Indian women who had finally graduated to ‘normal’ heterosociability (“when I first came girls in India could not speak to boys”) to the women she saved in Zambia (“we sat in a circle on the banks of the river Zambesi, and the women confessed about their husbands beating them, and elephants destroying their crops. So I went back to New York, raised a few thousand dollars, not much, and they built an electric fence around their fields. By the time I went next, they had raised a bumper crop, and their children went to school; who would have thought an electric fence would change women’s lives”) here were the beginnings of a tale of Glorious transformation. Yet, the high point of this tale of salvation was the crusade to rid the world of that heinous crime prostitution, akin to yet far worse than slavery, as it epitomised the worst forms of violence against women. “But we don’t want to penalise women; which of us does that?” And thus having identified the root of women’s downfall and indentured, indeed violated status, she and others like her have rushed out to save them. After all what could be worse than the bodily abuse that is prostitution (“they are inflicted with multiple penetrations, daily”) except possibly only the vicious stranglehold by traffickers.

This is all despite the fact that sex workers’ unions, and sex workers’ rights activists, have frequently underscored the complex networks of power and violence encountered by these workers in their daily life. Indeed, it would be absurd that workers did not identify the dangers and difficulties in their working situations. So be it health hazards, possible sexual violence or structures of power and control, especially in the case of brothel based work, the most nuanced arguments are the ones produced by sex workers themselves. Yet significantly the areas that sex workers identify as most damaging to them like societal opprobrium2 and police violence did not find any mention in Ms. Steinem’s talk. Indeed, it was striking that the ferociousness with which the anti-trafficking lobby attacked unions, randomly marshalling arguments questioning the funding received by sex workers to unionise -in the course of the JNU discussion this was presented as a collusion between pimps and the Bill Gates Foundation- to feeble attempts at discrediting it as work (how do you set a minimum wage for this), was not extended to attacking the society that fears and reviles ‘prostitutes’. Most significantly, it glossed over the powerful issue that recent labour-centric arguments about sex work have raised that it is no more, and in many instances far less, violative than many other professions. In the Indian context, sex workers have argued powerfully about opting for their job for fear of the violence meted out to domestic workers.

Recently, in a very different context, someone quipped that marriages were hetero-sexless unions! That dark insight twinned with the horrified hiss by a leading anti- trafficker at the talk about prostitution furthering ‘promiscuity’, I think brings us closer to what lies at the heart of the matter. Even as sex workers demand that they be given the status of workers, and thereby be granted dignity of labour, the opposition fears the very grounds on which the demand is being made. Historically the battle over controlling, defining and limiting sexuality as heterosexual monogamous marriage has been tortuous, and certainly not an overwhelming success. This is not the context to elaborate the nuances of this history. Yet even as the forces of law and religion, underscored in modern times by the state, have attempted to naturalise sexuality as procreative and marital, any number of counter currents have destabilised this. However, of these what is fundamentally most explosive is the idea that sex can be commodified, bought and sold. As a marketable commodity, it appears immune to those forces that may choose to define and contain it. Therefore, freed from God and Love, sex could have an unbridled life providing endless possibilities to those choosing to explore these.

It is this fear of unleashed sexuality, and freedom from marital bondage, that lies very close to the surface of the desire to ‘save’ the prostitute. Like the single woman, she is the threatening other that society mistrusts and fears. Yet sex work pushes the very limits of marriage as it not merely questions the institution, but also all other attendant structures of society that attempt to render it abnormal. As transaction, sex ceases to be the grounds on which ‘normal’ society might be reproduced. If we reversed the norm and only bought sex quite like a sari or toothpaste, then those grand edifices of society -marriage and family- would collapse instantly.

And so why have feminists, many of whom the most trenchant critics of marriage and even compulsory heterosexuality, aligned themselves with anti-traffickers? Should their natural allies not be sex workers? Other than the easier response that there are many feminisms, I think it also points to the long-standing unease about sexuality and sex within many dominant strands of feminism. Lesbians, queer and trans activists and straight sexual deviants have always been on the fringes, uncomfortably, of mainstream women’s movements and feminisms. With its intense reformist streak and puritanical zeal, mainstream feminism’s own history and contemporary dilemmas align it far closer to middle class complacency and conservatism than any subversive position. The only objects that such an imperial project can recognize then are victims, always available for salvation. By compulsorily desexualising the prostitute and rendering her as perpetual victim, the feminist anti-trafficker can then validate her own position as saviour. How ironic then that what masquerades as a politics of subversion and critique can find its voice only by silencing its chief object of reform – the woman sex worker!

1 For an incisive, and well-argued statement, see Shohini Ghosh, Decriminalising Sex Work, Seminar, No. 583, March 2008. The sex-work debate has different dimensions internationally, and for one of the earliest ‘voices’ of sex-workers arguing for their rights see, Kate Millett, The Prostitution Papers: A Candid Dialogue, Avon, 1973.

2 Nalini Jameela, Autobiography of a Sex-Worker, D.C. Books, 2007.

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