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Labouring over Sex Work

Meena Gopal ( is with the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The Gendered Proletariat: Sex Work, Workers’ Movement and Agency by Swati Ghosh, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xxxiv + 227895.


With a title that is alluringly provocative, Swati Ghosh, in The Gendered Proletariat: Sex Work, Workers’ Movement and Agency, makes a painstaking foray into the economic analysis of sex work, and provides an understanding of worker status of the sex worker. Although it is feminists who initially undertook an analysis of sex work, says Ghosh, their focus was on “sex” rather than work. It was only later political activism by sex workers that specifically addressed the conditions of work, thereby shifting the terms of the discussion to the domain of work. The motivation for her work, therefore, seems to be to take forward feminist arguments giving theory a greater space to discuss sex work, rather than arriving at any resolution. Even so, as one followed through the details of the book, there was a mounting expectation of the connections being established between the analysis of sexual work, the nascent movement, and the agential capacities of the collective and individuals within the movement. In taking forward her stated objective, the book adopts a “political-economic perspective of value theory to problematize and offer a theoretical exposition on prostitution” (p xxii), qualifying the author’s specific Marxist feminist analysis of sex work within the value frame.

The book is portioned out into three sections: the first is a theoretical analysis of sex work through the value frame; the second traces the genealogy from the sex worker to the prostitute, concluding in the sex workers’ movement for rights, recognition and welfare; and finally, a return to understanding of sex work as work through a discussion on agency. The book itself reflects the experience of “the brothel prostitutes” (p xxxi) of Sonagachi in Kolkata. Although the author spent two years (from 2004) conducting ethnography of the lives of sex workers, her methodology leans towards a rhetorical reading of diverse documents produced by official and research agencies, published material, reports, pamphlets, and newsletters of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the “forum of prostitutes,” the Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee (DMSC) that provided another lens to the world of sex workers. What was disconcerting yet curious—since the researcher has not stated her own position anywhere in the text—was the interchangeable use of the terms “prostitute” and “sex worker” (p xxxi). This, despite the explicit mention that the genealogy of agency, political action, and the movement was attributed to and belonged to the “sex workers.” Can even Marxist feminists afford this rhetorical confusion and political dislocation?

Economic Value

The first section provides a laborious exposition asserting the economic value of sex work, beginning with feminist discussions, and wading through various economic models and studies on labour markets based on skill and stigma, the pricing of “disagreeable” labour, and the marketisation and regulation of sexual labour. Through some of these she focuses on the role of the body and its inalienability, concluding that all remunerative labour cannot count as work. There are constant interjections, justifiably so, about rights-based articulations that point to the limitations of mere economic theorising. Intertwined in this discussion are the Marxian categories of value, abstract labour, exchange value, and so on, deployed to understand sex work. Sexual service in prostitution, limited by the creation of private use-value in service to individual clients, remains concrete labour unable to generate value. The author defines it as a socially useful reproductive labour, unable to generate value in a capitalist system, depicting the sex worker as gendered proletariat. Following this impasse, she extends this discussion to characterise sex work as affective labour within the neo-Marxian value frame, invoking Gayatri Spivak’s deconstruction to keep the conceptualisation within the theoretical space of Marxian value theory. The unravelling of women’s sexual services as affective labour still establishes it as surplus labour, unable to become abstract labour within the capitalist system. The sex worker’s labour remains private labour providing services to clients, concrete in its character, but bringing into the discussion “affect” as a new category of use value.

In a section titled, “Is Sex Work Commodity Production?” (p 23), the author takes great pains, citing the work of Andre Gorz, to portray the impossibility of incorporating prostitution within the system of commodity production, despite the paradox of having monetary value. This is so because the work involves an act of “giving oneself” and submitting to the demands of the client, thereby producing a private service, delivered privately to the client. The author then goes onto make several assumptions (that do not indicate empirical reference) while discussing sex work as work: “In sex work, production, delivery, and consummation of the service is in person, within a private sphere of intimacy that cannot be standardized or estranged” (p 25). She also states,

The prostitute is paid for the delivery of service and the client pays the price of satisfaction delivered to/through his body. Her claim, if she ever makes one, for sexual satisfaction is not justified under the consensual contract and generally never granted. (p 32)

There are also some tangential analogies to some embodied services—teaching, therapeutic healing, being a masseuse, domestic labour, and construction work—to demonstrate how sexual service cannot attain the attributes of commodities, or be comparable to impersonalised wage work. Again, the expectation was that the following sections answer some of the questions coloured by the author’s own assumptions regarding sex worker–client interaction. Picking on the queer-feminist discussion on the heteronormative character of the institutionalisation of sex work, and labour scholars’ work on the contemporary transformation of work itself, could have added to complexity of discussions and raised interesting questions.

Drive for Worker Status

In contrast to the first, the second section is quite straightforward as it traces the colonial control over prostitute bodies through penal measures, public health policies and other modes of disciplining, distinct from an earlier period of state patronage. This situation changes in the postcolonial period when a larger complex of institutions combined with the emergence of the HIV-AIDS prevention efforts, providing the ground for the production of the prostitute as a worker from within the intersection of multiple discourses. Here again, the locale is limited to the geographic space of Sonagachi in West Bengal, where the voice of the prostitute was first heard, when they began a movement for decriminalisation and sought workers’ rights for themselves, organised a national conference, and produced a manifesto.

Through the route of health and welfare initiated by the state health agencies, international funding organisations, and local NGOs, sex workers or jouno kormis began an organisation to engage with the administration, politicians and the local mafia. They often took to the streets, seeking support of the media and society, as workers appealing to rid themselves of social stigma. Sexual health became the route through which the

prostitute’s forum took this opportunity to shed off social stigma associated with their profession and started referring to each other as jouno kormi or sex workers. The worker status gave them the impetus to make claims as professionals. (pp 117–18)

Through brief descriptions of “trade” that was managed out of brothels, and the “business” of unimaginable scale controlled by land and political mafia, the discussion focused on peer educators engaged by the sexual health projects, who kept the interventions alive, bringing the self-identified sex workers into an empowered state of existence seeking first and foremost, citizen status. This discussion sketches a complex web of forces where the women engaged in sex work in Sonagachi attempt to organise themselves out of their marginality to voice their concerns. But the discussion does little to indicate why “worker status” was their aspired self-identity, rather than being self-employed or being in trade and business as in other parts of India.

The state, in transforming from the colonial to the postcolonial, only changed the mode of control and surveillance from coercive to persuasive. But, the poignant description of “watch and care” (pp 128–29) where sex workers reported their sexual health status to each other, after seeking healthcare, creating a comradeship and sisterhood, speaks volumes of the formation of community and class. This fragile yet valuable process seemed dislodged by the urgency in expecting the movement to have delivered more than it could have on its own. Despite acknowledging the path traversed in demanding rights, organising meetings and holding political demonstrations, the author is quick to dismiss this as “not the subjects in resistance against the hegemonic control of the state” (p 136). She poses these as efforts of complying with state health and welfare policy, as “a micro-technique of surveillance and control—a form of governance rather than an emancipatory experience” (p 137). Nascent efforts of movements of marginal people, even if they are within the liberal frame of rights, do count as strategies in challenging state and society and making a claim to citizenship. In fact, the book is peppered with inconsistencies; at one moment the movement is lauded as being pioneering in bringing visibility and voice to sex workers and to the forum’s collective efforts at preventing trafficking, offering financial support and engaging with trade unions and the state as exemplary, while at another there is a summary conclusion that they were ineffective in salvaging a citizen–subject position to the sex workers, and just stopped short of claiming agency. What this dismissal has proved is that there are many lenses through which a movement can be viewed and assessed, which illustrates where one is located in making those assessments and to what end.

Agency of Sex Workers

The final section of the book explores this notion of agency of the sex worker(s), but in the new context as politicised beings, which the author concludes was the only achievement that the movement realised. Using a discussion of the “Sex Workers’ Manifesto” and exploring the specificities of motherhood, the author, in the context of politics, looks at agency as collective action and individual decision-making respectively. The manifesto created in 1997, very radically reoriented the sexuality discourse in India, affirming that it is patriarchy and heterosexuality that shapes the discourse, and seeking solidarity with women across these structures of dominance. Assessing a manifesto created two decades ago, without surveying contemporary articulations and declarations of the numerous forums of sex workers seems a bit unreasonable. In another fashion, the agency of sex workers in being mothers and seeking domesticity is viewed as challenging the normative but constantly negotiating its limits, being bound by their material existence. Here again, assumptions of heteronormative familial norms seem to loom large in the discussions on choice, desire and fulfilment.

The book ventures out to explore, quite courageously and laboriously, a distinct aspect of stigmatised labour. Despite some arguments being repeated throughout the text and a perceived absence of integration of the three sections, the book poses several important questions that we may consider. It challenges us to view the sex worker in a milieu of work where its complexion has undergone tremendous change—that proletarianisation is no more the outcome for achieving its revolutionary potential, but pauperisation. Further it foregrounds the core question that the author comes back to repeatedly: How does the woman sex worker become free when her work is subsumed within a heterosexual patriarchal order and capitalist system? And finally, the dovetailing of theory with politics; how can a movement that is emerging from the web knit of societal stigma, state machinations of control and criminalisation, international agendas, as well as the women’s movement’s shifting sense of support, be burdened with the urgency to understand and articulate their worker status? Swati Ghosh’s passionate venture to explore this dimension of the lives of sex workers incites us to seek our own answers.


Updated On : 29th Mar, 2019


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