In the course of my research on 19th-century politics of prostitution, I was shocked to learn in detail about the miserable lives of prostitutes who served the soldiers of the British Army in India. Some of the women were simply sold to military brothels by their relatives, and all were "kept" in secluded areas, lacking any real freedom. But a greater shock came when reading Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor and realising that very little seems to have changed since 1900. Prabha Kotiswaran offers a recent account of the slavery-like life of a woman trafficked into prostitution and forced to sell sex by someone who claimed to have bought her for 60,000 rupees. She was kept in debt-bondage in a brothel in one of India's red-light districts, where prostitutes were given only one meal a day, prohibited from talking among themselves and beaten when they so much as laughed.
As heartbreaking as stories such as this may be, they also have the side effect of shaping many of today's policies on prostitution. The image of the trafficked slave has fuelled feminist discourses on prostitution ever since the 19th century, and it gave birth to the "abolitionist" point of view that sexual labour is inherently damaging for women. However, this view was challenged in the 1970s and 1980s when (feminist) "sex workers" organised themselves, claimed rights and argued that prostitution should be viewed as sex work. Bitter disagreement between abolitionists and sex- work advocates has existed ever since, and it has played out at national and global levels in the context of legal reform and policymaking. Kotiswaran clearly takes the "sex work" position, seeing abolitionist legal reforms as harmful and ineffective, and sets herself the task of understanding why India's sex workers demand recognition as workers.
Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor is made up of three quite massive building blocks of information. The most impressive one is a description of the organisation of prostitution based on in-depth fieldwork among sex workers and non-governmental organisations in Sonagachi, Kolkata's largest red-light district, and Tirupati, a temple town in southern India. The second building block offers a tentative analysis of the possible outcomes of different legislative proposals. For example: how may partial decriminalisation have a differential impact on varied categories of self-employed sex workers? The third block constitutes Kotiswaran's efforts to develop a theory of sex work. Each of these three subjects could easily have grown into a book in itself and - as the information presented in even a single paragraph is often quite dense - one wonders if the building blocks may not become stumbling blocks for the non-academic reader.
For fellow scholars there are some interesting observations. Kotiswaran argues against legal formalism in favour of investigating the actual enforcement of the law: criminalisation in the books may be decriminalisation in action. She also argues - and I think quite rightly so - that there are surprisingly few economic analyses of sex work, and her efforts to incorporate "materialism" in theories of prostitution at least warrant discussion. However, scholars might baulk at absorbing all of the disputes, debates and analyses of feminist theory that feed into Kotiswaran's provisional postcolonial-materialist-feminist theory of sex work. Was it really necessary to go back as far as Alexandra Kollontai - Lenin's famous "feminist" minister - and return via the domestic labour debates of the 1970s with an analysis of sex workers as part of the lumpenproletariat? Wasn't it exactly the lack of a Marxist view of sex and the body that made it a less-than-ideal tool for gender analysis?
Despite these criticisms, Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor is a book that deserves respect for its painstaking efforts to present a view "from below", and to incorporate the voice of the sex worker herself, not only that of the slave but also of the self-employed prostitute-housewife who earns much more than her unsuspecting husband.
It provides a wealth of information about the organisation of prostitution and the law in India - a field with many keep-out signs for "outsiders". Only a courageous and sensitive researcher can find a way to get in.
Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India
By Prabha Kotiswaran. Princeton University Press. 298pp, £48.95 and £20.95. ISBN 9780691142500 and 42517. Published 31 August 2011