Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Based on ethnographic work with Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar), a grassroots sex workers’ collective in Sonagachi, the iconic red-light district in Kolkata, this paper examines the emergence of the labor subjectivity through a dialectical relationship with the HIV/AIDS prevention apparatus. In 1992 the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health launched the Sexually Transmitted Diseases STD/HIV Intervention Project (SHIP) in Sonagachi. SHIP was based on the peer-education model where sex workers were recruited to promote the condom as the prophylactic device. In addressing structural barriers of poverty and stigma, SHIP achieved notable success in preventing new HIV infections. Beyond public health, SHIP emphasized the threat the epidemic posed to the labor and livelihood of sex workers. This rearticulation of HIV/AIDS as a question of the laboring body led the sex workers to collectivize and found Durbar in 1995. The existing literature posits ‘sex work’ as a priori category though the category itself is relatively new in Sonagachi. Based on my ethnography, I contend that the transition from ‘prostitution’ to ‘sex work’ was a protracted process intrinsically marked by a mutually transformative relationship with the HIV/AIDS surveillance tools. I trace this dialectic through a process I term, ‘re-lexicalization’, where sex workers politically mobilized ordinary words like gatar [body] to claim the body as the site of labor rights. I particularly highlight the distinction the sex workers made between kaaj [work] and pesha [prostitution] to foreground their labor just like any other, and ethically just to be worthy of rights.