ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Labouring over Sex Work

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?

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Updated On : 29th Mar, 2019
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