Research: Diary of a Sex Work Researcher in India – Week 1

Dr Sarah Kingston (a Senior Lecturer in Criminology and a sex worker researcher) recently visited India and did some voluntary work in the slums and shared her own research findings at conferences in India.  Read some snippets of her time in India below.

Day 1 – 28th December 2013

We arrived in Mumbai after a long journey. Mumbai is an interesting city. I was overwhelmed by the extent and levels of poverty visible on the streets, with thousands of people living in shanty huts, tents, and on the road or pavement. Streets and streets were filled with people living in this way, in some areas with whole communities of shanty huts, commonly known as the slums. At the same time you would often see evidence of wealth in the cars driven through the city.


The amount of pollution was also extensive, with almost every street littered with rubbish of all kinds, and the smog went on for miles and miles as we drove out of Mumbai. The sky was not visible at all. This led me to wonder whether there was widespread concern for the environment and the possible impact of this pollution. I was also surprised by the lack of organisation and order on the roads, there appeared to be no visible road layout or rules, it seemed to be “everyman for himself” as people drove all over the road. The only sense of road rules I observed was the cars beeping their horns to notify other drivers of their presence. The final overwhelming issue that came to my attention, was the density of the population. I have never experienced such a densely populated city, which made me question the ability of sustainment, and also helped me to understand the levels of poverty (how can a city/country economically support the population?), and pollution (the numbers of cars and amount of rubbish, which was often burning, explained the extent of the fog). It was also clear that the city has a lot of history, culture and vibrancy. There were numerous numerous shops and stalls on every street, and many many people everywhere! The city seemed never to stop. I thoroughly enjoyed watching people go about their daily lives.


Day 2 – 29th December

We travelled to Ahmednagar in the morning; it was a long 6 hour drive. On the journey we saw people urinating by the roadside. We also began seeing feral cows, goats, dogs and cats throughout towns and villages. They seemed to be an accepted part of daily lives, as cars merely drove round them. We arrived in Ahmednagar in the evening and took time to have a quick look round the nearby buildings. Nilsa and I visited the nursery, the children were having dinner. They greeted us huge smiles and a great deal of warmth. I was surprised how happy these children were and how welcoming of strangers. I was also surprised by the facilities of our rooms and the hospitality provided by the project. We ate dinner in the new food hall at around 8pm. I had expected that during the visit that we would not eat much during our stay, because of the levels of poverty, however I was surprised by the amount of food. The food was spicy, all vegetarian, but extremely tasty.  We attempted to have an early night, however none of us managed to get a good night’s sleep, with dogs barking, car and train horns, people arguing and others snoring. Disrupted sleep continued throughout our stay, and many of the team felt tired on many occasions.

Day 4-31st Dec 2013

New Years Eve – Today was the first day that we worked with children and young people. I led on sports with Grace and Darren. The children were such good fun, well mannered, respectful and I was amazed that they tidied up and packed away any toys that they used. I played hopscotch with them, giving biscuits as prizes the for child who scored the highest by throwing the “coin”. In the afternoon we got the children to decorate their own masks for NYE. The children were so enthusiastic and creative, and again I was surprised at how considerate and helpful they were with other children.  The NYE party was manic, the children loved to dance and the project´s children put on performances which we brilliant. We all danced with the children and were taught some traditional Indian dance moves.

Day 5 – 1st Jan 2014

The morning began with a talk from Milind about the project. He informed us how the project began from the work of Giresh, when at the age of 20 he saw a naked woman on the road side and no one was helping her. Later that day, he discovered that the woman was a prostitute and that her pimps were punishing her, stripped her naked, put chillies in her vagina and threw her by the roadside. It was this incident which inspired him. He began taking home the children of sex workers with the support of his family. Through charity support he bought the land of Snelalaya and 20 years later we were visiting the project. Milind told us a bit about the people they worked with, many of the children are the children of sex workers who are unable to support them. The project also supports babies from Sex Workers and put some of them up for adoption. 20-30% of sex workers that they work with are from the slums, others are unwed mothers who have been disowned by their families and who find themselves homeless, with no income and as a result they often find themselves working in brothels to support themselves. Millind claimed that only 10% of sex workers do so freely for economic gain and are un-coerced, those considered higher class sex workers. The cost of sex equates to £10, with sex workers generally selling to up to 25 men per day. He also said that they women were often controlled by pimps, who hated the project because it would often empower sex workers to take control of their money. The project also had outreach offices in most red-light areas, providing access to services for sex workers, both male and female. Later in the day we went on a tour of the whole grounds of the project and met many of the children in their dormitories. I was shocked to see that the children had hardly any possessions and lived in dorms of up to 40 young people. They greeted us as ever with big smiles and happy faces as they showed us their rooms and facilities. The rooms were generally overcrowded and the facilities basic. I don’t recall seeing any clothes or event storage for clothes, the project and the children are clearly in need of support.

In the evening we went to the theatre to watch children from another branch of the project perform. The disabled children and adults performed music and dance routines, which were very good. After the show we went for a meal at a local nearby restaurant with Milind. The food was gorgeous authentic quisine, but the toilets were rather unpleasant! with only a hole in the floor and excrement from other people littering the floor tiles. At our table, Miliind asked a group of men on the next table to move, as he overheard them making comments about us, and how they were going to take pictures. I asked him why they wanted to take pictures and he replied because of our skin colour. I guess with us being in a rural area, seeing people who looked so different was intriguing for local Indians.

Day 6 – 2nd January 2014

Today I travelled to the University of Pune to present a paper at the International Conference on Diversity, Margins and Dialogue: Local, National & Transnational Cultures. When I arrived I was surprised that Pune was much cleaner than Mumbai. The university was on large grounds, surrounded by lovely gardens. The university buildings were somewhat dated, but it did have the basic teaching facilities; computers, projectors, seats with attached desks, WIFI in teaching rooms.

My paper was presented alongside a researcher, Anjali Pathak. Her research had focused on a particular tribe, which was an illegal colony on Indian land, and some of its women would sell sex. The expectation was that women would be married and sell sex to support their families. Young girls were brought up to understand that this would be their role within the family unit. It was a fascinating paper and made me reflect upon how the socio-cultural context can often inform how, when, where and why sex work takes place. I was also intrigued to discover, that despite the author suggesting that it constituted violence against women, which feeds into radical feminist arguments that women can never truly engage in prostitution by choice, that the vast majority of the women had complete control over their income and finances. We could argue on the one hand that these women´s choices were not their own, in that they were often subtly coerced by their families or that they felt that they had to undertake such work. Notions of choice in this context seem somewhat blurred by these socio-cultural constraints/context. Yet on the other, we all are in some way constrained by our own circumstances and backgrounds. Whether we are born into a wealthy or poor family, where we live and the people we liaise with can also shape or constrain our lives. How can any of us say that they choices we make are fully “our own”?  Also, often their husbands also worked, but the level of income from prostitution often exceeded that of their husbands. Many people make employment decisions based on economics, so why is there often a mis-understanding of the choices some women make when they sell sex for money? As I suggested in my paper, sex, as with many other issues, is seen as having a specific value in society and there are often expectations on how, when, where and who with it should be practised. How do those who practice sex for these “appropriate” reasons really know that this decision is fully their own, when we live in a society that shapes our notions of sex and sexuality?

Day 7 – 3rd January 2014

Today was the second day of the conference and I spoke with a number of academic staff from Indian universities about prostitution in India. They told me about how some caste are expected to be prostitutes and that their families bring up their daughters with the explicit expectation they will sell sex to support their families. Again, I was intrigued by the contrasting experiences of some Indian women, both within India and internationally. The acceptance and expectation of the family, whilst at the same time experiencing stigma externally I imagine would be a difficult to manage. In the UK, sex workers often try to hide and conceal their sex working activities from their families because of the stigma afforded to prostitution. Sex workers often fear of the repercussions and have in some instances been subject to violence from family members who believe their family has been dishonoured in some way. Although in the UK families of sex workers may be financially supported by the profits of selling sex, unlike in parts of India the knowledge and encouragement of family members is absent for most.

After spending the day at the conference, I travelled back to the project in the late afternoon. As ever the journey was interesting, with cars driving all over the very bumpy and uneven roads. I was surprised to see roadwork being undertaken on very busy main arterial routes with no signage to indicate that people were in the road working ahead. Seeing oxen pulling carts and trailers often reminded me of how Britain’s agricultural past would have been very similar, whereas today we rely heavily on machinery and vehicles. I often felt empathy towards the animals that in some instances looked emaciated and worked in extreme heats. Although at the time of my visit it was winter in India, the summer I was informed was often unbearable and I wondered how the animals coped with such temperature rises.


By Dr Sarah Kingston.  View her staff profile here

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