Intimate Unions: Sex Workers' Labor Activism in Karnataka, India

Friday, July 18, 2014: 5:45 PM
Room: 315
Oral Presentation
Gowri VIJAYAKUMAR , Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Shubha CHACKO , Aneka, Bangalore, India
Subadra PANCHANADESWARAN , Adelphi University, Garden City, NY
Recent scholarship has de-exceptionalized sex work and positioned it within the theoretical framework of intimate labor (Boris and Parreñas 2010). However, academic studies of sex workers’ activism as laborers remain scarce (Jenness 1990; Kempadoo and Doezema 1998; Hardy 2010). What tensions emerge when a labor framework for sex work serves not only as an analytic, but also as a basis for collective action?

This presentation, a scholar-activist collaboration, examines the trajectory of the Karnataka Sex Workers’ Union (KSWU) in India, drawing on 8 focus group discussions, 50 in-depth interviews, and our experiences. KSWU organizes sex workers using a trade union model. Rejecting state practices that either criminalize or pathologize sex workers, especially after large-scale HIV prevention programs directed at sex workers in India, KSWU has attempted to articulate an alternative claim on the state, positioning sex workers as citizens and workers.

We argue that KSWU has provided a meaningful alternative to existing relations between sex workers and the state. It has built alliances with other informal laborers and feminist and Dalit rights groups, and developed an independent trade-union-like funding approach. However, traditional trade union models have not always been adequate in the face of stigma; dispersed spatial patterns of work; no fixed “employer”; fluid identities of those who move between sex work and other informal work; systematic violence; and differences among women, men and transgender sex workers in their relationships to sex work. Many sex workers in Karnataka prefer the safety of invisibility, but KSWU’s politics pull toward greater public visibility. KSWU’s experiences highlight the inseparability of claims for recognition and redistribution, and suggest the need for strategies of organizing that respond specifically to intimate labor spheres--strategies that draw on the insights of Southern labor and feminist movements and develop creative, safe spaces for solidarity.