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sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for a commercial purpose”[1]. In a country the size of India, even a couple million sex workers represents only a small
portion of the total population. However, these workers are engaged in an extensive, lucrative and highly exploitative industry. The scale of sex work in India in
the last four decades has undergone dramatic changes and expansions[2]. As reported by the International Labor Organization, sex work in India has been
enlarged to the point where “we can justifiably speak of a commercial sex sector that is integrated into the economic, social and political life” of the country[3].
While reliable estimates of the economic value of the industry are difficult to ascertain, the business has assumed the dimensions of an industry, and has
“directly and indirectly contributed in no small measure to employment, national income, and economic growth”[4]. Even using the conservative estimate of 2.8
million sex workers, sex work is the occupation of slightly less than 1% of reproductive-aged women[5]. The industry occurs in all corners of the country, and
includes a vast array of individuals – women, children and men of all ethnic groups, sexual orientations and castes[6].

One of the traditional narratives and sources of significance commercial sex research has been the inherent exploitive nature of the trade. Sex work is typically
the realm of the poor, the marginalized and the societally weak. Among the leading push and pull factors are endemic poverty, lack of access to resources such
as education, gender inequality and the draw of city life[7]. For these reasons, an exploration of the experience of sex workers can illuminate larger issues
relating to the Indian experience of women and the poor.

An additional motivation for the study of commercial sex work in the contemporary sense can be found in the profound health risks associated with this trade.
Sex workers, particularly those entering sex work through human trafficking, are at a heightened risk of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS,
mental illness and physical trauma as a result of the physical, sexual and psychological harm they endure[8]. While the overall prevalence of HIV in India
remains low, sex workers show extremely high rates of HIV/AIDS, particularly in large urban centers such as Kolkata[9].Regional estimates suggest that
between 5% and 22% of Kolkata’s sex workers are HIV positive, while national studies show HIV infection rates upwards of 60% in large, urban areas like
Chennai and Mumbai[10]. Once sex workers experience negative health outcomes, poor health services, stigmatization and the clandestine nature of the trade
make it difficult or impossible for them to receive adequate health care[11]. When sex workers leave commercial sex work or engage in non-commercial sex
practices, they become a significant vector for the transmission of the disease in their communities and to their children[12].

City of Sex Work

History of Sex Work in Kolkata

Sex work is by no means a new or novel concept in India or Kolkata. The majority of sex work histories in India have focused on sex work in the colonial period
as well as religious and cultural traditions of sex work, including the Devadasi tradition and Khandani traditions).What is known is that sex work has existed in
India for thousands of years, and likely has existed since the subcontinent was settled[13]. Literary and cultural references to sex work have been documented
since the Rgveda, the most ancient literary work of India[14]. References to sex work in these texts relate to it in the contemporary context, but also in the
historical context[15].

As early as the 4 century B.C., Kautilya, the chief advisor of the Maurya emperor Chandragupta, provided rules and practical customs for prostitutes and their
clients in the treatise on governance, the Arthashastra[16]. At the time, sex workers were required to pay a tax (approximately 2 days wages), and this was an
important source of revenue for the state[17]. At this time, prostitution was considered a trade, with sex workers skilled in singing and dancing, and not as a
stigmatized institution. In Bengal, this tradition remained strong through the medieval period and up to the 18 century[18]. The position of the sex worker (or
prostitute) was so accepted, it appears in Bengali poems, such as one describing the entourage of a prince:

Alim, pandit aar jyotish, ganak,

Nana jantra, Raj-beshya, Gahon, Nartak[19]

(Learned Muslims, Sanskrit pandits, astrologers and astronomers,

Musical instruments, courtesans, singers and dancers)

In this passage, courtesans, dancers and singers are a valued part of the prince’s retinue, conveying social status and acceptability.

011.jpg)Religious sex workers, jogini or Devadasi, primarily operating in southern India, have existed in India for



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Sev’er, A. (2008). Discarded Daughters: The Patriarchal Grip, Dowry Deaths and Sex Ratio Imbalances. Women’s Health and Urban Life, 56-75.

Shannon, K., & Csete, J. (2010). Violence, Condom Negotiation and HIV/STI Risk Among Sex Workers. Journal of the American Medical Association, 573-574.

Silverman, J., Decker, M., Gupta, J., Maheshware, A., & Patel, V. (2007). HIV Prevalence and Predictors of Infection in sex-Trafficked Girls and Women. Journal of
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Srinivas, L. (2009). Cinema in the City. Visual Anthropology, 1-12.

The Calcutta Times. (2002, October 22). This week we wind up with a visit to ward No. 18 of Sonagachi. Retrieved February 20, 2012, from Times of India:

Tierney, H. (1999). Patriarchy. In H. Tierney, Women’s Studies Encyclopedia (pp. 562-563). Westport: Greenwood Press.

UNAIDS/WHO. (2004). India Epidemiological Fact Sheet on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections. Geneva: United Nations.

United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. (2010, March). India: My Life in the “Red Lights” of Sonagachi. Retrieved February 20, 2012, from UNODC:


[1] Roy, 2008

[2] Lim et al., 1998

[3] Lim et al., 1998: 1

[4] Lim et al., 1998

[5] Using Stop Prostitution (2008) estimate of sex workers in India (2.8 million) and projected population pyramid data from the US Census Bureau International
Data Base (total population 1,189,172,906). Using the 80% estimate (conservative estimate of women’s participation in sex work) and the population estimates of
women of reproductive age (15-49 years), the calculation is 2,800,000/275,030,613 = 0.81%. Using more generous estimates of female participation in sex work
(90%0 and an age estimate for sex work (15-40), we receive an estimate of 1.06% of women aged 15 to 40 years of age.

[6] Gupta et al., 2009; Joffres et al., 2008

[7] To be discussed later in the paper

[8] Gupta et al., 2009; Joffres et al., 2008

[9] Gupta et al., 2009; Silverman et al., 2009

[10] Silverman et al., 2007; Sarkar et al., 2005

[11] Joffres et al., 2008; Silverman et al., 2009

[12] Gupta et al., 2009

[13] Gathia, 1999

[14] Bhattacharji, 1987

[15] Bhattacharji, 1987

[16] Banerjee, 1998

[17] Banerjee, 1998

[18] Banerjee, 1998

[19] Banerjee, 1998

[20] Chattoraj, 2002

[21] Chattoraj, 2002

[22] Chattopadhyay and McKaig, 2004; Chattoraj, 2002

[23] Dalrymple, 2008

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