Sex work and the city

Paromita VohraPeople are always saying it’s about location, location, location.

Right now some residents of Kamathipura are saying it. These gents (at least only the gents contingent was visible in newspaper reports) have written a letter to the Chief Minister as a start to their campaign to have sex workers removed from one of India’s oldest red-light districts.

According to them, the area’s association with sex work comes in the way of their professional progress. That address on their application forms prevents companies from hiring them. If this is true, that’s an unfair discrimination.

Residents of Kamathipura have written to the CM to remove the sex workers from the area
Residents of Kamathipura have written to the CM to remove the sex workers from the area

So you’d imagine they’d want the Chief Minister or whoever’s in charge of a fair and just society (becoming so hard to tell na?) to haul up the people who are discriminating against them isn’t it? No such thing. Instead they want action taken against their neighbours, the sex workers. It’s Revolution 21st century ishtyle as usual, yaniki, let’s become strong by oppressing someone weaker, rather than challenging those who exert unjust power over us. Let’s fight discrimination by discriminating against others — also called patriarchy in another form.

The resistance to looking at sex work as any other form of work comes from both, the inability to see women as multi-dimensional people, which includes a professional dimension; and an inability to see sex as just another part of life.

Kamathipura is what mostly remains of what was once a widespread, stratified pleasure district running across Bellasis Road, Falkland Road, Pila House etc. Here is where there were playhouses (Pila House being a corruption of Play House) and later the first cinema halls, as also, workers of all kinds, British soldiers, tawaifs, mujrah dancers, Chinese dentists, international sex workers (the foreign women giving Safed Gully its name) and further, towards Kalbadevi, with its bazaars and classical music halls. This geography is a map of worldly human pleasure — from commerce to music and cinema to sex; in it is the DNA of much of Bombay’s character — the entertainment industry, business, a cosmopolitan, professional sphere. The fact that the term bazar is often used interchangeably for market and kotha, acknowledges the aspect of work or trade inherent to sex work.

By disconnecting sex from this continuum — of life, pleasure and work — and locking it in some dingy room of our consciousness we only add a layer of shame to human existence, which becomes the root of constant violence to ourselves — and to others who embody it, like sex workers.

That’s why it becomes easy to render sex workers invisible, and for a few people to claim they are “the” residents of Kamathipura, as if the sex workers are not. And then suggest they should be relocated to some non-residential area. Perhaps they meant Nariman Point? No, they meant somewhere where there’s no one; no means to earn a living for the sex workers.

Sometimes people critique the moral critics of sex work by saying “as if they have never gone to a sex worker.” This isn’t a useful argument because it only seeks to displace shame from one body to another. It still makes sex sound like it’s an aberration and commercial sex sound like the most degraded activity.

By making such populations invisible, we allow for utter neglect. Kamathipura receives little municipal attention, sanitation and water being scarce. Such neglect makes criminalisation easier — and allows entire neighbourhoods and people to be written off as beyond repair, setting the stage for new notions of middle-class respectability. Which must be housed in new middle-class abodes.

Also known as gentrification, yaniki, redevelopment. So, let’s not guess who’ll be moving soon.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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