Tag Archives: sex work

The Venus Flytrap: Sex Workers In Ayodhya

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Morari Bapu, a spiritual leader noted for his Ram Katha sermons held around the world, came under fire over the weekend for inviting 200 sex workers from Kamathipura, Mumbai, to attend an event which he conducted in the city of Ayodhya. This drew outrage from a number of other religious figures, who predictably spoke of sin and shame. Ayodhya is regarded as the birthplace of Ram, in whose praise Morari Bapu recites the Ramcharitmanas, Tulsidas’ 16th century Ramayana with the distinct religious tones which have since been popularly associated with the epic.

As one important criticism of arts-based activism more familiar to us goes: it is not enough to bring the kutcheri to the kuppam, when the kuppam is still (figuratively) kept out of the kutcheri. This makes Morari Bapu’s initiative admirable: he did not choose to just deliver his discourses in the red-light district, but brought the people of that district onto holy (and hotly-contested) ground. Sex workers who spoke to the media of their experiences at the Ram Katha did so in glowing terms.

But, here’s a pinch of salt: given the incendiary context in which we live, can we really read even generous acts as apolitical? How can they be, when religion is the expressed basis of compassion as well as the implicit basis of hatred? So what are Morari Bapu’s politics? I confess my ignorance: being non-proficient in Hindi means I lack access to much material and commentary. I wish I could offer the unequivocal hope that he is that unbelievably rare figure – a progressive spiritual leader – and that his welcome to sex workers is a feminist act. His dedication of a 2016 Ram Katha to transgender people, during which he was quoted as having expressed the wish that a person from the community should one day lead a similar event with his support, would be one such heartwarming example.

But I’m wary. So what I’ll pay attention to instead is a contradiction: earlier this year, Morari Bapu criticised politicians who use the performative gesture of eating in Dalit households as a pawn to attract voters, going a step further by saying that marrying people from the same households would actually be meaningful. He is correct: inter-caste marriage is radical, truly risky (as murders by family members have shown in too many cases) and potentially revolutionary. However, more recently, he also criticised a CM’s comment that Hanuman was a Dalit, calling it a divisive statement while others like himself were working for unity.

This contradiction – of focusing on transcendence rather than reality – is where good intentions go to die. If we insist that our acceptance of others lies in our commonalities, we also insist on certain erasures. We can assume that the 200 sex workers who visited Ayodhya from Kamathipura were pious – but is that why they should be respected? Will the atheist or non-Hindu sex worker be offered the same? Will she be offered respect as a routine part of life, upon her return to her workplace – where, night and day, men whose actions are never questioned as they enter temples come to commit the sins of objectification and abuse?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 27th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Imaginary Women, Imaginary Villains

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Neha Gnanavel, who is married to film producer Gnanavel Raja, obviously wants us to forget the objectionable things she posted about women in the cinema industry last week. Which is why she deleted the Tweets in which she threatened to name those who she believes have had consensual affairs with married men, referring to them as being “worse” than sex workers (she used less polite language). As yet undeleted, however, is her long defense of her views. Fair enough. There’s no need to scapegoat Ms. Gnanavel. She was only expressing the same sentiments that many in our deeply misogynistic society hold. Let’s talk about those sentiments, two in particular: that women – rather than the men who chose to be with them – are to be blamed for destroying families, and that sex workers are contemptible.

Infidelity is complicated, just as human desires, emotions and decisions are. Of course we want to simplify it, if only so that it becomes less painful. That doesn’t have to be done by painting women as villains by default. A recent meme I saw went so far as to hold culpable the woman who raised the woman who became involved with a married man – that’s two generations of woman-blaming! Anything to protect a man from taking responsibility for his choices. Whether blaming a married man’s lover, her mother, or his own wife – any culprit will do. As long as the only one who behaved dishonourably, the one who did the cheating, is absolved.

In heterosexual contexts, when the gender roles are reversed, the partnered woman who has an extramarital affair is still the one who is condemned. I cannot think of even one instance, anecdotal or celebrity-related, where the other man in the picture had his name forever tarnished by his involvement in what is called “home-wrecking”.

This is where the second of Ms. Gnanavel’s expressed sentiments comes into play. Why is calling someone a sex worker (using less respectful words, or not) a slur? This prejudice is premised on the idea that sex workers have agency and own their bodies entirely – something which it’s worth noting that most other women in patriarchal societies are not allowed to. Just as the imagined sex worker has control over her sexuality, so does the imagined mistress and the imagined adultress. Their imagined autonomy challenges the status quo. They choose (while married men do not – ha!). So consumed is the average, often incognisant, patriarchal agent with these hypotheticals that they don’t stop to ask themselves what they find so frightening.

Aside from a fundamental lack of understanding about capitalism, the idea doesn’t even hold water against that other favourite bugaboo – that girls and women will be kidnapped and trafficked (thanks, Mahanadhi). So which is it – that sex workers have volition, or are forced? How does the muddled misogynist mind hold these contradictions at once?

I wouldn’t know, but it’s a contradiction that the feminist mind also manages to hold, and engages with through the concepts of consent and desire. And there’s space in this discourse for even the heartbreak of betrayal, without resorting to either the assumption of villainy or the presumption of victimhood.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 29th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.