Sword or Shield? The Role of the Law in the Indian Sex Workers’ Movement

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In the contemporary neoliberal moment, the judicial discourse of appellate Indian courts has sought to normalize the identity of sexual minorities such as bar dancers and the LGBT community. While the recognition of the rights of abject sexual groups is welcome, this essay argues that the legal space for normalization is hardly equally available or even the same for all sexual minorities. Indian sex workers are a case in point. Although the Indian sex workers' movement has engaged with the legal system for well over a decade now, it has only encountered legislative proposals for increased criminalization fostered by a global abolitionist movement against trafficking. In a bid to plot the trajectory of the movement's engagement with the legal system, I elaborate on the familiar legislative and policy realms in which the ‘prostitution question’ plays out, while also addressing the relatively unexplored arena of sex work-related litigation. While sex workers could be broadly understood to operate in ‘political society’ vis-à-vis the Indian state, I argue that viewing their legal mobilizational struggles through a social movement lens and over the life of a movement offers a more nuanced account of the varied registers on which their rights claims are based and their shifting strategies for using the venues of formal state law. This, I suggest, helps elaborate on the conditions under which the claims of abject sexual subjects to citizenship in neoliberal India might be possible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)530-548
Number of pages19
JournalInterventions International Journal of Postcolonial Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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