Monthly Archives: January 2015

This paper explores the relationship between sex worker activism and HIV-related discourse in Bangladesh, relating recent developments in activism to the influence of feminist thought. Following their eviction in 1991 from brothels from red light areas, Bangladeshi sex workers started a social movement, at just about the same time that programmes started to work with sex workers to reduce the transmission of HIV. This paper argues that both sex worker activism and HIV-prevention initiatives find impetus in feminist pro-sex-work perspectives, which place emphasis on individual and collective agency. However, by participating in these programmes, sex workers failed to contest the imagery of themselves as ‘vectors’ of HIV. In this way, they were unwittingly complicit in reproducing their identity as ‘polluting others’. Moreover, by focusing on individual behaviour and the agency of sex workers, HIV programmes ignored the fact that the ‘choices’ made by sex workers are influenced by a wide range of structural and discursive factors, including gender norms and notions of bodily purity, which in turn have implications for the construction of HIV-related risk.
El presente artículo examina la relación existente entre el activismo de las sexoservidoras y el discurso vinculado al vih en Bangladesh, a la vez que relaciona ciertos acontecimientos recientes con la influencia del pensamiento feminista. Después de que en 1991 fueron expulsadas de los burdeles localizados en las zonas de prostitución, las sexoservidoras de Bangladesh organizaron un movimiento social. Al mismo tiempo, entre ellas empezaron a aplicarse los programas orientados a reducir la transmisión del VIH. Este artículo sostiene que tanto el activismo de las sexoservidoras como las iniciativas para prevenir el VIH encuentran un aliento proveniente de las perspectivas feministas a favor del trabajo sexual, ya que estas se centran en una determinación individual y colectiva. Sin embargo, al participar en dichos programas, las sexoservidoras no hicieron frente a la idea de que ellas podían ser ‘vectores’ del vih. Por lo que, sin darse cuenta, se convirtieron en cómplices de la reproducción de una identidad adscrita a ellas en el sentido de que ‘contaminan a otras personas’. Asimismo, al centrase en el comportamiento individual y en las acciones de las sexoservidoras, los programas destinados a reducir la transmisión del vih soslayaron el hecho de que las ‘opciones’ ejercidas por las sexoservidoras son influidas por una amplia gama de factores estructurales y discursivos, que incluyen normas de género e ideas de pureza corporal, las cuales, a su vez, tienen implicaciones para la construcción del riesgo relacionado con el vih.
Cet article explore le lien entre l’activisme des travailleuses du sexe et le discours sur le VIH au Bangladesh, en rapportant les évolutions récentes à l’influence de la pensée féministe. Suite à leur expulsion des quartiers chauds en 1991, les travailleuses du sexe bangladeshis ont lancé un mouvement social, à peu près au moment où les programmes nationaux se mettaient à collaborer avec elles dans une perspective de réduction de la transmission du VIH. Cet article soutient que l’activisme des travailleuses du sexe – par exemple leurs initiatives pour la prévention du VIH – est impulsé par les points de vue féministes favorables au travail du sexe qui soulignent la capacité d’agir des travailleuses du sexe, aux plans individuel et collectif. Cependant, en prenant part aux programmes nationaux, les travailleuses du sexe n’ont pas réussi la remise en question de la notion de « vecteurs » du VIH à laquelle elles étaient associées. Elles en ont même été les complices involontaires en reproduisant leur identité de « polluantes pour les autres ». De plus, en se concentrant sur le comportement individuel et la capacité d’agir des travailleuses du sexe, les programmes de lutte contre le VIH ont ignoré le fait que les « choix » des travailleuses du sexe sont influencés par une large diversité de facteurs structurels et discursifs, comprenant les normes de genre et les notions de pureté corporelle qui, en contrepartie, ont des implications pour la construction du risque lié au VIH

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It was only during the 1990s that sex workers1 in Bangladesh became visible in public discourse. This was largely the result of sex worker activism, which was a response to their eviction from brothels in 1991, and their identification as a key population at heightened risk in HIV discourse. Through activism, sex workers demanded greater recognition of their identity as workers and called for the realisation of rights equal to those of other citizens. This position is concomitant with the pro-sex-work view in feminist thought, which regards sex workers as active agents and sees prostitution as a form of ‘work’. Such a perspective is also reflected in HIV programmes in Bangladesh, which often focus on the empowerment of sex workers so that they can exert agency and play a role in HIV prevention. This paper aims to offer a critical account of how the nexus between sex worker activism, feminist debate and HIV discourse in Bangladesh produces a complex interrelationship that reproduces understandings of sex workers as a ‘pollutant other’. The already prevailing identity of sex workers as socially dangerous is reflected by HIV discourses that portray sex workers as vectors of disease to the general population.
Feminist theoretical conceptualisation and popular discourse on sex work centre upon the victim/agent dichotomy, in which a sex worker is either seen as a victim of situations, such as economic exploitation and patriarchy, or as an agent in control of her life (Carpenter 2000). Anti-sex-work perspectives regard sex work as a manifestation of violence against women, because it validates men’s mastery over women (MacKinnon 1993, as cited in Anderson 2002, 345). It is seen as a dehumanising experience for it is not recognised as an ‘authentic’ form of human interaction (Barry 1995, as cited in Anderson 2002, 346). According to the perspectives advocated by some radical feminists, sex work is the manifestation of ultimate inequality (Anderson 2002) in which male sexual desire is satisfied at the expense of turning women into sex objects. The availability of the female body in the sex market and the presence of willing customers highlights this inequality.
Pro-sex-work perspectives, on the other hand, tend to see sex work as an occupation or profession. Nussbaum (1999, as cited in Kotiswaran 2011, 30) argues that sex work is similar to other kinds of labour such as domestic work, entertainment or university teaching. Pro-sex work feminists demand for sex workers all the job-related rights, such as protection against violence, that people in other occupations enjoy, and call for better working conditions (Kempadoo and Doezema 1998, as cited in Lozano 2010, 32). Deriving ideological support from liberal feminism, this view argues that the oppression of women in sex work is not unique to the sex industry; rather, oppression is also present in other occupations (Overall 1992, 1994, as cited in Scott 2005, 16). Sex work advocates also argue that the commodification of emotion is not necessarily destructive; sex workers separate their core selves from the labour that they perform (Kempadoo 1998, as cited in Kotiswaran 2011, 30). This argument has been criticised by anti-sex-work feminists on the grounds that sex work involves the sale of embodied sexual services. What in situations such as rape and abuse may be considered as sexual harassment, in the case of sex work is regarded as normal (Kole 2009).
With the advent of AIDS, sex workers became target of HIV-related intervention. In part, this derived from the fear that they represented a potent source of infection, in much the same way that, historically, sex workers have been subjected to such beliefs. In the Middle Ages, women sex workers were seen as sinful and polluting (Rossiaud 1988, 55–8, as cited in Scott 2005). In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a connection was thus drawn between sin and bodily contamination. Sex workers, being considered lustful women, were regarded as dangerous (Scott 2005). More recently, through a stereotypical association with unprotected, multi-partner sex, sex workers are considered not only to create risk for themselves, but also for their clients (Sanders 2007).
A public health focus on sex workers reflects the prevailing stereotype that sex workers are sources of disease. The medical metaphors of health and disease serve the same function that earlier forms of moral discourse did; dividing women into clean (not at risk) and polluted (dangerous and risky). The Contagious Diseases Acts, which were introduced in the UK in 1864, 1866 and 1869, identified sex workers as polluters of the male body politic (Bell 1994). The purpose of this legislation was to protect the British army and navy from sexual diseases. Under the Act of 1864 in particular, sex workers were made subject to surgical examination and even detention. The Act of 1869 provided for their moral and religious instruction along with lessons on personal hygiene (Bell 1994, 56). In colonial India (of which Bangladesh was then a part), sex workers were defined as criminals under the Cantonments Act XXII of 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act XIV of 1868, a perspective later enshrined in the Indian penal code. Indian sex workers were also subject to periodic medical check-ups and confinement in lock-up hospitals (Ghosh 2005).
Since the emergence of HIV, international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV (UNAIDS), the Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria, and the United States Agency for International Development have played an increasing role in HIV governance (Ahmed 2011). Human rights and feminist groups have lobbied both national and international organisations working on HIV to influence their policies. An amendment to the United States Leadership against HIV, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act (2008) mandated that if an organisation wished to receive funds through this Act, it should have a formal policy opposing sex trafficking. On the other hand, the updated Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS 2012) adopts a pro-sex-work perspective by recommending harm reduction measures as part of HIV-prevention interventions among sex workers.
Against this backdrop, the present paper aims to understand how – somewhat contradictorily – HIV policies of Bangladesh exhibit a pro-sex work perspective while the participation of the sex workers in HIV programmes has created a situation in which the image of sex workers as diseased, polluted and dangerous has been reproduced. The paper seeks to demonstrate that even though sex worker leaders have claimed agency, sex workers in Bangladesh are part of a complex structure in which the agency they claim in HIV discourse and through political activism can hardly be understood in terms of liberal choices made by free agents. Rather, understandings of sex work are strongly shaped by gender norms and prevailing notions of purity and pollution of the body in the context of Bengali society.
This paper begins with an analysis of how sex work is conceptualised in Bangladesh and its relationship to ideas of pollution. In the following section, the political activism of sex workers is critically analysed, focusing particularly on how this activism draws from feminist philosophy. The final element of the paper highlights the inter-relationship between HIV discourse and sex work and relates it to broader feminist debate.

Sex workers in Bangladesh: polluted identities

As indicated earlier, sex workers have historically been identified as vectors of disease. Within a gendered discourse of promiscuity and risk, sex workers are seen as transgressors, for they exhibit sexual agency, trespass the realm of femininity and participate in risky behaviour. Within the norms of gender and morality, sex work is seen as evil. At the very centre of this moral discourse lies the ‘female body’.
Cross-culturally and throughout history, notions of purity and impurity have been closely bound up with the female body. Cultural values such as the bodily purity of women are important in the context of contemporary Bangladeshi society. Mary Douglas (2003) argues that the body can be seen as symbolic of society. The openings of the body represent vulnerable points. Substances generated at the orifices (saliva, semen, excreta etc.) are marginal because they cross the boundaries of the body and are therefore dangerous. Like the body, the order of society connotes danger at its margins. Transgression brings danger (for example, adultery may cause disease).2 Through ideas about pollution of body and of society, certain moral codes and values are endorsed. Such notions of purity are closely related to the sexuality of women in Bangladesh.
Rozario (1992) argues that through ideological mechanisms such as honour and shame, purity and pollution and parda (the veil), female sexuality is strongly controlled in Bangladesh. Parda, which is closely associated with family honour, restricts women’s participation in the public domain. A woman who is shameless loses her sexual purity, and the notion of ‘purity’ normalises the female body. Gender norms in Bangladesh are imposed on women through the institutions of family and religion and through a focus on bodily purity, submissiveness and the repression of sexuality. Even in the cases of rape, discussion of the sexuality of women is discouraged. Mookherjee (2006), for example, found that in order to protect family honour, incidents of rape during the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh were kept secret. When rape victims from that war made their narratives public in the People’s Tribunal of 1992, they faced scorn and social ostracism.3 Ideas about pollution in Bangladeshi society are also associated with maintaining the purity of patrilineage, since women are viewed as the pathways through which pollution enters into the family chain (Khan and Arefeen 1989).
Sex workers, as they trespass the boundaries of the private sphere, become public women. In contrast to modest women who are not expected to be sexually skilled, who are not expected to talk about sex and are who are not supposed to claim money (Pheterson 1993), sex workers exhibit an active sexuality. Because of this, they may be viewed derogatorily as having fallen (potita), as being bad (kharap), as spoiled (nosto), as sluts (beshya) and market-place women (bajarer-meye) and so on (Chowdhury 2006, 343).4 The stigma of sex work is such that women are denied basic rights and suffer structural violence. For many years, brothel-based sex workers were not allowed to wear shoes outside the brothels, neither were they allowed to wear the traditional women’s dress of shalwar-kameez, so that wider society could easily detect their spoiled identities and ostracise them accordingly (Ara 2005). Religious leaders have also considered sex workers impure, refusing to perform their funeral rites (Blanchet 1996, 27–8, as cited in Caldwell et al. 1999) and not allowing their bodies to be buried in ordinary cemeteries.

From ‘prostitution’ to ‘sex work’: the sex worker movement and feminist discourse

The eviction of sex workers from brothels in the late-1990s generated public panic in Bangladesh.5 This anxiety reflected a fear of ‘contamination’ among the middle classes (Chowdhury and Gulrukh 2000), who feared that newly evicted sex workers would migrate into the suburban zones within cities. Society at large was seen as the space of the middle class (us), while brothels were the space of the sex workers (them). So long as spatial distance was maintained between these two realms, society remains virtuous and the middle class found a sense of security (Chowdhury and Gulrukh 2000). Moral panic centred on the fear that the eviction would result in uncontrolled and unconfined sex, posing a danger to society at large (Huq 2006). This also revealed a double moral standard within society: on the one hand, sex work is regarded polluting while, on the other hand, it is believed that sex work protects good women from sexual harassment by providing for the release of ‘natural’ male sexual urges (Huq 2006, 136).
After their eviction from the brothels, sex workers became politically active. A number of human rights-based organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) expressed their solidarity with the growing sex work movement, while two sex worker associations – Durjoy Nari Shongho and Nari Mukti Shongho – came into being (Crago 2008). In 2002, the Sex Workers Network of Bangladesh was formed. All these groups supported an agenda for ‘sexual rights’ and demanded greater sexual freedom (Huq2006). They used a ‘rights framework’ to demand women sex workers’ recognition as citizens and legitimate workers (Azim2005).
On International Women’s Day, 8 March, 1994, the International Women’s Day Celebration committee adopted the slogan Shorir Amaar Shidhanto Amaar (my body, my decision). This slogan was proposed by Naripokhkho (a women’s organisation with a pro-feminist stand).6 The slogan reverberated in dozen of places in Bangladesh where events were organised by the committee (Huq2012). Brothel inmates marched with the activists on international women’s day and reported feeling empowered by doing so (Azim 2011). In a press statement, evicted sex workers from the Tanbazar/Tanbazaar brothel7 urged:

We are women, we work for our living, and we are citizens of this country. Our rights as women, as workers and as citizens deserve the same respect and protection as any other citizen. (Huq 2006, 135)
Importantly, this early activism created room for a closer alliance between the emergent sex worker organisation and other human rights groups and women’s organisations in Bangladesh (Huq 2003, 62). The National Women’s Network of Bangladesh (known as Doorbar in Bengali) subsequently included sex worker groups as part of their network (Huq 2012). Another major effect of the emerging movement was a change in the terminology used by the print media with the word ‘prostitute’ being replaced by the term ‘sex worker’ (Huq 2012). This promoted the view that sex workers should be seen as workers and not as fallen or morally degraded women (Huq 2006).
This re-positioning of sex workers can be understood from a pro-sex work feminist perspective. When recognised as such in legal and political contexts, sex workers are entitled to avail themselves of work-related benefits such as protection against harassment. Addtionally, the term ‘sex work’ is a gender neutral expression and can include men, women, hijra (a person who adopts a gender role that is neither male nor female) and trans people (Spector 2006). It is also inclusive of other work-related activities associated with the provision of sexual services, such as erotic dancing and stripping as well as pornography. It was not surprising therefore that the relatively small but highly marginalised hijra groups of Bangladesh also expressed their solidarity with this broad-based movement (Huq 2006).

HIV programmes in Bangladesh: sex workers as a ‘key population’ at heightened risk

It is difficult to put an official figure for the actual number of sex workers in Bangladesh. This is due to the fact that official documents often avoid using the term prostitution or sex work. Rather, sex workers are often referred to as ‘socially deprived women’, ‘socially handicapped women’ and ‘women in moral danger’ (Tahmina and Moral 2000; Kabeer 1989, as cited in White1992, 14). Khan and Arefeen (1989) found no data on sex work in census documents from 1974 to 1981. Furthermore, there are variations in the number of sex workers reported by different sources. According to Hossin (2012) there are around 100,000 female sex workers in Bangladesh. On the other hand, an Action Aid publication from about the same time claims that the number is between 60,000 and 100,000 (ActionAid Bangladesh 2013). Sex work remains effectively legal in Bangladesh (Huq2012). However, there are laws in some cities prohibiting public soliciting, such as the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Act (Shukla2010).8
The emergence of HIV in Bangladesh increased the visibility of sex workers. According to UNAIDS estimates, HIV prevalence among 15–49-year-olds in Bangladesh remained at less than 0.1% between 1990 to 2012 (UNAIDS n.d.). In spite of this overall low HIV prevalence, emphasis was given to the development of harm-reduction services and condom promotion (NASP 2011). In part, this was because UNAIDS/WHO (2000) guidelines suggest that in low-HIV prevalence countries, attention should be paid to sub-groups that have risky lifestyles and the potential to ‘bridge’ diverse population groups (UNAIDS/WHO 2000, as cited in NASP2011). In parallel, a renewed emphasis on human rights placed emphasis on individual autonomy and the participation of target groups in decision-making (Uvin 2007). Empowering marginalised groups, changing power relations and mobilising populations to claim their rights were seen as tools for promoting human development (Uvin 2007). Development organisations and others recognised that in order to reduce the harm of HIV, sex workers required greater control over their bodies (Chowdhury 2006, 340). As such, sex worker agency came to be emphasised, reflecting a pro-sex-work framework.
In 1997, NGOs including CARE Bangladesh began training sex workers as peer educators for HIV prevention. Sex workers also became the targets of free condom promotion. A range of national and international NGOs undertook programmes on leadership-building among sex workers and emphasised organisation-building (Chowdhury 2006). CARE Bangladesh also organised workshops bringing together sex workers from different countries to learn about human rights issues. Motivated by these, local sex workers first formed Durjoy Nari Shongho (Crago 2008). The availability of funding at national and international levels helped support work including organisational development and condom promotion, among other measures (Tahmina and Moral 2000).

From ‘victims’ to ‘vectors’: HIV and sex worker organisations

Early HIV programmes in Bangladesh were grounded on the premise that since sex workers have multiple sex partners, they pose a dangerous source of the disease. The draft National Policy on HIV and STD-related issues of Bangladesh (1996), for example, states:

Because of high rates of partner change among sex workers, and because sex workers are usually fewer and more easily identified than the larger group of clients, interventions directed at sex workers provide an important opportunity to slow the spread of HIV. (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare 1996, 62)
This statement reflects the prevailing view which stigmatises sex workers as dangerous ‘others’. The 3rd National Strategic Plan for HIV and AIDS response (2011–2015) of Bangladesh marked a slight shift in emphasis by suggesting that harm-reduction interventions, such as the distribution of condoms and syringes, the provision of outreach programmes, such as Voluntary Counselling and Treatment and group-based peer education (NASP n.d.), also had a role to play as part of the prevention response. Nevertheless, through a focus on sex workers as agents of condom promotion, sex workers were portrayed not as vulnerable victims, but as potential sources of infection.
Because of this focus, programmes place responsibility for HIV transmission largely on the individual, adopting what might best be described as a ‘subtle’ pro-sex work perspective, in their assumption that if only sex workers are empowered to have better control of their bodies and rendered capable of negotiating condom use with clients, they can prevent HIV transmission. A degree of rationality is assumed here in that these risk-reduction models assume that if individuals are given the right information and tools (condoms) they will rationally change their behaviour. This ‘hygienist’ approach was in contrast to more prohibitive ‘sanitationist’ practices by seeking to empower, providing individuals with protection, rehabilitation and reform so that they can act as responsible subjects (Scott 2003). By promoting self-control, social rights and responsibilities, hygienist practices allow for the regulation of persons in line with neo-liberal practices of governance (Scott 2003). Through a focus on individual behaviour change, sex workers are brought under the gaze, and hence the governance, of hygienist practices. Paradoxically, sex workers’ lobbying for the recognition of their occupation as ‘work’ supported such a view.
Sex work activism brought sex workers together around a common platform. While differences between hotel-based sex workers, brothel-based sex workers and street-based sex workers have long been recognised, differences between individuals living in brothels have less often been focused upon. Khan (2010) identifies four types of brothel-based sex worker: the landlady (bariwali), the tenant (bharatia), the madam (sardarni) and the bonded (chukri) sex worker. While landladies own the brothel premises, the independent sex workers operating and living there do so as tenants. Madams are the female owners or managers of brothels. They ‘own’ the bonded young women who work there, providing them with food and housing, while in return keeping their earnings. Chukris are typically bonded to serve madams for up to four or five years (Ara 2005, 11).
These differences are not merely ones of categorisation but reflect sex workers’ ability to exert agency and exercise power. Bonded sex workers remain at the bottom of the power structure, and within this structure, agency is rarely a free choice. Rather, it is shaped by one’s position within the power structure. As such, making sex workers responsible for their ‘individual’ behaviour has little meaning for many sex workers. In addition, to view sex workers as a homogenous category moves the focus away from the fact that violence and abuse can have multiple dimensions, both external and internal. Sex worker movements often highlight external oppression (by society and the state towards sex workers as a whole), but historically have paid less attention to the internal violence that sex workers suffer from power holders inside the brothel.
The UNAIDS (2012) Guidelines on HIV and Sex Work warn against conflating sex work with trafficking. In Annex 3 of the guidelines, it is argued that trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation involves coercion or deception, and thus involves the provision of sexual services against the person’s will. This violates fundamental human rights and removes the agency of trafficked persons. Sex work, on the other hand, is freely entered into and involves consensual sex between adults. However, this same report acknowledges that women are often trafficked or coerced into selling sex (UNAIDS 2012, 4). The choice, consent and agency emphasised by UNAIDS guidelines, and by much of the pro-sex work feminist literature, cannot be seen as ‘free’ choice in the context of Bangladesh, for it involves a complex process in which ‘choice’ is strongly shaped by cultural norms and social pressures such as those described. An individual behaviour change framework for HIV prevention pays little attention to these broader structural factors, even when they are acknowledged to exist. Choi and Eleanor (2007) report that in countries such as China, sex workers may refrain from condom negotiation owing to poverty; a similar situation prevails in Bangladesh. Likewise, Amanullah and Huda (2012) report that condom use is rare with regular partners and with boyfriends, a situation that has its parallels all over the world.
In the process of raising their status from ‘fallen women’ to regular workers, sex worker groups have utilised and promoted a pro-sex work discourse. Within this struggle, they portray themselves as active agents. But entry into sex work and the decision to remain in the industry is rarely an entirely free choice. Would pro-sex work feminists define as ‘workers’ those women who have been deceived, sold into a brothel and then ‘willingly’ choose sex work after having taken customers and thereby become ‘impure’? While the identification of sex workers as active agents may make them ‘suitable targets’ for empowering HIV interventions, their position within the broader sex work movement and the agendas of their organisations are also shaped by feminist and human rights considerations. These two processes are interconnected, the one influencing the other.
Sex workers, by identifying as key populations at heightened risk facilitate a view of themselves as ‘dangerous’. This in turn reproduces the view that female sexuality itself is dangerous (Sacks 1996). By doing so, they not only identify themselves as vectors of disease, but obscure the fact that they themselves may become the victims of HIV infection as well.


Sex worker activism in Bangladesh began as a protest against brothel eviction and violence. It created an imaginary in which sex workers came to be seen as the victims of oppression. Through this movement, an attempt has been made to transform their identity from that of ‘fallen women’ to that of ‘ordinary worker’. This reflects an alignment with pro-sex work ideologies in feminist discourse. Dominant HIV discourse also places importance on the agency of sex workers. Influenced by a rights-based approach, different non-governmental organisations have undertaken programmes of empowerment for sex workers seeking to reduce the transmission of HIV. Most such work has involved interventions at the individual level, focusing on the promotion of condoms, awareness of safer sex, the distribution of clean needles and syringes and the provision of clinic-based health-care services. HIV risk is seen as requiring a ‘technical fix’ such that, if the individual behaviour of sex workers can be altered, then HIV transmission can be prevented. What this framework does not take into account is the fact that sex workers live their lives as part of broader power and community structures and that in countries such as Bangladesh, the choices they make are rarely, if ever, free. Rather, their actions are shaped by structural factors, as well as by notions of purity and pollution.


I would like to thank John Scott for his insightful comments and edits. There are no conflicts of interest to declare.


1. By the term ‘sex work’, I mean the selling of sexual services in exchange for money, favour or benefits. I am not positioning myself with pro-sex work feminists by using the term sex work instead of prostitution. Neither am I positioning myself with an anti-sex work view. I use the term ‘sex work’ because I do not wish to be judgemental by using a degrading or stigmatising term to describe the women involved.

2. Douglas (2003) relates sexual behaviour to caste purity. Since it is through women that caste membership is defined, female sexuality is highly regulated. The purity of women is maintained by controlling their sexual relations, breaches of which are severely punished. Douglas argues that it is possible to draw an analogy of both sexes with that of a vessel that contains vital fluids, which should not be diluted or disposed of. In line with Hindu beliefs, semen carries a sacred quality and should not be wasted. Within this symbolic analogy, men exude the precious substance. Women on the other hand are seen as the points of entry, potentially polluting the pure content of male fluids (Douglas 2003, 127).

3. Narratives of national history in Bangladesh are also influenced by notions of the purity of the female body. Azim’s (2005) work reveals how the state honoured the rape victims of the liberation war as heroines. Yet this effort was not sufficient to include them in the annals of national history. In one of the early publications on this issue, Ami Birangona Bolchi, the author Nilima Ibrahim (1994) collected first-hand accounts of rape victims. These narratives were full of familial rejection and social ostracism. Ibrahim mentioned reports in newspapers quoting some rape victims requesting to be repatriated along with Pakistani prisoners of war (Azim 2012, 273), owing to social ostracism.

4. Tahmina (2009, 143) argues that the use of such derogatory terms points to the social impurity of sex workers. This also highlights patriarchal norms that emphasise that the sexuality of women should remain obedient to a man within the boundaries of marriage. Society does not compromise concerning the monogamous sexual behaviour of women. Notions of purity of the female body, chastity and honour have developed in relation to such norms.

5. In 1991, an attempt was made by the United Islamic Activities Resistance Committee (UARC) to evict sex workers from the red-light areas in a district adjacent to the capital. The UARC claimed that it is their duty to cleanse the social environment by eradicating an immoral and un-Islamic activity (N. Chowdhury 2010, 53). The UARC was an Islamic fundamentalist group (UCANEWS.COM 1991). A section of the press and women’s groups, however, claimed that the eviction took place as the result of to an internal feud between two male groups over finance and control of property. In 1999, brothel inmates in Narayanganj were evicted and taken to vagrant homes by the government without any prior warning or notice (Huq 2008, 183). The sex workers’ campaign was launched in 1991.

6. Shireen Huq, a member of Naripokhkho, in an interview with TARSHI, an NGO from India, reported that this slogan was initially used by Naripokhkho to express their work on reproductive rights and as a declaration on the right to bodily integrity (TARSHI 2009, 7–8).

7. Tanbazar brothel was located in the town of Narayanganj, Bangladesh.

8. According to the article 18[2] of the Constitution of Bangladesh, effective measures should be adopted by the state to prevent prostitution and gambling. But, in practice, an adult woman by making an affidavit with a first class magistrate can engage in sex work. Thus, in spite of its pledge to prevent prostitution, prostitution prevails. In response to a writ petition that was filed by 267 sex workers and 86 human rights and women’s rights organisations, the High court in its judgement in March 2000 mentioned that, ‘the profession of sex workers was not illegal, but that they had a right to fend for their living in any way possible. Their evictions from Nimtoli and Tanbazaar brothels and putting them into vagrant homes were unlawful’ (Guhathakurata and Begum2005, 204–5). However, sex workers are often harassed under other laws. For example, the Vagrancy Act of 1943 is often used to send sex workers to vagrant’s homes. The Dhaka Metropolitian Police Act, along with the Metropoliton Police Acts of Sylhet, Rajshahi, Chittagong, Khulna and Barisal, prohibits public soliciting for sex work. Government authorities argued that the eviction drives were undertaken to rehabilitate sex workers (Shukla 2010, 4).


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© 2015 The Author(s). Published by Taylor & Francis.

This is an Open Access article. Non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly attributed, cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way, is permitted. The moral rights of the named author(s) have been asserted.

Edward Snajdr, “Beneath the master narrative: human trafficking, myths of sexual slavery and ethnographic realities” (2013) 37 Dialectical Anthropology 229


This paper explores the disconnections between anti-trafficking discourse and the local experience of responding to human trafficking as indicated in ethnographic data from Bosnia and Kazakhstan. Using the concept of “uptake,” I examine how anti-trafficking discourse operates as a master narrative, drawing on techniques of emotion and logic, as well as a specific type of victim story. I also consider how, despite an emerging counter discourse that questions the data and challenges current policy, human trafficking discourse continues to be retold in media and reproduced in popular culture, often in ways that actually diverge from the current version of the grand narrative. In contrast to these uncritical representations, ethnographic data from Bosnia suggest that the master narrative is selective in how it represents the history of the problem and that it does not “take up” important details about the context that fosters sexual exploitation, despite Bosnia’s compliance with US policy. Conversely, Kazakhstan suffers a liminal status regardless of local efforts to prevent the problem from happening within its borders as well as evidence that the crime is not widespread. While perhaps not mythical, I suggest that the master narrative contains the stuff of legend as it occupies the critical spaces of policy, activism and development, leaving open the question of how to address the nuances and needs of responding to victims of gender violence.

Full text available here.

Phil Hubbard, “Cleansing the Metropolis: Sex Work and the Politics of Zero Tolerance” August 2004 41:9 Urban Studies, 1687–1702


Although red-light districts have long been characteristic features of Western cities, these spaces are periodically subject to forms of moral cleansing and purification enacted by the state and law. Focusing on central Paris and the West End of London, this paper describes recent ‘Zero Tolerance’ policies designed to displace sex work from such spaces. Exploring the motives for such actions, the paper argues that policy-makers are seeking to demonstrate their ability to assert moral order by reclaiming red-light districts from sex workers. Simultaneously, it is suggested that this process of ‘purification’ is intended to maximise the potential for capital accumulation in city centres via the promotion of family-oriented gentrification. The paper concludes by thinking through the implications of this, posing the question: is it right that sex workers are being excluded from our city centres?

Full text available here.

WHO; UNFPA; UNAIDS; NSWP; World Bank (2013): Implementing Comprehensive HIV/STI Programmes with Sex Workers. 


This tool offers practical advice on implementing HIV and STI programmes for and with sex workers. It is based on the recommendations in the guidance document on Prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections for sex workers in low- and middle-income countries published in 2012 by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

Topics covered in the tool include approaches and principles to building programmes that are led by the sex worker community such as community empowerment, addressing violence against sex workers, and community-led services; they include how to implement the recommended condom and lubricant programming, and other crucial health-care interventions for HIV prevention, treatment and care; and they include suggestions on how to manage programmes and build the capacity of sex worker organizations. The tool contains examples of good practice from around the world that may support efforts in planning programmes and services.

The tool is designed for use by public-health officials and managers of HIV and STI programmes; NGOs, including community and civil-society organizations; and health workers. It may also be of interest to international funding agencies, health policy-makers and advocates.

Full report and policy brief available here. 

Fassi, Marisa N. “Sex Work and the Claim for Grassroots Legislation.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 0, no. 0 (January 8, 2015): 1–11. doi:10.1080/13691058.2014.990517.

The aim of this paper is to contribute to understanding of legal models that aim to control sex work, and the policy implications of these, by discussing the experience of developing a grassroots legislation bill proposal by organised sex workers in Córdoba, Argentina. The term ‘grassroots legislation’ here refers to a legal response that derives from the active involvement of local social movements and thus incorporates the experiential knowledge and claims of these particular social groupings in the proposal. The experience described in this paper excludes approaches that render sex workers as passive victims or as deviant perpetrators; instead, it conceives of sex workers in terms of their political subjectivity and of political subjectivity in its capacity to speak, to decide, to act and to propose. This means challenging current patterns of knowledge/power that give superiority to ‘expert knowledge’ above and beyond the claims, experiences, knowledge and needs of sex workers themselves as meaningful sources for law making.

A partir del análisis de una experiencia centrada en la elaboración de un proyecto de ley de base propuesto por sexoservidoras organizadas en Córdoba, Argentina, el presente artículo intenta contribuir tanto a la comprensión de los modelos jurídicos que pretenden controlar el trabajo sexual como a la comprensión de sus implicaciones políticas. El término proyecto de ley de base hace referencia a la respuesta jurídica derivada de la participación activa de los movimientos sociales locales. Por ello, incorpora en el mismo el conocimiento vivencial y los reclamos de estas agrupaciones sociales. La vivencia descrita en este artículo excluye todo enfoque que conciba a las sexoservidoras como víctimas pasivas o como perpetradoras pervertidas; por el contrario, las concibe en términos de su subjetividad política, de su capacidad de hablar, de decidir, de actuar y de proponer. Ello implica un cuestionamiento dirigido contra los patrones actuales de conocimiento/poder que, frente a los reclamos, las vivencias, el conocimiento y las necesidades de las propias sexoservidoras en tanto fuente de conocimientos principal para el proceso a legislar, otorgan superioridad a los ‘conocimientos de expertos’.

Cet article a pour objectif de contribuer à l’amélioration des connaissances sur les modèles juridiques de contrôle du travail du sexe et sur leurs implications politiques, en évoquant le processus d’élaboration, par des travailleuses du sexe vivant dans la ville argentine de Cordoba, d’une proposition de projet de loi communautaire. Le terme « loi communautaire » employé ici renvoie à une réponse juridique qui résulte de l’engagement actif des mouvements sociaux locaux et qui, par conséquent, intègre les connaissances expérientielles et les revendications de ces mêmes mouvements dans la proposition. L’expérience décrite dans cet article exclut les approches selon lesquelles les travailleuses du sexe sont des victimes passives ou des déviantes. Elle se base plutôt sur une conception des travailleuses du sexe reconnaissant leur subjectivité politique, cette subjectivité renvoyant à leur capacité de parler, de décider, d’agir et de proposer. Cette approche remet en question les modèles courants de connaissances/pouvoir qui octroient une certaine supériorité à la « connaissance experte » et positionnent celle-ci au-dessus et au-delà des revendications, des expériences, des connaissances et des besoins des travailleuses du sexe, c’est-à-dire les éléments légitimes sur lesquels doit s’appuyer l’élaboration de lois sur le travail du sexe.

James C. Hathaway, “The Human Rights Quagmire of ‘Human Trafficking'”. Virginia Journal of International Law 49:1 (2008), 1-59.


“Support for the international fight against “human trafficking” evolved quickly and comprehensively. The campaign launched by the UN General Assembly in December 1998 led to adoption just two years later of the Trafficking Protocol to the UN Convention against Organized Crime. U.S. President George W. Bush was among those particularly committed to the cause, calling for collective effort to eradicate the “special evil” of human trafficking, said by him to have become a “humanitarian crisis.” One hundred and twenty-two countries have now ratified the Trafficking Protocol, agreeing in particular to criminalize trafficking and to cooperate in investigating and prosecuting allegations of trafficking. The antitrafficking cause is not simply of interest to states; it has been firmly embraced by prominent feminists, leading international human rights organizations, and all key international agencies.

This is not to say that there is universal agreement on the specific means adopted by the Trafficking Protocol. The Trafficking Protocol is most commonly criticized for being overly focused on criminal investigation and prosecution. In particular, it is said that the accord fails meaningfully to protect the victims of human trafficking, who normally are granted access only to discretionary relief under processes that may not be explained to them. Indeed, only a minority of states has adopted mechanisms even to consider the protection of trafficked persons, and these programs generally offer no more than strictly provisional assistance. The Trafficking Protocol’s drafters, moreover, rejected a proposal to require that repatriation of trafficked persons be “voluntary” in favor of a duty on the part of countries of origin to “facilitate and accept” their trafficked citizens back “without undue or unreasonable delay,” albeit “with due regard for the safety of that person.” Similar inattention to the human dimension of trafficking is said also to be evident in the Trafficking Protocol’s failure to move beyond rhetorical support for efforts to address the social and economic phenomena that make people vulnerable to traffickers in the first place.

Yet it is striking that despite these concerns, there has really been no fundamental, overarching criticism of the effort to stamp out human trafficking as a worthy objective and, more specifically, as an appropriate focus of international law. At best, critique of the Trafficking Protocol leads to calls for enhanced commitments to address the “root causes” of trafficking – in particular, global socioeconomic inequality and the various forms of marginalization that make subgroups particularly vulnerable to trafficking and/or to demands that the protection of the victims of trafficking be made either mandatory or at least more substantively durable. In essence, the concerns expressed accept that the fight against human trafficking could and should be retooled in a way that enhances its overall net positive contribution to the human rights arsenal. Indeed, with human trafficking having been equated by virtually every faction as a clear moral wrong, who would want to argue against the marshaling of international resolve and resources to bring it to an end?

My own view, in contrast, is that the fight against human trafficking is more fundamentally in tension with core human rights goals than has generally been recognized.”

Full text available here.

This article draws upon 18 months of participant observation with 50 street-based sex workers living in a transitional housing facility. Subsequent in-depth interviews with 50 different women actively working on the street also inform analysis presented here, which explores discursive practice as one of the most salient means by which women maneuver within a socio-legal system that targets them as individuals engaged in criminalized behavior. Findings presented in this article build upon the larger project’s goal of articulating the complex and highly individualized ways in which US street-based sex workers struggling with addiction negotiate the move from membership in a criminalized group to what more than a few women describe as “being a productive member of society.” Street-based sex workers engage in this complex shift while embedded in what I term an exclusionary regime, a dense coalescence of punitive forces which involve both governance in the form of the criminal justice system and engagement with the courts and other state agents, and regular patterns of action, including myriad forms of discrimination resulting from stigma. This article discusses three narrative forms that partially enable street-based sex workers to negotiate the exclusionary regime: recovery narratives, war stories, and nostalgia. These highly context-bound expressive forms function as powerful tools that help women to obtain resources and status, as well as convey the complexities of their experiences in ways that move beyond the otherwise constrained identities available to them.


The visibility of striptease (‘lap dancing’) as a workplace and site of consumption has grown significantly over the past 15 years in the UK. This article draws on the first large scale study of stripping work in the UK, exploring original empirical data to examine why women continue to seek work in an industry that is profoundly precarious and often highly exploitative. It suggests that rather than either a ‘career’ or a ‘dead end’ job, many women use lap dancing strategically to create alternative futures of work, employment and education. It is argued that precarious forms of employment such as lap dancing can be instrumentalized through agentic strategies by some workers, in order to achieve longer term security and to develop opportunities outside the sex industry. As such, it is averred that engagement in the industry should instead be understood in a wider political economy of work and employment and the social wage.

Christine Harcourt and Basil Donovan, “The many faces of sex work” Sexually Transmitted Infections 2005; 81:201–206.

Objective: To compile a global typography of commercial sex work.
Methods: A Medline search and review of 681 “prostitution” articles was conducted. In addition, the investigators pooled their 20 years of collected papers and monographs, and their observations in more than 15 countries. Arbitrary categories were developed to compile a workable typology of sex work.
Results: At least 25 types of sex work were identified according to worksite, principal mode of soliciting clients, or sexual practices. These types of work are often grouped under the headings of “direct” and “indirect” prostitution, with the latter group less likely to be perceived or to perceive themselves as sex workers. In general, policing sex work can change its typology and location but its prevalence is rarely affected. The public health implications of sex work vary widely.
Conclusion: Developing comprehensive sexual health promotion programmes requires a complete understanding of the types of sex work in a particular area. This study provides a checklist for developing appropriate and targeted programmes.

Full text available here.

Alexandre, Michele, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Moral Dirigisme: Toward a Reformation of Drug and Prostitution Regulations (November 23, 2009). UMKC Law Review, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 102-137, 2009. Available at SSRN: or


This Article builds upon various scholarly critics of moralistic laws to argue that legal prohibition of drugs and prostitution is inefficient. In so doing, it relies on economists’ scholarship, which has demonstrated that the high costs of regulation are not justified, considering the minimal success of these regulations as well as the harm caused by those regulations. Philosophers, for millennia, have grappled with formulating principles of morality and have attempted to determine which of those principles ought to be codified and imposed as societal rules of law on individuals. Attempts to coerce individuals into adopting certain behavioral patterns or forgo destructive ones have been referred to as “moral dirigisme”. Moral dirigisme manifests itself in “the attempt or tendency to control certain kinds of moral behavior by formal legal means.” (See, e.g., Mario J. Rizzo, The Problem of Moral Dirigisme: A New Argument Against Moralistic Legislation, 1 N.Y.U. J.L. & LIBERTY 789, 791 (2005). Moral dirigisme (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty 13 (Stefan Collini ed., 1989) (1859) is an economic term, which describes an economic structure for which the government provides strong direction. (See generally Élie Cohen, Le Colbertisme “High Tech”: Économie Des Telecom et du Grand Projet (1992); David Baker, The Political Economy of Fascism: Myth or Reality, or Myth and Reality?, 11 NEW POL. ECON., 157, 227-50 (2006). The term dirigisme derives from the French word diriger, which means to guide. (see, French to English Dictionary, (last visited Sept. 3, 2009). Moral dirigisme, by analogy, refers to the underlying philosophy which believes that moral behaviors can be changed through formal regulation. It is referred to, by Mario J. Rizzo, as “the attempt or tendency to control certain kinds of moral behavior by formal legal means.” (See Rizzo, supra note 2, at 791). Rizzo views acts by the state to prohibit or authorize certain conduct of individuals in an attempt to force them to act morally as flawed. Id. The laws prohibiting drugs and prostitution serve as perfect examples of implementation of a moral dirigiste philosophy. I contend in this Article that the dirigiste approach to drugs and prostitution is erroneous and inefficient.From Plato’s Socrates to Kant’s Categorical Imperatives to Hume’s observations, philosophers have confronted the nebulous intersection of absolutely necessary laws and purely beneficence-inducing laws, which cannot be implanted as a product of coercion. While the principles of justice have generally been perceived as capable of inspiring precise laws, other principles such as those guiding beneficence have been viewed by philosophers as more contingent on the individual’s state of mind or circumstances and less likely to be regulated by formal rules. This Article explores the proper role the law should play in regulating behaviors (such as drug use and/or in prostitution) that society deems harmful, but that are resistant to prohibition. Additionally, it considers items deemed harmful to the public, but not subject to any form of prohibition. Furthermore, it re-examines the consequences of U.S. drug and prostitution policy, focusing on the inevitable “black market” effects of the punitive style of enforcement, and initiates serious consideration of policy alternatives to discourage drug use and limit the number of vulnerable women engaging in prostitution.

Consequently, the Article is divided as follows. Part II considers the inefficiency of the prohibition of drugs and prostitution. Part III discusses the underlying legal and philosophical theories that support prohibitory legislation and analyzes why prohibition of drugs and prostitution, although a popular default mechanism, is ineffective at eradicating these behaviors. Part III also identifies the Smithian-Humean view of justice as a basis to evaluate prohibition-based laws. Part IV explores the issues inherent in the prohibition of drugs and considers alternative approaches. Part V explores issues that result from the prohibition of prostitution and Part VI proposes an alternative framework to the prohibition of prostitution. Part VII explores ways of preventing pro-prostitution regulations from strengthening the sex trafficking market. Finally, Part VIII borrows from philosophical frameworks to formulate a standard that helps differentiate between effective and ineffective prohibition. Through an analysis of the unintended effects of prohibition, this Article provides a strong economic and legal argument for the legalization of prostitution and, at the very least, marginal changes in U.S. drug policy.