It is not a secret that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. In fact, prostitutes are the people everybody loves to hate. They are diabolized, criminalized, and assaulted in many communities. So, what does the “network society” have to offer those who are marginalized in their own society in countries like India? I would say a lot!
Sex workers in India are taking their business online. Some are reverting to meeting their customers on the Internet, as the Indian Law punishes public solicitation, but does not mention online platforms. A more noticeable usage of the Internet by sex workers, however, is online activism. Indian NGOs, which take special interest in sex works, such as Sangram, are helping the workers organize themselves and claim their rights both offline and online. A 2002 email campaign, following an incident where a prostitute was assaulted and threatened with rape by the police left a chief minister, the only one to have an email address, swamped with a huge number of emails from other prostitutes. Soon enough, the campaign went international, and the minister in question was getting angry mails from all around the world. The mails were even used as part of a petition sent to the National Human Rights Commission and thus action was taken against the perpetrators (genderit.com). It is understandable, hence, that Sangram adopted the motto “People should believe that they can change things”(sangram.org), which is reminiscent of Gitlin’s saying that “the world not only is, but made” (cited in Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2007, p.217).
Sangram’s success in achieving social justice for sex workers contributed to the birth of a community-based organization of sex workers in Southwest India, called VAMP. This organization built a collective identity in order to battle “social stigma and public violence”(awid.org). The importance of this movement is the fact that it was able to build a community in an environment of sex work, which usually is a site of competition rather than solidarity. VAMP deals with daily issues of prostitutes such as police harassment, HIV, and STDs among other concerns. This organization’s usage of the Internet to reclaim the image of the Devadasi prostitutes, through a YouTube video, is a well-known example of how the marginalized can gain voice online. The video came as a response to the documentary, entitled Prostitutes of God, produced by VBS TV and narrated by Sara Harris. This documentary infuriated the Devadasi prostitutes, as it distorted and trivialized their realities by misrepresenting their culture. Blogger Audacia Ray expresses “Gone are the days when filmmakers from the global north could swoop in and document things they perceive without consequence” (feministing.com). VAMP’s video is a case in point.
Andrea Cornwall also sheds light on the VAMP video in a lecture entitled “Reframing Development: From ‘Assistance to Global Justice”. She explains that sex work captures the worst representations in development and that participatory methods, such as this video help reframe reality. The prostitutes in the video were able to produce their own version of themselves, and thus reframe their image. Cornwall contends that participatory attempts challenge the set frames in development, which should be about solidarity rather than assistance.
Here is the video that helped VAMP voice their thoughts on the documentary, Prostitutes of God:
Cammaerts, B. and Carpentier, N. (eds). (2007). Reclaiming the media: communication rights and democratic media roles . Intellect: Bristol, UK
Lori (2010). The Means to Speak for Themselves: Sex Workers in India Respond to Flawed “Prostitutes of God” Film. Retrieved from http://feministing.com/2010/10/06/the-means-to-speak-for-themselves-sex-workers-in-india-respond-to-flawed-prostitutes-of-god-film/
Rao, M. (2014). Sex Work and the Internet. Retrieved from http://feministing.com/2010/10/06/the-means-to-speak-for-themselves-sex-workers-in-india-respond-to-flawed-prostitutes-of-god-film/
Batliwala, S. (ed.). (2011). The VAMP/SANGRAM Sex Worker’s Movement in India’s Southwest. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/wael/Downloads/CTW_VAMP_Movmnt_ENG%20(1).pdf