Sex workers are not always victims

sex and internet

Sex workers are increasingly using the Internet for finding business, organising themselves, and fighting for their rights. The Internet allows them to find work without leaving home or revealing their identities. They use social media, upload videos, have their own websites and use mobile applications in order to implore and connect with their clients online. In India for instance the mobile phones have taken them by storm. All of sex workers have a cell phone. Some of them have two mobile phones, one for their family and one for their clients. They have different ringtones for their clients, know the preferences of what song to play when the client calls (Rao, 2014). However sometimes usage of the new technology comes with drawbacks , such as vulnerability of being cheated and defrauded of their earnings.

Usage of media goes even further. It takes shape of sex workers’ online activism, which extensively gives them voice and presence.

In 2002, Sangali based NGO Sangram initiated the first email campaign for sex workers’ rights in India after following accident where one prostitute was assaulted and threaten with rape by the police. As a result chief minister of Karnataka who was the only chief minister in India with an email was bombarded with a huge number of emails from other sex workers from all over the world. Those emails become a fundament for sending a petition to National Human Rights Commission, which initiated action against the errant police personnel. Creation of  VAMP, community based organisation for sex workers in South India followed the success of the Sangram campgain.  VAMP (Prostitutes Collective Against Injustice) made a video in response to Sarah Harris’s documentary ‘Prostitutes of God’ for Vice US magazine.  This documentary features some of the VAMP members , their work and family lives in over- painted manner.  They become stereotyped, victimised subject from Global South, an end product only watching the film ; while film makers are citizens of superior Global North. Moreover film does not investigates the root causes of poverty , but obsesses with prostitution industry. The matter is fetishised. Some women are more vulnerable to HIV while being married because they are not able to ask their husbands to use condom. To some sex workers their deliberately chosen profession gives freedom.

VAMP members were very upset by how they are portrayed in the film. They have used their media to speak up about the film – read their below statement and watch the video directed to the film’s producers.

“If I had come to your town and insulted your Gods, would you have liked it?… O white woman, you have insulted our devi and our women. We demand you apologise to us. Accept you have made a mistake. We will not forgive you,” says Bhimavva, a sex worker in a video (in Rao, 2014)

Vamp’s members do not want to be “saved” by foreign organisations; they want to be treated with respect, as humans who have capacity to determine their own destinies and fight social injustice while working together. Online spaces can hold power for the collective action, women’s empowerment and improvement of their working conditions and rights (Cornwall, 2012). So let’s keep talking.

Moreover solidarity of Indian sex workers is about engaging beyond the click of the mouse. Internet does not necessarily leads to greater integration due to restrictive policies on external links on web pages adopted by the civic society. But internet with its networks can assist collective identity and reinforce solidarity (Fenton in Cammaerts and Carpentier, 2007: 236). Mutual trust and shared understanding is a important drive for a collective action.

Cammaerts, B and Carpentier, N (2007) Reclaiming media: Communication rights and democratic media roles. Intellect: Bristol, UK

Cornwall A (2012) Indian sex workers are shining example of women’s empowerment. Guardian:

Rao M (2014) Sex work and the Internet. Gender It Organisation Blog

Ray A (2010) Indian Sex Workers Fight back against Misrepresentation. Waking Vixen Blog:

Rennie, E (2006) Community Media: A Global Introduction. London: Rowman & Littlefields

Lori A ( 2010) The Means to Speak for Themselves: Sex workers in India respond to Flawed ‘Prostitutes of God’ Film.

5 Comments to "Sex workers are not always victims"

  1. October 11, 2015 - 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Good article about VAMP and the Save us from Saviours initiative, such a good example of ICT4D and participatory/community-driven media. The work VAMP, Sangram and their film unit Sangli Talkies are doing, is inspiring and the power of their voices is clear. It reminds me of the short essay by Alan O’Conner about the Bolivian miners and their important role in society. “Through their radio stations, the miners’ organisations have played an important role in shaping the political position of the Bolivian union movement” (O’Connor 1990, p107). We can easily see the power of the VAMP collective, the way they have amplified their voices, and “the role of communication technology in representing non-dominant viewpoints and helping create a politically conscious and active community” (O’Connor 1990, p108-109).

  2. Eleni Maria Rozali's Gravatar Eleni Maria Rozali
    October 18, 2015 - 2:36 am | Permalink

    This is a very interesting article regarding rape culture in India, and it’s “pervasive, subconscious and continuous” nature.

    Societal norms and gender expectations play an integral part in the emergence of this culture.

    The streets of India are dangerous places for young girls, especially in rural areas where the average commute to school is 2-5 hours on foot. Many parents prefer to not have their daughters attend school, because of the distance and the dangers of harassment and / or rape they face.[ 1]

    The combination of various technological tools, I think, can used to tackle issues, such as this one.

    “The freedom of ordinary citizens to produce their own public media […] and the freedom of citizens to converse with one another […] this is the point where the Internet and social media can make a difference”[2 ]

    A very powerful example of this is a participatory video I came across about India’s rape culture. A girl duo Uppekha Jain and Pankhuri Awasthi, named “Bombaebs”, created a 3 minute rap with lyrics highlighting sexual assault and women’s position in Indian society. Combining their local language and English, they come across with a very powerful message about gender equality and societal norms that are deeply rooted in this multi cast society

    “I’m short, I’m fat, I’m tall, I’m skinny,” Awasthi, located on the left in the video, rapped. “I’ll wear what I want, even if it’s mini. It’s only a dress, don’t for a second think it’s a ‘yes.”

    The video was uploaded to YouTube and created the hashtag #RapAgainstRape on twitter gaining an overwhelming response of 170,000 tweets within 2 days!
    It also sparked an online debate in collaboration with VProud.TV “a video-driven conversation platform, built for women by women. Our mission is to cultivate honest conversations among women in a safe and nonjudgmental environment” relying on participatory video to create a discussion about women and the realities that they face.
    It asked the question “ can music with purpose and strong lyrical content influence society?”
    A typical example of participatory media where “ICT is combined with the desire to promote voice”[3 ], as “every conversation begins with a video and a thought-provoking headline that inspires women to engage with each other.”[ 4]
    Although Tacchi’s definition of “voice” mainly evolves around those who are poor, the “voice of poverty” could easily take on a broader spectrum and include those who are on the fringes of society. The “voice of poverty” is defined as “people’s inability to influence the decisions that affect their lives and the right to participate in the decision making”[ 5], women can easily be included in this category.
    However, we should not overestimate the power of media in changing people’s minds. As Katz and Lazarsfeld determined, this is a two-step process. First opinions “ need to be transmitted by the media and then they get echoed by friends, family members and colleagues. In this second step is where political opinions are formed” [ 6]
    A new public sphere appears to be emerging, where we can see the interrelationship between newly emerging participatory forms of media and conversation, which help shape opinions and enable “the strengthening of civil society”[ 7]

    [1 ]

    [2 ]

    [4&6] John Hartley, Kelly McWilliam
    John Wiley & Sons, Apr 29, 2009 – Social Science – 328 pages
    [ 5, 3, 7] The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change
    Shirky, Clay Foreign Affairs90.1 (Jan/Feb 2011): 28-I.

  3. October 28, 2015 - 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Agnieszka

    This is a very interesting video which exposes shortcomings not only of SANGRAM and VAMP representation by VICE, but their response to poor treatment they receive in civil hospitals. It links back to demands of SANGRAM for patient’s rights, and questions current manner of treatment. However it also questions how such rights would be implemented, as discrimination appears to be engrained into culture, not only statutory elements. In fact primarily it is to do with individual assessments that SANGRAM workers receive. MUSKAN is also referenced, with intense descriptive experience by Pandurang, son of a sex worker.

    Indian representations of sex workers is often publicly derogatory as expressed in article by Indian Express (2015,, citing remarks by The chief of Purulia district council referring journalists to ““sex workers, dancing to the tune of those ready to pay”. Coupled with recent Western representation of rape, participatory elements and reporting by VAMP are often ignored. But it is key to refer back to the original documentary with what it characterized. It characterized a view, often shared by not only foreigners, but Indians themselves. It would be highly unfitting to suggest that Sarah from VICE reported in a way more derogatory, than common Indian cultural perspective on devdasis.

    Still, it is very positive to see participatory debate on new media platforms being raised. However, it may be very unfair that VICE documentary has been watched by 3.6m people versus their response listed in this article by 20,000.

  4. Queen Luanguka's Gravatar Queen Luanguka
    November 1, 2015 - 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Very good article, it criticaly shows different levels of discrimination and stereotyping of women in India and in the Global North.
    I came across an interesting article-review that analyses the structural and community-based interventions in the area of sexual and reproductive health interventions concerning female sex workers in Africa. Many of those progrms were inspired by simililar, successful participatory projects in India. Here’s a link:

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