Dynamic Lives, Dynamic Identities: Representing Agency and Victimhood Within the Lives of Women in Sex Work


By Dr Mirna Guha

Representation of women in sex work within research has been entangled in a binary between passive victimhood and active agency. The contrary positions stem from ideological polarisation on sex work and its relation to violence against women. Manifesting in development interventions that target women in sex work, anti-human trafficking discourses and interventions imagine women’s engagement with sex work as one of exploitation, focusing on ‘rescuing’ women from sites of commercial sex work, particularly red-light areas. HIV/AIDS programmes approach women in sex work as vulnerable to disease and infection, focusing on reducing harm and risk in sex work. In India, organisations that run these programmes tend to emphasise agency within sex work, call for an end to stigma, and demand legalisation, a move backed by statutory bodies such as the National Commission of Women.

I found myself constantly colliding with this agency-victimhood binary during my PhD research on the experiences of, and negotiations with, everyday violence in the lives of women formerly and currently in sex work in Eastern India. Embedded in the research literature that I reviewed, this binary assumption reminded me of my own experiences of working on anti-trafficking interventions in South Asia between 2010 and 2012 with organisations engaged in ‘rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration’ activities with women and girls who had been coerced into sex work. In these activities, engagement with sex work was represented as one of exploitation and coercion, and the women and girls’ lives post ‘rescue’ were (imagined to be) about ‘surviving’ their past. However, in spaces where I encountered other organisations, especially one which implements HIV/AIDS interventions and refers to itself as a ‘sex workers’ organisation’, I heard an emphasis on accounts of agency, choice, a right to do sex work and to a stigma-free life.

It would have been possible for two contrasting accounts of engagement with sex work to co-exist, but within the development sector and the scholarship I reviewed, each seemed to present itself as the only authoritative and valid representation of women’s experiences with sex work.

Similarly, Shah argues that development discourses about HIV and human trafficking reinforce ideas of ‘prostitution-as-risk’ and ‘prostitution-as-violence’, which determine how women in sex work are represented, approached and encountered as subjects of development practice and research. In India, NGOs — and sometimes the state — engage with sex workers through anti-trafficking ‘rescue and rehabilitation’ programmes and through peer-based ‘harm reduction’ HIV/AIDS interventions. Research on sex work is often embedded within — or makes use of — these routes into the community, and tends to reinforce the binaries of victimhood and agency that characterise the imagining of the female sex worker.

Mac and Smith challenge the binary in Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights where the authors argue that the “contemporary left sex worker movement” does not claim that “sex work is empowerment” (pp.3). They acknowledge that the “sex industry is both sexist and misogynist” and at the heart of their work lies a focus on “the harms that people experience in sex work — such as assault, exploitation, arrest, incarceration, eviction and deportation” (p.4). However, this exists alongside the aim to uncover and address what is essential for the “safety and the survival of people who sell sex” — not at “…the symbolic or metaphorical level” but at a “…practical and material” level. (p.3).

The acknowledgement of violence and harm in sex work alongside a fight for women in sex work to have materially better living and working conditions is a crucial intervention in the globally polarised terrain of discussion on this subject. This was also driven home through my PhD research where the findings revealed that women from rural and peri-urban backgrounds in Eastern India experienced coercive entries into, and differing scales and forms of violence within sex work. However, when these women escaped sex work on their own and tried to return to their households and communities and/or other forms of work in the informal labour market, violence persisted and drove them back into sex work. Violence within sex work was therefore not exceptional but continuous, embedded within everyday social relations with members of households, communities, the labour market and the state.

The co-existence of agency and victimhood within sex work and the dynamism of sex workers’ experiences, echoed by other scholars researching sex work in different contexts e.g. Mai’s conceptualisation of ‘mobile orientations’, should give pause to the binary-led politics of representation that surrounds sex work (and particularly women’s experiences within it). There is a methodological need to reflect upon how we can access and represent narratives of agency and victimhood ‘in motion’, rather than freezing the experiences of women in sex work into a single, static moment of choice or exploitation, and by extension, binding women’s identities to singular moments.

Within my research, the use of the life-history interviewing method allowed for a juxtaposition of women’s experiences of sex work alongside those in other types of informal labour. This method also allowed for women’s positionalities within social relations in sex work to be compared to those within social relations with families and communities (outside sex work). This enabled an examination of perceptions of violence and power inequalities within sex work alongside those of pre-existing constraints which had driven entries into sex work, as well as affected experiences within sex work and persisted after exit. This also enabled moments and experiences of ‘patiency’ to emerge — highlighting how dependence and independence, choice and necessity, capability and incapability, and agency and victimhood co-exist in the lives and identity-formations of women in sex work.

These accounts not only challenge the agential bias within representations of personhood, but also unsettle the notion of a static and passive victimhood. Within my research, during experiences of victimhood, female sex workers drew upon the social capital available to them to resist and navigate their way out of exploitative situations. Despite coercive entries into sex work, respondents found anti-trafficking ‘rescue’ interventions oppressive — because it cast them into a perpetual state of victimhood and caused dependence on NGOs and the state, leaving them little to no agency to navigate a way out. Many returned to sex work since it enabled social, economic and material independence (particularly in terms of access to housing, and informal childcare available within red-light areas) as well as the opportunity to form relations of intimacy with men without community and familial control.

Association of criminality with participation in organised sex work, and structural power inequalities within sex work (e.g. reliance of madams on pimps to procure customers), prevented female sex workers from seeking external help from state actors and NGOs regarding violence within sex work. This was also influenced by a sense of solidarity with peers and the belief that speaking up (to organisations and actors outside sex work) would take away their livelihoods and options for economic and social self-reliance. Victimhood and agency therefore co-existed in the decisions my respondents took, in their everyday lives and social relations, in a way that allowed a more ‘complex truth’ to emerge about the lives of women in sex work.

To study and represent the experiences of a marginalised community is a responsibility academics should not take lightly. Dichotomous representation of experiences of agency or victimhood for women in sex work have been strongly linked to their identities and cast them as either victims or agents. Findings from my research re-emphasise the need to recognise dynamism in sex work, disentangle experiences from identities, and allow for narratives of violence and agency to co-exist. They highlight that the aim of representing dynamism in experiences should be to argue for a more open-ended, sex-worker led approach to tackling violence within sex work, which does not romanticise or dismiss structural inequalities in sex work, but also does not force sex workers to return to the violent kin and labour relations that drove entries into sex work in the first place. Finally, they call for an end to ideological-driven research and policy which only serves to cage women in sex work within a binary of victim or agent, thereby compounding the life-cycle of violence with their lives.

Mirna Guha is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. Mirna has a PhD in International Development from the University of East Anglia. Her research specialisms include gender-based violence, sex work, and explorations of agency and victimhood within social relations. At ARU, Mirna teaches undergraduate and postgraduate modules on feminist theories and practices, the sociology of sexuality, social anthropology, and globalisation and social policy. Mirna tweets @MirnaGuha

This blog is reposted from a special collection published by The Sociological Review. https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/dynamic-lives-dynamic-identities-representing-agency-and-victimhood-within-the-lives-of-women-in-sex-work/