Talking Back: Indian Sex Workers Speak For Themselves
For sex workers, getting their stories out to the public in an honest and respectful manner is always a huge problem. In any given news story as presented in the mainstream media, there are only a few acceptable roles for sex workers to play, so often no matter what how honestly or articulately they speak, the parts have been cast and the story written before they even open their mouths.
A version of this narrative played out last week when journalist Sarah Harris released a documentary titled Prostitutes of God in four installments on Vice Magazine's VBS.tv site. In Harris's documentary, she interviews Hindu sex workers in India about their work and their lives. The only problem is that the people she talked to say that what's on the screen isn't their lives. The film has, in fact, been condemned as racist and condescending by the very people that it's supposed to show compassion for. Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) and Veshya AIDS Mukabala Parishad (VAMP), two organizations that provide peer counseling and education for sex workers, have released an open letter condemning the film as a betrayal of people who trusted her and a distortion of their words. The letter says in part:
- Girls dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma will become sex slaves;
- 3,000 girls are dedicated each year;
- Anita is a brothel owner (she is a sex worker not a brothel owner);
- Religious ritual allows poor families to pimp out their daughters;
- Devadasi ceremony condones child prostitution;
- Families are offered a fee for their daughters;
- Garish Hindu icons; and fat Hindu gods, blue skin and gold bikinis.
The most positive part of the whole story though, is that the sex workers themselves, were able to speak back and make their feelings heard directly. Sangli Talkies, the new video unit of SANGRAM/VAMP, produced a 3.5-minute video in which the people that Harris spoke to get to speak to the camera after seeing Prostitutes of God and make their own critiques. The blog of the St. James Infirmary, a health clinic run by and for sex workers in San Francisco, describes the film:
Regardless of what you think of Harris's film and the conclusions that she's brought to the Western media, it's important to watch the video below. Sex workers have other people speak for them far too often to leave them out of the discussion again.