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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:

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Here are some of the statements made by Sarah Harris and published by VBS. They are not based on fact and/or are calculated to belittle/sensationalise:
  • 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:

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This brief (3.5) minute clip by the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice), encapsulates a succinct response to ‘Prostitutes of God’, a sensationalized and factually flawed documentary produced by Sarah Harris for VBS TV. Countering the distorted perspective in the film, women from VAMP present their incisive views about sex work; religion and faith; livelihoods; issues of consent; ethics and cross-cultural sensitivities while making documentary films.

The women in Sangli from VAMP recorded video responses to the film. In the age of the internet, women in countries far away who used to be the objects of white people’s gaze with no right of reply now have access to the representations that are made of them, and the technological means to answer back. A naive westerner may seize the headlines, but there’s now scope for there to be a debate and to bring those who in the past would have remained voiceless victims into that debate to represent themselves.It is a great opportunity to put the record straight.

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.

 

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Chris Hall
September 30th, 2010
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Chris Hall is a perverted nerd who has been known to administer severe spankings to writers who confuse "its" and "it's." He keeps one foot in San Francisco and one in Brooklyn and his mind...