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Svati Shah opens Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work, and Migration in the City of Mumbai with a vignette: she recounts a conversation between Indian middle-class travelers on the train from Delhi to Mumbai about the “it that must be happening” (3) in the city’s informal labor markets. The “it” in this case refers to sex work, and the assertion that exchanges “must” be taking place suggests that sex work in Mumbai is both widespread and invisible. Shah uses ethnographic data collected from three distinct spaces over a period of 10 years (2002-2012), as well as archival resources, to convincingly argue that the locations where workers sell sex—public day wage labor markets (called nakas), streets, and brothels—are defined in relation to one another and that the histories and discourse surrounding the urban geographies of sexual commerce determine public spaces in Mumbai. Against the narrative that sex workers comprise an undifferentiated group of victims, Shah argues that trading sexual services is one of many survival strategies for the poor women who migrate from rural India to Mumbai. In Mumbai, sex work must be understood in relation to systems and structures of oppression such as migration, access to housing and water, as well as labor negotiations, that people with limited formal education and skills undertake (7).
Chapter one sets the parameters of the naka and describes how sex work operates within its moving boundaries. Nakas are defined as outdoor, day wage labor markets, which serve as temporary gathering places for manual laborers who are contracted short-term, mostly for construction projects. Nakas are informal (often secured through bribes) and episodic—“bound by space and time” (43)— and are also heterogeneous in terms of gender and caste. They are heterotropic (Foucault, 1986) in that they are neither porous nor accessible like public spaces; rather, one must be connected to the proper networks to learn of their location. The supply of laborers greatly surpasses that of contractors’ demands so that the majority of people who come to the naka leave without work. Naka workers (day wage laborers) and sex workers who labor in the street or in brothels share a migratory history as well as an ongoing struggle for survival in the city of Mumbai. Most workers do not own land, are from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and migrate from rural areas to escape poverty and to gain access to infrastructures for basic necessities such as drinkable water. All sex workers had solicited construction jobs at the naka at some point.
As the naka illustrates, public spaces in Mumbai are defined not only by inclusions but by intricate exclusions as well. In chapter two, Shah elaborates on these exclusions, applying Nicolas De Genova’s and Julia Kristeva’s (De Genova, 2010) understandings of Mumbai’s migrants and sex workers as abject; they are discharged but not external, they occupy liminal spaces, but are not completely “jettisoned.” Migrant workers are insiders because their labor is necessary. They are outsiders because hierarchies are also “necessary.” These hierarchies designate poor, lower-caste women as always already available for sex work, unless they “distinguish themselves” by firmly rejecting prostitution, thus contributing to its stigma. Said distinctions, as well as silences, are necessary to maintain the naka’s reputation and to keep it from closing. Inside the naka, euphemisms, secrets, and rumors circulate, creating a discourse that is fueled by prostitution’s stigma. This discourse, combined with the practice of sexual commerce, both mark and construct gender and caste (78). Arguing that silence creates discourse, and centering that silence in her understandings of sexual commerce, Shah challenges an abolitionist view of prostitution that believes it can be identified, quantified, and erased. Naka-based sex work is one location on a “continuum” of income-generating options that poor migrants must navigate to survive.
Chapter three examines street-based sex work, which is also part of the continuum of informal labor practices. Street-based work is employed intermittently, as an income-generating scheme necessary for survival. Regulation is also enforced sporadically (across time and geography) and differentially (varying by service and by marked subject). Consistent with feminist and postcolonial theory, this chapter corroborates the existence of multiple states that grant citizenship in patchy and differential ways (141), evidenced in the disparate rule vs application of the law. Such dissonance between what is legal and what is enforced is part of sex workers daily existence. This uneven application shapes the contours of sexual commerce in Mumbai (128).
Unlike the arbitrary policing of street-based work, law enforcement in two of Mumbai’s most notorious red-light districts, Kamathipura and Falkland Road, has been severe and unrelenting. Chapter four asserts that the “spectacle” of these infamous districts serves to carve out an exclusive space where prostitution occurs, thereby tagging the rest of the city as prostitution-free, and creating an easy target for abolitionist activists. Due to a combination of ever-increasing police raids, changed clientele, and prime geographical location for real-estate development, the districts have nearly disappeared. Shah contends that the decrease in brothels reiterates the inseparability of sexual commerce and India’s current politics towards urban land use. In this case, brothel closures are interwoven into an “urban land grab,” taking place throughout India (149). In Kamathipura, a lucrative real-estate market, the decrease in brothel-based work is the outcome of converged interests between abolitionist NGOs, real estate developers, politicians, local police, and the municipality.
This chapter focuses on the merged interests of powerful actors that form part of the structural cards stacked against poor, migrant women. Such overarching constraints must inform policy and discourse around sexual commerce, which, in turn, must be understood through a Marxist understanding of livelihood. Livelihood and survival frameworks redirect the conflation of violence with prostitution towards the violence of systems of domination. That redirection, then, constructs female sex workers as agential “subjects and migrants,” rather than victims (190). The women in Street Corner Secrets enact agency in between majburi (constraints)—not to be reduced to jabardasti (force)—and marzi (choice).
In sum, Street Corner Secrets is a compelling exploration of the intersections between space, society, and sex work. It is a thorough and fascinating text for readers who are interested in topics that range from the political economies of space, to the precariousness of informal labor, to debates over sexual commerce. Informed by her uncommon educational background in sociomedical sciences, public health, and anthropology, the author’s thoughtful analysis both lays foundations and sheds new light on such themes. Moreover, her clear, accessible style is appropriate for newcomers and seasoned scholars alike. Svati Shah’s reflexive ethnography is engaged, feminist anthropology at its best.