The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Reasons for Women's Entry Into Sex Work: A Case Study of India

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 9:45 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 001A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sunny Sinha, PHD, Assistant Professor, Marywood University, Scranton, PA
Purpose: While most studies conducted among sex workers in India rely on survey-based approach to explore women’s reasons for entry into sex work, no studies till date have used ethnography to examine how sex work becomes a livelihood option for women in the context of other employment opportunities available to them in society. Based on the analysis of the 46 short life-portraits collected from women in non-brothel based sex work over a period of seven months (December 2009- July 2010) in Kolkata, India, this paper examines women’s reasons for entry into sex work and how it relates with their previous employment history.

Method: The 46 short-life portraits is a part of a larger study, which used “cultural biography”(Frank, 2000), a method that combines ethnography(participant observation) and life history interviews, to examine how women in non-brothel based sex work in India perceive their risk of HIV in the context of other risk experiences in their lives. The 46 short-life portraits of women were collected in the form of contact summary sheets, which included demographic information, HIV risk perceptions, safety issues and reasons for entry into sex work. The interviews were conducted in Hindi or Bengali and was transcribed and translated into English using the qualitative software Nvivo 9. The data was also analyzed using Nvivo 9.

Results: The ethnographic analysis yielded important insights about the socio-cultural, political and economic realities that shape women’s decision to enter into sex work. Some of the themes identified from the data included: poverty, lack of ‘bhalo’(decent) employment opportunities, husband’s poor income, ‘failed’ marriages, and peer influence. Using several examples from the data, I argue how ethnography as an approach provides a richer and holistic understanding of the complex factors responsible for women’s entry into sex work.  For instance, contrary to the findings from a recent study that women enter sex work because of their low status in society (Saaggurti,, 2011), the findings from my study reveal that women choose sex work vis-à-vis other employment options because sex work provides them more control and autonomy over their earnings, hours of work and much flexibility to balance their responsibilities of both a mother and a provider.

Conclusion/Significance: The findings provide new information to social workers about the interconnections between formal workplace sexual harassment/exploitation and women’s reasons for entry into sex work. It offers a more nuanced understanding of the omnipresence of workplace sexual harassment experienced and the impact of neo-liberal policies of globalization on women’s entry into sex work, as many families have been affected with the closure of textile and jute industries within the region and globally.  Women in this study held the view that their woes and sufferings could be drastically reduced if government introduces income-generation opportunities with provisions of better working conditions, strict enforcement of workplace sexual harassment policies and higher wages that correspond with the standard of living. This paper makes a novel contribution by rendering voice to the most stigmatized population of the society whose voices are often silenced and ignored.