Sex work is a migratory trade where women relocate to urban areas and other high sex-work regions, redistributing income from urban to rural areas. Decisions to migrate for sex work are made in the context of familial, socio-cultural and larger geopolitical forces. The process is complex as female migrants consider their positionalities as wife, mother, daughter and sibling. The intersection between inter-regional migration and economic sex work is understudied, particularly from the viewpoint of how female sex workers negotiate their multiple positionalities given the economic benefits and costs of sex work. This paper helps address this research gap by examining the migration trajectory, financial activities, and remittance behaviors of sex workers in Mumbai, India, in the context of social roles and relationships.
Twelve cis-gender female sex workers aged 22 to 35 years old from Kamathipura, Mumbai, a major red-light district, were interviewed in Hindi by a native-born researcher with 16 years of social service experience in the area. Interviewees were economic sex-migrants from neighboring regions. Multiple field visits were used to contact potential participants. Interviews took place at participants’ venue of choosing (20- 40 minutes), and were transcribed verbatim then translated into English. Interviews focused on how sex workers earn and utilize the income they receive daily, including decisions regarding domestic remittances. Data analysis was conducted by three coders using an iterative processes of developing codes, categories and themes in Nvivo12 software. Team members also engaged in reflexive reviews of their positionalities.
Data analysis revealed four main themes in women’s narratives of economic migration: (1) sex work to realize individual and family economic goals, (2) factors that support economic sex-migration, (3) personal costs of economic migration, and (4) precarity at the intersection of gender, migration, and sex work. Women identified various factors critical to their entry into sex work including information networks and compelling ‘push’ factors. Central to achieving migration goals were women’s ability to procure clients and maximize profits, access formal and informal financial institutions, and find safe means of remitting economic resources to natal villages. However, women noted that wealth accumulation was difficult due to the limited financial potential of sex work and its precarity. Success also involved negotiating changes in identities and relationships due to prolonged separation from children and becoming family economic providers through a culturally-stigmatized trade. To navigate constraints and social disruptions, women foregrounded their earned identities as economic providers motivated by positions as mothers, wives and daughters.
Conclusion and Implications:
Women’s migration narratives underscore the social and technical complexities inherent in providing for their families through sex work and highlight how women redefine roles and relationships as mothers, wives and daughters. The precarity and limited earning potential of sex work is related to larger gender, labor and migration issues which must first be addressed through socially just economic policies as well as social work practice that enhances sex workers rights and destigmatizes sex work as a profession.