In the wake of the twinned specters of authoritarianism and antidemocratic governance that the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns in India have both exacerbated and facilitated, the author argues that scholarship on sex work deployed through a critique of labor will be pressed to rethink its analytic focus on the law. Instead, the author argues for a field-level focus built around both the everyday life of surviving sex work in the informal economy and the understanding that enforcement of the law regularly diverges from the letter of the law itself. Unless it accounts for prevailing epistemic conditions, new critical work on sex work as a labor strategy may afford opportunities to be taken up in support of reductive narratives of sex work, built around the trope of injury. The consequences of not addressing the conditions of the production of our critiques will be the continued erasure of sex workers as migrant workers and as economic agents. In the post-COVID-19 world, these critiques will be stressed even further, as the informal sector expands along with uneven policing, and as sex work continues to serve as a measure of security for some, against a backdrop of extreme and intensifying precarity.
Impossible Migrants: Debating Sex Work and Gender Identity amid the Crisis of Migrant Labor
Svati P. Shah is an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and research associate at the African Centre for Migration and Society and Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand. Shah is editor of “Sedition, Sexuality, Gender and Gender Identity in South Asia,” a special issue of SAMAJ: South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (2019) and author of Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai (2014).
Svati P. Shah; Impossible Migrants: Debating Sex Work and Gender Identity amid the Crisis of Migrant Labor. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 July 2021; 120 (3): 515–532. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-9154884
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