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Born Unto Brothels – Toward a Legal Ethnography of Sex Work in an Indian Red-Light Area

52 Pages Posted: 11 Jul 2010 Last revised: 24 Nov 2013

Prabha Kotiswaran

King's College London – The Dickson Poon School of Law; A Dickson Poon Transnational Law Institute

Date Written: 2008

Abstract

The global sex panic around sex work and trafficking has fostered prostitution law reform worldwide. While the normative status of sex work remains deeply contested, abolitionists and sex work advocates alike display an unwavering faith in the power of criminal law; for abolitionists, strictly enforced criminal laws can eliminate sex markets, whereas for sex work advocates, decriminalization can empower sex workers. I problematize both narratives by delineating the political economy and legal ethnography of Sonagachi, one of India’s largest red-light areas. I show how within Sonagachi there exist highly internally differentiated groups of stakeholders, including sex workers, who, variously endowed by a plural rule network – consisting of formal legal rules, informal social norms, and market structures – routinely enter into bargains in the shadow of the criminal law whose outcomes cannot be determined a priori. I highlight the complex relationship between criminal law and sex markets by analyzing the distributional effects of criminalizing customers on Sonagachi’s sex industry.

Suggested Citation

Kotiswaran, Prabha, Born Unto Brothels – Toward a Legal Ethnography of Sex Work in an Indian Red-Light Area (2008). Law of Social Inquiry, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 579-629, Summer 2008; SOAS School of Law Research Paper No. 07/2010. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1636966 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1636966

Prabha Kotiswaran (Contact Author)

King's College London – The Dickson Poon School of Law ( email )

Somerset House East Wing
Strand
London, WC2R 2LS
United Kingdom

A Dickson Poon Transnational Law Institute ( email )

London, England WC2R 2LS
United Kingdom

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