“The sex workers’ protest adds an additional layer to the theorizing of political society because it raises questions about stigma, criminalization, and abjection in order to better understand the democratic and political negotiations of the subjects who are at the margins of the margins. Bio- political governmentality was an entry point for sex workers to become more visible members of political society—an important first step because their existence primarily as illegal subjects has meant extreme vulnerability vis-a`-vis state and civil society institutions. Even with the reduced salience of HIV/AIDS in the future, this seems to be a transformation that may continue to enhance sex workers’ broader struggles around rights and recognition.”
In her 2014 Signs article, “‘HIV Is Our Friend’: Prostitution, Biopower, and the State in Postcolonial India,” Dr. Chaitanya Lakkimsetti conducts an ethnographic study in New Delhi, India to examine how sex workers influenced new amendments proposed to prostitution laws in 2005. Sex workers from 16 states in India marched to the Indian Parliament protesting these amendments, and demanded that they have say in laws that affect their daily lives. The amendments proposed, among other things would criminalize clients of sex workers, despite seemingly ‘gender progressive’ these new amendments were rejected by sex workers as an affront on their livelihood. Lakkimsetti states that, “The protestors’ success raises two questions. First, how did a group of women that has been heavily criminalized and stigmatized become so capable of making demands on the state that they could insist on being involved in its decision-making process? Second, why did the Indian state take the women’s demands seriously?”
Using a feminist and postcolonial Foucauldian framework of biopower and governmentality, Lakkimsetti studies the surveillance and regulation of sex workers’ bodies in India. Specifically, she is interested in how marginalized populations can negotiate their agency and empowerment. By contextualizing her research in sex work and the HIV epidemic, Lakkimsetti demonstrates that, states give themselves the responsibility through biopower of regulating and disciplining bodies. However, “state regulatory strategies often contain gaps and contradictions, making the state a productive site of power and meaning for citizens.” These gaps become interesting in how sex workers, advocates, and the state work to understand and debate policy. Her analysis highlights how “Indian sex workers became able to use the imperatives of biopower to make politically effective and discursively legitimated moral and political claims around life and biological citizenship.”
Lakkimsetti is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, globalization, postcolonial studies, law and society, and political sociology. Additionally, Lakkimsetti’s work is also published in Positions: Asia Critique’s August 2016 issue, and forthcoming in Sexualities and Qualitative Sociology.