Reflections on “What kind of practices and health work might sex workers engage in to manage their health? “

My choice to add a short reflection at the end of the paper stems from my desire to more critically locate myself –  that is to say, my subjectivities, as a researcher, student, and Indian woman in the body of my work. I often feel I am a product of a positivist paradigm; much of how I think has slowly shifted in the past years to accommodate what I think is my intuitive inclination towards plurality, multiple truths, and an awareness of situated knowledge. Yet, the way I’ve been trained to write for academic purposes has taught me to erase the “I”, the subject from my work, lest it contaminate the “objectivity” of the piece. It was with great difficulty that I managed to insert “I” a few times towards the latter half of the paper, and even then, I felt the insertion weak, irrelevant.  And it was irrelevant.  Inserting “I” without any explicit conceptualization of the kinds of tensions the “I” (eye?) might hold in conducting research leaves a paper wanting more.

This is also particularly ironic because the sections that perhaps stirred the most emotion in me had to do with the kind of research I delved into in the first half of the paper, where I explicated the kinds of difficulties sex workers dealt with on a daily basis which might have impinged on the ways in which they manage health.  And yet, there’s not a mention of the kinds of overwhelming feelings of rage, anger, frustration I felt at the kinds of abuses I was reading about. If anything, the first half sounds distilled of any kind of affective response by the writer. Part of this has to do again with my positivist background; no one cares in anatomy and cell bio why you conduct the research you do, short of the usual academic or scientific interest in a particular question. But part of it also stemmed from my desire to avoid what I still instinctively perceive of as bias – any personal connection to studies, including embodied reactions such as closing my eyes, recoiling from the table, blinking and re-reading lines, seemed as though it could contaminate my writing in a really narcissistic way. I do not know how to write qualitatively. And sometimes I seriously question my skills as a writer in general – it was something that I honestly feel was stamped out of me after 4 years firmly embedded in thinking a certain way that forced me to erase myself out of my work. And more frequently than not, I question my skills as a researcher, because I really have no idea if the questions I’m asking or the concerns I raise are relevant, or if my interpretations of data are legitimate. I don’t know if I can even interpret properly. And finally,  I am so used to numbers, to statistical relevance, to assignments where I can ‘check’ off requirements as I go. I am so used to receiving graded papers back (which never happened in my previous qualitative course) – and I am so unaccustomed at reading, interpreting, analyzing feedback properly. It’s as though I have a sense of what a number can mean and am more comfortable with it even if I cognitively understand that the feedback is probably more accurate than trying to fit subjective interpretation of my work to a number.

Anyway, these feelings have become so embedded in me that I became very, very good at erasing to the point where it is so natural for me to approach a paper without any idea about how I feel about what I write. Such a method taught me to ignore the tensions I could almost feel arising, to shut them down or rephrase them slightly, and to tread in shallow waters without diving deep and really struggling to climb back up for air, for answers, for the thing(s) that might give life to the paper.

A good example of this is where I wrote “(Since FSWs tend to be a more invisible community, I would likely use snowball sampling initially in order to effectively reach people, first contacting trusted informants within well known intervention programmes such as Sonagachi or Ashodaya, and local NGOs. Eventually, such a method might lead me to sex workers located in more hard-to-reach locales.)” The earlier drafts of that sentence read something like “Entry to the field would be facilitated by snowball sampling initially in order to effectively contact marginalized people.” I recall being so uncomfortable with that phrasing on multiple levels. First, the word “entry” in such a context made me immediately think of violation, insertion, penetration, and assault. Granted, by this point I had spent some $70 on over 26-30 articles, bound across 4 books, and I was utterly saturated with ideas about sexual violence and rape, and my thoughts could have been influenced by that kind of immersion into articles.

The other effect my diction had was for me to seriously consider if what I wanted to do in such a research project was invasive, violent, and unappreciated by FSWs, and the kind of power imbalance there might be in working with institutions. After all, I’m an outsider to the communities they inhabit on several levels, including my class and caste, my upbringing in Canada, my academic background, and so many other levels. At the same time, I am a brown woman. When I visit India, there are certain glances, certain stares, certain forms of violation that many brown women are subject to. I wonder if that kind of empathy is at all relevant to the kind of research I want to do, and if it is, is it enough? Or is that kind of empathy just a variant on a superficial understanding of participants’ issues? And if it is, do I have a place to be conducting any kind of research at all in a context where I am so privileged, or does this rob them further of their own voices? What is my role here as a researcher – can there even be one? Why do I have such a deep interest in the experiences and practices of sex workers and health? Clearly, my interest in the issue is not purely academic – or is it? what is “purely academic” anyway? – does it mean devoid of personal, emotional investment? How can it?

I know part of my interest in sex workers and health has to do with my own experiences interning at a hospital in southern India and witnessing the various power imbalances (gendered, classed, hierarchy of knowledge) between doctors and nurses, and hospital staff and very poor patients. (This experience actually made me really invested in learning more about systemic and structural notions of health-care related inequity, and later led me to pursue an MSc at Queen’s in Health Studies/Kin, in the stream of Health Promotion.)

I also know part of it stems from sheer undiluted rage and feelings of helplessness when I see – and experience – how misogyny and sexism in India is generally structured. This could turn into a really long essay, so let me suffice it to say that I constantly struggle with defending India and Indians and the culture there to people here in Canada, while simultaneously calling on other brown folk to step it up a notch – to be critical of our multiple and diverse cultures in how they perpetuate oppression. And while I’ve had a relatively easy and happy life as an Indian girl and woman, there have been times in my personal life when my frustration has really peaked. (note: some of these experiences listed below speak to my privilege because I can imagine many people saying: um. some of those aren’t really big concerns. And maybe they’re not, but they’re symptomatic of wider concerns like rape culture. I also didn’t choose to elaborate on more sensitive sites of frustration for a public blog, because I still feel uncomfortable doing that when writing about personal experiences.) Imagine never being able to enjoy* a beach, splashing in the water, because you can’t wear a swimsuit because you will be sexually harassed. Imagine never being able to take a public bus without fear of sexual assault or harassment. Imagine having self-imposed and family imposed curfew at 5* because any later, the chances of being raped and mugged and beaten to death are perceived to dramatically increase. And this is true for virtually all Indian women – some variation of it at least. And every time I’ve experienced moments like this, in addition to the revulsion, anger, helplessness – I cannot help but think how lucky and privileged I am in that I do not experience it all the time, while there are people who do. Women who don’t have a home to be at by 5. Women who are stared at regardless of if they’re at the beach or not. Women who are harassed, abused, not just once, but daily. (Then again, I have to wonder how much of my lens is restricted to a (stereoto)typed rendition of the kind of access sex workers have to safety, health, etc. Some of the studies I came across did describe a smaller percentage of sex workers who voluntarily entered sex work as adult women.) These are my more personal motivations for choosing the topic, paper, and research question – but there didn’t seem to be space for this kind of “I think” and “I feel” in the paper as I wrote it at the time. I’m still not sure if this entire piece – this reflection – is just an exercise in narcissism.

Finally, the lack of “I” in the writing, as though FSWs would be examined by some unspecified entity, made me really uncomfortable, a la Haraway – and keep in mind such writing is perfectly reasonable, if not extolled, in scientific work. It makes your work more credible, they might say. It reduces bias, they might say. It strengthens your paper, they might say. But I felt an ethical and methodological obligation to change it a little bit to at least reflect the fact that the techniques I wanted to use might or might not be welcome, that I’d first contact FSWs who were more empowered through their functioning on self regulatory boards for intervention campaigns, and that I would want to learn from them. I had to change it a little bit to at least imply that participants would be working collaboratively with me, and would have an active stake in the research and research outcomes. Instead, what I ended up writing was “(Since FSWs tend to be a more invisible community, I would likely use snowball sampling initially in order to effectively reach people, first contacting trusted informants within well-known intervention programmes such as Sonagachi or Ashodaya, and local NGOs. Eventually, such a method might lead me to sex workers located in more hard-to-reach locales.)” That sentence is not even close to what I wanted to say.

I think I’m getting better at reading qualitatively and identifying what might be of value in qualitative research, but I have no idea where to begin in terms of implementing it in my own writing. It is almost as though there are two of me: the I and the eye, and I feel often times forced to choose between the their perspectives. I suppose if I continue with that analogy, it’s remembering that the “eye” – the observing, analyzing part of me is exactly that: A part of the “I”, and so is imbued with whatever subjectivities and discourses the “I” draws on. That I draw on – those should be explicated but I have no idea how to go about actually… doing that.

*brief note about a few things:
1) Yes, I know some Indian women can enjoy a beach without wearing a bathing suit (in just salwar kameez or even a sari) and these choices and desires are culturally situated and that as an Indian-born-but-(mostly)Canadian-raised woman, my perspective might differ from some Indian women living in India. I will always occupy a space in the middle though, never quite Indian enough, never quite Canadian enough for people in both countries who might be quick to say I am not representative of their experience. I’m not representative; I fully acknowledge and own that.

Here’s my perspective: so much can be written (and probably has been written) about male gaze in an Indian context, and the resulting shame attributed to women for just existing and going about their days. I do see the crap we put up with at the beach as an extension of the bullshit we put up with in buses. Think about it and be honest: in public you’re stared at no matter what you’re wearing. So am I. The crap at the beach is an extension of the way so many brown men often stare and the way so many other brown men stay silent. I don’t think any of us particularly enjoy that feeling – but we’re taught to put up with it just like we’re taught that we can only enjoy a beach in certain ways not involving actually entering the water once we reach a certain age. I do want Indian women who disagree with my position to be more critical about how our roles at the beach are organised. I do want them to consider that there are brown women – or at least, one brown woman – who hates the fact that enjoying a good time with her cousins means sitting with the women on the sand, or dipping my feet, while the men play in the water, because of the sheer imbalance of privilege between what public spaces are accessible to Indian men and Indian women.

*deep breath*: “It’s cultural, and you just don’t get it, you’re too whitewashed” is not a good enough answer when talking to another brown woman was born and partly raised in India. More importantly, it’s not a good enough response when the question at hand is intrinsically tied to an invasive, prevalent, and sexually violent male gaze that several brown women acknowledge is contributing to a culture of rape in other contexts (like buses). Think of it this way: I’m not fighting for the “right to wear a bikini” so much as I am calling for a critical evaluation of how male gaze functions at the beach and how that shapes the choices we make.

Finally, I’m sure I’m not the only one. I am sure there are brown women, who have lived their entire lives in India, who do feel the sting of the casual way in which Indian male privilege impinges on our lives on so many levels.

2) the 5pm curfew – it’s anywhere from 5-7/8 depending on your work, as far as I can tell – based on your age, and the kind of access to shelter you have, as well as your own geographical location. There is no legalised or mandated curfew – it’s just generally considered unsafe to be out alone at dusk-night in several cities.

3) I don’t need to write anything about buses/public areas/etc and feeling unsafe. Why? because being rudely and constantly stared at in public spaces is so common in India that every single woman I know, and probably every single woman I don’t know has experienced it. I will actually  assert that claim here: we have all been stared at in uncomfortable ways. Some of us have even had our pictures taken without our permission. Some of us are elbowed/leaned on/touched in buses.

4) a note to brown women/feminists/academics who might come across this and feel that I might be attacking brown men: A lot of this stuff exists in a Western context too – an invasive and violent male gaze is not something solely localised to India. Masculinity and violence intersect  in various instances. And I do call it out in other contexts. Since this response was a reflection on a previous paper explicitly about marginalised women in India, I chose to focus on my own internal struggles in defining a space for myself in discourses involving male privilege in an Indian context. But I do owe you some level of explanation I think in trying to speak about where I stand – or even IF I stand – in discourses related to cultures I’m not as embedded in as some of you might be. *deep breath* I welcome criticisms you may have, struggles you may wish to outline, and ideas you bring to the table.

5) a note to white women/feminists/academics who might come across this: same as above except that I kind of don’t really owe you an explanation for my motivations in writing about struggles specific to Indian women. If you choose to take this as an opportunity to bash brown men, and how sexism is so much worse “over there” I will delete your comment with precisely 0 regrets. (But I welcome as always critical engagement, and the space is open for that)

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