Intimate City

by Manjima Bhattacharjya, New Delhi: Zubaan Publishers, 2021

Reviewed by Anushree Jairath

Over the years, considerable knowledge has been produced in the discipline of gender studies on sex work – mapping its histories, various practices, and forms. This knowledge has revolved mostly around red-light areas like Kamathipura in Mumbai and Sonagachi in Kolkata (India). Intimate City adds substantially to that discourse by mapping not just the intersections of sex work and its manifestations in the city but how ‘intimacies’ are expanded and fulfilled through the introduction of technology. The author has conducted this research as a Postdoctoral fellow at the Urban Aspirations Project. By taking the middle ground and looking beyond the sex work as labour versus prostitution as violence approach, the author has expanded the discourse. She does not shy away from speaking about the division that sex work creates in the feminist movement but believes, ‘engagement with sex work has broadened feminists’ ideas of who should have right, complicated conventional notions of choice and consent, offering us another model of bodily autonomy’ (p. 33). Such conversations have made feminism a thriving, constantly evolving, and inclusive ideology. The book is then divided into four riveting sections.

Section One of the book explores the impact of globalisation on sex work by mapping its geography and political economy, and how these have changed with the arrival of the internet. It gives a brief glimpse into the work of different scholars like Sumanta Bannerjee and Ashwini Tambe, who studied varied geographies like Mumbai and Kolkata. However, this book covered cities beyond those in India, including cities like Oslo, Vancouver, San Francisco, and New York – giving us an enriching take on how globalisation has led to conflict amongst various actors in a city leading to gentrification and fragmentation of sex workers. When one looks at the political economy of sex work, the reproduction of existing class structures along with replication of dominant forms of masculinity and femininity within the industry is evident (a theme which is dealt with in detail in Section Three). In this pot-pourri, enters technology that might have made sex work less risky and brought in a ‘business approach’ but with sustained secrecy around operations and violence for women.

Section Two is an in-depth examination of the history and geography of offline sex work in Mumbai, India. This includes a vivid account of Kamathipura and its present crumbling and fragmented state because of various forms of regulations over the years but more specifically due to ‘AIDS, raids and trades’. This segues beautifully into the detailing of sexualised practices embedded within cultural narratives of Maharashtra, including the lavani dance and the devdasi tradition. These practices have been historically enmeshed with caste-based oppression, changing form over the years and existing as contested occupations like that of bar dancers. Anxieties around these sexualised rituals since colonial times coupled with the fear of illegal migration and HIV eventually led to increased regulations in the form of rescue and raid operations. The protectionist attitude of the state towards women is very much on display in these reflections. The section poses a question that we continue to struggle with equally in other caste-based occupations like manual scavenging: ‘what is more important: dignity (through the abolition of caste-based occupational oppression) or livelihood (even if it maintains this oppression)?’

Section Three veers towards the connections between sex work and technology by exploring the sexual transactions that are taking place in the escort service industry. Through a content analysis of the websites of various escort agencies, the characteristics of an ‘ideal’ client and escort have been constructed. The former is an ‘epitome of gentlemanliness’ while the latter is an upper caste/class, autonomous girl-next-door. The author deftly shows how sex work has transformed over the years by connecting it to the historicisation of sex work discussed in Section Two: ‘the message is that the client is the new age nawab and she is the new age courtesan’. Those who do not belong to the category of ‘gentlemen’ resort to classified websites or online ‘friendship clubs’ to seek companionship in a big and lonely city. The findings of this section construct male needs as natural and legitimate, particularly since they serve women’s needs for livelihood in a neoliberal economy.

Section Four expands the scope of the book from sex work and ventures into the domain of ‘casual encounters’ where the ‘line between paid and unpaid sex is unclear’. Online, these sexual transactions are anonymous, direct, and provide access to upper- and middle-class women (the bored housewife trope). I found the chapter on ‘Cruisers’ (men who both availed and provided sexual services online) the most interesting one in the book as it dismantled the perception that intimacies online only operate in binaries of client and escort. This section also finally brings the perspective of women to the forefront – both as a consumer and provider of sexual transactions. The latter speaks about the economic precarities of living in a city. The book makes repeated comparisons between the labour of wives and sex workers who provide ‘lifelong consent simply through participating in their respective institutions’. It ends with the novel idea of situating the work of online sexual service providers within the gig economy model (rather than the informal economy model where traditional sex work is located).

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Notes in the margin’ format after every section where the author steps back and engages with the research and findings presented in the section as this insertion often broadens and complicates the discourse. The book is written in a lucid, engaging manner and unravels complex themes in a straightforward fashion. Therefore, it will serve as a valuable resource for a generalist audience who has not engaged with the issue of sex work before. The narrative style writing pulls one in, and the book is self-aware of its scope. Considering the author conducted the research in 2012–13, I look forward to other scholars building on this work and examining the change in the escort service industry or casual intimacies with the advent of dating apps.

© 2023 Anushree Jairath