Posted by Vandita Khanna
#SoldBodies – now, even grammar is capable of erasing a woman’s ability to decide for herself, almost implying that her body is sold without her actually participating in or contributing to the very act of selling. But more importantly, is a sex worker’s body even sold? Is sex work about the sale of bodies, or the adult consensual provision of sexual services in exchange for money?
While Kunal Kapoor’s recent stint in slam poetry has been largely celebrated for rightly making us uncomfortable, a critical reading of the poem shows that it must evoke discomfort, but for all the wrong reasons. While #SoldBodies will remain a trendsetter in the minds of millions after watching this video, it drastically fails to ask or answer the right questions.
Simply put, the three minutes and eight seconds of Kapoor’s performance aim to produce sympathy and pity for sex slaves whose body, love, beauty, and emotions are auctioned off to tyrannical, necessarily rich, and quite naturally, male clients. The three authors, Mohammed Sadriwala, Navaldeep Singh and Simar Singh, have penned down a pitiful narrative of women trafficked into sex work—one man performing the words written by three men, thereby assuming the lived experiences of sex workers and effectively appropriating a voice they all are incredibly divorced from.
Cars slow down their pace,
Men look out of their windows to see.
Every night when you drive back home,
You cross that road, where love is sold.
Kunal Kapoor is unhesitant to equate sex with love—the trope of women not being capable of engaging in sex for pure pleasure sets stage for repulsive stereotypes to follow. Women ought to ascribe to qualities of irrationality and emotions woven behind the stigmatised shut doors of shame. In conflating sex with love, Kapoor reinforces the idea that an adult woman consensually exercising her sexual agency for intrinsic pleasure and money (as opposed to having sex because she loves her partner) deserves moral condemnation. In defining what sex should mean for a woman, the poem persistently replaces female autonomy with a man’s idea of who a sex worker is, what she looks like, and how she feels.
Shiny sarees and wild makeup capture the popular imagination of a stereotypical sex worker who is presumed to have called for moral outrage at her irredeemable promiscuity. Patriarchal anxieties cannot bear the prospects of sexual autonomy. These anxieties are managed socially (and artistically) by forcing women to swallow notions of subtlety and passivity of their own bodies. Male customers who are uncontrollably lured to drive slowly on that road every single night are allowed to drive by unquestioningly, but the sex worker entitled to dignity of labour is dipped into the visual imagery of bright red seduction and slavery.
And they look at you,…those girls in dresses,…you will see them burn helplessly…
Kapoor apathetically refuses to give them a name throughout his performance, and in so doing, others an entire occupation as the one that shall not be named. It is after all, easier to deprive someone of their constitutional rights and guarantees if one conveniently refuses to privilege their identity with a name. Next, Kapoor and the authors retch their revolting privilege in spatially separating sex workers from the male clients. Why is the existence and movement of sex workers confined only to that road? Instead of mainstreaming citizens of the Indian State, the poem reduces places of sex work to isolated ghettos of the unnamed.
Also Read: Why Is Sex Work Not Seen As Work? – Part 1
When not swept under the rug of anonymity, sex workers have obviously been identified in relation to their male counterparts. The bride Sarita and the daughter Lali are almost presumed to be significant to society only because of their positioning vis-à-vis a man in their life. This is strikingly similar to atrociously irresponsible statements that command men to respect women only because they too have a mother, daughter, sister or wife. The poem inevitably then slips on the precarious peel of encouraging sympathy for only a few selective sex workers who can be defined with regard to their male relations. Of course, because why else would a man be instigated against sexual slavery but for his property violation?
Because if you look carefully, at those girls in dresses,
You might notice something which nobody addresses.
Behind those shiny sarees, and makeup so wild,
You’ll see a compassionate mother desperate to earn for her child…
The poem creates the image of a particular sex worker who deserves our sympathy, one whose maternal instincts to earn for her child have forcibly driven her to sell her own body. It implicitly asks the question, which self-respecting woman would voluntarily engage in prostitution? It then finds the answer in a compassionate mother who ought to fulfil her duties of motherhood by earning for her child. Such selective victimisation of sex workers allows Kapoor to arouse emotions of pity only when sex work has been resorted to achieve a more socially valuable goal: one of child rearing—that a woman must be conventionally socialised into playing.
Another important question that is often ignored is, whether all sex workers are in fact only women or not? The poem reassures us that the typical sex worker is a cisgender straight reproductive female (preferably a daughter, mother, wife, or sister of a man). However, a 2010 study shows that over 2,00,000 transgender persons were engaged in sex work in India. The poem erases intersectionality amongst sex workers and moulds a monolithic singular narrative of helpless, desperate female sex slaves. It renders identities invisible and dismisses the equally important unique lived experiences of gender variant communities.
Everything up till this point has focused on who a sex worker must be and how a sex worker must look in a man’s world. The poem unfortunately doesn’t stop quite there. It goes to the extent of dictating to a sex worker how she must feel as well. The idea that women may voluntarily enter into a contract to provide sexual services in exchange for money is somehow beyond imagination. Allegories of a corpse-like body burning helplessly are blatantly used to conflate sex work and sex trafficking. In the process however, important questions remain unanswered.
Why is there a certain discomfort in recognising one of the many occupations of dignified labour? What may explain the uneasiness of patriarchy to portray the bodies of sex workers as anything but helplessly slaughtered and necessarily doomed? Why does Kunal Kapoor refuse to distinguish between a 16-year-old minor Lali incapable of giving consent and the image of adult Sarita who has the agency to consent to sex work?
Neither law nor art have been able to acknowledge and celebrate the concept of consensual sex work. One where sex workers do not want to be rescued. One where attitudes tainted by the interplay of sex and morality in pop culture are regurgitated in the law. Need and desperation are common to all occupations in a capitalist world—there is always some compulsion driving our actions as social beings, and then arguably, there is no such thing as free consent.
Then the selective use of the tool of despair to victimise all sex workers lacks artistic and social rigour in identifying and understanding the subject of the poem. Only once when we get out of our ivory towers and step down our pedestals of privilege; only once when we begin to actively listen to real-life stories of triumph and tribulation of and by sex workers themselves will art and law be more responsible in and responsive to the accurate and multifarious portrayal of sex work. Till then, one should refuse to settle for anything less than that.
Vandita Khanna is a fifth year law student at Jindal Global Law School. Her interests lie in understanding the creation of identities through politics, gender, sexuality, religion and the law.
Featured Image Credit: pinknest.in