"Who gave you the right?": Indian sex workers talk back to filmmakers

Not that I would expect post-modern, transnational feminist film work to come out of the slimy "it's not misogyny/racism, it's ironic!" Vice-magazine's video site, VBS.tv, but the thirty-minute documentary "Prostitutes of God," on devadasi sex workers in India is dangerously western-centric, anti-sex work, and completely misrepresents the sex workers it focuses on.

The white British host, Sarah Harris, narrates the film with an air of derision, from the way she speaks about Hindu legends and traditions ("convoluted, surreal," "doesn't make much sense," calling Hindu icons "garish"), the ease with which she switches from "she" to "he" when referring to a trans sex worker, obvious translation issues, to the overall lack of attention to the economic environment that sex work exists and an assumption that prostitution is inherently wrong. All this is sandwiched with observations of how India is "A land of contradiction! East meets west! Old meets new!"

Only there's a twist to this one-sided voyeurism--the subjects are taking the filmmakers to task for misrepresenting their lives.

Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes' Collective Against Injustice), a sex worker collective within SANGRAM, an Indian NGO working with sex workers, made a video responding to the compromised representation of their work, their gods, and their lives and families. The filmmakers did not let their subjects review the film (as promised), outed a women with HIV/AIDS (the clip of which has been removed), and gave a dangerously generalized and unresearched view of devadasi prostitution. In an open letter to VBS, SANGRAM and VAMP address the film's cross-cultural egregiousness: "Instead of depicting this reality of empowered women going about their important work of dealing with violations of human rights, women's rights, right to health and livelihood, Sarah Harris chooses to portray them as pimps or helpless victims." Read the full letter here.

The voices of devadasis and their community speaking directly to the camera, their language and culture unfiltered through a visiting foreigner, stands in stark contrast to Sarah Harris's narrative that generalizes the life of sex workers in India and approaches their traditions and belief systems with disbelief and disdain. Anita, featured in the VBS film begins by saying "Who gave you the right to laugh? You have taken advantage of us." One man says, "You named the film 'Prostitutes of God'. This title is inappropriate. Who told you all devdasis are pimps and traffickers who force daughters into sex work? My mother used her money from sex work to raise me. I would not be here without it." At the end of the video, a woman holds up a piece of white paper. "This is an informed consent form. Have you signed any such form?"

The video is part of Sangli Talkies, "the newly-launched video unit of SANGRAM / VAMP," and shows how the internet and new media are being used to actively fight racism, misrepresentation, and exploitation. As the open letter states, "In the age of the Internet, women in countries far away who used to be the objects of white people's gaze with no right of reply now have access to the representations that are made of them, and the technological means to answer back."

Read more:
An Open Letter to VBS TV regarding the film "Prostitutes of God" [Association for Women's Rights in Development]
The Means to Speak for Themeselves: Sex Workers in India Respond to Flawed Prostitutes of God film [Feministing]
Talking back: Indian Sex Workers Speak themselves [CarnalNation]
Indian Sex Workers Fight Back Against Misrepresentation [Waking Vixen]

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you so much for

Thank you so much for discussing this topic. The "documentary" and comments on VBS.tv are disturbing. There's enough "Oh, how wonderful that you're bringing this issue to light" and "It's great that a woman is reporting on this important subject" to make me want to bang my head repeatedly against a wall. I don't know why, but when these hipster sites that brand themselves as open-minded bastions of liberal values commit such unconscionable acts of racism, it makes me angrier than when the Glenn Beck/Dr. Laura crowd does it.

Oh, and what about how the

Oh, and what about how the "documentary" is clearly plagued by translator issues that the reporter shows absolutely no concern for remedying? She just sits there and giggles at him. How can someone pretend they've done an informed, thorough investigation when said investigation was done through a translator who obviously wasn't able to fully convey the interpreted messages to either party?

That's exactly what I was

That's exactly what I was thinking. I only watched a few minutes of it so far, but it was annoying that she didn't care enough to try to get accurate translations.

Wow you guys are taking this

Wow you guys are taking this too seriously. Stuck up cunts.

I was trying to watch the

I was trying to watch the documentary after watching the response video, but as a feminist and a person who's traveled to India, the ethnocentrism was so vile that I had to shut it off after a few minutes. Shame on Vice and shame on Sarah Harris for promoting this uneducated, racist, entirely insensitive portrayal of Indians.

I'd like to start by saying I

I'd like to start by saying I wholeheartedly agree with the women and what that Sarah woman put them through. A horrible thing was done to them, and I think it is disgusting.

But can I say I am flabbergasted by 2:37-2:47. apparently he views it as an affront that Sarah told people one of the sexworkers was spreadng HIV. So...she's spreading HIV around and you'd rather she just shut up about it if she wants to?!? WTF is that? How is that right? I don't care if it 's an invasion of privacy, it's an invasion of the lives of many people WHO COULD DIE FROM IT!!! I understand that he feels it's an invasion of privacy and that she only mentioned it to sell the film, and that was wrong. But still. Keeping the fact that someone is spreading HIV around a secret isn't ever right. Ever.

"Did the girl say she does

"Did the girl say she does not use condoms? Who is (Sarah) to decide that condoms are not used?" Maybe you missed that bit, it's around 2:19.

Few words of support!

Khamaghani Dear Readers,
I have come across the Devdasi pratha and this western girl's imaginative documentary. This is sooo incorrect. These western young girls think life is a project. It is not!
I am getting goosebumps on me while listening to the Devdasis. This is horrifying and this girl should be sued. Calling the girls whores and their parents pimps... Did you hear this? I am angry. I am going to show it to 362 women involved in our organization and to learn from this subject. My heart goes for the Devdasis who were unaware of the circumstances and these foreigner took advantage out of this. We are with you in this fight of justice.
Let me know how we can be of support for this and teach a good lesson to this women to be careful before taking selfish decisions.
Warm Regards from Rajasthan

lets not run away with ourselves..

Having seen both the vice doccumentary and the SANGRAM/ VAMP video response to it I would like to raise some points:

1)Whilst the comments about "blue skin and gold bikinis" are dissrespectful; Hinduism is a very complex religion based on a range of traditions an concepts that do not exist in western culture or religion.
2)India is a "country of contrasts", I don't see what is racist about saying that? is it racist to comment that India's growing middle class live a completely different life to the poor majority?

3) Sarah Harris let her subjects speak for themselves; at the end of the video a sex worker says "'we do dirty whoring to eat, but in her name' ... "The devadasi tradition must stop here" what part of that is hard to understand? the problem with feminist websites like this one coming to the support of VAMP's accusations is that they are condoning or denying this side of the story, are you suggesting that this level of suffering isn't happening? or are you suggesting that it does happen but it's okay because a bunch of unconnected sex workers in a different city are "empowered" brilliant!
lets keep supporting the spread of HIV in India yeah?
4) As for the accusations of insulting Indian Culture/discriminating against sex workers would you rather the documentary was supportive of using religion to condone the selling of minors into prostitution?

I agree with your message. I

I agree with your message. I didn't see anything wrong with this documentary. These people are taking it too far.

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