THE BLOG
11/28/2014 06:45 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2015

Gloria Steinem vs. Prostitution in India

Written by Svati Shah

When Gloria Steinem went to India earlier this year, she documented her trip in a series of articles in the New York Times's (NYT) India Ink column. They were full of Steinem's revelations about the existence of feminism in India, and creatively described white guilt as "sybaritic," as in "My sybaritic guilt is somewhat diminished by the fact that this ayurvedic spa pays well, and the young women seem genuinely content to be here..." It was also peppered with a perspective on prostitution in India that is not only skewed, but ends up playing into age old ideas of powerless women and oppressive men in the Global South, delivered with a twenty-first century twists (such as emphasizing how much locals participate in the anti-trafficking programs Steinem is promoting, along with frequent use of the term 'grass roots.') Now that Steinem is a signatory to a letter asking the AP Stylebook to stop using the terms ""sex work" and "sex worker" because they legitimize prostitution as a form of "work" and conceal the violent and exploitative nature of the commercial sex trade," this may be a good time to revisit Steinem's trip to India, and to review why her position on abolishing prostitution in India, and everywhere else, is problematic.

When Steinem wore a perfectly tailored sari in March at her gala 80th birthday party in in March of this year, at a celebrity event hosted by the Ms. Foundation in New York, she signaled her commitment to India in ways that underlined her closing sentence in the NYT series.

"But then, India is my life, too."

Given the press this year around Somaly Mam, a now infamous Cambodian anti-trafficking activist who received millions of dollars in grants to stop 'sex trafficking' on the basis of the lie that she had been trafficked into prostitution herself, and given the deluge of stories debating the utility of the term "trafficking" and the politics that it represents this might be a good time to look closer at what constitutes Gloria Steinem's and feminists interest in trafficking, especially in India.

The NYT series gives a glimpse of how the anti-trafficking message is being put together, with creative uses of both the age-old idea of Indian women being fundamentally oppressed, as well as a newer idea that there is a feminist movement there positioned to resolve sexism, in part by abolishing prostitution. The series chronicles Steinem's trip in India during February and March 2014 with Ruchira Gupta, the founder and director of Apne Aap, an anti-trafficking organization in India seeking to rescue girls (and women) from prostitution. This was the second of two high profile trips Steinem has made to India over the last few years. Her last trip in 2012 was also focused on spreading the message of stopping trafficking, and of repeating the conservative feminist adage that prostitution is trafficking, because how could anyone possibly consent to selling sex, under any circumstances? Feminists in India who disagreed with Steinem responded in no uncertain terms. Shohini Ghosh, a professor of mass communications and a filmmaker, wrote in the English daily The Hindu, "Gloria Steinem's "feminist approach" to trafficking and prostitution is not shared by all feminists. Many of us do not believe that abolishing sex work will stop trafficking, nor do we think that the two are synonymous."

Not only did feminists like Ghosh disagree with Steinem's take on prostitution, they also pointed to a number of facts about trading sex for money in India that Steinem got wrong. There were mistakes in the NYT series as well, the biggest one being that one of best HIV/AIDS prevention organization in Calcutta's largest red light district is "an AIDS program funded by an American private foundation pays big salaries to brothel managers and pimps to distribute condoms to customers, though there is little evidence that women have the power to make men use them." The American private foundation could refer to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the health sector, which has been funding the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, or DMSC, for years. The implication that the project is a failure is baseless, since DMSC's tactics serve as a model for other HIV/AIDS prevention projects around the world.

Steinem's series misrepresents several other ideas along the way. They include the assertion that Gayatri Spivak, a famous literary theorist and philosopher at Columbia University, 'decolonized the humanities' (despite the huge impact that Spivak has had, the humanities are still fairly 'colonized,') the southern India state of Kerala is less sexist than North India (a myth often repeated because of Kerala's high development indicators and stereotypes about sexist North Indian men), and that people in South India are descendants of indigenous 'Dravidians,' while North Indians are descendants of invading 'Aryans' who came over the Himalayas and into India (a theory that offers a handy but baseless and fully debunked explanation for why people in North India tend to have lighter skin than people in South India).

These mistakes and misrepresentations provide a context for the main point of the series, which is in showing that organizations like Apne Aap are leading the fight against trafficking in India. Steinem repeatedly calls Apne Aap a 'grass roots' organization, which would imply that it has little or no international profile, and primarily works with local people in order to run its programs. Apne Aap, like so many NGOs in India, receives funding from outside India regularly, and Gupta herself is the recipient of the 2009 Clinton Global Citizen Award. If anything, Apne Aap is part of the international trafficking industrial complex, that combination of non-governmental organizations, governments, and money that has enabled the strange rise of the idea that 'trafficking,' whatever it may be (chattel slavery, forced prostitution, any prostitution, forced labor, illegal migration, and/or debt bondage) is a universal problem requiring huge resources to resolve. The real aim of the anti-trafficking work that this complex promotes was ventriloquized by Steinem when she quotes a police officer who tells Gupta what will happen if they (Gupta, Steinem and Gupta's organization) don't stop prostitution. "Otherwise, daughters of respectable families would be in danger."

It is odd that a police officer would make this kind of statement, but not nearly as odd as Steinem's decision to quote the officer, as if to offer a key insight on trafficking from the local context. The idea that prostitution should be stopped by non-sex workers is problematic, to be sure, but the assertion that the work is ultimately being done for the sake of 'respectable families' devalues and dehumanizes people who are struggling to make ends meet. Bihar, where this police officer was interviewed, and where Steinem and Gupta spent a good deal of time talking to people with whom Apne Aap works, is a state with poor infrastructure and few resources. Bihar is one of the biggest source areas for day wage labor and construction work in India. People from Bihar become migrant workers living an extremely precarious existence because there are so few opportunities there for education and employment. When any organization, including one like Apne Aap, sets up shop to provide basic education and job training, it offers the rarest of opportunities to people who would otherwise have none, while establishing the organization's power and unique position in the area. Steinem should know all this, of course, since India is her life too.

Asking why feminists like Gloria Steinem (for whom Rutgers University is about to name a new endowed chair in media studies) are interested in abolishing prostitution in India is part of a broader question of why Western media outlets are taking a keener interest in India over the past few years? Why, for example, doesn't the NYT have a dedicated column for other countries, as well? What makes India special? That it objectively has a trafficking problem, or that it has one of the biggest consumer markets in the world and, given its pro-business and pro-surveillance politics, would make for a potentially better trading partner for the US than Brazil, China or Russia, the other three of the world's 'emerging economies'? Asking why Steinem is interested in 'sex trafficking' in India opens up a broad set of questions, including why anti-trafficking work has developed such a well-funded infrastructure so quickly. While Steinem-in-India isn't exactly a replay of the old fashioned First World mission of 'white women rescuing brown women from brown men' (as famously articulated by Gayatri Spivak), Steinem's mission is worrying, as are this generation of globalized anti-sex worker anti-"trafficking" initiatives.

Svati Shah is Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai (Duke University Press).