Born unto Brothels—Toward a Legal Ethnography of Sex Work in an Indian Red-Light Area


  • Dr. Prabha Kotiswaran is lecturer in law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London. Her e-mail address is She is grateful to Jane Fair Bestor, Janet Halley, and Martha Minow. Special thanks go to Duncan Kennedy; his input on Section III of the article in particular was invaluable. She thanks the anonymous referees of the article for their excellent suggestions, and is indebted to the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Kolkata-based sex-worker organization whose activism fostered many epistemic breaks in her writing about sex work. Thanks finally to Chi Hang Yu for his able research assistance.


The global sex panic around sex work and trafficking has fostered prostitution law reform worldwide. While the normative status of sex work remains deeply contested, abolitionists and sex work advocates alike display an unwavering faith in the power of criminal law; for abolitionists, strictly enforced criminal laws can eliminate sex markets, whereas for sex work advocates, decriminalization can empower sex workers. I problematize both narratives by delineating the political economy and legal ethnography of Sonagachi, one of India's largest red-light areas. I show how within Sonagachi there exist highly internally differentiated groups of stakeholders, including sex workers, who, variously endowed by a plural rule network—consisting of formal legal rules, informal social norms, and market structures—routinely enter into bargains in the shadow of the criminal law whose outcomes cannot be determined a priori. I highlight the complex relationship between criminal law and sex markets by analyzing the distributional effects of criminalizing customers on Sonagachi's sex industry.