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Whose body is it anyway?

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

April 15th, 2012

Gloria Steinem’s recent talk at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi kicked up quite a storm. A few days after the event the Delhi edition of The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper in English, provided uncommon space to different takes on issues of sex work/prostitution and human trafficking, the subject of Steinem’s talk.

The trigger may have been media reports on her interaction with students at JNU. Kumkum Roy, a professor at the university (presumably representing JNU’s Women’s Studies Programme, which had collaborated with Apne Aap to organise the event), pointed out in her contribution to the debate, “Need for nuanced debate,” that the variety of issues raised and viewpoints shared in the discussion that followed Steinem’s talk, as well as in the concluding remarks, had not been reflected in reports on the event. “In the open discussion that followed Ms Steinem’s presentation,” she wrote, “there were several participants who agreed with her positions. However, others pointed out that there were certain simplistic assumptions involved.”

In a hard-hitting piece headlined “Moralistic assumptions,” feminist media academic Shohini Ghosh referred to Steinem as an ‘abolitionist’ whose “’feminist approach’ to trafficking and prostitution is not shared by all feminists.” She pointed out that “The conflation of sex-work with ‘trafficking’ stems from the moralistic assumption that women can never voluntarily choose sex work as a profession and are always ‘trafficked’ into it” - an idea that has been conclusively challenged by the sex workers’ rights movement.

Ruchira Gupta , founder president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide (Steinem’s visit and talk were part of the organisation’s 10th anniversary celebrations), argued that “Legalising has not helped globally.” Addressing the issues raised by Roy and Ghosh, she wrote, “Body invasion is inherent to prostitution and differentiates it from livelihoods in the unorganised sector like agriculture and domestic work that Ms Ghosh talks about. In addition, I would like to point out to both Ms Ghosh and Ms Roy the uniformly disastrous results where ever the selling or renting of human beings for sexual purposes has been legalised and normalised.”

Clarifying and defending her position on the subject in a piece headlined “Body invasion is de-humanising,” Steinem stood her ground, making it clear that she was well aware of the complexity of the issues involved and various perspectives on them. She concluded her rebuttal by highlighting the fact that “The old polarization into legalization and criminalization is giving way to a more practical, woman-centered and successful Third Way…”

The debate generated by Steinem’s talk echoed elsewhere in the media and blogosphere, too - e.g., “Steinem supports the Nordic model,” “Gloria Steinem’s comments on trafficking useless rhetoric.”

And a report from Kolkata, “A-team to tackle sex-ploitation,” provided information about the practical purpose of Steinem’s recent visit: exploring ways to put “money and might into the battle against sex trafficking.”

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