The Means to Speak for Themselves: Sex Workers in India Respond to Flawed “Prostitutes of God” Film

“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.”

-Statement by VAMP, part of the Indian organization SANGRAM, a grassroots organization working with sex workers and other diverse populations and communities to fight HIV/AIDS in a rural context.

A recent controversy over a 30 minute documentary called “Prostitutes of God”, produced by VBS TV, an arm of Vice Magazine (a publication that already has a controversial history of covering race), demonstrates that the-times-they-are a-changin when it comes to transnational activism, especially as it relates to feminism, media, and relations between the global north and south.

The documentary that began the controversy is narrated by Sarah Harris of VBS TV and features interviews with sex workers, many of whom are involved with the group VAMP. It depicts so-called “prostitutes of God”, religious sex workers who the filmmakers describe as “selling their bodies in the name of the Hindu Goddess Yellamma.” The documentary has been getting lots of press, including a recent feature in New York magazine. But after its debut two weeks ago, it emerged that VAMP members, many of whom are included in the documentary, were very upset by how they were portrayed and depicted in the film.

Their charges are very serious- they claim they were never given the opportunity to review the documentary or provide feedback once it had been completed, though this was promised to them; they claim the filmmakers laugh at and mock their subjects and misrepresent their culture; and perhaps most egregiously, they claim that the filmmakers out a young woman as HIV positive and accuse her of spreading HIV in the community, despite the fact that such accusations were not authorized and comprise a serious human rights violation and a grave danger to the person in question. The filmmakers have since removed the portion of the documentary in which they out the young woman as HIV-positive. But they did so without public apology or acknowledgement of their reasons for doing so.

Read part of their statement below, and watch their video response:

This brief (3.5) minute clip by the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice), encapsulates a succinct response to ‘Prostitutes of God’, a sensationalized and factually flawed documentary produced by Sarah Harris for VBS TV. Countering the distorted perspective in the film, women from VAMP present their incisive views about sex work; religion and faith; livelihoods; issues of consent; ethics and cross-cultural sensitivities while making documentary films.

The women in Sangli from VAMP recorded video responses to the film. 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. A naive westerner may seize the headlines, but there’s now scope for there to be a debate and to bring those who in the past would have remained voiceless victims into that debate to represent themselves. It is a great opportunity to put the record straight.

This clip has been produced by Sangli Talkies, the newly-launched video unit of SANGRAM / VAMP.

Apart from the obvious ethical and moral problems that arise from filming a documentary without the proper consent of its subjects, I’m fascinated (and inspired) by the implications of this controversy for the future of transnational activism and media. As Audacia Ray writes on her blog, “Gone are the days when filmmakers from the global north could swoop in and document things they perceive without consequence.” Perhaps something positive can come of this unfortunate and hurtful controversy. Perhaps filmmakers from the global north will be inspired to work more closely and collaboratively with activists in the global south to produce media that tells their story accurately, productively, and effectively. Perhaps activists in the global south will be emboldened to claim their rights and maintain control over the ways in which they are depicted and their stories are represented. And perhaps audiences and members of civil society will be delivered a more nuanced, well-rounded, and accurate portrayal of today’s world, the people that populate it, and each of our roles in affecting the reality of others.

For more on this topic, check out these pieces:

Paromita Vohra, a Mumbai-based filmmaker, writes about the ethical issues in her piece Vamps, Victims, and Videotapes in the Mid Day.

Audacia Ray wrote a piece Indian Sex Workers Fight Back Against Misrepresentation on her blog Waking Vixen.

Bebe Loff, Associate Professor and Director of the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University in Australia, has written a piece for RH Reality Check, “Prostitutes of God:” Film Mocks, Belittles Sex Workers. Cross-posted on Akimbo.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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