"It’s important to shed the shame we have been carrying"
The South Asian region is marked by deeply ingrained taboos surrounding discussions about sex work.
It’s well documented that many South Asians across the world downplay any light shined upon sexuality, porn, or sex talk in general.
Whilst this can be down to personal values and outlooks, it’s also down to this massive stigma within the culture that sex workers and the industry are dishonourable.
However, in recent years, a handful of courageous South Asian celebrities have stepped up to challenge these stereotypes and foster a more open dialogue about sex work.
Their efforts have highlighted the complex issues surrounding the industry.
And, they have also illustrated the societal and cultural factors that contribute to the stigmatisation of sex work within the South Asian diaspora.
Sex Work in South Asia
Sex work is an umbrella term that encompasses various forms of adult entertainment including porn, escort services, and more, and has long existed across the globe, including South Asia.
In this context, India, with its massive population and diverse cultural landscape, has been a significant player.
However, due to conservative cultural norms and traditional values, the sex industry has often been shrouded in secrecy and stigma.
Despite its presence, discussions around sex work have been met with discomfort and moral judgement.
The stigma attached to sex work in South Asian culture is multifaceted and deeply rooted. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon:
- Traditional Values: South Asian societies are often deeply rooted in conservative values that prioritise modesty, chastity, and family honour. This creates a significant barrier against open conversations.
- Patriarchy: Patriarchal structures are prevalent in South Asian societies, leading to the objectification and subjugation of women. This further perpetuates the notion that sex work is degrading.
- Sex Education: The absence of comprehensive sex education contributes to a lack of understanding about the nuances of sexuality and consent. This knowledge gap can lead to misinformation about sex work.
- Legal Ambiguity: In some places, sex work is criminalised, while in others, it exists in a legal gray area. This ambiguity fuels the stigma, making it difficult for sex workers to advocate for their rights openly.
Whilst these issues are still ongoing, more South Asian celebrities and figures have taken bold steps to break down the stigma surrounding the sex industry.
By doing so, they have initiated important conversations and encouraged a more structured understanding of sex work.
Kali, with a mixed heritage of Indian and Dutch origins, is actively working to bring diversity to the adult entertainment industry.
She’s determined to establish a platform that caters to those who have been marginalised and excessively stereotyped.
As a queer performer, Kali has taken part in independent adult short films like Horngry and made a guest appearance in The Ski Instructor as part of the XConfessions project.
Speaking to DESIblitz in 2021, Kali gave us her thoughts on South Asian representation in porn:
“We never really see ourselves represented in cinema in an accurate way, especially, in erotic cinema.”
“High time to change these horrible stereotypes about South Asian folks.
“And also I think it’s really important within porn we make space for South Asian people because we are really highly underrepresented.
“When we are represented the biggest most important thing is that we are Desi or South Asian.
“I think it’s important to shed the shame we have been carrying around for so long and are able to embrace our sexualities and to have open conversations with our friends and families about that.”
Beyond her on-screen work, Kali is a co-founder of Otras, a union that advocates for the rights of sex workers.
As a passionate activist, she strongly believes that sex workers should be leading figures in the feminist movement.
Mira Nair’s film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love was a groundbreaking work that delved into the intricacies of desire, sexuality, and relationships in a historical setting.
The movie challenged the norms of its time by portraying complex female characters who were unapologetic about their desires.
Through her artistry, Nair initiated discussions about the historical context of sexual exploration and the universality of human desires, thereby contributing to a more nuanced understanding of sexuality.
Nair’s films have left a lasting impact on the world of cinema, not only for their artistic merit but also for their ability to bridge cultural divides and provoke meaningful conversations
Gauri Sawant is an Indian transgender activist who has made significant contributions to advocating for the rights and dignity of transgender individuals in India.
She has been an ardent advocate for the rights of transgender individuals, especially transgender sex workers, who often face high levels of discrimination, violence, and lack of access to healthcare.
Gauri joined the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi party, which is a political party in Maharashtra, India, focused on advocating for the rights of marginalised communities.
Through the party, she aims to influence policies that directly impact trans individuals and sex workers.
Through her visibility in the media, Gauri has been successful in humanising transgender experiences and challenging societal prejudices about sex work.
Swara Bhaskar’s roles in films such as Veere Di Wedding and her vocal advocacy for feminist issues have challenged traditional gender norms.
Through her characters and statements, Bhaskar has highlighted the importance of autonomy and choice for women, including their choices related to sexuality and relationships.
By challenging societal expectations, she has paved the way for more inclusive conversations about these topics.
Perhaps the most iconic celebrity when talking about the sex industry in South Asia is Sunny Leone.
Her journey from adult entertainment to mainstream Indian cinema has been met with a mix of curiosity, controversy, and admiration.
Sunny’s open discussions about her past and her ability to gracefully navigate the complexities of fame have contributed to her public image.
Her journey has inspired conversations about sex positivity, consent, and women’s agency.
In doing so, Sunny has challenged preconceived notions about individuals with a history in the sex industry, encouraging more empathetic discussions about sex work and its complexities.
While not directly addressing the sex industry, Milind Soman’s bold photoshoots have contributed to normalising conversations about sensuality and self-expression.
Milind Soman has also been a part of controversies, notably for his social media posts where he shared artistic nude photos of himself in nature.
While these posts sparked debates, they also drew attention to the idea of body positivity and embracing one’s natural self.
By challenging notions of shame and secrecy around the human body and desire, Soman indirectly contributes to broader discussions about the complexities of human sexuality, including sex work.
Karan Johar’s films have often pushed boundaries by introducing more open portrayals of sexuality and relationships.
While not directly advocating for the sex industry, his work has indirectly paved the way for discussions around sexuality and relationships.
Karan Johar is known for being private about his personal life.
But, he has openly discussed his struggles with his sexual orientation and societal expectations, contributing to conversations about LGBTQ+ issues in India.
Therefore, Johar has contributed to a climate where conversations about the sex industry can be approached with greater understanding.
Sona Mohapatra, a versatile singer and performer, has used her platform to advocate for empowerment and consent.
Her most notable songs come in the form of ‘Ambarsariya’ from Fukrey, ‘Bedardi Raja’ from Delhi Belly, and ‘Ankahee’ from Lootera.
Her songs and public statements often address issues such as gender equality, body positivity, and consent.
She uses her platform to challenge societal norms and promote dialogue about important issues.
Sona’s outspoken nature has sometimes led to controversies.
She has criticised the music industry for promoting misogyny and objectification of women.
Her criticism of fellow artists and industry practices has sparked debates and discussions.
Through her music and outspoken stance, she challenges victim-blaming narratives and promotes discussions about agency in both professional and personal contexts.
Mohapatra’s work has contributed to destigmatising sex work and highlighting the importance of consent in all interactions.
Nalini Jameela, an Indian sex worker, authored a memoir titled The Autobiography of a Sex Worker.
In her book, she openly shared her life story, providing an intimate look into the realities of sex work in India.
Jameela’s memoir challenges societal preconceptions and contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the reasons individuals may enter the sex industry and the challenges they face.
Meena Seshu is the founder of Sangram, an organisation that advocates for the rights of sex workers in India.
Through her activism, Seshu challenges societal stigma and discrimination against sex workers.
She focuses on empowering sex workers with information about their rights, healthcare, and legal support.
Thus, challenging the stereotype that sex workers lack agency.
Breaking the Taboos: Impact and Challenges
The efforts of these South Asian celebrities have certainly made a dent in the wall of stigma surrounding the sex industry.
Their actions have led to a more open dialogue about sexuality, consent, and the rights of sex workers.
However, challenges persist such as:
- Backlash and Moral Policing: Celebrities who challenge societal norms often face moral policing. This backlash can deter others from joining the conversation.
- Slow Societal Shift: While these celebrities have managed to spark conversations, changing deep-seated cultural norms takes time.
- Limited Representation: More representation and voices are needed to accelerate the shift in societal attitudes, especially on a mainstream level.
The impact of these South Asian celebrities in breaking down stigmas around the sex industry is multifaceted and interconnected.
Their contributions, whether through art, advocacy, or personal stories, collectively create a mosaic of influence that challenges taboos and fosters a more inclusive discourse.
These individuals, each in their own unique way, have helped reshape societal attitudes, offering a glimpse of a more empathetic and informed future.