The AFA would like to congratulate our 2019 Dissertation Prize winner, Whitney Russell of UCSD (advisor Nancy Postero), for her dissertation on how Indian human rights activism intended to help women leave sex work has problematically neglected to ask questions about sex workers’ broader social, familial and moral lives. Her dissertation extends a feminist analysis of sex work beyond the framework of development alone.
Ashrey (a pseudonym), a village near the Haryana-Delhi border, is what Anuja Agrawal terms a “prostitution village” (2008), a place where families draw most of their income from sex work. Commercial sexual labor has drawn a number of development and human rights interventions into the community, but Russell shows that these programs have been at the expense of a wider view that would include Ashrey’s own approaches to empowerment and rights, all of which center around goodness. Russell shows that goodness, in Ashrey, is a political identity that wields power at multiple scales, including the family, village, and interactions with the state. By focusing on the gendered, everyday, political experiences of women in this community, Russell attempts to escape established tropes of sex workers and instead advance new ways of thinking about gender, development, and political life in contemporary India.