Street Corner Secrets

Sex, Work, and Migration in the City of Mumbai

Street Corner Secrets

Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies

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Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 6 photos, 2 maps Published: August 2014

Author: Svati P Shah

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Sex and Sexuality

Street Corner Secrets challenges widespread notions of sex work in India by examining solicitation in three spaces within the city of Mumbai that are seldom placed within the same analytic frame—brothels, streets, and public day-wage labor markets (nakas), where sexual commerce may be solicited discretely alongside other income-generating activities. Focusing on women who migrated to Mumbai from rural, economically underdeveloped areas within India, Svati P. Shah argues that selling sexual services is one of a number of ways women working as laborers may earn a living, demonstrating that sex work, like day labor, is a part of India's vast informal economy. Here, various means of earning—legitimized or stigmatized, legal or illegal—overlap or exist in close proximity to one another, shaping a narrow field of livelihood options that women navigate daily. In the course of this rich ethnography, Shah discusses policing practices, migrants' access to housing and water, the idea of public space, critiques of states and citizenship, and the discursive location of violence within debates on sexual commerce. Throughout, the book analyzes the epistemology of prostitution, and the silences and secrets that constitute the discourse of sexual commerce on Mumbai's streets.


“This book is a great extension to the body of knowledge on sexual commerce, particularly for its focus on migration, housing, and informal economics, which differs from the abolitionist perspective of power within the boundaries of gender.” — Jennifer Huemmer, Communication Booknotes Quarterly

"Street Corner Secrets is a nuanced ethnographic exploration of lives of poor migrant women who are part of the urban informal economy in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai…. [T]his book is a significant contribution to making sense of the place of sex work in the lives of poor migrant women in urban India." — Anjua Agrawal, American Anthropologist

"Based on critical ethnography, archival research, and discourse analysis, Svati Shah makes an important intervention in the ongoing feminist debates on sex work... Shah provides in this book... a much needed focus on the political economy of sexual commerce." — Manisha Desai, Gender & Society

"Overall, this book’s ethnography makes a vibrant contribution to urban anthropology. Crafting an understanding of sexual labour that reflects the intricacies of rural-urban migration, the book sheds light on the management of knowledge around sex work, from secrecy to the rehabilitation of 'rescued' prostitutes, and shows how spaces occupied by women sex workers have multiple uses and meanings in Mumbai’s contested urban landscape."  — Atreyee Sen, Pacific Affairs

"Svati P. Shah’s new book Street Corner Secrets makes an important contribution to ongoing debates around sex work in India.... Multi-sited urban ethnography alongside meticulous participant observation, provides a fascinating insight into Shah’s participants." — Rohit Dasgupta, Royal Society for Asian Affairs

"[T]he author's rich ethnography serves as strong evidence of what is at stake should the narrow epistemology of prostitution be unchallenged." — Pin Wang, Asian Anthropology

"Street Corner Secrets offers a window into the narrow field of livelihood options that poor, migrant women navigate in urban India and, importantly, provides a much-needed model for ending the analytic exceptionalism of sex work." — Lauren Wilks, Sociology

"[Shah's] argument, that silence can prevent us from asking more questions about a disenfranchised people, is what makes her book worth reading." — Nirmala Jayaraman, Allegra Lab

"Shah considers what kind of knowledge research into sexual commerce can produce, and offers a nuanced epistemology of sex work that attends to the axes of visibility/invisibility and speech/silence." — Lucinda Ramberg, South Asia

"Within activist circles, global feminist discourse, and academic conversations surrounding gender and agency, sex work has often been framed as an exceptional space of disempowerment, trafficking, and exploitation. Svati P. Shah’s beautifully engaged ethnography, Street Corner Secrets, challenges this narrative by attending to the material landscape of rural labor migration to Mumbai....This text will appeal to scholars in anthropology, sociology, gender and sexuality studies, labor studies, urban studies, human rights, and South Asia studies, as well as upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses invested in similar disciplines." — Maura Finkelstein, GLQ

"Street Corner Secrets is a compelling exploration of the intersections between space, society, and sex work. It is a thorough and fascinating text for readers who are interested in topics that range from the political economies of space, to the precariousness of informal labor, to debates over sexual commerce. . . . [The] clear, accessible style is appropriate for newcomers and seasoned scholars alike. Svati Shah’s reflexive ethnography is engaged, feminist anthropology at its best." — Cara Snyder, Society & Space

"I learned a tremendous amount from Street Corner Secrets. Svati P. Shah thoughtfully and passionately lays out the struggles poor women face every day and their creative attempts to survive and move forward. Her concern about and respect for the women she meets shines through on every page. This is the best of engaged anthropology. It will become a classic on gendered labor, sexual labor, and the precarity of informal work."
— Denise Brennan, author of Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States

"In this powerful ethnography, Svati P. Shah attends to the practices of everyday life, the political economy of space, and more generally to a methodology that does not just give lip service to ending the analytic isolation of sex work but instead models an extraordinary form of critical and reflexive ethnography. This is a critical contribution to scholarship on labor and contemporary political and market transformation."
— Lawrence Cohen, author of No Aging in India: Alzheimer's, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Svati P. Shah is Assistant Professor in the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1. Day Wage Labor and Migration: Making Ends Meet 41

2. Sex, Work, and Silence from the Construction of Workers' Naka 77

3. Sex Work and the Street 113

4. Red-Light Districts, Rescue, and Real Estate 147

Conclusion. Agency, Livelihoods, and Spaces 189

Notes 207

Bibliography 231

Index 247
Sales/Territorial Rights: World exc Maldives & S. Asia, incl. Myanmar

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5698-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5689-9
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