“Prostitutes of God:” Film Mocks, Belittles Sex Workers


Last week, four episodes of a film entitled Prostitutes of God were posted on VBS.TV, which is owned by Vice Magazine. Prostitutes of God producer Sarah Harris, spent time with members of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (meaning ‘Prostitutes’ Freedom from Injustice’) or “VAMP,” and let her into their lives, their families and their workplace.  The result?  Films that are inaccurate and misrepresentative, and insulting to the people who agreed to participate and to the Hindu culture. 

VAMP was formed in 1996 and now works with more than 5000 women, men, and transgenders in sex work to promote and protect their human rights and health. The group covers six districts in Western Maharashtra and two in North Karnataka. VAMP has been internationally recognised by groups like Human Rights Watch for their contribution to human rights and for their work in HIV/AIDS prevention.

However, you would not know any of this from Harris’ film, which is full of stereotypes and representations of Indian culture that are designed to mock and belittle.  In addition, Harris’ film puts people in danger– of stigma, discrimination and misinformation—through her uninformed and judgemental editorial lens.  In a recent interview of Harris in the UK Independent (LINK)—in which she describes her interest in sex work as having originated when she spent time as a volunteer “with a charity in southern India which rescues victims of sex trafficking—Harris recounts someone who told her that HIV/AIDS is like “plucking a bunch of grapes.  As soon as a woman is infected, then her whole family becomes infected.” 

This ignorance and irresponsibility runs rampant throughout Prostitutes of God.  One case in point is that of Belavva. The film maker wrongly states that the “Devadasi” religious ritual demands that poor families traffic their daughters into prostitution (that is dedicate them to the goddess Yellama). She then states that when Belavva was young her family sent her to work for a landlord who asked her parents to dedicate her – or pimp her out. This is stated, not implied. It is not true, neither in the instance of the individual concerned, nor with respect to Hinduism.

Sadly there are many more examples throughout the film, examples that prompted VAMP to issue the following rebuttal: 

It is to be hoped that a person would pretty sure of their evidence when making these sorts of allegations to the world. Sarah Harris has managed to misconstrue most of what she has reported, has exploited a trusting community in the worst possible ways, and has produced a series of films that are extraordinarily offensive. She has demonstrated racism and has behaved in ways reminiscent of the most unpleasant forms of colonialism. She has abused the poorest of people for her own ends.

To manipulate poor people to meet one’s ends is blameworthy. It is reprehensible to betray the trust of a most vulnerable people merely to make a film. To, in addition, vilify and disparage a culture and religious beliefs, as Sarah Harris and VBS TV have done, requires either wilful ignorance or a determination to produce work that panders to the worst type of media sensationalism imaginable. The people in the film are part of a community that wishes to tell their stories and be understood by a broad audience, but we will not stand by while we are being misrepresented to the world.

It is to be hoped that a person would be pretty sure of their evidence when making these sorts of allegations to the world. Sarah Harris has managed to misconstrue most of what she has reported, has exploited a trusting community in the worst possible ways, and has produced a series of films that are extraordinarily offensive. She has demonstrated racism and has behaved in ways reminiscent of the most unpleasant forms of colonialism.

Sarah Harris and VBS must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. VAMP members are people with rights including reputational rights.

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  • crowepps

    TORONTO — An Ontario Superior Court ruled Tuesday that three federal prostitution laws are unconstitutional, paving the way for the decriminalization of the sex-trade industry in Canada.

     

    The landmark ruling, for now, only strikes down the laws in Ontario, but if it survives an appeal, it will allow for other municipalities and jurisdictions in Canada to follow suit.

     

    In a 131-page ruling, Justice Susan Himel wrote that the laws in the Criminal Code prohibiting sex-trade workers from running a bawdy house, communicating for the purpose of prostitution and living off the avails of prostitution, put their lives at risk.

     

    “These laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” she said in a decision that has been on reserve for more than a year.

    Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Superior+Court+strikes+down+federal+prostitution+laws/3591454/story.html#ixzz10yo1zAQv

  • arekushieru

    I just hope that they put regulations in place that will protect sex-workers on the street, as well.

  • mechashiva

    Actually, the Devadasi often are placed in the temples by their families in order to pay off a debt. They pervert Hinduism to justify their daughters’ suffering in the sex trade as their karma. If they had been better in previous lives, they wouldn’t have been born female to begin with, so being prostituted is just to be expected.

     

    I’ve been reading a bit about this in Disposable People (forget the author’s name offhand), a book about modern day slavery. It’s a reliable source.

    • meg

      Yes! Great book … for those who love reality!

      Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy by Kevin Bales published in 1999

      I also read this book about as much as I could handle. Yep, ten years ago I plucked it right off the “new” shelf in the local university library and made myself read.And now I know I am not alone in having picked up this book!

      One thing that should wake us all up to the reality of modern slavery is the fact of the sheer number of people in the world now, a wider gap between rich and poor, a surplus of people competing for fewer and fewer employment opportunities, inadequate food distribution/poorly managed food resuources … in other words, human life is cheap. Cheaper than it has ever been. When this book was first published the world’s population was approaching the 6 billion mark. We are now at about , courtesy of wikipedia, 6.8 billion. A number that has me in awe. No happy hookers mentioned in this book though.

  • wildabeast

    I just want to respond to the rebuttal issued by VAMP.  It is so sad that such an insightful, dignified, penetrating statement has to come into being as a result of such a betrayal.

    I wish I could meet the people who are shown in the rebuttal.  Since I will probably never get that chance, I wish I could get to know about them, and how they’ve become the people they are.  I wish I could see a documentary about their lives…but the only one about THESE SPECIFIC people is Sarah Harris’.  If she had made any attempt at portraying the lives of these people honestly, they would not now be issuing a rebuttal.  The very existence of the document demonstrates the depths of the betrayal under discussion.  So I won’t be watching her movie to get a better sense of who these people are, and what forces shaped their lives.

     

    I’ve now just spent 10 minutes staring at this screen, trying to find a way to describe my sense of the enormity and moral heinousness of the betrayal Harris has perpetrated on the members of VAMP.  I’m totally at a loss for words – it’s such a COMPLETE perversion of what a documentary filmmaker (or anthropologist with a camera or whatever you want to call it) is supposed to do, to aim for, that English doesn’t have a word for it.  A negative inversion of the highest order.  Good going, Sarah.