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Sex Work Under 

The Colonial Raj: 


It is imperative, to contextualize the emergence of brothel-based sex work and clarify our understanding of red-light areas. Major designated sex trade zones exist only in Delhi, West Bengal and Maharashtra. There are specific historical reasons behind the rise of both brothels and red-light areas in these cities

Words by Nihira Ram

September 17, 2020


Illustration by Divya

Recently, researchers affiliated with Yale and Harvard University published a paper that recommended continuing the closure of red-light areas in India which had come to a halt when the national lockdown was instituted on March 25th. The paper’s authors claimed that this extension would curb the transmission of COVID-19 in the country. National media outlets such as The Times of India, The Indian Express and The Hindu Business Line, among others, sensationalised the report while soliciting no input from the women it was prescribing measures for. Soon after, sex worker collectives, along with several activists and public health professionals, admonished the research – asserting that it was detached from the reality of labouring women and would be immensely harmful for their well-being if enforced through policy. The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) published an open letter addressed to the Yale-Harvard report’s authors, which was signed by over 2000 sex workers from across India, demanding that the paper be retracted. 

An interesting point made in the NNSW letter was that even if taken as fact, the Yale-Harvard paper consists of many gaps in knowledge. A considerable portion of sex work in India is not carried out in clearly demarcated ‘red-light’ areas. In July 2020, The Laws of Social Reproduction Project (LSRP) also released a statement raising concerns regarding the Yale-Harvard study, which was signed by 140 people. The authors wrote that the majority of sex work is conducted on ‘highways, railways, construction sites, bus stations, farmlands, lodges, and residential homes’ and that women often migrate frequently between these locations. Brothels have never been the sole medium for sex work in South Asia. In fact, their presence as a commercial urban model has diminished in recent times due to a plethora of reasons including massive real estate development and brutal police crackdowns.

It becomes imperative, then, to contextualize the emergence of brothel-based sex work and clarify our understanding of red-light areas. According to the LSRP statement, major designated sex trade zones exist only in Delhi, West Bengal and Maharashtra. There are specific historical reasons behind the rise of both brothels and red-light areas in these cities. The Yale-Harvard study wraps its policing measures in the garb of COVID-19 safety. In a similar vein, the British Raj sought to prevent the spread of venereal disease in India by personifying working-class native women as it's harbingers. It then justified surveilling the private lives of sex workers by utilising the language of public health. This short series traces the transformations sex work underwent in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi during the nineteenth century.


The city of Calcutta was formed during British rule by merging three rural areas along the Hooghly River: Dihi Kalikata, Sutanati and Gobindapur, which had been transferred to the East India Company by a Mughal court order issued in Delhi. Calcutta became the headquarters of colonial rule despite being mired in conflict between zamindars, the Company, and the then nawab of Bengal. Sumanta Banerjee in his book Under The Raj notes the haste with which Company officials reorganized residential farmlands into ‘a metropolitan center of colonial trade’. They built warehouses, maintained trade posts, and fortified the river bank. This involved the forced eviction of previous villagers. Two properties owned by women named Ishwari and Bhobi who the Company referred to as ‘prostitutes’ were seized in 1753. Their houses were located at the heart of what we today call Calcutta. The British were not interested in eradicating ‘prostitution’. The administrative presumption was that sex workers were responsible for the sharp rise of venereal disease in Calcutta’s significant population of migratory men, especially their own soldiers and foreign sailors, led to formal regulations of ‘prostitution’.


In 1868 the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Contagious Diseases Act, which was instituted within England and also in its colonies. Among other things, it mandated that all sex workers had to register themselves at local police stations. Four years prior, in 1864, the Government of India introduced the Cantonment Act which employed women as on-site sex workers at military bases. It also demanded that local police may routinely ‘inspect and control houses of ill-fame’ outside army barracks. The Contagious Diseases Act, in particular, allowed authorities to detain women suspected of having venereal disease in Lock Hospitals which were medical facilities dedicated solely to treating sexually transmitted diseases.

Industrialisation had led to a burgeoning commercial sex trade that was different from the kinds of concubinage that existed prior. However, there was now some concern over encounters between Europeans and Indians. The Company’s lax attitudes towards Englishmen cohabiting with or marrying native women in the 17th and 18th centuries starkly changed in the 19th century. This was despite the fact that Englishmen like Job Charnock, a key founder of Calcutta, himself had three daughters with a native woman named Maria. But for the British government in nineteenth-century India, Charnock was little more than a cautionary tale of what ‘dangerous’ liaisons with ‘degraded’ native women can lead to. The colonial state with support from the native population segregated and incarcerated sex workers further driving them into poverty. Durba Mitra retells the story of Sukhimonee Raur in her book Indian Sex Life which examines colonial configurations of sexuality. Raur was arrested in 1868 for allegedly evading medical tests that the Contagious Diseases Act had made compulsory for registered sex workers. In her case against the conviction at the Appellate High Court of Calcutta, she claimed that she was 'not now nor had ever been a prostitute'. She went on to testify that the police had coerced her to register herself. The court held that although the police had the authority to detain women who they thought were 'clandestine prostitutes', they could not force a woman to register. It may have been possible that Raur was a seasonal sex worker supplementing her wages as a factory labourer, spinner, sweeper, maid, etc. It may have also been possible that she was a courtesan presumed to be involved in illicit work. Regardless of whether Sukhimonee Raur was telling the truth and to what degree what remains clear is that colonial courts, the police force, and the medical body worked together to violate women.

The British had established brothels within army cantonment areas known as chaklas. Military barracks such as Fort William enabled the British to provision women for their troops as administrators believed this would decrease the spread of venereal disease amongst its soldiers. These chaklas were racially segregated so that white and Indian soldiers wouldn’t develop sexual relations with the same women. Chaklas were overseen by women (many of whom had experience in the sex trade). Concerns regarding soldier and sailor health inevitably targeted illicit workers (such as sex workers, dancers, singers, and other ‘public’ women) by treating them as purveyors of disease. Though women earned more in chaklas than in brothels or as itinerant workers, they were less successful in refusing medical incarceration. Chakla women identified by soldiers as having ‘given them’ venereal disease were 'forcibly dragged away and detained in lock hospitals' (1). Brothels outside of cantonment areas were also the result of a rapidly transitioning economy. Chatterjee quotes the Commissioner of Police’s 1879 report in which it’s clear that the increase of known brothels in Calcutta correlated to a decrease in women registering with the police. Many sex workers were forced to choose the violence of brothel managers over colonial repression. This wasn’t the only spatial change brought about by the Contagious Diseases Act. Until 1950 Chandernagore, a city to the north of Calcutta was a French territory. This made it a prime destination for many women fleeing the British law enforcement. Between 1870 and 1888 an average of 'twelve women were arrested daily for breaching the Contagious Diseases Act [in] Calcutta alone' (2). Despite this seemingly harsh implementation, policemen were often regular customers at brothels and 'were both feared and secretly derided by the prostitutes of Calcutta' (1). 

Sukhimonee wasn’t alone in her resistance to violent hostility. Heera Bulbul, a popular courtesan, enrolled her son in Calcutta’s Hindu College in 1853. After considerable opposition from bhadralok elite, the college’s administration decided to expel Bulbul’s son. By then some upper-caste families had even opened a competing institution named Hindu Metropolitan College. Various sections of Indians loudly called for brutal measures against illicit workers including their eviction to the city’s outskirts and other forms of segregation. Banerjee mentions a letter from the 1850s written by ‘displaced prostitutes in Midnapur’ (1) who were evicted from their houses because other residents objected to them living next to a children’s school. The women in the letter chastise marriage among other things:

'These proud women from [prestigious] families can never be stained by the dark stamp of [shame] like us . . . But, after they retire at night . . . they have to demonstrate love to their husbands whom they hate.'

Theatre was also an important avenue of employment for many women from ‘red-light’ areas. Binodini Dasi, one of the most famous stage personas of Bengal, narrated at length in her autobiography the precarious life she led as a sex worker. Caste defined the parameters of sex work to a great extent. The Contagious Diseases Act stipulated that women have to identify their caste on the cards (or tickets as they were called) they were issued after registration. The Health Officer of Calcutta, Dr Fabre Tonnerre, who later drafted the Contagious Diseases Act as it was applied across India, estimated (1):

' a despatch dated 16 September 1867 (a year before the enactment Of the Act) pointed Cut: syphilitic diseases exist amongst the public prostitutes Of the town [Calcutta) in the following ratio: women of high caste 15 percent; Hindoo women of inferior caste 30 Mussulman and low caste Hindoo women 50 percent; low Christians and Other non-descript prostitutes 70. The last two classes of women are frequented mostly by soldiers and sailors, and reside in Jaun Bazar, Bazar and Champatolla.' 

In Under The Raj, my attention was drawn especially to two women. Disallowed from attending the funeral of a popular stage artist Girish Chandra Ghosh in 1912, many girls and women from the ‘red-light’ areas of Calcutta who had been his students or colleagues demanded that a separate ceremony be organized for them. At the event, several women delivered fiery speeches. Two of them were Susheelabai and Norisundari. Susheelabai asserted that even though they were 'ostracized by society [they] were capable of feeling joy and grief'. She questioned why their 'tears, wailings, and mourning [were being] considered crimes'. Norisundari, on the other hand, sharply rebuked the gentry in the crowd:

'After my birth, your respectable society said to me—Since you haven’t been born in a family that is certified as virtuous, you will continue to commit sins all your life, and we, thanks to our power of virtue, will hate and abuse you. But Girish Babu wasn’t that virtuous!'

These women were acutely aware that they had no place in civil society and no refuge in colonial justice. But they continued to articulate their desires and their fears on their own terms. They knew neither the police station nor the hospital could provide them with the safety they deserved. They knew when to lie to protect other women and when to lie to protect themselves. They also were attempting to negotiate the expansion of colonial control over their lives. The brothel structure expanded in Calcutta particularly because of the harmful legal tactics the British pursued with support from non-Europeans, especially the bhadralok. So what does it mean when academics today tout measures just as punitive and restrictive as the ones in the 19th century? Why is the burden of public health on women whose welfare concerns have largely been written out of public policy?



  1. Sumanta Banerjee’s Under The Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal is a seminal book that draws from a wide range of sources including letters and songs written by women and expounds on sexual labour without romanticization or moralization. 

  2. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought by Durba Mitra traces how women’s desires were disciplined and violated through discourse produced by empire. She reconstructs the process through which native women (especially widowed or unmarried) came to legally be seen as ‘prostitutes’.

  3. These labour conditions particular to women can be noted in Ratnabali Chatterjee’s article titled Prostitution in Nineteenth Century Bengal. She mentions in a footnote a letter written by a widow from Shantipur to a Bengali newspaper Samachar Darpan in 1828. Retold in an article by Ratnabali Chatterjee, we read that the woman has lost her primary source of income “after weavers stopped coming to her house to collect the products of her spinning”. This occurred due to a shift in trade relations where yarn “began to be imported from England”. It isn’t then outrageous to imagine that this woman might have had to join the many migrant women practicing prostitution in cities and mofussil towns across the Bengal Presidency. Many girls and women ended up in sex trade because of reasons to do with escape, abandonment, famine, or others.

NIHIRA RAM is a freelance writer from Bombay and an editor at Akademi Mag. 

Her primary interests are history, ecology, and sound studies. She loves listening to the radio and is terrified of the ocean despite being in awe of it. (Maybe both of those go hand in hand.) She is currently working on her Master’s dissertation about sound in the 19th and early 20th century British Raj.

Instagram/Twitter: @fasaane_ 

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