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Violence and Coercion in Sri Lanka's Commercial Sex Industry: Intersections of Gender, Sexuality, Culture, and the Law

NCJ Number
Violence Against Women Volume: 8 Issue: 9 Dated: September 2002 Pages: 1044-1073
Jody Miller
Date Published
September 2002
30 pages
This article examines the conditions facing commercial sex workers in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Prior research suggests that prostitution results from and reproduces entrenched gender, race, class, and national inequalities. A 3-year comparative field study was conducted, examining the routinization of violence and harassment against women and transgendered/gay men in an illicit sex market whose primary clientele were Sri Lankan men. The relationship was examined between cultural definitions of gender/sexuality and the implementation of existing legal frameworks and its impact on the treatment and experiences of sex workers. Women in Sri Lanka have low-paying jobs and are victims of a sexual double standard. Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka. Primary data came from in-depth interviews; data collection involved limited observational work, focus groups with various industry participants, and information documented through informal conversations. Results show that the emphasis on violence against female sex workers must be broadened to recognize and include additional forms of gender violence. Much of the intense stigma, harassment, and brutal violence faced by nachchi or transgendered/gay men are generated by the fact that although they are biologically men, they adopt a culturally devalued feminine gender identity. The organization and circumstances of sex work increase their vulnerability and deny them access to legal recourse when victimized. Violence against women is construed as justifiable because they violate normative expectations of proper sexual behavior; and violence against nachchi because they willingly embrace a lesser, subordinated, feminized identity. The structure and organization of commercial sex in Sri Lanka, including criminalization and criminal justice practices in enforcing the law, serve not just to disempower sex workers but all women. It makes sex workers more dependent and vulnerable and ensures the presence of violence and coercion in all aspects of the industry. 26 notes, 44 references