Symposium Introduction

In a moment when so much of women of color historiography centers on archival absence, Durba Mitra’s Indian Sex Life begins with an archival excess: the abundant presence of the figure of the prostitute across a wide range of archives from colonial India. How can we make sense of the hyper-appearance of this concept, and its capacity to describe, regulate, organize, police, and categorize so many different kinds of women, always with the impulse to mark deviant female sexuality? How, Mitra asks, does modern social thought come to be organized around the concept of the prostitute? In a recent interview, Mitra described this effort:

Indian Sex Life dwells in the tension between historiographical desires to recuperate marginalized subjects and assert historical presence for a present politics of recognition, and the epistemic limits of archives where deviant female sexuality appears as an object and women are totally disappeared from view.1

Mitra follows the category prostitute around myriad archives, tracking how the concept appears to discuss a wide range of issues: marriage, trafficking, abortion, monogamy, and thus reveals how sexuality is at the heart of modern social thought. Her book ambitiously requires that we collectively grapple with how ideas about sexuality—and female sexuality particularly—have been central to how society itself imagines, narrates, and studies itself.

Mitra’s ambitious project emphasizes not only the importance of sexuality to the history of modern social thought, she also argues that “by linking ideas of feminist sexuality to the origins of modern social thought, this project suggests new avenues for writing histories of women’s sexuality and more global histories of sexuality” (9). In offering us a history of a concept, and the shifting and evolving notions of that concept, Mitra’s book offers us new methods of feminist historiography, and a profound argument that, as she notes, “the history of female sexuality is essential for the urgent project of decolonizing social theory.”2

The generous contributors to this forum take up Mitra’s provocative book, thinking about its theoretical, historiographical, and methodological innovations, and considering how the book speaks across various disciplines including feminist and queer studies, history of sexuality, South Asian studies, and history of science. Her work insists that historians and sexuality studies scholars continue the project of considering how the regulation of female sexuality has undergirded a host of efforts to produce particular kinds of citizens.



Kaneesha Parsard



On South Asian Feminisms and Black Feminisms

What is there to gain from the encounter between Black feminisms and South Asian feminisms? I asked myself this question as I closed my copy of Durba Mitra’s Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton University Press, 2020), and felt pulled toward Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019) again.1 From this associative thinking, this essay begins to answer this question.

Mitra’s Indian Sex Life is the story of how “deviant female sexuality” became the first object of the modern Indian social sciences, disciplines that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Mitra takes these disciplines and lays bare their conventions: to trace the origins of Indian sexuality; to gather facts about sexuality and organize them into data; to use circular thinking linking ideas about sexuality to bodies and vice versa; to encourage the evolution of unrestrained sexuality into conjugal monogamy; and to make lessons out of the testimonies of “deviant” Indian women (18–20). This is a story of form and function. Indian Sex Life provides a vocabulary for investigating this archive. And her study is an important counter-history: how in the last decades of British rule in India the concept of the prostitute comes to organize ideas about sexuality and about society at large.

In another place, Hartman’s work of critical fabulation traces the lives of colored girls, gender nonconforming people, and queer people in Northern US cities one to two generations after Emancipation.2 She does so in part through social scientific thought, like W. E. B. Du Bois’s insistence that the absence of the nuclear family hampered the progress of Black Americans, and disciplinary institutions like girls’ homes and prisons. She imagines life in these enclosures. In doing so, Hartman’s work challenges the archive and Euro-American theories of anarchy that fail to accommodate the dance hall, the streets, and mutual aid in sites like early twentieth-century Harlem and Philadelphia.3

As I engaged with Mitra on Twitter and as I read further, I was delighted to learn that Black feminist scholarship is a critical resource for Indian Sex Life. As Mitra herself insists in a recent interview, “I am influenced by these fields of study, including postcolonial and transnational feminisms, black feminist studies, and queer studies, which ask questions about how we deal with these fragmented archives and write fragmented lives.”4 Encounter is a question for these fields but also one I would like to pose to Durba: What do we learn—about the resonances among fields—when we bring citational conversations out of the shadows into the full light of day?

These fields, and the two books I’m thinking about, put the archive to work: for Hartman, to outline the contours of Black life in the enclosure of the ghetto, and for Mitra, to assemble and critique how the Indian social sciences became coherent through Indian female sexuality. But is Blackness analogous to other racial formations? Are Black gender formations analogous to other racialized gender formations?

Certain disciplinary conventions make it so putting a work of Black feminist scholarship in conversation with a work of South Asian feminist scholarship seems wrongheaded. In some thrusts of Black studies, like Afropessimism, such a conversation risks perpetuating a fantasy of multiracial coalition—the idea that all women share a struggle.5 This divide also exists in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, though on much different terms. It’s in the history of the National Women’s Studies Association, as our convener Jennifer Nash reminds us, that each field was hewed to distinct bodies and geographies. If Black feminisms (and frameworks like intersectionality) belong to Black women in the United States only, and transnational feminisms to South Asian women, the fields become mutually unintelligible.6 Nonetheless, questions remained as I read across Indian Sex Life and Wayward Lives: If gender under colonialism is a resource—of physical, domestic, and reproductive labor—and Black flesh is deprived of gender difference through the Middle Passage and chattel slavery, how to reconcile the common expectation that Black women and Indian women should enter domestic relations and reproduce?7 The common demand that these women make lives with men of their own racial background, class, and/or caste in what I have begun to call the racial family? And, finally, the common experience of violence when they fail to do so? As these questions piled up, the conversation between Black feminisms and South Asian feminisms became more urgent.

To say that the two books are asking similar questions of a common time and phenomenon is not to say that Black feminisms and South Asian feminisms are equivalent or that South Asian women’s and Black women experiences are commensurate. But encounter inquires into these differences. So, what is there to gain from such an encounter? These fields might meet on many conceptual grounds, but my aim in what remains is to return to the question of archives: How both Mitra and Hartman understand lives that come into view as objects of research, surveillance, and violence.

Encountering Figures

Both Mitra and Hartman trace the development of homegrown sociology and social thought from W. E. B. Du Bois, the Black sociologist and writer, to S. C. Mookerjee, an Indian nationalist: they attempted to capture these women’s behaviors and to drive regulations and recommendations for social life. While both “wayward” and “deviant” suggest the movement away from accepted standards, the wayward is also difficult to trace—her way and destination unknown. In the Northern United States, “colored” women were “potential prostitutes.”8 The police, social workers, and social scientists alike deemed Black women lascivious, and incarcerated them for it. Meanwhile, Indian women were “clandestine prostitutes”: social scientists feared that Indian women could maintain the veneer of piety and modesty while prostituting themselves in secret (82–83). And Indian social scientists regarded Muslim women as even more base than their Hindu counterparts (75). Both Mitra and Hartman addressed the violence these women faced: of rape, of being apprehended, of being incarcerated or sentenced to indenture. Both Hartman and Mitra took great care in assembling these archives and wearied as they did.

As I encountered what could be called the figure of the prostitute in both Mitra’s and Hartman’s books, I also wanted to understand the figure itself: how a critical approach to the archive gets at the characters of places and times beyond our reach. In South Asian, transnational, and Black feminisms alike, the figure has demonstrated the power of the state but also the desires of scholars to find closure in and remedy the past.9 Figures theorize problems of knowledge that are also and always embodied problems.

My interest in the figure might be curious because, in Indian Sex Life, Mitra refuses figuration in favor of concept history: “Women and ideas of female sexuality are not solely significations, representations, or symbols of broader social and political challenges” (15). This is a critique of historical knowledge that would subordinate the study of sexuality to seemingly more legitimate objects of study. In this light, figuration is a colonial and masculine invention of the social sciences. It fixes women. Instead, Mitra avers that “the control of female sexuality is a central driving force in the very conceptualization of social life itself as an object of study, intervention and reform” (15). The relationship of Mitra’s study to figuration is a negative one. It illuminates how figuration presages the empirical objects of the social sciences. Through colonial regulations such as the Contagious Diseases Act of 1868 and the Indian Penal Code, the figure of the prostitute becomes “social fact” (67). The disciplines in which we write inherit and reproduce the representational tools of the colonial state. Another question for Durba: How might feminist methods upend or displace the disciplines?

As she turns away from figures, Mitra devotes attention to other formal qualities of the archive of sexuality in colonial India. Abortion pulls together the many concerns about Indian women’s sexuality: the responsibility of Indian women to marry and to reproduce within marriage, and the fear that she might shirk these responsibilities to live a prostitute’s life. This was the fulcrum of the book for me. Indeed, as Mitra traces circularity in the archive of Indian women’s sexuality, the body becomes evidence of the crime of abortion through postmortem investigation (105–6). For authorities and medical examiners, abortion is indelible. The evidence centers on flora and fauna such as the lal chitra, a stick that women were suspected of using to induce abortion (117). The anxiety around abortifacients was related to fears that women covertly sought abortion so they might evade the reproductive obligations of monogamous conjugality. Ideas about racial difference infuse these investigatory narratives; they often focus on Muslim women (116). In turn, these medical and legal reports influence the natural sciences (119). This circular reasoning can be found elsewhere in the British colonial world. In the plantation societies of the British West Indies, for example, botany was both part of the imperial mission but also a site of anxiety as enslaved women used their knowledge to abort unwanted pregnancies—including those resulting from rape.10 In this way, circularity meets Mitra’s later attention to the notion of evolution: ethnology and its interest in sexuality is a necessarily transnational mode of knowledge that takes the Black woman as a primary object of difference.11 Mitra shows that representation can organize, but is not the sum total of, Indian women’s sexuality.

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, by contrast, Hartman leans into figuration. Indeed, it appears in the title of the second chapter of the monograph: “A Minor Figure.” This minor figure might be thought of as the descendant of Venus in the archive of Atlantic slavery, the paradigmatic enslaved woman to which Hartman gestures in “Venus in Two Acts.”12 As Hartman writes: “The minor figure yields to the chorus. All the hurt and the promise of the wayward are hers to bear.”13 And she uses her method of critical fabulation to do so, taking the essential facts of a story and remixing them to find another story. Working from the letters of an incarcerated young woman, sitting with the photograph of an abused girl, she sketches the minor figure. Hartman’s approach, while different, is not incompatible with Mitra’s. Rather, it completes the picture by responding to social scientific figuration: she invents counter-figures in contrast to police records and the notes of wardens. Hartman opens the critical force of figuration. Figure carries a double meaning in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: figures as the numbers that “documented the Negro’s modernity” and figures as the many kinds of Black life that refused those metrics.14

In conversation with Wayward Lives, Indian Sex Life creates a kind of reverb from Calcutta to Harlem and, for me, the West Indian canefields. This question also necessarily exceeds the scope of either Mitra or Hartman’s books, to make space for work that considers gender and sexuality across the African and South Asian diasporas. In the context I study, Mitra’s insights about the clandestine prostitute align with the colonial anxieties around recruiting the “right kind of woman” for Indian indentureship in the British West Indies and throughout the Indian Ocean world.15 In the nineteenth century, the British East India Company recruited women from Bihar and the United Provinces and Tamil Nadu to the West Indian colonies—to the very barracks—in which African-descended women had been enslaved, among them Jamaica and Trinidad and Guiana. As I consider how gender and sexuality structure race, labor and capital after West Indian Emancipation, I pose the “coolie” woman as a companion figure to the Black woman: differently subjected to good labor and conjugal monogamy as conditions of freedom.16

Figuration is a regime of representation. In the context of both late colonial India and the early twentieth-century United States, figuration can be violent: Colonial modernity produces racial, gendered, and sexualized subjects and ideas about them that shore up that violence. But, digging into figuration, sketching obscured figures, can also be full of possibility and imagination. In the fields that Mitra and Hartman write to, particularly Black feminisms and South Asian feminisms, figuration can inspire both critique and creation.

Encounter’s Forms

In proposing encounter, I want to move away from the logic of analogy that has undergirded the study of “transnational Afro-Asian connections.”17 It risks flattening how race, gender, and sexuality are co-constituted and differently made across geographies. But if analogy depends on the hyphen, encounter simply uses the conjunction—and, or, but—to model dialogue. I look forward to this and future conversation with Durba! I think, too, of my conversations with scholars and friends like Jordache Ellapen, Najnin Islam, and Neelofer Qadir: who, from South Africa to the British West Indies and in different moments, are outlining feminist and queer approaches to the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. My final question to Durba: What unresolved questions might this field, formed through encounter, take up?

In Indian Sex Life and Wayward Lives, the conjunction provides clarity. In the moment in which colonized and Black peoples reinvent the social sciences and seek evolution through respectability. Where the specter of the prostitute sits in relation to the colored girls of Northern US cities and Indian women, Hindu and Muslim alike. And, in the relationship between representation and the real. Encounter acknowledges that neither gender nor sexuality nor feminism is monolithic. It nonetheless plumbs the difference to question patriarchy in all its forms.18

  1. Saidiya V. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 1st ed. (New York: Norton, 2019).

  2. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, xiii–xv.

  3. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 229.

  4. Jill Radsken, “Research, Personal Story Frame Professor’s New Book,” Harvard Gazette (blog), June 11, 2020,

  5. The Afropessimist critique of gender and cross-racial feminism can be best exemplified by the work of Patrice D. Douglass: “At the level of experience women of color, as a broad association, are subjected to violence at the intersections of at least their race and gender. However, the structural positioning of Blackness blurs the lines of difference demonstrating an intimate proximity to violence that troubles the water of gender as an explanatory category” (114). Patrice D. Douglass, “Black Feminist Theory for the Dead and Dying,” Theory & Event 21.1 (2018) 106–23.

  6. Jennifer C. Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality, Next Wave: New Directions in Women’s Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 99.

  7. On the matter of flesh, see Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987) 68.

  8. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 221.

  9. Anjali Arondekar warns that contemporary feminist scholars look to the figure of the prostitute to fulfill fantasies of agency in “Subject to Sex: A Small History of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj,” in South Asian Feminisms, ed. Ritty A. Lukose and Ania Loomba (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 246. In the United States, Inderpal Grewal traces how the figure of the shooter “combines an old genealogy of national independence, slavery, and settler colonialism, with a newer genealogy of neoliberal capital, media, and security” (186), in Saving the Security State: Exceptional Citizens in Twenty-First-Century America, Next Wave: New Directions in Women’s Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

  10. See Londa L. Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

  11. See Carrie Mae Weems, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–1996), thirty-three toned prints.

  12. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12.2 (2008) 1–14.

  13. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 16–17.

  14. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 110.

  15. Rhoda Reddock, “Freedom Denied: Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago, 1845-1917,” Economic and Political Weekly 20.43 (1985) WS79–87. See also Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

  16. Hartman’s method has provided insight into the study of Indian indentureship. Elsewhere, I have thought about the objects of intimate violence during Indian indentureship and how to represent that violence in “Cutlass: Objects Toward a Theory of Representation,” in Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Genealogies, Theories, Enactments, ed. Gabrielle Jamela Hosein and Lisa Outar, New Caribbean Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016), 241–60. And, Eddie Bruce Jones’s review of Wayward Lives asks how critical fabulation might be put to work in the sketchy archives of Indian indentureship in “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval,” Feminist Review 125.1 (2020) 110–16.

  17. Colleen Lye, “The Afro-Asian Analogy,” PMLA 123.5 (2008) 1732. See also Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) for a critique of “the ruse of analogy.”

  18. While these questions endure and are ever-important, I found them hard to tackle during the COVID-19 pandemic. I thank my colleague and friend Sophia Azeb for her feedback as I pieced this essay together, week by week, and for sharing in a commitment to clarifying the making and geographies of Blackness.

  • Durba Mitra

    Durba Mitra


    Encounter as Wonderment

     What emerges when we theorize encounter across South Asian feminisms and Black feminisms? Kaneesha Parsard asks this important question and offers a thoughtful reading of my work alongside Saidiya Hartman’s poetic and powerful Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Parsard asks: “What do we learn—about the resonances among fields—when we bring citational conversations out of the shadows?” I want to thank her for this invitation to meditate on this question of feminisms as a critical encounter and for her reflections on the potential resonances of my book with her own groundbreaking research.

    Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments had not yet appeared when I turned in my book manuscript for production in the first months of 2019, so before I turn to her important work, let me first address an encounter at the intersection of South Asian and Black feminisms that shaped Indian Sex Life (ISL). Early in the introduction, I describe the phenomenon of women being marked as “prostitute” to account for a system of thought that saw the “prostitute” as the primary explanation for the lag and lack of Indian society. I draw upon and cite the work of Black feminist thinker Hortense Spillers. Spillers begins her 1987 essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” with the stunning declaration, “Let’s face it. I am a marked woman” (Spillers 1987, 65). My citation of Spillers was not about creating an easy equivalence between the marking of Indian women as “prostitutes” and Spiller’s formulation of the discursive excess of Black womanhood in the afterlives of enslavement and its violent history of gendering. Rather, Spillers’s formulation centered a process of marking that transformed my hermeneutical approach to feminized sexuality in archives of the colonial state and anti-colonial thinkers of liberation.

    The citation is not a shadow, but an allegiance. My wonderment and disorientation at Spillers’s imperative, her theory of racialized sexuality as a temporal marking at the “locus of confounded identities,” made me lose my footing in the best kind of way. Spillers, reflecting on her oeuvre, notes that her work is a reconceptualization of the very origins of sexuality: “We might conclude that ‘sexuality,’ as a discursive cluster that breaks out, so to speak—rather like the measles used to—all over the West only at a particular moment and not before, then it is to my mind another version of Western time, or a strategy of the historiographical” (Spillers 2003, 13). In Spillers’s imperative, I found a critical stance that offered a method to “unlock my own predicament” of the originary and constitutive force of racialized ideas of sexual difference and sexuality in a wide range of archives from colonial India created by European and Indian men (Gilroy 2020). Thinking with Spillers, I sought to write a history of sexuality and sexual difference that made the genesis of modern gendering essential to the colonial project of social science.

    I felt a profound resonance with the critique made by Spillers and other Black feminists of what Spillers calls the “mythemes of the nuclear family,” the founding myth of modern social scientific understandings of the “matriarchal” Black family and its “deficiencies” in relation to white patriarchal monogamy, powerfully symbolized in Patrick Moynihan’s now infamous 1965 report, “The Negro Family” (Spillers 2003, 13). As a scholar of colonial and postcolonial sexualities, I recognized in the assessment of the “deficiency” of Black matriarchy a deeply racialized global history of the evolutionary origins of modern social theory based in nineteenth-century ethnological thought. The temporal assessment and comparison of the lag and lack of colonized and enslaved women empowered colonial administrators, policymakers, and social scientists across geographies to use concepts like “matriarchy,” “primitivity,” “promiscuity,” and most especially, “monogamous marriage,” as a diagnostic of civility in virtually every domain of law, science, and policy. And as Black feminist critiques ranging from Angela Davis’s 1971 study of women in the “community of slaves” and Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” establish, this language became a primary explanatory mechanism to blame the “failures” of Black familial life in the afterlife of slavery on incivility. This social scientific language of temporal underdevelopment purposely obscured the constitutive place of the gendering of enslaved peoples, forcible social separation, and sexual violence in sustaining systems of slavery.

    Reflecting on this project, I see it as building on and contributing to a long genealogy of feminist critical thinking in anti-colonial South Asian and Black feminist traditions that recognizes the foundational place of racialized womanhood and the “lag” of feminized sexuality in the modern study of society. In other words, as I look at ISL now, I see it as a feminist project that documents how the concept of the prostitute cohered a brand range of ideas of female sexual deviancy as a strategy of the historiographical, to use Spillers generative phrase (Spillers 2003, 13).

    As I argue in the book, modern social thought—constituted in fields like philology, legal sociology, forensics, evolutionary social theory—invented, documented, and visualized sexuality and sexual difference through ideas of primitivity, matriarchy, polygamy, and idealized patriarchal monogamy. The racist vocabulary of sexual temporality at once placed the vast majority of people outside of modern time and obscured colonial histories of enslavement, capital extraction, categories of criminalization, and foundational violence that fractured and permanently reorganized the social lives of colonized peoples. Colonial administrators, European ethnologists, and even colonized intellectuals themselves used these concepts to diagnose non-monogamous, non-patriarchal social forms of colonized, indigenous, and enslaved peoples as temporal lag and lack. Concepts like “prostitute,” “matriarchy,” “sexual deviancy,” “primitive promiscuity,” were produced as asynchronous to the modern time of evolved societies. This conceptual scheme of racial analogy formed an indispensable lexicon for social scientific study in law, science, and social theory. This vocabulary stretched far, in and beyond colonial India, and insidiously endures today in concepts we inherit in modern social thought.

    Bound by these originary myths of civilizational difference, the formerly enslaved, colonized, objectified sought to measure and contest racial inferiority through devastating assessments of “their” women’s sexuality. Much anti-colonial and postcolonial social science, primarily written by upper-caste Hindu men, cast female sexual deviancy as the primary failure in and threat to a newly liberated postcolonial society. These men’s social science claimed Hindu patriarchy as the site of objective evolutionary progress, and in doing so naturalized Brahmanical power, caste domination, and anti-Muslim ideologies through the language of science. As Parsard connects across Indian Sex Life and Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, there was a shared trans-regional lexicon of concepts like “prostitute” in the social scientific condemnation of women’s sexuality. It became foundational for Indian social science in the work of intellectuals like S. C. Mookerjee, who strategically deploys a historiographical strategy to blame the decline and fall of upper-caste Hindu society on the primitivity of the “prostitute.” It is also this vexed inheritance of patriarchal ideals in social theory that features in the earliest work of W. E. B. Du Bois, who offers moralist, condemnatory language for the young girls and women on the streets of Philadelphia who transgressed normative visions of ideal domesticity. As Hartman notes, even for the most brilliant and innovative of social scientists, “it would take decades until Du Bois could find his way to an answer that didn’t condemn them or forever consign them to a terrible fate” (Hartman 2019, 98). Hartman again critically reflects on young Du Bois’s gaze on the two young women in Philadelphia in a recent New Yorker feature, “Why was female desire so scandalous that they could only be prostitutes?” (Okeowo 2020).

    Importantly, Parsard highlights that even as she reads across these fields, there is a deep resistance to thinking across by some in our contemporary moment who refuse analogy, especially when comparative claims of oppression obscure the foundational work of anti-Black violence in shaping our dissonant present. And as I myself show in the book, modern analogy in social science is itself founded on racialized ideas of feminized sexuality and the deeply violent project of commensurability that produced a wide range of peoples, socialities, and behaviors as equivalent and comparable through a rubric of sexual incivility. Yet I differ from frameworks that have dismissed coalitionist thinking across histories of subjection by equating all modes of political solidarity with the violence of modern analogy. For me, a scholar who has for more than a decade studied the specific workings of modern social scientific analogy, contesting the epistemic violence of modern analogical thinking requires more than assertions of absolute incommensurate difference for contemporary politics.

    My thinking on this issue of comparison and politics today builds on decades of work by feminist thinkers across geographies, including Hortense Spillers, who insist that structures of colonialism and enslavement are inextricably linked through the interdependent constitution of racial difference, sexuality, and sexual difference, while they simultaneously critique the homogenizing drive of analogy in universalist social theory (Spillers 2003, xiii). Thinking our inheritance of patriarchal social scientific ideas as something we hold intimately “in common” acknowledges how these gendered histories of epistemology resonate across diverse geographies and require a shared hermeneutical strategy. Thinking in common also demonstrates that we must carefully investigate specific histories of gendering and dehumanization founded through colonialism and slavery, the critical place of anti-Blackness in the making of difference and enduring racial hierarchies, and the limits of universalist claims of freedom and recognition as finite achievement, as Hartman brilliantly traces in Scenes of Subjection (1997). It requires careful engagement with the enduring specificity of anti-Black discourses and anti-Black violence as underlying the colonial project. It requires projects that interrogate how colonial administrators and colonized elites utilized the language of freedom while creating an exclusionary vision of Man across the modern world, particularly in claims to caste supremacy and racial superiority to Black peoples among many colonized Asian, indentured, and indigenous peoples that has endured until today. And it mandates new political visions that utilize the insights of these historical pasts to understand contemporary systems of dehumanization, migrant labor exploitation, and indenture that persist into the present.

    How then might we think across South Asian and Black feminisms to stage a conversation about what Parsard calls the “common expectation” of domesticity and laboring reproduction, the “common demand” of norms in what Parsard theorizes as the “racial family,” the “common experience” of constitutive violence that sought to subordinate and control women across societies shaped by colonization and enslavement? I believe there are immensely powerful links to be made across histories of the control of women’s sexuality.

    My thinking resonates with the archival limits that Hartman outlines in her note on method in her “fugitive text” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: “Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known” (Hartman 2019, xiii). As Hartman notes, historians of the dispossessed and the subaltern share the impossible task of thinking in archives that too often erase the lifeworlds of girls and women. And as Parsard notes, our projects—the questions and archives that shape our inquiries—differ, yet are deeply resonant and share a deep affinity. While my book is not primarily a project of resuscitating and fabulating those errant lives that are condemned at the limit of archives, it attends, when possible, to those archival lives that refuse classification, to the woman Sukhimonee, who says, “I am not a prostitute.” Yet I take as my central object the proliferative archives themselves, the building blocks of modern social science and theory, and work to reveal how the modern study of society is built on ideas of deviant female sexuality. In this way, the book argues that the history of the “prostitute” must be imagined and fabulated against her objectification and in her place as a central concept in the very making of modern social theory, including anti-colonial theories that promise liberation through the control of women. I believe that all of these strategies are urgent for our world today, to speculate about wayward lives and to decolonize reductive methods of modern study that purport to describe and wholly encompass those lives. Ideas of women’s deviant sexuality are fundamentally constitutive of modern social thought, how disciplines study, write, and imagine modern societies. The question that remains, even when we write at the limit of and critically fabulate beyond archives is how we are to reckon with and dismantle the living inheritance of these histories in a whole lexicon of concepts in the study of social life. These concepts, often deployed the historian of multitude—concepts like deviancy, kinship, monogamy, alliance, and descent—are founded through this violent history that placed the control of racialized women at the heart of social scientific inquiry.

    These “common” pasts, as Parsard powerfully shows in her research on histories on the cruel convivialities of indenture and the afterlives of enslavement in the Caribbean, require a framework of dialogical thinking that may be imagined in Parsard’s proposed “encounter.” I would say theorizing at the intersection of South Asian and Black feminisms must attend to histories of gendered structures of colonial capital and labor exploitation and the global movement of enduring sexual categories and policies. We must think together about trans-regional overlaps in the legal and scientific dismemberment of familial structures through the language of monogamy, the parallel reorganization of property through normative sexuality across colonies, and the global circulation of social scientific methods focused so often on the discipline and erasure of wayward women. We, feminists working across fields of encounter, might do well to think in common about the vexed place of the common woman.


    Works Cited

    Gilroy, Paul. “The Absurdities of Race.” Interview with Adam Shatz. London Review of Books, August 18, 2020.

    Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York: Norton, 2019.

    Okeowo, Alexis. “How Saidiya Hartman Retells the History of Black Life.” New Yorker, October 19, 2020.

    Spillers, Hortense J. Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    ———. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987) 64–81.

    • Kaneesha Parsard

      Kaneesha Parsard


      New methods, enduring questions

      Thank you for sitting with my questions. The wonderment at the heart of Indian Sex Life is a model for future approaches to the study of “racialized sexuality.” Perhaps wonderment might be the antidote to “the epistemic violence of modern analogical thinking.”

      Reading your book, I learned all over again how colonial and postcolonial projects themselves are “strategies of the historiographical” and epistemologies, and so often founded on ideas of racialized gender difference. Methodologically, you remind us that scholars must read historical archives for their fullness as well as their scantness: its “whole lexicon of concepts” and the absences that call for (or deny) speculation. It’s something I’m grappling with as I read across British colonial archives and West Indian cultural works for scenes and figures of freedom delinked from the wage. After West Indian Emancipation, for people of African and Indian descent alike the concept of freedom was overdetermined by the wage—itself overdetermined by women’s invisible and yet necessary productive and reproductive labor. As you encourage future scholars of South Asian and Black feminisms to think about “colonial capital” among other processes and concepts, I return to the concept of the prostitute and female sexual deviancy in your book. It’s striking to me that, across class and caste, “all women outside of man’s supervision were always potentially prostitutes” (56). As you write, Santosh Kumar Mukherji develops a taxonomy of women “outside the bounds of marriage” including women who earned money for their companionship (56). In a small way, a deviant or illicit wage—in addition to secret codes supposedly shared among deviant women—might have been part of this specter of the prostitute for the Indian social sciences.

      Finally, it occurs to me that these principles of wonderment—of the simultaneous disavowal of analogy while studying “across histories of the control of women’s sexuality”—might be part of the connective tissue between Indian Sex Life and your current project on South-South feminisms. I am grateful for this lesson and future lessons!

Jyoti Puri


Sexing Life

On Pluralities, Ambivalences, and Sociological Possibilities

Stories: Sultana’s Dream is a classic fable that illustrates the power of feminist imaginations. Penned by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in 1905 in colonial Bengal, the short story is a dreamscape in which the eponymous protagonist finds herself transported to a world turned on its head, where women are rulers and scientists and men are secluded into the menial spaces of the domestic. This world of harmony and plenitude emerges from the ashes of a male-led failed military response to external aggression (a metaphor for colonial rule). It is the outcome of women’s innately superior intellects that successfully harness the potentials of education, science, and technology. Indeed, the fable is hailed as an early model of feminist science fiction writing.


Surprisingly, this is the story with which Durba Mitra closes her brilliant book, Indian Sex Life. The move is particularly unexpected because in contrast to Mitra’s analysis of the prostitute in modern social thought in colonial India, sexuality is merely implied in Sultana’s Dream, perhaps itself an indication that it was yet to acquire a liberatory dimension in the lives of elite women such as Hossain. What matters to Mitra, however, is the fable’s form. Sultana’s Dream drives home the point that its speculations on alternative futures are consigned to the category of feminist science fiction, while an entire corpus, girded by questionable studies of deviant female sexuality, is institutionalized as social thought and analysis.

Indian Sex Life argues that modern social thought in colonial India was fueled by ideas of deviant female sexuality, cohering around the concept of the prostitute. Mitra makes the case through a series of interrelated arguments: that sexuality and specifically women’s sexuality was the racialized monocle through which Indian civilization became an object of assessment, analysis, and intervention; that colonial and elite native beliefs about the inherent excesses of female desire, encapsulated in the idea of the prostitute, came to explain Indian social history in terms of lack, lag, and endemic social ills; that the will to know and regulate manifestations of deviant female sexuality powered the development of fields ranging from philology, legal surveys, forensic medical examinations, social evolutionary science and popular literature; that this quest to knowledge fueled and shaped the conceptual and methodological orientations of these fields through the participation of British, American and Bengali Indian intellectuals.

Expertly written and meticulously researched, Mitra’s book breaks new ground by reversing conventional wisdom to spotlight emerging fields of knowledge and their footings in questionable assumptions of female sexuality. Each of the chapters takes on a field noted above, revealing the emergence of taxonomies, pathologies, and modes of regulating female sexuality and letting the analysis surf disciplinary modes—such as repetition, circular reasoning, the search for veracity, among others. Reworking more familiar ground, for example the Contagious Disease Acts and infanticide, the chapters also extend the archive into new directions, setting up the possibilities of rich engagements with this book.

Pluralizing Genealogies

Musings: I have often wondered what social life and relations would be if it weren’t for concerns about who did what with whom sexually (presupposing principles of consent and bodily integrity). What would a social world look like if sexuality as we know it does not exist? That is, if sexual regulation were not an essential dimension of social life, then would any of the intra-psychic structures, social institutions, and entrenched social differences be possible? Would girls and women continue to be subjected to the innumerable forms of sexual regulation? Would the absence of sexual normalcy and deviance not lift a multitude of oppressions shaping the lives of queer and gender nonconforming people? Would this not undermine marriage, kinship structures, lineage, inheritance and private property? Would caste structures even be possible? Would religious divides not be eliminated? If sexual relations and practices were of no social and political importance in this realm, then would it even closely resemble the world we know?


When Mitra gives sexuality a foundational place in her analyses it resonates with me, for much of my work, too, aims to show that sexuality is a social bedrock (Puri 2016; 2002). Mitra’s approach resonates with longstanding feminist efforts to understand sexuality and gender as underpinnings and engines of social life (for example, Gayle Rubin) and social thought (Kath Weston). Her contributions join the efforts of feminist scholars writing on colonial India who have surfaced sexuality’s foundational significance to the knowledge and reform projects that emerged at the time. As Patricia Uberoi argues, social reform debates were proxies for sexuality—definitions of normal and abnormal sexuality, sexual propriety, and deviance, regimes of sexual knowledge and medical practice, among others (1996: xvi).

But Mitra’s book also innovatively brings to the fore the formative impact of concerns about female sexual deviance on multiple fields of knowledge in a context defined by colonialism. In contrast to the innumerable studies on the prostitute or prostitution, hers is an effort to excavate the genealogy of the prostitute—a cipher for the imminent social threat posed by virtually all women outside of the upper-caste, heteronormative mold of Hindu marriage encompassing everyone from high-caste Hindu widows, Muslim women workers, and professional artists to industrial laborers, domestic help, and vagrants. From this vantage point, Mitra argues that rather than the homosexual/heterosexual binary, it is the concept of the prostitute that drives how India was studied and understood.

While I fully share the view that the homosexual/heterosexual binary is not foundational in the Indian context, the concept of the prostitute and the excesses of deviant female sexuality, do raise for me the question: where are the hijras or, who we would call in today’s grammar, transfeminine figures, especially since hijras have loomed large in colonial records and have been connected to sexual deviancy and prostitution? But also, where are the female nonconformers in these archival fields? Throughout the book, Mitra is careful to underscore deviant female sexuality, suggesting a narrow view of the category. In one sense, this enlarges the scope of female sexual deviance and usefully breaks with the homosexual/heterosexual divide. But in another sense, it makes the absence of gender and sexual nonconformity—Hijras and other adjacent categories, women’s non-heterosexual sexual and gender practices that were pinned to sexual deviancy—all the more palpable in Mitra’s analyses. I am curious about these absences and how to interpret them in light of the careful insistence on femaleness.

The significance of these questions extends beyond the presence/absence of figures to the possibility of revealing additional logics of knowledge-making and governance that are shaping fields such as philology, forensics, or ethnology in colonial India. For example, in my book Sexual States: Governance and the Struggle Over the Antisodomy Law in India (2016), I press against Foucauldian understandings of the homosexual’s inauguration into Indian legal history with the imposition of the penal code in 1860. At the same time, the cases related to the antisodomy law reveal distinct strands of homophobia. What stands out is the notion of the “habitual sodomite” that is itself part of a larger matrix of discourses on habitual and hereditary offenders that were enshrined in the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869 and then the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. To what extent, then, do the archives indicate the need to parse the deviant sexualities and their multiple genealogies, thereby shedding light on the sway of logics beyond repetition, circularity, evolution, or veracity? What additional insights might be derived from foregrounding the non-heteronormative, the remaking of caste categories, as well as criminality?

Archival Ambivalences

Readings: In her iconic essay, “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman raises the problem of writing counter-histories of slavery’s archives for, as she explicates, it becomes virtually impossible to know anything of the enslaved Black woman outside of the founding violence that dictates what can be gleaned of power and its subjects and objects. But, for Hartman, if ancestors are not to be consigned to the death sentence that is the archive and futures are to be imagined, then a path to produce counterhistories has to be cleared. It begins by “Throwing into crisis ‘what happened when’ and by exploiting the ‘transparency of sources’ as fictions of history, . . . to make visible the production of disposable lives” (2008: 11).


Systematically showing that female sexual deviance haunts Indian colonial archives and social thought, Mitra notes that the prostitute is everywhere and nowhere. Even as she is continually invoked across a range of epistemological sites, she is simultaneously disappeared through the very process of knowing. Even as notions of deviant female sexuality thread through these various sites, all traces of female sexual desire are systematically erased. At the same time, what is feared and reviled has a defining influence, for as Mitra shows the flexibly understood category of the prostitute shapes the formation of these fields, their methodologies and their orientations.

For Mitra, then, to write a critical conceptual history of the prostitute is to write a counter-history of the figure of the prostitute. She is careful to note that her project is not about recuperating resistance and agency through what has been called the search-and-rescue model of interpreting archives. Rather, she proceeds by undermining the workings of power and authority by rendering them transparent and visible. This mode requires tracking the trope of the prostitute across philology and forensics in ways that starts to feel all too familiar by the time we get to ethnology and the literatures of social life. It means surfacing assumptions about Indian women’s sexuality stretching across British, American, and Indian accounts, even as the upper-caste Hindu analysts among them were more likely to blame prostitution on the premise of “Muslim conquest” and see Muslim women as more sexually brazen than their Hindu counterparts. While I am sympathetic to this analytical strategy, I am also wondering about the possibilities of reading archives in ways that Hartman indicates, or ones that stand between historiographical projects of recovery and those that seem to indicate a totalizing view of power. Where in the archives are the fissures and fractures that enable feminist readings that begin (or end) with the limits of power? Do the archives show that the social analysts were sometimes inconsistent and contradictory in their indictment of the prostitute, a figure that was essential to British and Indian men’s sexualities; or that the intellectuals and writers were working in a colonial context where multiple histories of sexuality-knowledge existed and collided; or that some ideas emerged even if they were defeated or unrealized; or that these male elites did not have the final word on defining and denigrating the prostitute; or that they could not eviscerate what might be catalogued as deviant female sexuality? Where are the ambivalences in the archives, the points of contradictions that remind us about the “fictions of history,” not because they are being read from our presentist viewpoint but because those tensions are already present? To what extent can we read them against unmitigated understandings of power, for without foregrounding and elevating these fractures aren’t we locked into having to uphold the very forms of power that we seek to undermine?

Sociological Complexities

Contestations: The film, Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972), revolves around the life of the courtesan, Sahibjaan, who seeks to flee the prison-like grip of a feudal world based on the patronage and sexual pleasures of elite men. While her mother was unable to achieve such an escape a generation ago, Sahibjaan manages to attain the pinnacle of sexual respectability by being rescued into marriage and conventional kinship by a man from the same social group that has been responsible for the oppression of women as courtesans. It is part of a genre of immensely popular Hindi (AKA Bollywood) films, such as Pyasa (Guru Dutt, 1957), Amar Prem (Shakti Samanta, 1972), and Umrao Jaan (Muzaffar Ali, 1981) that take up the figure of the prostitute. While they differ in some ways, the films share an indictment of patriarchal oppression, of ill-intentioned and especially of well-meaning elite men.


In chapter 5, Mitra presses down on the search for “hidden truths” about the lives of prostitutes and the question of veracity. Here, she looks to popular literature—alleged autobiographies and testimonials of so-called prostitutes—to trouble the ever-expanding and intrusive search for the prostitute’s perspective. Mitra also turns to what she calls lay sociologies, that is, studies that were meant to educate and inform reading publics—for example, Herbert H. Risely’s People of India and Yadavchandra Lahiri’s Kulakalima. In fact, the only time that Mitra turns to a verifiable woman’s account is in the afterword with Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream.

Juxtaposing Mitra’s insights with popular films like Pakeezah and others in the early decades of postcolonial India is a reminder that the search for women’s perspectives is still incomplete. Storied through the eyes of male directors and writers, what stands out among these and other films is the idea of the chaste prostitute. To be sure, these films hit a chord precisely because they do not offer radical critiques of the idea of the prostitute or heteropatriarchal respectable sexuality. At the same time, they do not propagate the view of the oversexed female, the “any-woman” who can fall into prostitution because of her inability to restrain her sexual desire. Instead, their targets are the social order, institutions, and especially elite men’s lack of sexual and social righteousness.

My point here is not about possible continuities or ruptures with earlier discourses, but the extent to which these films raise questions about the complexities of public discourses and public debates. As a form that produces sociological narratives, films also gesture to the divergences in public opinion and debates, which I was seeking in Mitra’s discussions. They and other forms are part of the terrain through which sociologies of deviant female sexuality or, for that matter, social life are continually produced and contested. In the colonial (and postcolonial) context, public debates played a crucial role in shaping the orientations of social and sociological studies. Even as Mitra focuses on the construction of sociological terrains upon which disciplines of sociology and anthropology would come to be established, I am wondering about the surveys, the studies, and the research that went against the colonial grain (for example, sociologist G. S. Ghurye, who succeeded Patrick Geddes at Bombay University), or were debated publicly in ways that would explain the complexities—and even dark sides—of postcolonial inheritances.

These questions and others that I might ask are entirely a reflection of the rich and generative book that Mitra has written. It has been a pleasure to read and to learn from its pages, and I look forward to our collective engagements with it.


Works Cited

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12.2 (2008) 1–14.

Puri, Jyoti. “Concerning Kamasutras: Challenging Narratives of History and Sexuality.” In SIGNS: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27 (2002) 3.

———. Sexual States: Governance and the Decriminalization of Sodomy in India’s Present. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Uberoi, Patricia. “Problematising Social Reform, Engaging Sexuality, Interrogating the State.” Introduction to Social Reform, Sexuality and the State, edited by Patricia Uberoi. New Delhi: Sage, 1996.

  • Durba Mitra

    Durba Mitra


    Social Science as Fabulation

    I thank Jyoti Puri for this immensely generous and thought-provoking engagement with my book. Puri points us to the field of South Asian feminist studies that forms the foundation for my work—groundbreaking scholarship at the intersection of history, anthropology, sociology, and literature, including Puri’s own critical and wide-reaching scholarship in gender and sexuality studies. It is from South Asian feminist scholarship that I have learned to think and I see this book as indebted to and building on this rich tradition of feminist thought.

    I see Indian Sex Life as a proposition, a critical posture that foregrounds the foundational role of female sexuality in how we approach the modern study of society in the colonial and postcolonial world. The book advances a hermeneutical approach to modern social theory, a critical stance that asks what histories can be told when we center ideas of gender and sexuality in the history of social scientific knowledge. My hope is that it will be read as a methodological opening rather than a declaration of a singular definitive history. It is a meditation on reading across archives and fields of knowledge in order to pursue many proliferative genealogies of sexuality in the history of epistemology.

    Yet Indian Sex Life is purposely specific in scope. I focus on the concept of the “prostitute” and the many forms of sexual deviancy the concept came to encompass across diverse disciplinary fields of knowledge. I work to show how the concept of the prostitute in colonial India is sutured to essentialist ideas of womanhood. Indeed, ideas of sexual excess and deviancy were critical to the constitution of modern institutionalization of sexual difference itself from the late eighteenth century. Thinking this constitutive history of gendering is critical. The term “sexuality” appears in the moment of massive British colonial expansion in the last decades of the eighteenth century, just as philologist and jurist William Jones (1746–1794), famed translator of the Manusmriti as The Laws of Manu in the formulation of colonial Hindu law, begins his translation project in colonial India. In his 1776 poem “The Hindu Wife,” Jones invents a Linnaean taxonomical term in Latin to classify the Indian woman, taking from botany the principle of sexual difference to comprehend colonized women: Polyandrian Monogynian. Jones recreates the Hindu woman as a scientific type, many men for one woman (poly-, many, andro-, men, with mono-, one, and gyno-, woman), in an enduring Indological typology of the sexual excess and difference of Indian women that came to shape knowledge in the centuries that followed.

    I believe that there is critical significance to the work of these ideas of naturally excessive sexuality, often named as “prostitute,” in the very making of sexual difference and sexuality in modern social thought and theory. I am in agreement with Puri that scholars must continue to meditate on the many genealogies of deviant feminized sexuality, including vital histories that might be understood through a more contemporary language of trans-femininity. My research shows that the genealogy of the concept of the prostitute, as it was used in social thought in colonial India, is distinct in colonial legal structures that purposely differentiated the classification of transgressive “woman” from “man,” as well as from gender nonnormative, third gender, and transgender people. ISL looks at laws and forensic case studies that reiterated the concept “prostitute”—the buying and selling of girls, the Contagious Diseases Acts, rape, abortion, infanticide—laws and structures of evidence that sutured the “prostitute” to a deeply gendered language of girls and women. And we learn in important work like Puri’s Sexual States (2016) and Jessica Hinchy’s Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India (2019) of the enduring legacy of other legal histories of the classification of third gender and transgender peoples through the concept of “criminal tribes” and homosexual men and trans people through that powerful category of “sodomy.” Together, ISL and the scholarship of Puri, Hinchy, Gayatri Reddy (2006), Ashwini Tambe (2009), and Anjali Arondekar (2009) among many others highlight a wide range of legal structures in and beyond the now infamous section 377 that regulate sexuality and endure into the postcolonial present. These structures include the policing of peoples through criminalized lower caste and tribe designations, laws that control prostitution, abortion, and infanticide, and the erasure of women and sexual minorities from public space in laws regulating vagrancy, beggary, loitering, trespassing, people in urban dwellings, and more. This diverse array of laws continues to be the primary way in which the postcolonial state regulates sexual behavior and queer and trans lives, and we need multiple histories that engage these genealogies.

    While there are multiple genealogies of sexualities made deviant and many modes of sexual control, my book argues that the concept of the prostitute, and the many forms of women’s sexual transgression that she encompassed, is distinct in its foundational place in the making of social life as an object of study across fields of social scientific inquiry in and beyond the law. Any and all women could transgress into sexual deviancy, all women could “fall” and become a “prostitute,” posing a danger to men, and that persistent threat made women’s deviancy a particularly fecund idea in the making of normative social theories of the evolution of society that were influential across social scientific disciplines. In this way, the concept of the prostitute, and the many social behaviors and types she coheres, is unique in her place as a constitutive concept for modern social thought and theory, disciplinary structures of knowledge that endure long after the end of colonialism.

    Manu Must Fall

    Puri asks: “Where in the archives are the fissures and fractures that enable feminist readings that begin (or end) with the limits of power?” I see my project and practice of reading as directly pointing to the “fissures and fractures” of these fields of knowledge, laying bare a fantastical itinerary of ideas of women’s sexual deviancy and the control of sexuality across fields of knowledge through a sustained practice of close reading. In the repetition and circular reasoning in law and forensics, I demonstrate the absurdity of a logic that produced virtually every kind of social behavior outside of upper-caste monogamy as deviance and prostitution. And while the state classified women, I point to rare archival finds, a woman who refuses to be called a prostitute, yet is condemned by the false surname Raur in the archive (a transliteration of a Bengali word that by the late nineteenth century denoted a “prostitute,” according to Ratnabali Chatterjee), or a collective of unnamed women in 1869 who accuse the police of gross misconduct, defiant words inscribed into an archival petition that is summarily dismissed. I also point to how a forensic expert, Robert Harvey, warns the reader to read case studies of abortion only for scientific value, to ignore all any affective feelings of violence and the tragedy for women dissected, to only distill the pedagogical value of the dead body. These moments, for me, are the fissures and fractures, the way archives insist on a limited hermeneutic through claims of objectivity, all while always being in excess of their own epistemic procedures. Laying bare the reliance on unreasonable and at points farcical ideas of women’s sexuality shatters the façade of objectivity and veracity that authorized these fields of knowledge.

    In order to illuminate these questions of feminist method, Puri turns to a vital question: what of the method of “critical fabulation,” as proposed by Saidiya Hartman in her generative “Venus in Two Acts” (2013)? While I too contend with the limits of archives, my project moves away from questions of absence at the limit to take on social scientific thought itself. I reveal how modern social thought is itself a project of fabulation. Theories of social progress and autonomy perpetuated the “fictions of history,” in the language of Hartman, making these dangerous fictions an archive of social fact relied on again and again in theories of modern society. Undoing this inheritance of concepts, the fictional premise of these universalist comparative theories, is for me, a critical act of trespass. It is part of the project of “redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse” (Hartman 4). In my view, our intellectual projects must be proliferative. They are, as Hartman laments, provisional, incomplete. And they must be promiscuous and multiple in terms of methods and questions. While we may do the impossible work of imagining anew and transgressing archives through Hartman’s generative “critically fabulation,” we must also denaturalize the cruel fabulations that claim the mantle of social science and theory, those ideas that form the terrain of institutions, knowledge structures, and laws in our present.

    In order to think the contours of redress for this violent past, at the end of the book I turn to a kind of critical fabulation that is “indigenous” to the geography and time of my study, colonial Calcutta, in the work of Muslim woman writer Rokeya Sakawat Hossain in her 1905 “Sultana’s Dream.” In the face of the social condemnation of women around her, Hossain imagines a world of womanhood based in a radical vision of women’s autonomy and governance. I ask: why do we treat Hossain’s critical project as a whimsical fantasy, celebrating its existence as the “first” feminist science fiction, while we continuously endow modern social theory, with all of its fabulation and speculation, as the primary authority about social life based in fact and science?

    We see the importance of this project of undoing now. At the end of her response, Puri suggests that we might turn to a different scholarly tradition in postcolonial sociology in the work of G. S. Ghurye. Indeed, I think Ghurye is perhaps one of the best examples of the problem of the inheritance of deeply patriarchal social scientific ideals, despite his intellectual contributions and leadership in the field as the founder of the Indian Sociological Society in 1951. In the work of Ghurye, the colonial social scientific understanding of caste as unchanging and timeless endures, and indeed, thrives and find new articulations in the language of social science. In his Caste and Race in India (1932), Ghurye, a scholar trained in Sanskrit, explained that a singular interpretation of the Laws of Manu offered the definitive origins for caste, which, like colonial scholars who came before, he centered on the study of endogamy (marriage from within) by combining Indology with ethnological theories of social evolution toward monogamy. Caste domination has a much deeper, longer, and complex history than it is portrayed in colonial and postcolonial structures of knowledge, yet what we find in the work of modern social science in postcolonial India is a language that both naturalizes and obfuscates longstanding institutions of caste violence through claims of objective fact. These casteist, deeply patriarchal visions of society continued to live on in the postcolonial Indian social sciences.

    Indeed this singular vision of Manu as definitive fact and authority haunts postcolonial social science in India more than two centuries after it was translated into law by William Jones. As I trace in a recent essay on the concept of endogamy, and scholars such as Sharmila Rege, Shailaja Paik, and Prathama Banerjee explore with care, B. R. Ambedkar offered a trenchant critique of the Brahmanical enforcement of caste supremacy and the sexual marginalization of women early through a theory of “Surplus Woman,” in 1917, sixteen years before Ghurye reinforced it as sociological fact. Ambedkar’s vision of annihilation was material and urgent, symbolized in the moment when he burned the Manusmriti on December 25, 1927. More recently Dalit feminists have proclaimed that December 25, should be observed as an alternate holiday, Indian Women’s Liberation Day ( In 2018, two Dalit women and a Muslim man traveled from afar to deface a thirty-year-old statue of Manu that stands in the front of the Rajasthan High Court condemning the tyranny of Manu ( The statue, installed with the rise of the Hindu Right in 1989, continues to symbolize the enduring presence of claims to Sanskrit origins of Brahmanical Hindu patriarchal ideals in the administration of postcolonial law.

    In June 2020, the movement to remove the statue of Manu was revitalized in the aftermath of the fall of the statue of slave trader Edward Colson. And now, a year later, Dalit and anti-caste feminists continue to mobilize political movements against the symbolic and material enforcement of the Laws of Manu. Puri asks in her response: “What would a social world look like if sexuality as we know it does not exist?” The statue of Manu may fall, but so too must we ask about the long legacy of the misappropriation of Manu and other ancient textual justifications for the control of women’s sexuality in postcolonial sociology, anthropology, law, evolutionary biology, forensic science, and history. Then only might we begin to ask: what is the sexuality that we think we know?


    Works Cited

    Arondekar, Anjali. For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archives. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

    ———. “In the Absence of Reliable Ghosts: Sexuality, Historiography, South Asia.” Differences 25.3 (2015) 98–122.

    Hinchy, Jessica. Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c. 1850–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    Puri, Jyoti. Woman, Body, Desire in Post-Colonial India: Narratives of Gender and Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1999.

    Reddy, Gayatri. With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. New Delhi: Yoda, 2006.

    Tambe, Ashwini. Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.


Samantha Pinto


Doing It Wrong

Indian Sex Life, Feminist Method and Bad Objects

In the introduction to Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black, he delivers a read of Marx’s theory of political economy and historical materialism as undergirded at every turn by race, gender, and sexuality. Ferguson deftly shows how Marx’s definition of alienated labor hinges on the figure of the prostitute “as the apocalyptic symbol of capital’s emergence” (9) where “both bourgeois ideologues and their radical opponents took the prostitute as the sign for the gendered and sexual chaos that commodification was bound to unleash” (9). “She and others like her were the targets of both liberal and revolutionary regulations” (10). Ferguson locates this as the structural impulses of “heteropatriarchy” (10) that undergird both of these sites, and calls for a method—now well known as queer of color critique—that refuses the promises of what he calls the “heteronormative subject” as the endgame of radical politics (10).

Durba Mitra’s dazzlingly complex Indian Sex Life expands this read of radical politics in geographic and methodological scope, arguing that “the prostitute, when dislocated from the urge to recuperate her as an identity, takes on a different history: as a concept foundational to the making of social life as an object of study.” Her prostitute becomes the conceptual center of inquiry for knowledge production—and social reproduction—itself. For Mitra, it is crucial to eschew the lure of non-normativity—the call to recuperate “the prostitute” as a “real” figure, for her “real” labor to be celebrated, eulogized, romanticized, realized, made into politics and knowledge production as we wish it to be. Though so much of that work is incredibly valuable to feminist and sexuality studies across national boundaries, Mitra seeks the prostitute not as object but as concept. This pivot elucidates how gender and sexuality are not just present—not just devices to be used to shore up the work of imagined community building—but the underpinning of modern knowledge production itself. The concept of the prostitute authorizes and authors the way we come to know and study the world, and the ways social scientific methods and knowledges are produced. Women’s sexuality, Mitra reveals, is at the core of how patriarchy, the colony, the university, and the state do their work, and imagine their work. By studying the concept rather than the object, Mitra gives feminism renewed life a method by which to disassemble history and social science, tilting the fields and feminism sideways to ask fresh questions about what it is we want and think feminism can do—well, badly, “right” and wrong.

Mitra is clear that “the prostitute” as a naming of an object, too, is mobile and capacious and comes to include many acts and subjects under the banner. She parses how this broad notion of gendered sexual “deviance was an integral part of the social scientific enterprise in this moment, a knowledge economy that stretched from the metropole to colony and back” marking “every woman as a potential prostitute.” “The unknowability of the prostitute”—the very ways that everyone was a suspect in the category, its malleability—“posed her as an ever-present threat.” Mitra suggests that the power of this is not just to study the particular history of sexuality in India, but to disrupt the entirety of “modern sexuality studies” through this “concept history” of the prostitute and its intersections with social scientific—and queer and feminist studies—method. Here, she returns to the normative—women’s unregulated sexuality as threat and impetus for new forms of governance, regulation, science, technology, and study—that grounded an earlier “wave” of academic feminism but not to relitigate the obvious injustice done to “women” as an object of study, a monolithic category. Instead, Mitra’s book takes the regulation of women’s sexuality as the “life” of the title—the conceptual organization that makes modern knowledge production possible, period.

Mitra’s approach is the next wave, the post Object Lessons, of feminist studies, that seems to have been stuck methodologically in the proper object holding pattern of the nineties and early aughts, and at this moment with renewed vigor. The book’s focus on and performance of method moves the field from the historical object to the concept history, a move that queer studies has done well but perhaps too much in a groove where reading queer means finding what is radical through the nonnormative, and reading for and as the anti-normative position. Here Mitra asks us to find in the concept history of the prostitute the undergirding of the normative for both precolonial and colonial India. Indian Sex Life shows us how women’s sexuality, gender, and embodiment are operational not just as symbols but as foundational thought. The book gives feminist and queer studies centrality in method in a way that allows the fields to move forward together rather than against the object of the normative category “women.” Indian Sex Life gets us out of the anti-normative/anti-anti-normative bind through the feminist method of concept history.

Mitra’s book also rebuilds a bridge through method to my own field, Black studies—work found across studies of intimate colonial and enslaved entanglements in the work of Brenda Stevenson, Jenny Sharpe, Lisa Ze Winters, and Emily Owens (to name but a few scholars working at this intersection, as well as Ann Laura Stoler in Postcolonial Studies). What can we learn from and across global histories that skew toward centering the normative rather than celebrating the resistance of those who hewed toward the nonnormative? How might histories of colonialism and histories of enslavement come together through feminist sexuality studies, and through the work of concept history as method? How can scholars, ethically, do work that acknowledges the material subjects and objects of racial-sexual harm and terror at the same time that scholarship trains its methods on system and structure? And how can we study the pervasive way that women’s sexuality infuses the production, unacknowledged, of so many lines of thought, of historical and scientific invention, of the ways we do our work in the university around social science even today, even in decolonial contexts? How might US and global historical studies of sexuality, and more particularly how might Black US historical studies of sexuality, find methodological ground in common with global sexuality studies from the Caribbean and Africa, but also from South Asia, East Asia, and indigenous studies?

Another set of questions then emerges within women’s, gender, and sexuality studies: How can historical studies merge queer and feminist studies so that women’s sexuality is considered under the rubric of sexuality studies (which too often reads only as queer/nonnormative) and not just as feminist? Mitra’s invocation of Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women” is key here—and as several recent feminist theorists have argued, bringing us back to Rubin’s descriptive work in this essay can feel somehow out of time with the scholarly moment of feminism. But Mitra makes “Traffic in Women” sing like “Thinking Sex” has and with and through “Thinking Sex”—as she “accounts for the constitution of women’s bodies as social fact” through modern rubrics and rituals of forensic evidence, demography, and other fields that make up the traffic in women’s sexuality—the traffic in the concept of the prostitute—in modernity. Here is where we can see her work and Ferguson’s connected in their thinking about the ways that sexuality authors both regulation and its dissent across seemingly “unmarked” terrain—for Ferguson, sociology and for Mitra, a host of social scientific methods.

The other provocation Indian Sex Life gives us is the gift of feminist method in science studies, history of science, health humanities, and social science methodology: As she says at the opening of one chapter on an autopsy: “Yet colonial science endowed the coroner with the power to narrate Kally’s death into an event, not only to speculate about the facts of the physical evidence on the body, but to use her material remains to articulate the terms of her life and character. Chambers treats the corpse under his purview as an archive of common fact, where the dead offered proof of the degradation of the living.” Again, Mitra moves us away from object—the colonized woman, the prostitute in medicine, the instrument—to focus on method and the development of a line of questioning and studying the social as a “science” that runs through the prostitute, through the threat of “nonnormative” women’s sexuality in concept, through women’s bodies in material and in epistemological ways.

Mitra urges those of us invested in feminist studies, queer studies, history of science, and the medical humanities that that there are more interesting questions than who was doing it wrong, or that they did it wrong. Instead, her work is insistent on uncovering the heights and depths of how they did it, how the specter and the concept of the prostitute authorized both colonial and anti-colonial response, how the prostitute as a concept invented modern science and social science, without making a resistant heroine or tragic victim out of the prostitute as an object or agent or case. Taking Marx’s prostitute as more than a sign or the promise of non-normativity’s chaos, she opens up new and invigorating pathways into feminist study that refuse to rehearse what we already know or to assume the ways we should already know it.

  • Durba Mitra

    Durba Mitra


    Unbound Sexuality as Refusal

    I am profoundly grateful to Samantha Pinto for her generous engagement with my book. She frames the questions and interventions of Indian Sex Life through transformative fields like queer of color critique, Black feminisms, and scholarship on field formations in feminist and queer studies. Pinto makes explicit the way these fields center the vexed histories of the incorrigible, with methods of reading that have influenced my thinking in ISL. Her essay points to the intimate resonance of queer of color critique in American studies with parallel fields that argue for the postcolony as foundational to the making of modern epistemology, from South Asian feminisms to the historiography of subalternity (Arondekar and Patel 2016). In Pinto’s reading, ISL is reimagined in powerful new ways as she queries the “proper” and “bad” objects of feminist and queer inquiry and histories of powerful norms beyond the claim of defiant non-normativity or recuperation. Importantly for me, Pinto’s reflection highlights the need for robust engagements with racialized women’s sexuality as a critical nexus of knowledge production for the modern study of society as we know it today. Across these geopolitically distant yet methodologically proximal fields, I find new directions for thinking racialized women’s sexuality, a difficult object for many fields, including the history of sexuality, queer studies, and South Asian history.

    I thank Pinto for linking the concept history of the prostitute to the paradox that opens a foundational text in queer of color critique, Roderick Ferguson’s influential Aberration in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2004). In Ferguson’s opening narrative, we see the foundational work of the “prostitute” as a paradoxical concept. And as I explore in ISL, she is a paradigmatically queer subject in terms of her indeterminacy and fluidity, for all had the potential to become a prostitute. She is perpetually defined by aberration and transgression, permanently outside of the norms of heterosexual reproduction, always racialized, and dangerously irredeemable. The labor she is defined through, indeed named as, is insufficient to describe the many labors that women perform. She cannot be assimilated into any easy theory of commodification. In her inception as a social scientific object at the end of the eighteenth century, she is geographically elsewhere, a paradigm of feminine excess in the colonies.

    As I argue in the introduction to ISL, her timelessness, as a member of the “world’s oldest profession,” places her outside of the time of modern society, always a remnant of the primitivity of sexuality, and her persistent presence challenges the closed economy that is modern social life. She is, in the language of Ferguson, the “chaos” that is “unleashed” at the limit of modern political theories of state, family, and capital. In the lightning flash that illuminates her transgression, we find the contours of normative values and structures that organize modern society (Foucault 1977). We learn the history not only of female sexual deviancy, but also, its constitutive role in the very making of the colonial institutions and ideologies of monogamous, heterosexual reproduction that forcibly reorganized social life across the modern world. As Pinto powerfully states in her reading, it is this history of “normativity”—our inheritance of racialized theories, concepts, and institutions that naturalized and reorganized societies around heterosexual reproductive monogamy—that I work to reveal in the book.

    Strikingly in Ferguson’s queer of color critique, Black womanhood is critical to the making of “heteropatriarchy,” and Black feminist theory and its primary focus on Black women’s sexuality offer a critical resource for the field. Importantly, Ferguson’s exemplary “prostitute” in the beginning of Aberration in Black is a drag queen, a person who is gender nonconforming, transgressive, opening a field of inquiry that queries the constitutive place of race in the making of both gendered difference and sexuality. Yet the drag queen is a relatively recent object of sociological inquiry, one who is often idealized and figured more as symbol and figuration of radical politics (to think with Kadji Amin [2017] and Jules Gill-Peterson [forthcoming]) than as a complex or uneasy historical subject. As Ferguson explores over the course of Aberration in Black, it was so often tropes of Black (cis) women’s sexuality, reductive and essentialist ideas of the sexual and gendered excess of Black womanhood, that were taken up as the primary symbol of deviancy in modern sociology, from Moynihan’s “The Negro Family,” to the earliest sociological studies of the “unadjusted girl” in Chicago sociology. It is this intimacy of the place of naturalized sexual difference in the making of sexuality that is the through-line in the study of Black women’s sexuality and queer, gender nonconforming, and trans sexualities in queer of color critique. Yet, despite the foundational place of Black feminist theory and Black women in queer of color critique, Black women’s sexuality remains a difficult object and an important site of ongoing inquiry. This vexed position of women’s sexuality was powerfully diagnosed in the foundational work of Evelynn Hammonds in what she describes as the “geometry of Black female sexuality,” and continues to be named as a difficult subject of scholarship in the scholarly contributions of Jennifer C. Nash, Samantha Pinto, Amber Musser, and Emily Owens, among others (Hammonds 1994).

    It is not coincidental that the domain of queer of color critique, as defined in Ferguson’s foundational text, takes as its central object the making of social science, specifically the influential field of US sociology, which comes to dominate policymaking and academic approaches to the study of social life for much of the twentieth century until today. Ferguson sets out to describe a theory of queer of color critique as one based in a reading of disciplinary sociology and its deep investment in the making of Black sexuality as a primary object of Deviant Studies. There are deep connections between the history I tell in ISL on the colonial origins of modern social thought—a history that begins in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries across the metropole and colony and culminates in the formalization of social sciences in the first decades of the twentieth century—and the emergence of dominant fields like sociology and “criminology” that make deviancy a distinct object of knowledge by the middle of the twentieth century in imperial America. In the context of American sociology, particularly the Chicago School, we see the massive impact of the invention of the study of deviancy through concepts like the prostitute and racialized ideas of sexual aberration in the decades before. In ISL, I cite Black feminist thinking on this foundational sociological imperative to study Black women’s sexuality as a key site for social scientific knowledge production, from Sarah Haley’s genealogy of the term “queer” with its origins as a term used to condemn and criminalize Black women in the US South at the turn of the twentieth century, to Cathy Cohen’s innovative queer feminist reframing of deviancy as a site of refusal for Black Studies (Haley 2016, Cohen 2004).

    I think Cohen’s insistence on refusing and inverting the condemnatory language of deviancy is a particularly important insight to think about possible directions for the fields of feminist and queer studies now, a turning toward deviancy that embraces the political claims of refusal but also recognizes the limits of the project of idealized recuperation in structures of disciplinary knowledge. Refusal in this way, as a critique of social scientific knowledge, offers new ways to revisit the critical insights of feminist scholarship from South Asia from over thirty years ago in the works of Uma Chakravarti, Lata Mani, Tanika Sarkar, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Sharmila Rege, Indrani Chatterjee, as well as more recent scholars of Dalit feminisms like Shailaja Paik who have argued for standpoint perspectives of Dalit women’s history in the last twenty years. This genealogy of thought has for decades refused and sought to create disorder at the limits of proper Hindu womanhood produced through the gendered logic of Hindu nationalism, upper-caste supremacy, and rigid norms of domesticity.

    By refusal, I think of the insights of the Black feminist collective, Practicing Refusal Collective, and their work to produce a new glossary for Black social life. Tina Campt outlines the mandates of this project of refusal: “For us, practicing refusal names the urgency of rethinking the time, space, and fundamental vocabulary of what constitutes politics, activism, and theory, as well as what it means to refuse the terms given to us to name these struggles” (Campt 2019). Building from this imperative, what does it mean to practice refusal for this inheritance of sexual knowledge, to imagine a new “glossary” for the postcolony when the social scientific lexicon of the sexual control of women has been translated so completely into the material, legal, and social institutions that govern life in the present? What does it mean to rethink and practice “undoing” when that “fundamental vocabulary” of a wholly “diminished subjecthood” forms the backbone of so many institutions—from customary laws that govern religious identity, marriage, and property across the postcolonial world, to potent politicized classifications of the schedule of tribes and castes, to flexible categories of “deviancy” that continue to thrive in the domains of policing and criminal law?

    The challenges of these difficult questions, and our difficult objects, are animated again, now, in the paradigm of refusal that has defined the politics of the present in ongoing protests that complicate claims to postcolonial rights in India. In the last year, communities have staged some of the largest protests in history—protests that refuse the failed promises of Hindutva “transgender rights,” the exclusionary vision of Hindu right-wing citizenship in protests of Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh, the systematic erasure of caste atrocities by laying bare endemic issues of sexual violence today, the failed developmental state that starves farmers of their livelihoods through privatization. These are fundamentally modes of refusal, with women and sexual minorities who refuse limited visions of citizenship and acts of historical erasure hidden under the discourse of liberal rights. These actions make clear the stakes of political movements at the margins of a Hindu majoritarian society in their radical claims to an ethics of dignity, survival, and endurance, despite anti-minority, anti-lower caste and Dalit, and anti-Muslim violence. These visions defy the very premises of a majoritarianism based in social subordination, the denial of citizenship, and expanded practices of policing and state power.

    Across geographies and histories, there is something unique in how racialized feminized sexuality again and again functions as the foundation for powerful structures of knowledge that come to define the modern study of society. For me, the bad object that is feminized sexuality unbound is worthy of limitless writing. And these questions continue to organize my ongoing work. By the middle of the twentieth century, disciplinary sociology comes to define new global agendas that produce “Woman” as the genesis of a whole industry of social science translated into policy, law, and economics. The civilizational ethnology of the nineteenth century, now framed through developmentalism, shifts from the “Woman Question” to the “Status of Women” in the study of womanhood in development studies of women in Third World. Using the wonderful insights of Pinto’s reading of my work, women’s sexuality in excess remains the “bad object,” indeed, an object that is often wholly disappeared, uncounted, without enumeration in the social scientific study of gender and women in the decolonizing world. It is this question that I take up in my current book.


    Works Cited

    Amin, Kadji. Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

    Arondekar, Anjali, and Geeta Patel. “Area Impossible: Notes toward an Introduction.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 22.2 (2016) 151–71.

    Campt, Tina. “Black Visuality and the Practice of Refusal.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 29.1 (2019).

    Cohen, Cathy. “Deviance as Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1.1 (2004) 27–45.

    Ferguson, Roderick. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

    Foucault, Michel. “A Preface to Transgression.” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

    Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

    Hammonds, Evelynn. “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality.” Differences 6.2–3 (1994) 126–45.


Srirupa Prasad


Archival Excess and Its Limits

Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought is about the history of colonial archives and the extent to which it constituted the possibility of who the Indian prostitute was and how she became the edifice of Indian sexual life. The book explores the history of how certain figures—most notably that of the prostitute became a modern social subject in India. It is narrative of how “the control of female sexuality is a central driving force in the very conceptualization of social life” (15) in India. Indian Sex Life focuses on the progressive history of the ways in which the social category of the prostitute took hold in Indian thought. The idea of the prostitute was conceptualized through a diverse set of disciplines—from forensic sciences, philology, to medicine, to the legal sciences. Indian Sex Life offer an explanation to the question that the author poses at the outset: how could one account for a surfeit of the term “prostitute” being used for all women who were not upper caste and married monogamously?

In a vein similar to Mary Poovey, Mitra reconstructs the “intellectual” history of the “social body” of the Indian prostitute. And how is recounting that genealogy productive? Mitra answers that what is contained in that archival “excess” (of the figure of the prostitute) is the very norm of modern Indian sexuality. In other words, the author uses “deviant female sexuality to account for the surplus of ideas and classifications that circulated around the category of the prostitute” (5). She argues, “The concept history of the prostitute, I suggest, reveals a broad history of how ideas about the dangers and excesses of women’s sexuality shaped modern social thought” (6).

There are a number of ways to read Indian Sex Life. In this short review essay, I focus on the construction of the archive by undertaking two tasks: (a) tease out some of the implications of the idea with which Mitra prefaces her book—“excess” in relation to critical studies of colonial archives; and (b) critically look at two of the techniques used in the consolidation of this archive as described by Mitra—most notably repetition and veracity and how both these techniques simultaneously produce and control “excess.”

To my mind this book is most about archives and their excesses, not only about the figure of the prostitute being almost omnipresent textually (surfeit) but how a whole new set of social, cultural, and legal predicaments and practices are defined under this label. It is about the work “archival excesses” do—in the service of empires, political power, cultural authority, and social thought. But excess produces its own limits and disruptions. In the following essay I ask what remains hidden or absent in such an “excess,” what does it say about the ways in which such written texts are produced and perpetual anxieties that aim to destabilize the myth of a discursive unity?

In the first part of the commentary, I state some of the implications of the idea of excess by citing from historians of colonialism. In the second section, I discuss the two modalities of the creation of the Indian prostitute that Mitra writes about—repetition and veracity. And in the third, I wonder about the political implications of this abundance and raise some questions about the need to decolonize the category of the prostitute and its textual determination.

I engage with the idea of “excess,” what it means in the context of colonial-modern archives and what they leave out or unable to contain. Such an exercise becomes especially compelling given that the power of colonial archives and transparency of archives more generally are under increased scrutiny. Indian Sex Life makes a stellar contribution in grounding the history of modern Indian social thought in the idea of excessive female sexuality. It explores how multilingual and multidisciplinary texts ordered and catalogued unified that idea as a social fact. I wonder about the further implications of this abundance.

Let me clarify a few things. I choose “excess” as the lens through which I analyze Indian Sex Life because in the book “excess” functions both at the empirical level as well as an analytical scaffolding. Mitra proves (maybe implicitly) that archives are “chronicles of excess” par excellence. She writes, “I found the prostitute everywhere, across different archives from colonial India, appearing, disappearing, and then reappearing in files that seemingly had little to do with the regulation of sexual commerce” (4). The author then elaborates in detail the list of disciplines where the “prostitute” was “ubiquitous in the analysis of social life” (4). Stunningly long is also the inventory of categories of women who were included under the umbrella term “prostitute” outside of Hindu upper-caste marriage. From the courtesan to the dancing girl to high-caste Hindu widows, lower-class Muslim women workers, mendicant performers, urban industrial workers, to domestic servants. Mitra calls her book as an exercise in deciphering the significance of this an “excess of the archival presence” (4). Indian Sex Life is concerned about “excess” in another way. Ann Laura Stoler calls colonial administrations, “prolific producers of social categories” (Stoler 2009, 1) and the creation of these labels was made possible by the publication of texts in hundreds and thousands and in diverse fields. Such enterprises were undertaken both by the colonial governments as well as the indigenous publishing industries. For example, Tapti Roy stated that in 1911, there were ninety-nine printing presses in the city of Calcutta. The validity of these new social categories was manufactured in a large part by an abundance of print publications. Mitra develops the idea of “excess” in the production of the category of “prostitute” in yet another crucial way. Excess functions also as a technique of the way in which the category of the “prostitute” was constructed. Creating patterns and generalizability of social categories solidified in the archive is dependent on their capacity to be repeated. Repetition is both a technique and product of the archive. It is therefore an “excess,” directed at the consolidation of particular texts, identities, and ideas.

In Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (1997), Bernard Cohn has shown how from the eighteenth century onward, modern nation states have depended on elaborate projects of demarcating, measuring, and classifying a wide variety of things—from space, to economic process, to flora, fauna, and human populations. He argues, “European states increasingly made their power visible not only through ritual performance and dramatic display, but through the gradual extension of ‘officializing’ procedures and that established and extended their capacity in many areas. . . . Finally, nation states came to be seen as natural embodiments of history, territory, society” (Cohn 1997, 2).

Cohn elaborates that for the idea of modern nation states to thrive, naming, cataloguing, and representing the past was paramount. And for him, “the process of state building in Great Britain seen as a cultural project, was closely linked to its emergence as a imperial power and India was its largest and most important colony” (Cohn 1997, 3). The archive Mitra studies is a similar one, consolidated in India during the period between the mid-nineteenth to twentieth centuries, at the height of British rule in as well the gradual prominence of anti-nationalist movements. This archive therefore was both politically and culturally momentous. Archival publications were a “tribute” (to quote Cohn) to the labors of countless company officials who created this “endless store of information” (Cohn 1997, 3). The production of this body of information was based on the very act of repetition. Cohn discusses what he calls “enquiries”—answers to a particular set of questions which gathered knowledge on local customs and practices, for example. Another modality was the survey, for instance, which Mitra writes about extensively as well. Quintessentially a colonial mode of gathering—surveys were meant to map natural and social landscapes of colonized societies.

Mitra explains how deviant female sexuality becomes a colonial object of knowledge in and through legal surveys. She writes, “Authorities developed a mutable idea of the prostitute as a coherent and immanently knowable object, a concept they linked to everything from solicitation to trafficking to abortion and infanticide” (19). Mitra argues how a preexisting idea about female sexuality guided the “colonial method of counting” (19). “Creating a category,” “populating it with bodies,” and “new modes of taxonomizing through questionnaires and seemingly endless lists that brought together disparate social practices through diagrams and charts” (19). In other words, if colonialism ruled on the basis of mastering cultural knowledge about the colonized, then archiving and cataloging remained its most powerful mechanisms.

What one can argue on the basis of these formulations of the colonial archive is that excess was a part and parcel of such endeavor. Excess was implied in a variety of ways. A diverse and vast amount of information (and temporalities) about groups of people and social practices were made to fit a very limited number of categories—for example that of the prostitute. Colonial investigations into this category were not only “a name” but an “explanation” behind the very nature of Indian society. In that regard, repetition in using the same set of questions (constituting the survey, for example) and as Mitra argues, taking cue from Lata Mani, “the very formulation of official questions” defined the terms of what could be answered” (65). Excess was also the result of these questionnaires/surveys being completed by a vast number of people from the colonial services to members of the educated Indian middle class.

Repetition as an act, strategy, and objective of the colonial archive(s) was also a transaction in futures. For example, one can read colonial repositories as an urge to defy transience, canonize information as social facts, and reestablish the authority of these collections and the buildings they were housed in. Repetition and excess are therefore intricately tied in the construction of colonial archives. I find it useful to cite Thomas Richards’s formulation in this regard. The British Empire was the most document rich of all global empires. He writes, “The civil servants of Empire pulled together so much information and wrote so many books about their experiences. . . . In a very real sense theirs was a paper empire” (Richards 1993, 4). One can almost characterize the colonial preoccupation with documents and texts as a “celebration of excess”—in terms of both content, style, and adaptability to suit a plethora of purposes.

Popular literature—“autobiographies,” “lay sociologies”—constituted another genre by which the authenticity of the figure of the prostitute was mapped onto the textual form. These “life stories” (first-person accounts of prostitutes themselves and eyewitness accounts by other people) as Mitra argues, became the voice of the Indian prostitute. Extensive sociological, legal, and medical knowledge about the deviant Indian woman had to be corroborated by narratives which were deemed real and living. Mitra writes, “These lay sociologies and ‘autobiographies’ are a small but representative sample of numerous publications on the restraint and excesses of women’s sexuality” (178). These writings generated “scenes of impurity and pollution,” in which the prostitute stood as the emblem of decadent Indian social life. They “demonstrated the pervasive presence of a social imaginary that utilized the concept of the prostitute to create a regime of empirical truth” (178). What is fascinating is that the creators of these texts are hard to find as most of these were fabricated using “pseudonyms or claimed a woman’s voice” (178). These constituted another modality that was based on testimony—designed via a rather limited range of images and cliches that were significant to the colonial eye. Veracity of the category of Indian prostitute needed to be created by depiction and circulation of sites, events, and social characters in the context of which the deviant Indian woman with her inherent excesses gained meaning. Mitra cites the example of the cremation ghat and the funeral pyre—which uncannily implied a dramatic scene of the unfolding of deviance on the part of a young woman—either in death or in future life. Further, with the development of photography which was deeply tied to the bureaucratic imperatives of colonial rule, the manufacture and representation of excess reached a higher level of sophistication. In fact, the Indian colonial archive is replete with photographic documentation of everyday life in India, where excess was produced not only in the sheer number of photographs/images but also in the way the colonial gaze constructed the relationship between the object, photographer, viewer, and the archive (Mitman and Wilder 2016).

Indian Sex Life is a thought-provoking study of the discursive formation surrounding label of the Indian prostitute—a subject that is ubiquitous in Indian social and cultural discourses. An ever-present figure—it was shaped in its formulation during the colonial period. The deviant Indian woman became a modern subject as an image of the person who was given shape in and through new areas of knowledge like philology, social science, legal studies, forensic sciences, and popular literature. Like the extensive literature in diverse fields that were devoted to carving it out, her very subjectivity was premised on an excess—excess of desire. The spate of scholarship on her was therefore an exercise in disciplining that surplus.

In 2014, a Hindu Mahasabha (Hindu right-wing outfit in India) leader urged that girls who wore skimpy clothes be termed “prostitutes,” and it created an outrage in India. Other popular RSS-led campaigns—for example, Valentine’s Day vandalism against couples in public or violence against sex workers—constitute the public-political landscape within which we can reevaluate the figure of the deviant Indian woman. We find her still populating a plethora of discourses in contemporary Indian culture and politics. Kristina Weld reminds us that archives are sites of political struggle.

In that regard, what do we make of her second life as she is reincarnated over and over again in the current Indian sociopolitical contexts (I do not refer to any particular individual woman, nor to retrieve the voice[s] of the prostitute)?

In recent times sociologists like Zygmunt Bauman have written an “obituary of excess” by showing how “too” much can cause redundancy, waste, but it can also cause disruption and blunders. Andrew Abbott on the other hand has pondered over the troubles that excess creates. Aligning with them, I wonder how do we make sense of some of the happenings (that I have shared above) where the deviant Indian woman (potentially deviant and therefore always a prostitute) remains an omnipresent category in current political and cultural discourse?

So where do we move from here? What is the future of this archive? As we are now questioning the authority and excesses of archives in their postcolonial contexts, how does one decolonize this archive in the light of certain political appropriations of the figure of the prostitute? Or is there a way to afford a second life to this archive on the Indian prostitute? Or as Paul Basu and Ferdinand De Jong have argued, how can one locate the “uncertainty” which was generated by such excess? Colonial and hyper nationalist legacies continue to haunt the archive on the Indian prostitute and its contemporary renditions. In what ways can archive on the Indian Sex Life provide a glimpse into its own limits/or dissolution?

  • Durba Mitra

    Durba Mitra


    Excess as Speculation

    Thank you so much to Professor Srirupa Prasad for her thoughtful response on the excesses of archives and the key issues of repetition and veracity that shape the conceptual trajectory of Indian Sex Life.

    Prasad reflects on Indian Sex Life by asking how this history of women’s sexual deviancy centers on excess. She describes the central question of ISL as “the work ‘archival excesses’ do—in the service of empires, political power, cultural authority, and social thought.” Very late in the process, I decided to name the introduction “Excess: A History.” I am struck now after writing the book how much the question of excess shaped the hermeneutical approach to archives across its chapters. Excess is critical, not only because of the surprising proliferation of ideas of women’s sexuality across diverse archives, but also because excess is so much about the who has the political and social authority to define who, and what, is in excess. Colonial administrators and upper-caste Hindu men institutionalized heterosexual monogamy in law, science, and in social theories of modern society by defining women as excessive in their very essence. Reflecting on Prasad’s response, I see that excess is an essential concept that animates the scholarly work I pursue in and beyond this book. It defines my thinking about the long history of social science and theory and is now a major concern in my current work where I engage the long afterlives of these histories of the erasure of women’s sexuality in the excessive archives of gender and postcolonial development.

    In Indian Sex Life, the framework of excess reveals the foundational place of women’s sexuality in diverse archives, from criminal law, forensics, Indology, to ethnology, sociology, and popular literature. Excess defined not only the official documents of colonial governance, but also the copious writings on questions of sexual deviancy and social progress by upper-caste Hindu men who replicated excess in pursuit of expertise and patriarchal authority. Seemingly inexhaustible, these archives aspire to drown out the possibility of dissent. As Prasad highlights, excess literally and figuratively describes these archives of Indian social thought. Scholars across regions of the British Empire and historians of South Asia have carefully accounted for the way documents define modern colonial bureaucracy and the apparatus of “red tape” that distinguishes postcolonial governance. British colonialism was quintessentially a Document Raj, as Bhavani Raman argues (2012), where the British Empire employed and empowered men as authorities at every level to produce an abundant archive that told the state a triumphant story about itself. The excessive, dehumanizing nature of these archives has been a key concern for the field-defining work of a wide range of intellectuals, from scholars of British colonialism to Atlantic slavery. At every level, that story of archival excess centered on the control of racialized women’s sexuality.

    Indian Sex Life documents how colonial administrators, military men, and Hindu upper-caste elite men defined womanhood as always in excess, and in doing so, produced new justifications for patriarchal control through the paradoxical language of women’s liberation and progress. Prasad, in highlighting the question of excess in her response to ISL, point to two key strategies that emerge in these archives of modern social thought: repetition and veracity. In doing so, Prasad reflects on how the classification of sexual deviancy was always a project of repeating what is “known” and speculating about what is to come, where “repetition as an act, strategy and objective of the colonial archive/s was also a transaction in futures” (emphasis added). It is with this question of speculation that I close Indian Sex Life.

    I explore excess most recently in a new essay that is part of an ongoing project on the constitutive place of racialized ideas of gender and sexuality in key concepts in social science, “‘Surplus Woman’: Female Sexuality and the Concept of Endogamy” (Mitra 2021). In the essay, I analyze the origins of the social scientific concept of endogamy in colonial ethnology, Brahmanical sociology, and ultimately in B. R. Ambedkar’s powerful critique (1917) of the concept as the political enforcement of caste supremacy. I consider how Ambedkar recasts the Brahmanical control of women’s sexual “excess” in a potent phrase, the “Surplus Woman,” using the language of a kind of economical sociology to produce a critique of the upper-caste control of women’s sexuality. Once we realize that the condemnation of “surplus” women in theories of social progress is a “transaction in futures,” to use Prasad’s powerful phrase, then only can we confront the extraordinary misapprehension about the dangers women’s sexual excess that undergirds modern social thought. As I end my book, “the fact of deviant female sexuality is a grievous mistake” (207).

    In its present life in an increasingly authoritarian India today, this history of the control of women’s sexuality is indeed excessive and its resonances are clear. In the language of authoritative discourses of Hindu patriarchal majoritarianism across India, womanhood is in crisis because of its excesses. Chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and staunch Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath directly insists that, according to the “Shastras,” women are not capable of being free and independent. Women’s excess is defined in their vulnerability and willing submission to Muslim men, as we see in the legal language of “consent” and coercion of a spate of anti-Muslim laws against interreligious marriage, so-called “Love Jihad” laws (Gupta 2021). We see deeply violent language of the control of excess in discourses of women’s spatial and social transgression in endemic cases of upper-caste sexual violence against Dalit girls and women. And in early 2021, the chief justice of India himself, S. A. Bobde, in a statement from the Indian Supreme Court in January, condemned women protesters who remained in public as part of ongoing Farmer’s Protests in excess of their “normal” social roles, insisting that they go “home” and not be “kept” at powerful and ongoing demonstrations.

    In my work now, I continue to reflect on the long life of ideas of women’s excess, in deeply violent Hindutva laws that are proliferating today and in the archives of social science and social theory. In my current research, I ask what it means to write womanhood from bureaucratic archives of postcolonial women and development. These archives are beyond excessive, overwhelming in terms of the quantity of writing produced on women, gender, and development in the last fifty years. These texts of postcolonial social science purport to tell the whole story about women in the “developing world,” but often produce exclusionary and reductive visions of normative womanhood through graphs, charts, demographics, and statistics. I consider the challenge of what Michelle Murphy has described as the “economization of life” (2017) to ask: how can we write with fullness about women’s lives with and beyond the excesses of demographics and quantification? How might we imagine the many contours of postcolonial life when the most proliferative archives about postcolonial women in the last fifty years are the sterile reports of gender and economic development? And, as I look at report after report from dedades, I feel compelled to ask about similar genres of enumeration that rule in this pandemic moment. What claims to liberation and civility do we seek in the project of enumeration? In the devastating moment that overwhelms India now with the absolute and total failure of the Modi government to provide any basic infrastructure for healthcare as COVID-19 ravaged millions of lives, what amount of counting will finally prove the extent of governmental neglect and malfeasance? Quantification and demographic accounting—of women’s subordination, of women’s poverty, of their life struggles, of endless gendered care labor, of death—remains a limited tool of politics if there is no audience to whom we can make our urgent appeals to bear witness to suffering.


    Works Cited

    Ambedkar, B. R. “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development.” Indian Antiquary 46 (1917) 81–95.

    Arondekar, Anjali. For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

    ———. “In the Absence of Reliable Ghosts: Sexuality, Historiography, South Asia.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 25.3 (2015) 98–121.

    Gupta, Charu. “Love Taboos: Controlling Hindu-Muslim Romances.” India Forum, January 8, 2021.

    Mitra, Durba. “‘Surplus Woman’: Female Sexuality and the Concept of Endogamy.” Journal of Asian Studies 80.1 (2021) forthcoming.

    Murphy, Michelle. The Economization of Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

    Raman, Bhavani. Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.