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.