Prostitutes and Politics: The Tolerated Brothels Debate in Colonial India

The South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality hosted this discussion on 12 April 2007, 3:00 - 4:30 p.m., at TARSHI, 11 Mathura Road, first Floor, Jangpura - B, New Delhi.

The Speaker was Steve Legg who is a Lecturer in cultural and historical geography at the University of Nottingham in the UK. More information about the speaker is available at the end of this report. Sumit Baudh, Senior Program Associate, the South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality facilitated the discussion.

Steve Legg made a 45 minutes presentation. He spoke about geographies of the regulation of prostitution in colonial India. Though there may not appear to be an obvious link between sexuality and geography, through his talk, Steve gave examples of how the two intersect; after all, sexuality is manifest differently in different physical locations.

He spoke about the geographies of inclusion and exclusion in the context of prostitution. Steve clarified that he hesitated to use terms such as ‘sex work’ in a context or in a time-frame when these did not exist.

He drew references from the Indian Contagious Diseases Act of the 1860’s and how prostitution continued to be regulated under the Cantonment regulations. Prostitution was not only looked down upon because of sexuality but also because of gender. For example, women in prostitution in a patriarchal society at that time, were not only selling sex, but were also transgressing gender norms because mostly, women did not work to earn money.

He spoke of how in spite of the many laws and regulations in force, those laws may not necessarily have been followed or implemented. There were strong underlying currents of why prostitution should be allowed, with the belief perhaps that if men were not allowed physical relief they would start having sex with other men or boys.

Despite laws and regulations there were differences - across different authorities - on how far the prostitutes should be located from the cantonment areas, and on issues of social/moral hygiene.

Through his presentation Steve showed how spatial criteria were important determinants in cases of policy and law making. Please click here for a copy of his write up.

The presentation was attended by about 30 people. These included journalists and media correspondents; staff of organisations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), PATH, Lawyer’s Collective, Nigah Media Collective, The Youth Parliament, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), Groupe Development, World Health Organisation (WHO), Time Out Delhi, CREA and CCS; a few lawyers; and some students and faculty from educational institutions like the Jamia Milia Islamia, and the University of Delhi.

Comments, questions and general discussion followed. There were queries about whether the speaker had had a look at other regions apart from Delhi or if he had a sense of the number of sex workers at these sites. Steve replied that for the scope of this presentation, he had broadly looked at the issue of prostitution in Delhi and although the official figures of prostitutes was 405 prostitutes in 245 houses in the city (based on a survey of 1929); he added that these figures are by no means conclusive.

There was another query into whether there was a shift in the focus (in the 19th century) from that of protecting soldiers from contagious diseases to that of the regulation of public morality. Steve clarified that the initial Acts were all about protecting soldiers. However, with time it shifted to morality. The aim might have been not just to cleanse but also to harass the brothel owners and sex workers.

There was also an interesting discussion on whether there could be comparisons made on the degrees of tolerance towards sex workers and homosexual men. There was a question on whether Steve had come across texts or examples on analogous regulation of men who have sex with men (MSM). Steve said that so far he had found only about three oblique references. Both prostitutes and homosexual men were attacked, but one could infer greater tolerance towards the homosexual men than the prostitutes, as homosexuality was largely closeted and it was not legislated in as much detail as prostitution.

Sumit Baudh, who organised the event, offered a vote of thanks to the speaker, audience and the TARSHI and the Resource Centre staff who helped in organising the event. The programme was followed by tea/coffee and light snacks giving people an opportunity for informal discussions.

About the Speaker

Steve Legg attained his BA and PhD from the University of Cambridge and spent three following years as a Research Fellow. He is now a Lecturer in cultural and historical geography at the University of Nottingham and has a book out in March/April entitled Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi's Urban Governmentalities to be published by Blackwells (in the UK, America and Australia) and Rawat Publishers (in India). He is currently expanding this work on urban politics to look at the regulatory policies applied to prostitutes in 20th century colonial India. This entails situating the local history of Delhi's prostitutes in the national politics of the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Acts and the international politics of social hygiene campaigners and the League of Nations.

He can be contacted through email at