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Agency, injury, and transgressive politics in neoliberal times

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Sex worker–run community-based organizations (CBOs) in India have worked to curb violence, stigma, and poverty as an effective way to address HIV vulnerability. In addition to preventing and mitigating the impacts of HIV through structural interventions, many CBOs are now leading antitrafficking efforts. As this study explores, inconsistencies between antitrafficking and HIV prevention mandates inhibit sex workers in their efforts to prevent underage sex work while minimizing prospective harms. Within the Indian sociopolitical context, HIV prevention and antitrafficking response programs not only overlap but are often at odds with each other. This article highlights two dominant feminist arguments—advanced by anti–sex work and sex work feminists—that have influenced feminist practice related to sex workers. This study examines forty-one case studies of underage sex workers who were removed from brothels and case-managed by sex worker CBOs in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, India. The findings reveal that, even when executed by sex workers themselves, rescue models do not address structural barriers, thus providing unsatisfactory solutions. Not only are HIV programs compromised, sex workers (both the rescued and rescuer) are potentially exposed to excessive harm. Through the antitrafficking cases observed in the study, sex workers are neither victims nor resilient and effective change agents. An effective model requires that sex workers engage in structural interventions by reexamining the criminal codes that affect them, holding police and protective facilities accountable, and challenging social norms related to gender and sexuality.

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