National Network of Sex Workers India

This is concerning a recent study entitled ‘Modelling the Effect of Continued Closure of Red-Light Areas on COVID-19 Transmission in India’ (2020) authored by Dr. Sudhakar V. Nuti at Harvard Medical School, along with Jeffrey P. Townsend, Alison P. Galvani, Abhishek Pandey, Pratha Sah, and Chad Wells at the Yale School of Public Health. The study recommends that shutting down red-light areas in Mumbai, New Delhi, Nagpur, Kolkata, and Pune during and beyond the lockdown can reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases by 72% and deaths by 63%, and recommends keeping them closed indefinitely. The letter below is a response to this study from sex workers in India.

Prefer to hear the letter? Scroll to the bottom right now!

Dear respected Doctor ji[1] and mananiya[2] Researchers

Pehle, first of all, greetings, namastes and salaams to you all from our sex work communities in India.

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Don’t worry, we are footnoting all these terms for you; see below. Salaam namaste from tawaifs[3], nautch girls[4], veshyasjounokarmis[5] etc. Haai. We have been closed — locked down, as you would say — for the last three and a half months but we can’t even work from home. So sad, no?

But don’t worry, Researcher saabs. While our muscles are beginning to get sticky-sticky from disuse, we have not occupied our brain muscles with idle thoughts. No no, madamjis and sirjis, we have not let our minds become the Devil’s workshop. No shaitaan[6] vaitaan in our heads. Instead, we have spent this lost time thinking of how we can collectively help humanity.

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Because this is the time for WE, not me, no?

This is the time to think of ALL, not one, no?

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We have made a long-long list of ideas for this upliftment or empowerment or healing or jo bhi naam usko do[7]…because as this corona vorona has shown, we humans need some bada bada[8] change in how we are living, no? Now when we say upliftment you may think we are talking of distributing groceries, masks and reliefs, woh sab toh ho hi raha hai[9], and getting better types of masks from America. Nahin nahin. No no. We are talking of deep upliftment, mananiya Researcher jis. Digging below the surface. Opening the hood, you car-walas might say.

Researching the underbelly to improve the upper side.

But we cannot successfully uplift society all by ourselves. So we are humbly proposing a new type of partnership with you; an India-US bhai-bhai (bye bye China) type of partnership.

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In this new kind of private-private partnership, we sex workers will exercise our mind muscles to their fullest like we are doing at Hot Yoga and come up with ideas for research. And you’ll will use your lajawab[10] research skills to do the research. Arre, what fantastic research skills you’ll have! Wah!

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We will call this private-private partnership
Underbelly Research.

Nice, no? We only came up with it. All by ourselves.

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Accha, let’s get to work. No time wasting shasting. The world is waiting. Healing research is beginning. These are the ekdum[11] priority research ideas. Because international flights are not yet starting, we are first thinking of ideas where you are. In your own backside. This first phase of the project we will call Backside Underbelly. Or do you think Boston Underbelly is better? [We know Harvard is in Cambridge, but we like b-b more than b-c. Alliteration, no?] Don’t feel shy; speak freely. [See in any partnership, we always only take joint decisions, no?]

1. Because this corona is not missing anyone, it has been called The Great Equalizer. Very bada bada words. We say in Hindi simply: Yeh sab ko chhoonta hai. Touching all. So now, very important for your Boston back belly oops sorry backside, very important to research the spread of corona in all bungalows of above 5,000 feet carpet area to see how it is spreading in low-density households. (You understand the carpet area in America, na? We have to work out which country ka language we will use in our research — 50/50 ok? Some Hindi, kuch[12] English). This is more front lawn than backside, but theek hai[13]. What’s in a name? A gulab[14] by any other name is almost as sweet, no? Now, this has to be pukka[15] scientific research — please use the latest population number — (you call it Census data na?) to choose households. We don’t want to be rejected by that doctor magazine Lancet. And please don’t feel all shy using demographic data — if this means you are researching only White bungalows, let it be. Research must be proper, na? We don’t want to be rejected by Scientific American.


2. Second idea, again now we are moving fast from front lawn straight to backside, straight to the dustbin, in your part of the world you say garbage can, na? Many pioneering studies are done poking around in dustbins, but nothing yet for corona.
What an opportunity for our PPP. [PPP is ok, no? Far from KKK.]

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In one study, we saw that in dustbins with no condoms, researchers said this is a sex-free household. Study was criticized by all these queer shweer groups, saying what about women loving women, yeh sab, but what an innovative methodology, no? Let us use this same method to survey the kachra[17], see what people in these houses are eating — we will do what our research aunty calls Obesity Audit of each house. Means who is the most mota of them all! Then we will give each house Mota mota stars or an Obesity Star — Platinum, Gold, Silver, Copper, Tin. Just like the mota measurement what doctor uncle calls the Basal Metabolic Index gives numbers, we will give stars. Just like that nursery rhyme, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; how I wonder how obese you are. We will identify those houses that are more likely to have severe corona symptoms, and save those families from their eating habits. We will give them a new life, na?

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We are not just underbelly, mananiya Researchers. We are going straight to the belly.

Understanding, na?

3. Last idea for this round. Now we must go to the city’s underbelly, to the sewer system. In Italy they found traces of corona from November…what will we find when we examine the gutters of Connecticut? When did corona come here? This is a new kind of study, where we will do cross-matching
of three kinds of data: sewer data, satellite data and Google searches. Then we will find the footprint of Corona as it swept around Connecticut. Where did it start? Which route did it take? It will be an invisible footprint, like the Invisible Yeti — we will sense its presence, but we won’t see it. From this study we will see how Corona prowled through the city like a panther. Aah, so exciting, no? Or as we Veshyas like to say, XXXciting, no? And you see how we are going from backside to belly to underbelly…that’s the way aha aha. We like it. Aha aha.

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Mananiya Masked Researchers, this is all for now. We are signing off with so much pyaar[18], joy and hope. So much asha[19].

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Look forward to hearing from you soon,

With hugs, kisses and much XXX,

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This letter comes to you from 2063 sex workers from all across India.

‘Loved #SexWorkersAdviseHarvardYale? Listen to it here.


[1] A common Indian suffix signifying respect
[2] Respected
[3] A tawaif was a highly sophisticated courtesan who catered to the nobility of the Indian subcontinent, particularly during the Mughal era
[4] The nautch /ˈnɔːtʃ was a popular court dance performed by girls (known as “nautch girls”) in India.
[5] Terms for sex workers in some Indian languages
[6] Devils or demons
[7] Whatever we may call it
[8] Big big
[9] All that is happening, yes
[10] Incomparable
[11] Absolute
[12] Some
[13] It’s alright
[14] Rose
[15] Proper
[16] Understood?
[17] Garbage; dirt
[18] Love
[19] Hope