Nitai Giri wipes away a few tears as she makes her way outside the conference room.
"Tears of laughter," the 43-year-old Indian sex worker is quick to note. Giri and her friend, Sangita Manoji, had just shared some of their most memorable and comic experiences on the job in "Sex, Fun, and Money," their talk at the Association for Women's Rights In Development forum. The conference, held in September in Brazil, drew more than 1,800 feminists from around the world.
In India, where some kinds of sex work are criminalized, and those who do it often face discrimination and abuse, joy and humor can be deeply subversive things.
"The day has arrived that we are standing up for ourselves and keeping our heads high," Giri, who is from the eastern city of Kolkata, India, says. "We want to have fun amongst ourselves."
And that fun sometimes comes from unexpected encounters. One of Giri's clients asked her to dress up as an Indian goddess before urinating on him. Manoji remembered the time both she and a client got annoyed with each other for eating too much of the fried chicken they were sharing — it turned out that a stray cat had been stealing it all along.
As the translator finished sharing their stories with conference-goers, some stirred their coffees and shot each other nervous looks, unsure how to react. When Giri and Manoji let out big belly laughs, however, the audience laughed with them.
"Don't forget, we are doing sex work by choice," Manoji reminded the room. "And everyone has the right to access pleasure."
Both Giri and Manoji are members of Durbar, a collective of male, female, and transgender sex workers. There are an estimated 3 million sex workers in India, according to the country's Ministry of Women and Child Development, and many of them are children who have been forced into it. Durbar fights against the exploitation of children while advocating that all sex work be decriminalized for adults who do it by choice. Beyond decriminalization, Giri and Manoji say they are also eager to change the narrative that sex work is only depressing drudgery.
Which is why, in 2013, they began working with researcher Debolina Dutta and illustrator Anirban Ghosh to share their funniest experiences in visual form. The women of Durbar and another sex-worker collective, VAMP, spoke with Dutta. Then Ghosh illustrated their experiences in the form of whimsical cartoons. Fifteen short stories have been collected in a book called The Rule of Laughter; the group is hoping to publish it next year.
"In India, where there is an abolitionary stand on sex work, a book like this challenges the stigma attached to the profession," Ghosh told Refinery29. "Stories of pleasure, of laughter and camaraderie, of sex workers making choices for themselves, these stories are often lost in the popular narratives of victimhood and rehabilitation."
Giri spoke with Refinery29 as part of her effort to change that narrative.
How old were you when you started doing sex work?
"I was 15. At first, [sex] was forced upon me, which is why I chose this path. I used to work at a bag factory, and one youth at the bag factory forced himself on me. After that, I left the job and went to [the state of] Bihar to dance. [Ed. note: In some parts of India, it is good luck to invite transgender people, known as hijras, to dance at weddings or birthday parties as a blessing.]
"But dancing over there, I found people forced themselves upon me for free sex. At that time, I worried about it. Then I decided that I would treat this as a 9-to-5 job, that I would do sex work and take money for it."
What kind of difficulties did you face when you started doing sex work?
"I had a lot of troubles at the beginning. Number one, no one used to listen to us. Number two, I couldn't initially tell anyone that I was a sex worker, because at that time, the police were oppressing us, goons were oppressing us, landlords were oppressing us, and even the people who lived nearby continually oppressed us.
"In 1995, the Durbar organization was created. The police used to harass us, used to manhandle us and hit us…Today, the police bring us a chair to sit upon and respectfully ask us, 'What would you like to drink? Tea, or cold water?' Today they do that because we, ourselves, are organized.
"Today, movie stars dance naked, and if they can enjoy this, then why can't sex workers? We want to have fun amongst ourselves, we want to have festivals. We want to show that we don't just do sex work, we can also do things outside of that."
Why do you think of sex work as something happy or joyful?
"Different types of customers come to us. They want to do different types of sex [acts]. And everything depends on them as to how they can satisfy their mind's joy. Today, in their homes, they cannot find that happiness. For that reason, we are collecting all of the various happy stories, too, so that they will stay as a sort of history about what kind of clients visit sex workers, and what kind of sex they like to have."
Among all of the experiences you have had and all of the stories, which one do you find the most memorable?
"There is this one customer who brings a thin cotton towel, a lathi [stick], and the leaves of a jackfruit tree with him. Then he says, 'Tie my neck with this towel, like a goat.' And he sits and sleeps just like a goat. Then he says, 'Feed me the leaves and hit me with the stick, while saying, Eat the leaves, eat the apple, and hitting him.' Hitting him like this is his biggest sex [act]. He screams a lot."
Does he come to see you regularly?
"He comes once a week."
Does he only want that experience?
"Yeah, he only loves that. And, if anyone laughs, he doesn't keep that person in the room and shoos them away. Only I have managed to stay with him, and even I — to keep myself from laughing — sometimes bite down hard enough [on my lip] to draw blood."
Do you have a favorite client?
"Yes, my favorite is person has been with me for approximately 20 years. He is beautiful to look at, and he really loves me."
What challenges do you face as a transgender sex worker?
"Actually, the biggest problem is that I have no place of my own to take my customers. I don't have a brothel area where I can take them, like [other] female sex workers do. What we do is — at bus stops, below cinema halls, or at some beautiful place — we stand there for clients so that they can make out who is there [to be picked up]. After that, they take us to a hotel, or a house or apartment, or to one of our own places. Sometimes, we take the client to another didi's [sister's] place. Most of the time, I take clients to another didi's place because it's a safe place.
"Another problem is that if we stay in one area, then the local boys there call the cops, who extort us. Or the boys themselves, they commit atrocities. They forcefully take money from the clients or from us. Or they force us to have sex with them, without paying for it, and without using condoms. Right now, I hope that I don't become HIV-positive, because many others have. That is the biggest risk."
How do you practice safe sex and encourage your clients to, as well?
"If customers don't want to take a condom, then we explain to them that, Behind you is a world, a family. For a moment of happiness, you will be ruined, and I will be ruined. In my body, you don't know what diseases exist or not; in your body, I don't know what diseases exist or not. Therefore, it is better that we use a condom, so that both of our families will live well."
What is your role in your community now?
"I am the president of Anandam, a branch of Durbar in Kolkata. The word anandam means happiness. We give happiness where violence happens. People like us, for the most part, have violence that comes from home and from society. We have suffered a lot of violence, but we root it out and return it to a beautiful state — the name of that is anandam."
How long do you intend to keep doing sex work?
"As long as my body is willing and clients still request me, I will keep working. I want to work until I am old, because this is not evil work, this is not dirty work, this is work that gives humans happiness."
Editor's note: This interview has been translated from Bengali and edited for length and clarity.