Intimate relationships of Devadasi sex workers in south India: An exploration of risks of HIV/STI transmission

Ramanaik, S; Thompson, L.H; du Plessis, E; Pelto, P; Annigeri, V; Doddamane, M; Bhattacharjee, P; Shaw, S.Y.; Deering, K; Khan, S; Halli, S.S; Lorway, R Global Public Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice Global Public Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice, 2014; Volume 9, Issue 10

Global literature on female sex workers suggests that being in an intimate relationship is associated with barriers to practising safe sex behaviours. Condom use within intimate relationships is often seen as a sign of infidelity and fosters mistrust which can affect the longevity of a relationship as well as trust and intimacy between partners.

This paper analyses qualitative data from interviews with Devadasi sex workers and their intimate male partners in Bagalkot District, Karnataka, India, in order to understand the quality and dynamics of their relationships and the factors that influence condom use. The pilot study was undertaken in order to evaluate the feasibility of couple-based HIV prevention programming.

Please note that this paper is not currently available on an open access basis.


As young girls, Devadasis are dedicated by a ritual ‘marriage’ to serve Hindu deities and can therefore not marry an ordinary mortal. Honoured and respected in ancient time, Devadasis had temple duties including fulfilling the sexual desires of the temple priests. However, the socially sanctioned tradition has evolved into sexwork. Prohibited by law, dedication continues in some areas, particularly among scheduled castes. 

Devadasis generally begin their sexually active lives through a ‘first night ceremony’ or ‘hennu madodu’. This first relationship is often negotiated by the girl’s family, and the male partner provides material gifts (money, gold, jewellery and clothing) to the family for the initiation. Unlike other sex work relationships in which male ‘clients’ have no contact with the female sex worker’s family, a Devadasis’ intimate partner is welcomed by her family.

Research methods

Both quantitative and qualitative data were gathered. Interviews were conducted with 20 couples. Purposive sampling was used in 19 villages and towns in three talukas (sub-districts) in north-western Bagalkot (Mudhol, Bilgi and Jamkhandi). Inclusion criteria for female participants were:

  • practising sex work
  • self-identifying as female
  • having (at least) one current intimate male sex partner

Participants defined ‘intimate sex partner’ as a (male) partner considered to be a ‘lover’, ‘long-term partner’ or ‘husband’ and in a non-commercial relationship with the sex worker. All interviews were conducted in Kannada, the local language.

The research was done by the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT) and the University of Manitoba, in collaboration with Chaitanya AIDS Tadegattuwa Mahila Sangha, a sex worker community-based organisation (CBO) in Bagalkot.



  • All 20 female study participants identify as Devadasi sex workers.
  • 16 women started sex work at the age of 14–16 years.
  • 17 reported sex work as their main source of income.
  • Most women had entertained more than five clients in the past week and almost all reported condom use with paying clients.
  • Over half the women had one or more children fathered by their intimate partner, and others reported planning to have a child with the intimate partner.

Relationship initiation

  • For most of the Devadasis interviewed, the intimate partner relationships began after the woman entered sex work.
  • In all these cases, the men at first were regular clients who gradually became intimate partners.
  • Seven women said their relationship began with the ‘first night ceremony’, as part of Devadasi practice and continued for several years.
  • Men involved in the first sex ceremony are typically interested in continuing the relationship because they feel that they have invested resources.
  • Male participants mentioned that taking part in the first sex ceremony cost them a lot of money.

Developing long-term relationships

  • Women’s criteria for considering a man an intimate partner included paying attention to her joys and sorrows, having respect for her emotions and showing his masculinity.
  • Men noted that in the early stages, developing a relationship was quite expensive, and they had to spend substantial amounts of money to convince the woman of their sincerity.
  • Men also spoke of their expectations of their female partners, including loyalty, respect for his masculinity, being treated like a husband and dressing like a married woman.

Dynamics in interpersonal relationships

  • Among the women, only seven said their partner was aware that they were practising sex work.
  • 15 male partners said they were aware of their female partner’s engagement in sex work but avoided discussion of the topic.
  • Men regard their female partners as Devadasis rather than female sex workers and expect the women to play a role similar to that of a wife.
  • Male partners mentioned women’s continued sex work as the primary reason for conflict.
  • Devadasis mentioned money, suspicions of unfaithfulness, lack of interest in family matters and male partners’ alcohol use as important reasons for disagreements.


Female participants in the study were Devadasi sex workers and therefore the results cannot be generalised to Karnataka’s female sex worker community as a whole. These results apply to the particular moment in time in which people were interviewed.


This study suggests that Devadasis and most of their intimate partners define their relationships differently from commercial sex encounters. Many Devadasi sex workers and their intimate partners define their relationships as ‘like marriage’ which reduced their motivation to use condoms.

More extensive, in-depth studies are needed to understand more about the complexities of relationships between Devadasis and their intimate partners under varying circumstances, in different kinds of communities.


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