Intervening in masculinity: work, relationships and violence among the intimate partners of female sex workers in South India

Anthony Huynh, Shamshad Khan, Sapna Nair, Claudyne Chevrier, Kerstin Roger, Shajy Isac, Parinita Bhattacharjee & Robert Lorway Critical Public Health, 2018; Read the full paper online

Although health researchers have begun to examine the forms of violence and power dynamics that play out in the intimate relationships of female sex workers (FSWs) in India, this knowledge has tended to focus on the perspectives of women, leaving men’s motivations and attitudes relatively unexamined.

This paper examines the contours of masculinity and gender norms from the perspective of the intimate partners of FSWs. Based on six months of ethnographic research in Northern Karnataka, the study employed two focus group discussions (FGDs) with Devadasi FSWs, as well as four FGDs and 30 in-depth interviews with their intimate partners (IPs).

Key findings

  • Amid the neoliberal tranformation of the agricultural sector, IPs would often express a sense of alienation from each other and their environment. Some IPs expressed a nostalgic yearning for a time when men's work life could be imagined as part of more meaningful social relationships.

"If a man doesn’t act like a man, he will be called a Chakka. If he likes to act like a woman and do womens work, we call him Chakka. There is a boy in my street who is always with women. He washes clothes and cleans the vessels. Is he a man? Tell me." Charan, 33, Agricultural Worker

  • Men commonly expressed that their relationships with FSWs provided intimacy and erotic satisfaction that they didn't experience with their wives, but they often viewed these relationships as fleeting and with little emotional obligation. 

"Our relationship is hidden. And like a flower, we can remove it any time when we don’t want it. I got married to my wife in front of society. I have the right to make any demands from my wife but I don’t have that right with my lover." Omkara, 26, construction worker

  • Among intimate partners, the ability to ‘spend’ was an important indicator of social status in which men would make sense of masculinity. Along with the pressures of conspicuous consumption, the financial strain of providing for both their lover and wife also contributed to the stress and violence in intimate partners’ relationships with their lovers.

"Sometimes we will be very busy with our family and work so we cannot go to the lover’s house. If we go to the lover’s house after 8 or 15 days, she starts shouting and she says I never care about her. Even if I reason with her she still yells at me, and that makes me angry and will lead me to hit her." Prasham, 36, factory labourer

  • For the intimate partners, violence was a common tool to correct their lover’s lack of obedience. In particular, intimate partners often described their partners by employing animal metaphors, which, to them justified the control.

"Our ancestors have a saying: ‘We have to hit an ox for every corner of the field it moves.’ When we beat an ox, it will go in the right line. The same goes for woman. We must beat her sometimes, then she will stay under our control and listen to us. Otherwise she will do whatever comes to her mind. She will go the wrong way." Neeraf, 45 years old, farmer


Over the last decade, HIV-related programs focussing on sex workers’ communities primarily emphasize the individual behaviours, empowerment and mobilization of women who sell sex, and tend to ignore their intimate partnerships. This narrow focus, however, fails to address the roots of sex workers’ vulnerability – that is, the forms of gender power inequalities enacted and reinforced by men’s attitudes and social practices. 

The paper recommends that gender-related programs engage men and not only address intimate partner violence but also attend to the social and structural realities surrounding men’s daily lived experiences. 

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