Durba Mitra, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Durba Mitra (DM): I wrote Indian Sex Life in order to ask urgent questions that drive my intellectual work: How can we understand longstanding institutions, ideas, and epistemologies that have promoted the exclusion and erasure of women and their sexualities from the realm of public life in colonial and postcolonial South Asia? What is at stake when we study and narrate women’s sexuality, historically and today? Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought is an intellectual history, one that centers gendered power, sexuality, and racial difference in the history of ideas about modern society. I use the tools of feminist, queer, subaltern, and postcolonial history writing to lay bare the patriarchal origins of modern social theory in and about colonial India. Through diverse archives that reach across a wide range of disciplines, from forensic science to criminal law to sociology, I reveal a history of social stigma and exclusion that placed the control and erasure of women at the heart of modern social thought. Indian Sex Life demonstrates that the history of female sexuality is essential for the urgent project of decolonizing social theory.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DM: Indian Sex Life addresses a broad spectrum of themes because the control and erasure of female sexuality pervades the ways we think, write, and imagine our modern societies, often in ways that appear as commonsense to us today. In the book, I explore how, over the colonial period in India, European and American scholars, British officials, and upper-caste Hindu men deployed ideas about women’s sexuality to create totalizing theories about Indian society. I argue that deviant female sexuality, particularly the concept of the prostitute, became foundational to the colonial knowledge project and became the primary way to think and write about modern social life.

The book builds on and contributes to a wide range of fields, including the history of sexuality, feminist and queer studies, South Asian studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, global intellectual history, and histories of science and epistemology. Indian Sex Life reveals that ideas of the “prostitute,” and more broadly female sexual deviancy, were critical to diverse realms of public life in colonial India. Ideas of deviant female sexuality were foundational for debates about social progress and exclusion, Hindu supremacy, caste domination, sexuality and work, women’s industrial and domestic labor, transnational indentured servitude, customary marriage, widowhood and inheritance, the trafficking of girls, abortion and infanticide, and anti-Muslim ideologies about the dangers of Muslim women’s sexuality. Authorities and intellectuals used the mutable concept of the prostitute to argue for the dramatic reorganization of modern Indian society around upper-caste Hindu monogamy. I show how the history of modern social theory is based on a dangerous civilizational logic built on the control and erasure of women’s sexuality. This logic continues to hold sway in present-day South Asia and many parts of the postcolonial world.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

DM: In the introduction to the book, I describe the journey of researching and writing this book, which began as a very different kind of project during my PhD research. When I began this project as a student, I had set out to do a social history of the many social classes of women who I thought were engaged in prostitution. I began to follow the archival category, “prostitute,” across diverse archives. What I found was that the “prostitute” was everywhere, across a vast range of different archives from colonial India, appearing, disappearing, and then reappearing in files that seemingly had little to do with the regulation of sexual commerce. She was ubiquitous in the analysis of social life. In colonial India, the category “prostitute” was used to described virtually all women outside of monogamous marriage, including the courtesan, the “dancing girl,” high-caste Hindu widows, Hindu and Muslim polygamous women, low-class Muslim women dock workers, indentured women forcibly transported across the British empire, beggars, women shopkeepers, migratory laboring women across the Indian ocean, women followers of religious sects, mendicant performers, theater actors, urban industrial laborers, and domestic servants.

How could I account for the excess of this archival presence as a historical phenomenon? Something systematic was occurring, a system of thinking for which I had not yet fully accounted. As I revised the book, I set out to understand the definitional fluidity around the concept of the prostitute that I found in a wide range of archives. The book thus departs from my initial research agenda of solely writing social histories of marginalized women with colonial archives. These histories and lives still appear in the chapters of Indian Sex Life, as glimpses of women, as well as limit points for me as a scholar trying to write these histories with available archives. In archives of Indology, legal surveys, forensic science, ethnology, and popular chapbooks, I reveal how modern social thought is made possible through ideas of deviant female sexuality. I focus on multilingual sources that reach beyond colonial legal archives to understand enduring ideas about the control and erasure of women’s sexuality that have persisted long after the formal end of colonialism in South Asia. Indian Sex Life dwells in the tension between historiographical desires to recuperate marginalized subjects and assert historical presence for a present politics of recognition, and the epistemic limits of archives where deviant female sexuality appears as an object and women are totally disappeared from view.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DM: I hope this book will be read across geographies and generations. I aspired to write a book that was accessible to a diverse readership. I hope it will benefit students, academics, public scholars and intellectuals, journalists, artists, archivists, librarians, and activists committed to feminist and queer histories and the project of decolonizing knowledge today. Early on in the book writing process, I decided that my primary goal was to ask questions that unsettle longstanding assumptions that have shaped how we write the history of women’s sexuality. Indian Sex Life reorients readers to understand how sexuality sits at the heart of modern social theory. I believe that feminist and queer approaches to the history of knowledge have key methodological insights for scholars and students working across time periods and geographies.

My study of sexuality and social thought in modern South Asia is not an additive account that globalizes already-established frameworks from Europe and America with empirical evidence from South Asia. Instead, Indian Sex Life denaturalizes underlying assumptions about the universality of the organization of modern sexuality in the western world that have long shaped practices of reading in the global history of sexuality, readings that too often occlude deep histories of racist and colonial violence that shape modern sexuality.

This work builds on a wide range of scholarship that gives us tools to think our histories through the lens of feminist and queer inquiry, from critical South Asian feminist history, to histories of gender and sexuality in the Muslim world, to scholarship on comparative feminist and queer studies, Black feminist scholarship on sexuality and archives, queer of color critique, postcolonial thought, and histories of subalternity. This book opens up a conversation about what happens when we place the invention of sexuality as a modern concept itself at the colonial origins of modern social thought. I look forward to engaging with thinkers across fields to think anew about methods that link the complex history of women’s sexuality to modern histories of knowledge.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DM: My current research delves into the history of Third World and postcolonial women’s intellectual work in the decolonizing world. I was led to my current work on South-South feminist social theory and social science from my first book, which ends at the moment of decolonization in South Asia. In Indian Sex Life, I demonstrate how, over the course of the colonial period in British India, British colonial administrators, European, American, and Indian social scientists, doctors, lawyers, and public intellectuals—all men —created modern social theory based on the patriarchal control and erasure of women’s sexuality. These theories and concepts continue to be foundational for the modern social sciences today. In my ongoing research, I analyze how women across South Asia, with links to women across the decolonizing world, incorporated and challenged these institutionalized forms of patriarchal social science with the rise of women’s movements in the second half of the twentieth century. What theories and methods in the study of women did feminist scholars and activists in the postcolony create? What were the limits and erasures of their approaches to the study of women?


Excerpt from the book* (from “Introduction: Excess, a History,” pp. 1, 5, 20-22)

This book is an intellectual history of a concept shaped by shame and stigma. It is a history of social strictures that have organized, disciplined, violated, and left a void in the place of women’s desires. In order to tell this history, I return to a seemingly timeless concept, the prostitute, to make unfamiliar an idea that we think we already know.

Indian Sex Life is an account of how ideas of deviant female sexuality, often named as the “prostitute,” became foundational to the sciences of society in colonial India. European and Indian social analysts made scientific claims about deviant female sexuality in the constitution of new fields of knowledge about society. In these new sciences of society, the assessment of women’s sexuality became essential to theories of social progress. Indian Sex Life makes visible this edifice of knowledge that saw deviant female sexuality as the primary way in which one could think and write about Indian society.


At the core of the modern understanding of the prostitute is a definitional fluidity that requires a history. That is, the prostitute, when dislocated from the urge to recuperate her as an identity, takes on a different history: as a concept foundational to the making of social life as an object of study. In colonial India, she was trafficked as a concept in the service of the development of colonial social science, claims to scientific expertise, and new social theories on the progress of Indian society. This book offers a critical genealogy of the concept of the prostitute to make visible these structures of intellectual life. It considers the work of the concept as it was invented, homogenized, and circulated by British colonial and Bengali men. It accounts for how the concept of the prostitute became essential to new methods of social study and new practices of empiricism that condensed manifold social practices into strict taxonomies. As such, it traces the prostitute—and the many, many varied forms of deviant social and sexual practices she came to encompass—in her ambiguities, multiplicities, and contradictions as she gained momentum as a coherent concept for social study.


It is my hope that in mapping the construction of these enduring forms of modern social scientific thought, we may account for the way that sexual norms shape the descriptive practices, methods, and categories we use in writing marginalized subjects into history. The history of sexual taxonomy and social description is infused into the very categories through which we approach the study of our social worlds, the modes and language through which we describe our subjects, and perhaps most critically, the fragmented archives upon which we rely to write our social histories and name marginalized historical subjects.

Even as I trace the universalizing impulses that appear across these exclusionary visions of modern society, I do not concede the domain of totalizing knowledge to these social analysts. Instead, I am interested in how infinitely changeable concepts of women’s sexuality used by social analysts were used to hide their anxieties, ambiguities, failures—those excesses of social life, those polymorphic sexual and social forms, that were not to be comprehended in positivist sociological writing. There is immense power in these claims to totality in the social sciences, particularly those assertions of neutral objectivity and detached expertise in the name of science. To recognize the biases, the powerful effects, and the enduring legacy of this history of social thought is not to adhere to their total view of Indian society.

To think this history, we must turn askew the seemingly neutral methods and practices—from positivist description to sexual taxonomies to aggregation to comparison—that were essential to the objectification of the social world. This was the systematic naming of women as prostitutes and sexual deviants in the form of lists, numbers, and genealogical charts. These texts aspired to be science—indeed, social science—and too often we have felt it necessary to accept the terms their objectification, even as we try to undermine their conclusions with important social histories of subaltern peoples that relies on evidence, and categories, from these archives. The myriad ways in which women inhabited and defied precarity, social stricture, and exclusion was not to be captured by a term, taxonomy, or chart. Too often, the sociological typologies of women are taken at face value.

In asking about the categories we inherit, I do not offer a deconstructive critique born solely of suspicion, a skeptic’s view of whether or not a woman was really a prostitute. Rather, I shift the object of historical investigation from the state and legal regulation of sexual commerce to construct an intellectual history of sexuality in the making of these powerful modes of social analysis. Put simply, this book asks why the concept of the prostitute is ubiquitous across modern social thought in and about colonial India. I return to these archives to excavate the role of these ideas in the objectification of society and the methods and categories used in the making of the social sciences. In mapping the pervasive appearance of deviant female sexuality in the formation of social thought—including key concepts like kinship, family, marriage, descent, social evolution—it is my hope that we may be able to differently approach how we write womanhood, with a critical distance from the overwhelming and powerful epistemologies that create our archives.

Social scientific thought, in its aspiration for objectivity, sought to produce in its language a strict limit to the affective experience for its audience. How might we face the artifacts of these archives and confront the mood and feeling of these texts? Over the course of this book I dwell in materials and descriptions contained within archives of law, science, medicine, ethnological thought, and literature. I include detailed descriptions from source material—be they of elaborate social taxonomies or invasive autopsies. These archives are often banal, at many points predictable and repetitive, and at other times profoundly violent. In the detailed texture, sensibility, and narrative effect of these different sites of social scientific thought, the reader may feel that there are obvious ideological biases of colonial administrators and elite men. There may be moments of palpable exhaustion after reading, frustration with the redundancies or nonsensical statements in the source material, or a visceral reaction to the graphic nature of scientifically objectified narratives of violence inflicted onto women’s bodies.

Through extensive descriptions and taxonomies in these archives, the reader will see a social scientific imaginary that was, again and again, predicated on the ongoing assessment of women through their sexuality: their failure at sexual restraint, their proclivity for sexual transgression, their secrecy, their victimhood, their deaths. The chapters that follow highlight the textual detail of social scientific and medical studies and reports, texts that often appear to have no affective register at all, those forms and structures of social thought that unwrote experience as they claimed to capture and encompass it in its totality.

At the heart of the project is a commitment to multilingual source reading as an essential approach to the history of sexuality in the colonial and postcolonial world. By shifting focus away from solely the colonizer’s understanding of sexuality in colonial archives, we may write histories of transnational, multilingual epistemologies in the sciences and social sciences that reorganized sexual norms long after the formal end of colonialism. The fateful imaginations of elite Indian men, spurred by the emerging sciences of society, built enduring institutional and ideational structures on the control and erasure of women’s sexuality often couched in the language of progressive politics. These social studies of female sexuality were to become critical to nationalist anti-colonial movements and political and social structures in postcolonial South Asia deeply invested in patriarchal visions of the past and future. I detail new modes of analysis of female sexuality in social science—powerful claims to expertise, assertions of scientific authority through comparison, vigorous practices of citation—that helped these men consolidate authority. I do so to analyze the effects and excesses of the social world that are captured, and so often fail to be captured (or, perhaps more accurately, escape capture), in the new sciences of society born of the colonial encounter.

Ultimately, the project is centrally concerned with those epistemic structures that claimed to apprehend the lived contours of social life in India, even as I analyze texts that so often have little to do with the actual matter of living. The intellectual history of these concepts of female sexuality requires us to think anew the life and ideational structures of social stigma and how they continue to shape us today. It is to trace the creation and inhabitation of strictures, be they conspiracies of silence, the violence of concealment, the power of secrecy, the weight of shame, and the intimate, often vicious surveillance of the many social regimes that did that shaming. It is an intellectual history of the simultaneous objectification and erasure, through the language and methods of social science, of women who persisted through immense hardship, who transgressed and defied boundaries, who abided by social strictures that were constructed at every turn of their lives, who worked in homes and industries under the persistent threat of sexual violence, who were forcibly moved across space in systems of indentured labor—women who at many points died as a result of strict epistemic, legal, and social regimes. These women, their choices and contradictions, were not to be grasped in the cold hands of social science.

*Note: This excerpt has been edited for clarity and space.