The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Svati Shah

Associate Professor

Svati Shah

W413 South College

My research agenda aims to pull questions of sexuality more squarely into the purview of studies of governance and the political economy of development, and does so through ethnographic and discourse analysis, the latter of which focuses on juridical, media, and public health discourses. I have a regional interest in South Asia, with the bulk of my research and writing having been focused on India. This research agenda requires a critical engagement with the category of legality, and drives the main argument of my book, that female sex workers in Mumbai are largely comprised of lower caste women who migrate from rural areas due to a lack of potable water and other basic resources there. All of these women work in the city’s informal sectors, and sometimes transition to working part or full time as sex workers, where they also transition to a more legally liminal status. While some are trafficked in the classical sense of that term, trafficking alone does not account for the presence of women in sexual commerce in the city, nor does it describe the context in which women work throughout their lives. I also show that, while anti-trafficking humanitarian interventions may do some good, they may also intersect with other agendas, such as those of real estate development, in ways that may be harmful to the people they aim to protect.

My interests in multi-sited ethnography, legality and criminality, and the tensions between rural and urban subject formations, and particularly categorical formations in relation to the politics of sexuality, are manifested in my new project. The project focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) people and movements in India, and on the intersections between LGBTQ movements and social movements that have a long history of resisting the privatization of public and agricultural lands. These intersections reveal some of the tensions between materialist discourses of progress and modernity, and discourses that produce sexuality and gender expression as forms of personal freedom.




Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Peer-Reviewed Articles:

“Queering the Indian City: Urbanism in the Era of Transnational LGBT Rights,” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, August 2014, 1-17.

“Brothels and Big Screen Rescues: Producing the Idea of ‘Prostitution in India’ Through Documentary Film,” in Legg, S. and Roy, S. (Eds.), Modern Indian Sexual Geographies Emergent Sexual Formations In India: Politics, Economics And Sexuality In Contemporary India, a special issue of Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 15(4) (2013): 549-566.

"Sex Work and Queer Politics in Three Acts,” in The Scholar and Feminist Online, Issue 10.1-10.2 (Fall 2011/Spring 2012), Available from republished in translation (Danish), “Sexarbejde og queerpolitik i tre akter,” Modkraft, 16:17 (2012), Available from

“Knowing “The Unknowns: The Artwork of Chitra Ganesh (Art Essay),” Feminist Studies, 37(1) (2011):111-126.

“Sexuality and ‘The Left’: Thoughts on Intersections and Visceral Others,” The Scholar and Feminist Online, Issue 7:3 (Summer 2009) Available from


Courses Recently Taught

  • Feminist Theory (Graduate Seminar)
  • LGBTQ Social Movements, Law and Policy: Global Perspectives
  • Gender, Sexuality and Culture
  • Introduction to Sexuality Studies
  • Anthropological Perspectives in LGBTQ Studies
  • Gender and Sexuality in South Asia
  • Gender and Difference: Critical Analyses
  • Politics of Gender, Sexuality and Development in South Asia
  • Sexuality and Postcolonial Theory (Graduate Seminar)
  • Transnational Approaches to Queer and Sexuality Studies