Penn Researcher Explores the World of the Sex Trade

While some Ivy League professors are clean-cut academics who wear suits with bowties and carry stacks of books from the library, others shatter that image. 

Instead, some wear jeans and explore very dark, far-away places.  One of those researchers studies the underworld of the sex trade -- not just in Philadelphia but also in New York City and in India.

Toorjo Ghose is a 41-year-old assistant professor at the School of Social Policy & Practice who came to Penn in 2007.

He’s developed a strong reputation on campus and abroad for his commitment to human rights.  And he’s known for his flowing, deep black, lengthy locks that reach his waist. 

Ghose grew up in Calcutta, which he says is one of the most diverse and interesting cities in the world.  

“In Calcutta, when I mention to friends and family that I teach social work, people stare at me blankly –- social work is what one does every day, so why go to school for it, people ask. Growing up in that kind of environment, I was never far removed from social work and social change initiatives,” Ghose says.  “Social work and activism were hard-wired into me.  Eventually, I realized that there actually is a way to integrate all of this into a career, that social work integrates clinical work with advocacy.  It seemed like a perfect match for me.”

Ghose has worked with vulnerable populations all over the world.  He has spent his career focusing on structural interventions in substance abuse, homelessness and HIV.  He studies the way contextual factors like housing, community mobilization and organizational characteristics influence substance abuse and HIV risk.

In addition, he has conducted research among HIV-infected sex-trade workers and transgendered people in India, New York and Philadelphia to examine the effectiveness of social-movement mobilization on reducing HIV risk among those populations.

Commercially sexually exploited women are sometimes lured into the trade at a young age, with promises of better lives for themselves and their families.  Once in the trade, there often is no escape. 

Ghose explains that the sex trade is something that he saw every day as a young boy in Calcutta.

“I grew up in a community where a lot of people were connected to sex work.  In and around my neighborhood, the industry was organized around a very famous religious site called the Kalighat temple.  So the discourses, the stigma, the politics and the hypocritical attitudes associated with and usually directed against sex work were very visible to me even then,” Ghose remembers.  “By far the strongest persons I have ever encountered are the sex workers from that neighborhood.  They were organizing even then, and I had always wanted to go back to work with the community.   I got that chance at UCLA when I secured a small grant to do just that.  My postdoc at Yale allowed me to really develop that line of advocacy research, and that has been one of my primary areas interest since.”

Millions of women work as prostitutes in India.  Some of them are in brothels, which offer services and education for HIV prevention.  Others are on their own without those kinds of support.  Reports indicate that nearly 1.2 million of those sex-trade workers are minors.

He’s studied the role of brothels and mobilizing collective identity to reduce HIV risk among sex workers in India, HIV initiatives in sex-work communities, implementing the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale among sex workers and community-level interventions.

“A recent national study on sex workers in India conducted by the government found that about 70 percent of sex workers state that they are sex workers by choice,” Ghose says. 

But, he adds, there are factors that can impact those numbers, which are always changing.  The most interesting factor is that one of the fastest growing sectors is  middle- and upper-class women who see their children off to school in the morning and then travel to the red-light district to engage in sex work to make extra money.

“They constitute an extremely high-risk group since they are not protected and are on the street where they are exposed to all kinds of dangers,” Ghose says.  “The union is trying to work with them to make it safer, but they will never admit that they are sex workers if asked in a survey.  So, the estimated numbers of sex workers are always on the conservative side.”

And the concept of “choice” is one that fuels debates regarding sex workers.

“Certainly, there are several factors that shape the choice of some sex workers; poverty is a major one.  However, as many sex workers point out, economic and other factors shape all career choices,” Ghose explains.

Sex work is stigmatized across the globe.  Whether in the United States or in India, people view them as “debased” or “choiceless women who need rescuing,” and these perspectives work against the sex work community in complex ways, Ghose says.

“Some of the horrendous processes that these narratives support –- violence, risky living environments, lack of access to civil-society institutions, lack of health care, etc. -- are very similar.  What is different is the way sex workers in Calcutta have organized against these conditions,” Ghose says.

“They are now a 65,000-strong union of sex workers and have been amazingly successful in asserting their choices, creating safety for themselves, fighting back against violence and establishing schools, clinics and other facilities in the community,” he explains.

“There may also be a high degree of coercion associated with sex-work conditions outside the communities where the union works, which is correlated to the conditions that constrain sex-worker choices.  That is precisely why the union I work with in Calcutta resists these constraints,” Ghose says.

Additionally, the union frowns upon minors engaging in the sex industry.

“The union I work with in Calcutta does not allow underage girls into the occupation. In fact, they run a hostel and a school for those girls who are trafficked –- that they’ve rescued,” he explains.

However, he paints a completely different picture for the sex workers outside of the union.  For instance, those prostitutes working in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods  have less control over their working conditions.  “This is definitely not the case here,” Ghose says.

“We are working on a project in Kensington where we seek to replicate some of this through community organizing efforts. We’re hopeful that the movement will gain momentum here, too.”

Ghose maintains that people discussing sex workers often simplify their conclusions and get bogged down in dichotomies, such as “choice vs. no choice, safe vs. unsafe.” And every summer, the students in the School of Social Policy & Practice’s Master of Social Work program travel to India with Ghose to work with the communities there. 

“They get confronted by these questions all the time, “ Ghose says.  “None of us is quite the same afterwards, and these are some of the fundamental issues that we think shape us as people.  That is why I love this work.  It is a constant project that is transformative for everyone concerned.”

Ghose’s research has touched many, not only the sex workers in the U.S. and abroad but also HIV-positive veterans who are homeless, those who receive substance-abuse treatment, men who are victims of rape, homeless HIV-positive women who have recently been released from prison as well as HIV-risk, treatment and services among men who have sex with men and sex-trade workers in the post-earthquake encampments in Haiti.

He is currently working with community-based agencies in New York City to study the effectiveness of providing housing as an intervention for substance-using women with HIV released from prisons and jails.