Prostitutes of God: Is it All Religion’s Fault?
Analyzing Western Bias in Prostitutes of God
Prostitutes of God explores trafficking in India. This documentary focuses specifically on the high prevalence of child sex trafficking and its possible religious connections.
However, the documentary fails to elaborate on critical elements of Indian society, such as the caste system.
One dimensional reporting and lack of cultural competence curb the success of this film. It is the interviewees themselves, rather than the reporter, that provide viewers with nuanced perspectives and relevant information.
Tracing the Roots of Child Sex Trafficking
Sarah Harris, known for The Vice Guide to Travel, is the host of the documentary Prostitutes of God. Harris opens the film commenting on the extreme wealth disparity in India. She juxtaposes economic conditions, noting, “Some people are shitting off the sides of railways and eating banana leaves. Other people are sipping Frappuccinos and wearing Gucci sunglasses,” and this dichotomy is maintained throughout the film.
Prostitutes of God exposes viewers to the impacts of India’s caste system on local people. However, this inside look appears to be accidental rather than intentional.
Harris never elaborates on the caste system as a major impact on Indian life. Her focus, instead, is to establish religion as the root evil: the true cause of child sex trafficking in India. As she states, and firmly maintains, trafficking results from a “religious ceremony that condones child prostitution.”
Harris positions herself as an advocate for those trafficked in India. Yet, she is constantly critiquing and condemning these very same individuals. With an air of superiority and pretension, Harris states,
“Today’s Devadasis [also known as sex workers] are no different to common street hookers. Serving drunk drivers and bored business men.”-Harris
It is with this attitude, that Harris explores religion, the Devadasi experience, and child sex trafficking in India.
Signaling to any critical viewer, to beware of her perspective.
Understanding the Goddess Yellamma
Throughout Prostitutes of God, Harris visits multiple Indian villages in the state of Karnataka, including Mudhol and Saundatti-Yellamma. The crew also visited the village of Sangli located in the state of Maharashtra, India. Their final destination was to a small village called Surrole, and the exact location of this village remained unclear. In these towns, Harris seeks to interview sex workers, culturally known as Devadasis.
The Journey to the Devadasis
Who is the Goddess Yellamma? Who are the Devadasis?
Harris attempts to explore the impact of Devadasi tradition. Her investigation seeks to understand the ritual dedication to goddess Yellamma, which is the cultural process one must undergo to become a Devadasi. While this religious tradition and ritual is the focus of the documentary, Harris’ understandings of the the ritual’s religious roots is, at best, foggy.
Harris justifies her confusion by questioning native understandings of their own tradition. She asserts that the Yellamma “story is convoluted and surreal.”
Harris goes even further to state that the Yellamma legend “never made sense.” Yet, she then proceeds to provide a diluted history of the legend from her own limited perspective.
Harris explains that Yellamma’s son was ordered to chop off her head by her husband, after he catches her spying on two people “getting frisky” by a lake.
Glossing over the nuances of the legend, Harris goes on to claim “after a complex process of death, reincarnation, and a load of Hindu gods in blue skin and gold bikinis, the goddess Yellamma was born. She fled to the villages and became a symbol of worship for the lowest Hindu castes.”
Harris’ perspective of the Yellamma legend and tradition is quite superficial, but it is this perspective that guides the entire documentary, as she explores the dedication of young girls to the goddess Yellamma as a ritual to become Devadasis.
A Closer Look
Wanting more from Harris’ lackluster history lesson on the legend of Yellamma, I investigated myself. I found that Yellamma, who is also known as Renuka, Renuka Devi or Renu, is a goddess who signifies abundant strength.
Yellamma, is most commonly worshipped in the southern states of India: Karnaktaka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. Within these states, the goddess Yellamma is honored as the “Mother of the Universe.”
Click here to learn more about the Yellamma tradition.
Prostitutes of God: A Firsthand Look at the Devadasi Experience
A Story of Success
In the town of Sangli, Maharashtra, Harris conducts her first interview. She tells viewers Sangli is her first destination because it is “the red light district, home to many Devadasi sex workers.” However, the interview isn’t quite successful as the translator clearly does not understand what Harris is saying.
What we are able to glean from this interview, however, is a perspective of agency, as Anitha, the Devadasi Harris is attempting to interview states,
“This is my house and I conduct my business over there. Nobody has brought me here. Nobody has kept me here. I became a Devadasi only because I decided so. I wanted to be a sex worker to start a business and make money.”-Anitha, Devadasi
Anitha is directly opposing typical understandings of trafficking through TVPA definitions of force, fraud, and coercion. She’s exemplifying agency in the constraints of her circumstance, and proudly states who she is and what she has worked hard for.
While Anitha has been successful and takes pride in her title as a Devadasi, there is, however, no black and white version to the Devadasi experience, which is clear as Harris undergoes her next interview.
Beleva and Mala
Devadasis and the Impact of India’s Class System
The following interview takes place in the town of Mudhol, located in Karnataka, India. Here, Harris interviews two young girls: Beleva, age 19 and Mala, age 14.
They are Devadasis. Dedicated to the goddess Yellamma.
In the interview, the effects of India’s caste system seem to be a more imposing factor in these girl’s experiences than religion alone; a theme that remains constant throughout many of the interviews.
Beleva tells Harris “we belong to the Madiga caste,” considered to be one of the lowest castes in India. Beleva further explains that they “don’t go into the main village because higher caste people cannot touch us…We just don’t belong there.”
Despite hearing this first hand from Beleva, Harris takes the girls on a shopping trip, seemingly to gauge others’ reactions to them, stating “shopkeepers wouldn’t even look them in the eye.”
Devadasi Narratives vs. Harris’ Perspective
Harris maintains that the Devadasi tradition is the sole cause of child trafficking in India. However, through experiences shared by Devadasis and an expert’s insights on the topic, it appears that the Devadasi ritual is a band-aid solution to broader issues of structural inequality due to India’s caste system. Beleva’s testimony illustrates what Harris fails to elaborate on: the survival need to engage in sex work.
As Beleva explains,
“even if we went to school, how would it make any difference? It means nothing in this village. If you don’t want to become a Devadasi, there is no way to earn enough money.”-Beleva, Devadasi
G. Sriamappa, from the organization Every Child in India, provides a professional perspective, and elaborates on typical family dynamics in India:
“Girl children in our society are treated more as a liability, in the sense that there is always the cost of marriage. They feel they don’t want to educate the girls…And when this comes to the poorest families, if they get a female child, they think that ‘Ok…how can we work this liability into an asset?’ The system of traditional ritual prostitution, or what we call the Devadasi system, is one of the coping strategies…”-G. Sriamappa, Every Child in India
Both Sriamappa and Beleva highlight the many weak social institutions and lack of social safety nets that are at play in the high rates of child familial trafficking in India: socioeconomic status, lack of education, lack of opportunity, and gendered beliefs. Yet, Harris just gives mere glances to these factors and diminishes the causes of child trafficking in India to Yellamma tradition and superstition.
Devadasi Rituals and The Full Moon Festival
Throughout Prostitutes of God, Harris showcases the devastating effects of trafficking. At the Full Moon Festival, in Sundatti-Yellamma in Karnataka, India, viewers gain the perspective of social activist and former Devadasi, Sitavva, who is able to provide an inside look into the ritual practice of becoming a Devadasi.
Celebrated far and wide, The Full Moon festival marks one of the most important events in the Yellamma calendar.
However, behind closed doors, Harris believes Devadasi dedication ceremonies have begun. Excluded by locals from the Yellamma Temple, Harris turns to Sitavva.
Sitavva consents to stage a mock dedication ceremony, and viewers see the process of the ritual practice. Sitavva provides a look into how she and other young girls become Devadasis.
She Who Remains Unnamed
Familial Rituals of Generational Trafficking
As noted previously, many families with financial need dedicate their daughters as a way to earn money. In the final interview in a small village of Surrole, the complexities of being poor in India are heartbreakingly clear.
Here, Harris and her team plan to interview three generations of Devadasi women, all from the same family. After arriving, however, viewers learn that the third generation representative, the daughter, recently died of HIV.
From the two generations that remain, viewers learn the devastating experience of one woman. Dedicated at the age of 18, the deceased daughter’s mother shares her story.
Unfortunately, Harris never reveals her name, she is solely defined by the experiences she shares in her interview.
Coming from an extremely poor family, she states,
“my mother dedicated me to earn money to feed the family.”
At first, she enjoyed Devadasi work, she tells Harris “I made enough money to buy nice clothes. I had cash in my hand!” Her family also benefited from her work and enjoyed the earnings she provided, but her life was soon disrupted when, for reasons not shared, her brothers turned on her and “spat [her] out like garbage.” Now, she tells Harris, she is left begging for food.
After giving birth to her daughter, she followed the generational patterns she experienced, and also dedicated her daughter at the age of 18.
Currently, the familial ritual of trafficking within this family ends with the passing of the woman’s daughter. Left to care for her late daughter’s two sons, the woman now begs for food and questions how they will manage.
This family’s experience highlights survival needs as a motivating factor for familial trafficking within poorer families in India. Their experience fits within the broader structures of India’s caste system and illustrates the impacts of weak social safety nets.
An intimate reveal of the caste system’s effects, viewers gain insight to the structural factors at play within everyday people’s lives through this interview.
The Devadasi Accounts: The Real Truth in Prostitutes of God
While Harris does provide a wide range of experience and allows viewers to hear first-hand accounts of Devadasis in India, her perspective and tone speak over these narratives if viewers are not carefully listening.
Critically viewing Prostitutes of God, the individuals Harris interviews provide nuanced experiences that speak of agency and the structural factors that have affected them.
Viewers are ultimately privy to the devastating effects of trafficking. Attentive viewing reveals that religion alone is not the sole operating factor in disadvantaging and limiting opportunities in certain communities, but rather that the caste system is largely at play too.
Narratives of Agency: What Harris Missed
Throughout the narratives of struggle and strife, however, viewers are also provided experiences of agency. Many of the Devadasis interviewed, speak of the limited opportunity within their caste, and while they knew there was risk involved in Devadasi work, they chose the best option that was available to them.
This is not to say these choices were made without circumstantial constraints, or that they were fully agenic, but for some women, like Beleva, this was an informed choice. As Beleva points out,
“We may feel sad. We may be illiterate, but at least the family can have two meals per day.”-Beleva, Devadasi
A Woman with Agency
Agency is also recognizable in Pandu’s interview, a trans woman working as a Devadasi. Claiming her independence, she states,
“I have no regrets… I am able to dance if I want, live well, I can freely roam anywhere and do whatever I want. Nobody can stop me from going anywhere. Nobody has a right over me.”-Pandu, Devadasi
Pandu’s strength and choices are not to be questioned, and her agency is exemplified in multiple ways: celebrating her life and work, choosing to adopt a daughter, and by practicing the “Sangli condom trick,” which she utilizes when her male customers refuse to wear a condom.
In almost every interview viewers are exposed to the agenic ways that these individuals have navigated the complexities of their lives, but these strengths are easy to miss as Harris narrates each experience from her own perspective, rather than from those she’s interviewing.
A Perspective of Bias, A Tone of Mockery
The Yellamma Tradition: Harris’ Cultural Insensitivity
Harris’ insistence in portraying the Yellemma tradition as the sole root cause of trafficking misses many of the nuances in the lives of those she interviews.
What’s more, in her pursuit to investigate the religious relationship to trafficking, her tone, at times, becomes one of mockery and blame.
As it is clear from the beginning that she has neither taken the time to truly understand the Yellemma tradition, nor is she taking the tradition seriously as a religion, she trivializes symbolic aspects of the religion.
From describing Hindu gods as clad in “blue skin and gold bikinis” to her comments on the Full Moon Festival characterizing it as a “heaving shanty town,” with “garish Hindu icons,” and “sticky sweets,” it is clear her critiques of Indian culture and religion are colored in bias.
While there is a relationship between child trafficking and religion in India, Harris paints with too broad of strokes in her documenting and makes a dichotomy of black and white, good and bad, that misses the nuances and complexities that exist in any experience of trafficking. What’s more, she fails to explore the impacts of economic disparity as a causal factor, something many of the Devadasi women speak of.
Understanding Yellamma tradition is key to understanding that the goddess Yellamma acts as a symbol for those Harris interviews, as Yellamma herself originates from a lower caste.
It is not the tradition itself that acts as a push factor for trafficking, but rather it is the economic conditions people are experiencing. Thus, the Devadasi ritual practice is only a process, not the cause.
The Savior Complex: A Superhero with No Perspective
In the beginning of Prostitutes of God, Harris gives a short history lesson. Describing the role of the Devadasi and how it has changed over time, Harris fleetingly mentions the relationship between Western missionaries in the 19th century and Devadasis.
It was Western missionaries’ condemnations of Devadasis that displaced them from their status as royal dancers in society and pushed the Devadasis underground.
As with any form of labor or organization, once underground, what some deem the black market, vulnerabilities and risk factors heighten. Vulnerabilities, for example, to trafficking, which is evident in the Devadasi history.
Yet, Harris is either unaware of or refuses to admit the impacts of Western influence, an influence enforced with disregard to native culture.
Traveling abroad to help other communities is admirable. However, when this “help” hinges on restructuring a culture and belief system, these actions are no longer done out of the goodness of the heart but are outright coercive.
The Western missionary arrival in the 19th century is no different. Restructuring Indian culture and society included devaluing and degrading the Devadasis, judging this profession as immoral. A judgment made without a cultural understanding or concern for the impacts of these actions.
A century later, after struggling to survive underground in the shadows, the Devadasi role has devolved from that of royal dancers to now overwhelmingly representing one of the lowest castes in India. Harris’ heedless one-sentence description of the role of Western Missionaries is reflective of her own presence in India.
Failing to step outside of the Western gaze, Harris’ reporting of Indian culture and religion are distorted in judgment and blame.
Documenting with Intent: Inciting Justice or Imposing Harm?
“Today, Devadasis are no different to common street hookers. Serving drunk trunk drivers and bored business men.”-Harris
This direct quote from Harris leaves viewers wondering what her intention of interviewing and documenting the Devadasi women truly is.
Harris claims she is working to end child sex trafficking, but her continuous scorn begs to differ. Harris’ tone often takes one of blame. Intending to enforce her perspective, her documenting often speaks over the acts of agency present in the film.
When visiting the home of a woman called Champa, located in a Madiga caste village, Harris’ contempt is blatant. Despite living in a poorer village, Champa is a successful Devadasi. With the earnings she’s accumulated, she has been able to build a commendable house and a legacy to go along with it.
Rather than flaunt this luxury, Champa leaves her house open to the public to visit as they please. Within the Madiga caste, where most are struggling to survive, Champa’s home can be viewed as a symbol of success and achievement, and may serve as a communal point of honor.
Yet, to others, Champa’s doors being open to the public may be viewed as a sign of the potential wealth that accompanies sex work, which is ultimately meant to entice and recruit young girls.
Harris is adamant that recruitment is Champa’s true motive, and while this may be possible, Harris’ later comments on Champa further expose viewers to her bias.
Realizing that the house is left for the public and that Champa does not live there, Harris becomes openly disrespectful, stating, “she’s too busy turning tricks in Bombay.” This singular statement alone gives viewers an understanding of Harris’ perspective and cultural understandings, or lack thereof.
Offhand comments, such as this, are made throughout the entire documentary. Claiming to expose the real causes of child trafficking in India, it is her bias that she truly reveals.
Arguing her point, Harris continuously stresses that the Yellamma “religious ritual is just a justification for poor families to pimp out their daughters.”
These sensationalized remarks do not document the true cause of child sex trafficking in India, but rather place blame and contempt, on the very same people she is claiming to advocate for.
Prostitutes of God: A Documentary Made by the Documented
Harris enters her investigation with a hypothesis that remains unchanged despite various, lived Devadasi perspectives that counter it.
It is not Harris’ perspective or reporting that are useful to viewers, but rather the Devadasis themselves. Their firsthand accounts are what provide the truth to this documentary, not Harris’ documenting.
The stigma that Harris exudes in Prostitutes of God rings loud and clear. Had it not been for the Devadasis consenting to be interviewed, viewers would be left with a one-sided argument limited by personal bias and beliefs.
Harris’ culturally incompetent arguments attempt to speak over the insights the Devadasis share with her. However, tuning into the firsthand accounts presented in this documentary, viewers are made aware of the societal impacts of class inequality, lack of opportunity and education, gendered beliefs, and the Yellamma tradition as factors that work together to create an environment conducive to child sex trafficking.
How do you feel about Harris’ reporting? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below!