This paper discusses the results of two ethnographic studies with female sex workers in rural areas of Karnataka and Rajasthan, India. In particular, we focus on women whose socio-economic status, and religious and occupational practices, are part of sex work systems that have historical precedents such that they can be termed "traditional" sex workers. The approach taken in the ethnographic work was informed by current critical approaches in medical anthropology and public health. The paper argues that in the context of an expanding HIV/AIDS epidemic in rural areas of India, understanding the historical and structural factors that operate to perpetuate female sex work as a culturally "sanctioned" occupation is critical if interventions intended to reduce the risk of HIV transmission are to succeed. We conclude that interventions designed to empower women collectively in these communities that are consistent with cultural traditions are needed to lead to healthier sexual behaviours and reduced risk of HIV/AIDS infection.