The concept of strengthening community action within the context of HIV prevention is gaining popularity among health circles, with organizations such as gay volunteer groups in the U.S. providing positive evidence of the potential role of community participation in HIV/AIDS prevention and care efforts. Care must be taken, however, in assuming that participation can easily be achieved among all high-risk groups. This paper examines problems and prospects for participation in HIV prevention strategies among commercial sex workers (CSWs) in Madras. Based upon the experiences of a pilot project established by the Tamil Nadu State Government AIDS Cell and WHO, it finds that the organization of the commercial sex trade in Madras is not highly conducive to collective action. Identifying factors that have frustrated attempts to promote community-based strategies in the city, the paper suggests that this approach is unlikely to succeed unless there are significant changes to the institutional arrangements that keep sex workers in a position of subordination and exploitation.