My honors thesis on sex work conditions in Argentina and Ecuador has just been published! Check it out here.
While many studies examine how different legal approaches to prostitution affect sex workers’ living and working conditions, few studies analyze how sex workers’ physical workspaces and the policies regulating these spaces influence sex work conditions. Based on interviews with 109 current or former sex workers, 13 civil society representatives, 12 government officials, and 5 other actors in Ecuador and Argentina, this study describes sex workers’ uses of urban space in the two countries and compares how they experience and respond to government regulation of locations of prostitution. Argentina and Ecuador took different approaches to regulating sex work space, which appear to reflect different political ideologies towards prostitution. Sex workers expressed different individual preferences for spaces, and government limitation of these spaces represented one of their major concerns. The results illuminate how sex workers’ workspaces influence their working conditions and suggest that governments should consider sex worker preferences in establishing policies that affect their workspaces. View Full-Text
Citation: Van Meir, J. Sex Work and the Politics of Space: Case Studies of Sex Workers in Argentina and Ecuador. Soc. Sci.2017, 6, 42.
I’m so grateful to the many sex workers, organizations, and others who participated in this study, and to my professors, friends, and family for their feedback and support.
My research has revealed a great diversity of opinions on how best to help those in prostitution, not only among academics and NGOs, but also among sex workers themselves.
While in Buenos Aires, I interviewed two prostitutes’ organizations with vastly different ideologies. The Association of Women Prostitutes of Argentina (AMMAR), the Argentine sex workers’ union, views prostitution as a job like any other and fights for it to be recognized as such. The lesser known Association of Argentine Women for Human Rights (AMADH) was once part of AMMAR, but split off from them when a group of women disagreed with the portrayal of prostitution as work. Originally under the name “AMMAR Capital,” they took on an abolitionist position and called themselves “women in situations of prostitution.”
AMMAR is part of the Argentine Workers’ Central Union (CTA) and has chapters in provinces throughout the country. On June 3rd, I attended an event at their national office for the International Day of Sex Workers. The president of AMMAR, Georgina Orellano, lamented Argentina’s prohibitionist policies towards prostitution, such as prohibiting the advertisement of sex work in newspapers. “Where can I work, in what place can I work, without being persecuted?” she asked.
AMMAR positions their fight as an issue of labor rights. The next day, I accompanied the members of AMMAR at a march of the CTA demanding better conditions for Argentine workers. Georgina invited me to join afterwards at a talk she was giving at the law school in La Plata, a city an hour from Buenos Aires. There, she explained that the women of AMMAR work in sex work of their own free will and want access to labor rights. Without legal recognition as workers, sex workers face challenges such as not being able to access housing because they don’t have credit. While some people criticize sex work as an unequal exchange, saying the man has more power because he has the money, she argued that in all jobs the person with the money is the one with the power. We all live under a sexist, capitalist system. “Sex is not violent. Sex is not bad,” she posited. “The disgraceful parts of our work are the conditions.”
When I visited the office of AMADH, however, I heard a very different perspective. “Legalizing prostitution is legalizing violence,” one of their representatives asserted. “I was seven years in the street under threat to my daughter [by my pimp],” another said.
AMADH’s Buenos Aires office is located in Plaza Once, a lower-income area of the city full of immigrants. The subway station next to their office is a hub for both female and male prostitution during the day. The organization, which consists of women formerly in prostitution and others trying to leave, works in Buenos Aires, Tucumán, and Santa Fe provinces to help those in prostitution find other jobs. For instance, in 2011 they did a pilot project with the Ministry of Labor in which they gave workshops to 20 women to train them to become electricians.
“Here in Argentina, there is no prostitution by choice,” they told me. “There is prostitution by necessity.”
So which organization is right? Which is the “true” voice of Argentine prostitutes?
The two organizations reveal that people who sell sex may have greatly varying self-conceptions. Both work to help women in the sex trade, but through different methods: one by trying to improve the conditions within the sex trade, and the other by trying to help people leave it. Each of them, I believe, can do good, for the two demands I have heard most frequently from the prostitutes I have interviewed are 1. they want sex work legalized so they can receive social security and retirement benefits, and 2. they want other job opportunities so they can leave. Unfortunately, AMMAR and AMADH tend to view each other’s positions as mutually exclusive. Could sex workers’ rights and abolitionist groups put aside some of their ideological differences and find commonalities in their desire to improve the lives of people who sell sex, they might together be able to provide more direct help to the population.
This weekend, I travelled to Machala, Ecuador, where I interviewed leaders of the sex workers’ organizations Association of Autonomous Women 22nd of June and Collective Flor de Azalea (Azalea Flower) and the NGO Foundation Quimera, which works on HIV prevention, sex workers’ rights, and anti-trafficking. 22nd of June was the first organization of sex workers in Latin America, founded in 1982 (correction from my previous post) when the female sex workers got fed up of the mistreatment and discrimination they faced from brothel owners, the police, and society. They have worked to reduce the stigma associated with sex work by insisting on the term “sex workers” rather than “prostitutes” or “putas” and negotiated with brothel owners for improved conditions.
22nd of June worked primarily with sex workers in brothels and nightclubs, however, so in 2002 member Karina Bravo created a daughter organization, Flor de Azalea, to work for the street sex workers. Karina, who is the current representative of the Latin American Platform of Sex Workers (PLAPERTS), recounted to me how one day in 2004, the members of Flor de Azalea were in the street working to plan an event when the police came to arrest all of them. At that time, the police frequently detained street sex workers for 15-20 days at a time, and would drive them around the city in open trucks to humiliate them. This time, however, the women were ready. When the police arrested 70 of them, insulting and hitting them, they recorded everything on their phones. With the evidence they had, they were able to report the police’s abuse and get the government to put in place new norms for police treatment of sex workers.
The sex worker leaders introduced me to Anhelo Rivas, representative of the LGBT organization Agrupación Sembrando Futuro (Group Sowing the Future) and health promoter with Foundation Quimera, who brought me to a variety of places where sex workers work. First, we went to the largest brothel in Machala, La Puente, where I interviewed 4 women. The brothel is open air, with numbered rooms surrounding an open area where clients eat and drink in plastic chairs. Though the brothel has guards and security cameras, and the brothel administrator assured me that the women can call him if a client gets violent, one of the women was not reassured. “Here security is up to you,” she said. The music the brothel pays is so loud that no one will hear them if they scream, and even if they do, by the time a guard gets to the room the client could have killed them. The women also complained that the brothel charged them $80 per week for their room, about half of their earnings. Their comments confirmed to me the need for more norms regarding sex work businesses that put in place basic conditions of security and cleanliness and prevent exploitation.
From there, we went to the park to talk to the male sex workers who wait there at night for clients. Many of them work as prepagos, prepays, finding their clients on social media, gay dating apps, and by phone. We also visited a spa and a video cine that shows porn movies where many male sex workers find clients – the owners of each business claimed to have little knowledge of sex work occurring there, but Anhelo assured me that they are common places of encounter. My interviews with five men revealed a wide range in sex worker experiences, significantly different from the women I’ve interviewed.
The first man, who is gay, told me he did sex work not for necessity, but viewed it more as a “hobby,” a “whim,” that he enjoyed and that paid his extra expenses. He doesn’t charge a fixed price, but rather has sex with people and appreciates if they compensate him afterwards – and generally he gets compensated very well, sometimes $350 for a night. He viewed his relationship with many clients as friendships. “I need to fill an internal part of me,” he said. “I don’t do it for sex…it’s like looking for my other me.”
On the other end of the spectrum, another man I interviewed, who is no longer a sex worker, told me he began selling sex at age 11 when his parents kicked him out of the house for being gay. He was living in the street, eating trash, when a man approached him in the park. Seeing the opportunity to make money, he began selling sex at $50 for an hour and a half, making $250 or even $350 per day (a huge sum, considering the minimum wage in Ecuador is $354 per month). During his five years selling sex, he became addicted to drugs and also experienced great violence: he once was in the hospital with a coma for 11 months after being beaten by a client, and another time he was hospitalized for 6 months after being knifed in the back. His three best friends who also lived in the street and sold sex are all dead now. Luckily, he has managed to escape from their fate thanks to his current boyfriend, who is supporting him financially and helping him study.
These two men reveal the huge diversity that exists within sex work. The first man exercises a great deal of agency and gets pleasure from his work, while the second is clearly a case of commercial sexual exploitation of a child who had no other alternatives, and who should have been rescued from his situation and protected by the state. The trend I’ve seen in my interviews is that the poorer the sex worker is, the more violence and exploitation they experience and the more they view sex work as a negative situation that they want to leave. The few I’ve spoken with who enjoy the work tend to be of higher socio-economic class and service wealthier clients. I believe the main problem with sex work is not that selling sex is inherently degrading or harmful, but rather that poverty compromises people’s agency; it causes many to have to engage in sexual activity with people they don’t want to have sex with and to work in unsafe or unclean conditions. Reducing poverty would greatly decrease the number of people engaged in sex work and reduce the human rights violations that exist within the sex industry.
While I haven’t finished telling you all about everything that happened during my time in Buenos Aires, I’m now immersed in my work in Ecuador so I’d like to skip forward a bit to recount what’s been going on here.
Through my research in Ecuador thus far, I have found that the organization of sex workers is significantly different here than in Argentina. Here, sex workers organize themselves in a multitude of small localized collectives, unlike the large national sex workers’ union in Argentina, AMMAR. Additionally, I see less of an abolitionist presence here, particularly noticeable in the government’s approach to the issue. While Argentine officials explicitly told me, “Argentina is an abolitionist country,” and strongly linked sex work with trafficking, the Ecuadorian officials I have spoken with tell me they believe sex work should be recognized as work, and they see trafficking as a separate issue.
Ecuador was the first country in Latin America where sex workers began organizing, forming the Association of Autonomous Women 22nd of June in Machala in 1985. I plan to travel to Machala this weekend to interview them and learn about the origins of sex worker organizing in Ecuador.
Generally, the conditions of women working in the street are quite different from those of women in brothels, both in Quito and in Guayaquil. In brothels, the women must complete set hours in order to get paid, but they have more security, because the locations normally have security guards, cameras, and panic buttons. The women in brothels also tend to be younger and have more plastic surgery. The female street sex workers, by contrast, are generally older. They tell me they work in the street because they prefer the freedom to choose their hours and because brothel owners typically do not accept older women. Trans sex workers work exclusively in the street or online, because clients are afraid to be seen entering a place with trans sex work due to its taboo nature.
Street sex workers face a great deal of violence from clients. It’s quite common for street sex workers to be killed by clients in hotel rooms, and many show me scars from where they’ve been cut by clients, their former partners/pimps, or other sex workers competing for clients. In the past, street workers faced great police brutality; the police would hit them, gas them (see Anna Wilking’s 2014 article), force them to have sex with them to avoid detention, or steal their shoes or cell phones and leave them in the outskirts of the city to make it home on their own. With changes in government under President Rafael Correa, however, and since sex workers have become more organized, police abuse has decreased significantly.
The largest problem that the street sex workers in Quito face currently is the Municipality of Quito wants to relocate them to a house of tolerance in order to clean the Historic Center’s streets of sex workers. From my interviews with municipal officials, it seems they genuinely are sympathetic for the sex workers; those I’ve spoken to say they want to create the house to give them more dignified conditions. However, the street sex workers are against the relocation because they are used to working in the street. They want to maintain their autonomy and avoid having to compete with younger sex workers in an enclosed space. The house poses further problems for trans sex workers, who would not only have trouble competing with cis-gender women for clients, but could also face violence from clients who mistake them for biological women and later find out they’re trans.
While I was originally going to intern with the US Embassy here in Quito, I haven’t received security clearance, so I began interning with a transgender rights organization here called Proyecto Transgénero (Project Transgender). A large part of what Proyecto Transgénero does is work with and support transfeminine sex workers. For part of my internship, I helped to create a video with three of the sex workers’ organizations on why they don’t want to be relocated from the street. You can view the video here (be sure to turn on subtitles):
To read more about sex work in the Historic Center of Quito, check out the blog of Anna Wilking, an NYU PhD in cultural anthropology who did her dissertation on sex work in Quito. She also created a documentary focusing on one sex worker’s family, called Let There Be Light, available at the Duke library.
I’ve now been in Ecuador for over a week! A great deal has happened for my research since my last post, so I’m gonna split it into a couple posts.
In Buenos Aires, I successfully managed to interview 42 sex workers on their personal experiences in prostitution. Most of my interviewees were cisgender women, but 4 were cisgender men and 3 were transgender women. The majority I found in the microcentro, the area where I was living, either by the original restaurant that my AirBnB host showed me, in another restaurant that allows them to sit inside, or on the street. However, 5 of my participants I found in Recoleta, Buenos Aires’ most upscale neighborhood, and 10 in Once, a more economically disadvantaged neighborhood known for having many migrants. 4 participants were Paraguayan, 2 Uruguayan, 2 Brazilian, 2 Dominican, 1 was of Peruvian origin but grew up in Buenos Aires, and the rest were Argentine. They ranged between 20 and 60 years old, with the average age being 33.2 (excluding 3 participants whose age I didn’t get).
My sample, though diverse, is not representative of all sex workers in Buenos Aires. My participants identified multiple areas of the city known for prostitution. The microcentro and Recoleta are of the highest economic level. Once (a.k.a. Balvanera) and Flores are of a lower economic level, followed by Constitución. The parks of Palermo have been recognized as a zone of tolerance for transgender sex workers, and many male sex workers, called taxiboys, concentrate at the intersection of Santa Fe and Pueyrredón. The relative safety of these areas limited my ability to interview the most economically disadvantaged workers; I could easily walk around in the centerand Recoleta on my own, but I was warned not to go to Constitución even during the day. I was able to conduct interviews in Once because an organization I interviewed, the Argentine Women’s Association for Human Rights (Asociación de Mujeres Argentinas por los Derechos Humanos, AMADH), introduced me to a sex worker there, who then introduced me to others. The experiences of sex workers in the wealthier neighborhoods are likely much more positive than those in poorer areas. Furthermore, I didn’t speak with any sex workers working in privados – private apartments that typically have an owner or madam who takes 50% of workers’ earnings – though several of my participants had worked in privados in the past, nor did I interview anyone working through online advertising.
However, I do feel like I got a very good idea through my interviews of the conditions of sex work in the city of Buenos Aires, and to a limited extent of the rest of the country. With the exception of one woman, all my participants did sex work for economic necessity, and most were mothers trying to support their children. Most had only one or no bad experiences with clients in terms of violence or coercion. Nevertheless, all but two of them wanted to leave sex work and find another job. They emphasized to me that while they didn’t want to be in sex work, they couldn’t find other jobs that paid them enough to live off of. Doing sex work allowed many of them to survive, to buy a house or a car, and to put their children through school. Most, though not all, wanted the government to legalize sex work and recognize it as a job so they could pay taxes and receive retirement and other benefits just like any other worker.
One woman, whom I’ll refer to as Marina, told me a story that particularly touched me. She works to support three children and several family members. Her children know that she does sex work, she said, but “they don’t say anything because they know that with this they go to high school, they have clothes, they eat.” Once, her daughter really wanted a cell phone for her birthday, and she didn’t have enough money to get it for her, so the night before, she went out to work. She was lucky to get a client who hired her for the night, and when he paid her, he gave her 7000 or 8000 pesos (between $500 and $600, though with the exchange rate it was likely more at the time), much more than she had expected. When she left with the money, she told me, she started crying. She went out and bought her daughter the phone, and when she came home and her daughter saw her crying and asked what happened, Marina told her she was so sorry but she had been robbed and didn’t have any money to give her something for her birthday. Her daughter told her that it was ok, sat her down and made her a mate to drink. When her daughter went to hug her, Marina held the cell phone behind her back and pushed it into her daughter’s hand.
I have collected so many stories now that I don’t know what to do with them. Some of my participants gave me short answers and I had to probe them with many questions, while others I barely asked a single question and they told me their life stories. There are too many experiences for me to share them all here.
When I asked them what they thought would improve their conditions, many of my participants told me they wanted a space to work. Since revising the anti-trafficking law in 2012, the Argentine government has begun shutting down many indoor places where prostitution is exercised. In Buenos Aires, they’ve closed many boliches (clubs or bars) where sex workers used to operate, some of which charged the sex workers a percentage of their earnings but others which only required them to purchase a drink or pay an entrance fee. Only those that pay bribes, explained multiple participants, remain open. While the closing of these places may be intended to stop exploitation, my interviewees said that the boliches that were closed in the center of Buenos Aires and in Recoleta did not have trafficking, and that the locations’ closing left them out on the street, where they face more danger. The restaurant that I visited my first night, where I conducted many of my interviews, used to let the women sit inside to wait for clients. However, a few months ago, one woman told me, a girl came with a hidden camera to expose that there was prostitution happening at the bar. Since then, the bar has not allowed the women to sit inside; according to another woman, the owner said they would otherwise have problems with the police. Many of the women there told me the restaurant’s decision to no longer let them sit inside was really damaging to them, because they now had to stand outside in the cold for many hours to wait for clients. Additionally, some women said they could not charge as much money working in the street, because clients viewed them as more desperate.
This seems to me like a clear example of anti-trafficking efforts gone wrong. While those who’ve gone in to shut down the bars likely have good intentions, they’ve in fact caused more harm to the women they’re trying to help. They certainly should be working to address trafficking, which is a real problem. Most of my participants said they had never seen a case of trafficking, and that they believed the trafficking that existed happened in the provinces and not in the city of Buenos Aires. However, a couple had seen trafficking cases. One Uruguayan woman, whom I’ll call Sandra, told me when she first came to Buenos Aires, she worked in a privado. “I had to leave in a hurry,” she said, “because I saw las chicas secuestradas [the kidnapped girls].” There were girls there, from Peru, Chile, and other countries, who had been told they would be given jobs as maids in Argentina, but when they arrived they weren’t allowed to leave the apartment. They were brought all their food inside, and they couldn’t have cell phones or anything. She left, and reported the place to the police.
How, then, can the government work to address trafficking without harming those who have not been coerced and rely on sex work to support themselves? That’s to me the most difficult question. Some of my participants suggested that the government do more surveys of sex workers to see who is in it voluntarily and who is being forced. Others wanted the government to regulate sex work and have each sex worker be registered and submitted to regular health checks. That model seems promising to me, but there are flaws; for instance, some sex workers may not want to register for fear of their families finding out. As I hear many different perspectives, I will continue to grapple with what policies might best address this issue.
In my next post I’ll discuss visiting with two sex workers’ organizations that started as the same organization but then split apart due to different ideological positions on prostitution, AMMAR and AMADH.
I’ve been in Buenos Aires nearly a week now, and I’ve done two interviews with NGOs. The first with the Fundación María de Los Ángeles, an anti-trafficking organization founded by Susana Trimarco, the mother of a young woman named Marita Verón who was abducted in Tucumán and forced into prostitution in the city of La Rioja in 2002. Since then, Trimarco has been searching for her daughter, and her foundation works to rescue and provide assistance to victims of trafficking. In 2012, Marita’s alleged traffickers were acquitted because the judge said there was no evidence that she had been forced into prostitution. The acquittal led to public outrage and the revision of Argentina’s anti-trafficking law. The original law, passed in 2008, required trafficking victims over the age of 18 to prove they had not consented to their trafficking, while the 2012 revision made consent irrelevant regardless of age.
I spoke with the Foundation’s Director of Press and Communication, Luján Araujo, who recounted to me some of the conditions of prostitutes in Argentina. When I used the term “sex worker” in my correspondence with her, Luján was quick to correct me. The foundation takes an abolitionist stance towards prostitution, meaning they believe prostitution is inherently exploitative and ought to be abolished entirely. Like most abolitionists, they do not believe prostitution constitutes work and use the term “mujer en situación de prostitución,” “woman in situation of prostitution,” to refer to prostitutes. I anticipated terminology would be a point of complication in my research, because it is closely tied with ideology, so it has been difficult to figure out what terms to use in my research. In the survey I sent out to organizations, I used the term “sex worker,” because that is the term many prostitute collectives use to describe themselves. I tried including a blurb at the beginning of the survey saying that when using this term, it is not my intention to take a stance in the debate over whether prostitution should be considered legitimate work. However, it’s possible that I may need to create a separate survey for abolitionist organizations that uses the term “person in situation of prostitution” instead.
Luján explained to me that the foundation works in Tucumán to take women out of brothels, providing counseling and helping them to find alternative work, such as working in hair or nail salons. Many of them, regardless of whether they are victims of trafficking or not, are exploited by a pimp and have been exposed to violence from clients and from police. They often have psychiatric problems, and many have AIDS or other STDs and little history of medical care. Most of them are single mothers who engage in prostitution to provide for their children. A significant number of them are transgender, and thus face even more discrimination, often believing prostitution is the only option available to them.
She wasn’t sure whether conditions were better in brothels or on the street; while those working on the street may have more autonomy, they also face more controls from pimps. “Rescuing” women working on the street is more difficult, she said, because the women are less likely to view themselves as victims, referring to their pimps not as proxenetas (the Spanish word for pimp), but rather as men they pay for security. According to Luján, however, these men in fact control them.
In brothels, those women who did not view themselves as victims said they viewed the brothel as a place of work that provided more security than working on the street. The laws against brothels are practically not enforced at all, such that many people in Argentina do not even know they are illegal. Rather, the police accept bribes to allow the brothels to continue operating. When the law is enforced, the police shut the brothel down but provide no services to the women, who continue to be exploited elsewhere.
The second NGO I interviewed, Red Alto al Tráfico y la Trata (RATT), is also an abolitionist anti-trafficking organization, and recounted similar conditions. After having communicated with their president, Viviana Caminos, I arrived at their office to a meeting of multiple of their members, who all contributed to the discussion. While they said almost all of the women they worked with had access to healthcare and got tested for STDs, many of them had psychological problems, and RATT provided them with counseling. One person said that many of the women they worked with experienced such trauma that they forgot skills they had before they entered prostitution, such as doing manicures or translating English, which they later recovered during therapy. While most say they are engaging in prostitution temporarily to make money, most remain poor, with many falling victim to addiction or dying from violence.
RATT told me that the conditions of violence for those in brothels or on the street are the same; those on the street often have to pay a pimp or the police, and those in a brothel often have to have a certain number of clients per day. While some women choose to work in a brothel to avoid the dangers of working on the street, RATT believed these women still face similar levels of exploitation. They confirmed that the law against brothels is not well enforced, as both the police and politicians often receive benefits from the brothels. Nevertheless, they felt strongly that brothels should remain illegal, because without a law against brothels, it would be difficult for them to rescue the women.
Tomorrow evening, I will attend an event by AMMAR, the Argentine sex workers’ union. I expect they will provide a very different perspective, as they believe prostitution is legitimate work and are fighting for the government to recognize it as such. Through them, I hope to find sex workers willing to talk with me about their experiences.
I am also awaiting IRB approval so I can attempt to approach some of the sex workers I’ve observed at the restaurant I described in my last post and offer to provide them compensation if they’ll do an interview with me. I’ve only got a week left here, so I hope that will pan out.
Hello everyone! This summer I am conducting research for my honors thesis on how the legality of brothels influences sex work conditions in different Latin American countries, kindly funded by the Duke Human Rights Center and the Sanford School of Public Policy. For this research, I’m traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Quito, Ecuador, and I’ll be documenting my experience on this blog.
I just arrived in Buenos Aires tonight after a long flight. I expected to go to bed pretty early tonight, but when I arrived at my AirBnB and told my host (who is also American) about my research project, to my surprise she responded that the street over from us is in fact known for having many sex workers and that she would happily show me where they hung out.
So, my two-week stay here has started off with a bang. Around 11pm, we headed to a pretty nice looking restaurant on a street corner, where, indeed, there were multiple women standing around outside. We went into the restaurant and sat by the window where we could observe them. They were not dressed incredibly noticeably; many wore tight jeans and a jacket but I would not have known they were sex workers had they not been just loitering outside waiting for a client. They chitchatted and laughed among themselves, and we noticed more arrive as time passed. A few times we saw a man approach them and talk to them for a bit; one of the men seemed friendly with them and kissed them each in the normal Argentine greeting. My host wondered why they were all outside and not sitting indoors; apparently, when she has come in the past, the women sit at tables indoors and find clients within the restaurant. Perhaps the restaurant is no longer letting them do so, though we saw multiple come in to use the restroom.
As we were sitting, we saw one elderly man come inside the restaurant alone and sit down at a table and order a glass of wine. He looked over at us several times, and we presumed he was unsure of whether we were working. When I looked over at him, he extended his hand toward me, and I looked away and started laughing. He heard my host and I speaking English and then began speaking to us in English as well, and he turned out to also be American. He asked if he could come sit at our table, and we agreed. He told us he was a professor from a well known American university (whose name I’ll omit for now, but I looked up his name and he is who he says he is), and he told us he enjoyed coming to the restaurant and observing the exchanges between the sex workers and the men, and disclosed that he had purchased sex from workers there before. When I told him about my research and asked if he’d be willing to be interviewed, he agreed, and said he would do so on the record.
By the time we left, many of the women were gone as well, which apparently isn’t usual. Perhaps they went to find a better spot since they weren’t getting many customers.
So there we go. I was expecting I would only be able to get interviews with NGOs, and I’ve already set up a couple, but first night and I’ve got an interview with a john. Now I’m trying to figure out how I might approach some of the women in the coming days to see if they would be willing to speak with me. I’ll be attending an event of the sex workers’ syndicate here, AMMAR, for the International Day of Sex Workers on June 2nd, and I hope to find some good contacts through that.
I recently reread McCall Hollie’s piece “Dear PNMs,” a letter of advice to Duke women going through sorority recruitment that she published the year I went through recruitment for the first time. I asked McCall, who wrote in a Facebook post last week that “sorority rush is an alienating, harmful, and archaic practice,” what she thought could be done to improve the system. “Abolish it,” she responded. “The foundations of the system are truly so ancient (re: sexist, racist, classist, heteronormative, homophobic, ableist) that I don’t know what could be changed of it that would actually make it a truly inclusive space.”
My first reaction to this response (as some of you might also be thinking) was, That may be true of the system as a whole, but my sorority is incredibly inclusive! I feel that my sorority provides a truly supportive community that fosters strong friendships, pushes me to become a better person, and embraces women for who they are without judgment or pressure to fit a certain mold. It is absolutely true that membership remains inaccessible to women of lower incomes who cannot afford dues, and we must find a way to provide more scholarships and financial aid so that the Greek system no longer perpetuates socioeconomic privilege (for instance by providing access to large alumni networks unavailable to those who could not afford to join a Greek organization). However, my own chapter actively works to keep dues as low as possible, and we are one of the most diverse chapters on campus.
My chapter’s inclusivity, however, is perhaps only possible because of its lower position in the Greek hierarchy* – or perhaps its lower position is due to its inclusivity. Excluding others is a way for groups to gain power and social status. I have heard stories of certain fraternities refusing to mix with certain sororities because of their perceived low ranking in the hierarchy, and vice versa. I have heard stories of certain sororities telling certain fraternities that they will only mix with them if the fraternity stops mixing with another “lower-ranked” sorority. I have heard stories of sororities that rank their members in an “A-list,” a “B-list,” and a “C-list,” sending only their favorite, hottest girls to events with the top-ranking fraternities and sending their “lesser” members to less “important” events. These behaviors are well-known by members of the Greek system and are blatant strategies for obtaining and maintaining power. Why do we continue to tolerate them as though they are an inevitable part of a system we cannot change?
The hierarchical nature of the Greek system is toxic to the individuals within the system as well as to Duke’s social scene as a whole. I sometimes catch myself being sucked into it, judging women based on their appearance and how popular others perceive them to be rather than who they are as people. I would like to think that the hierarchy and exclusivity could be eliminated, or at least reduced, through reform – for instance, providing more scholarships, instituting minimum requirements for the racial make-up of groups, or requiring (as some schools do) that every fraternity mix with every sorority.
However, I wonder whether creating equality within a system founded upon exclusivity is even possible. In my “Thinking Gender” class, we recently read Audre Lorde’s iconic essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” The phrase this speech is named after indicates that one cannot successfully fight inequality and oppression using the same methods as the oppressive system.
Sororities were first created in response to the exclusion of women from fraternities. The women who started them were rebellious, strong trailblazers demanding the same opportunities as men. These groups, however, remained accessible only to white Christian (generally Protestant) women. By using the same tools as the white men – creating an elite, secretive group that excluded entire segments of the population – they furthered the oppression of non-Christians and people of color. While these groups also reacted by creating their own Greek organizations, and white Greek organizations have since opened up to membership by non-whites, it is clear that the Greek system remains far from reaching full integration. One need only compare the make-up of “higher-ranking” and “lower-ranking” groups to see that it continues to discriminate, whether intentionally or unintentionally, based on race, appearance, socioeconomic status, and physical ability.
The way the system is set up now, if I want my own sorority to gain social status, then strategically, I should choose the women who I think the men in the highest ranking fraternities will most want to affiliate with (read: fuck), the women who will make my sorority look cool and attractive and who hold the most power within society. I should choose the girls who fit a certain ideal of femininity and reject, in Lorde’s words, “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference”: minority women, poor women, LGBT women, women who do not fit society’s skinny standard of beauty, women with physical disabilities or speech impediments or who do not speak perfect English. I reject these tools of exclusivity and judgment that the system has given me, for exercising them will perhaps increase my own power, but it will not deconstruct the ladder of power upon which the system rests.I am challenging myselfinstead to judge women based on their character and to welcome those against whom the system normally discriminates.
Yet this may not be enough for Lorde. She articulates the position of radical feminism, which rejects reformism and asserts that eliminating hierarchy requires dismantling the existing system. Eliminating the hierarchy of the Greek system at Duke, if we accept this position, requires abolishing the Greek system entirely.
I normally consider myself a liberal feminist, for I believe (perhaps naïvely?) that it is possible to work within our existing society to obtain equality. I have hope that we can remake our Greek system to dismantle the hierarchy within and, as Lorde stresses, “take our differences and make them strengths.” Perhaps this position is a cop-out for me – it takes much less effort and sacrifice on my part to accept the system and work to improve it than to fight its existence, and it does not require me to sacrifice the strong sisterhood that my own sorority has provided me. Yet Lorde’s warning that using the tools of the system to attempt to create equality “will never enable us to bring about genuine change” makes me grapple with myself. By participating in this system, am I necessarily continuing the oppression that it creates?
But arguing at this point in time about whether the Greek system ought to exist or not seems counter-productive to me, because its power and popularity make it highly unlikely that any attempt to get rid of it will succeed. Rather, I prefer to tackle its negative aspects from the inside, while strengthening its positive aspects like the social bonds, the community, and the engagement in service that it fosters. If you wish, like I do, to dismantle the social ladder in favor of a round table, get off the ladder and take a seat. We have to stop climbing. We must sacrifice some of our own power and actively reach out to those who differ from us, for, “Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”
* I am referring specifically to the hierarchy within Duke’s Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council, as I have less personal knowledge about the National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Multicultural Greek Council.