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.