Update: The research on sex workers described in this post has now been published in “Sex Work and the Politics of Space: Case Studies of Sex Workers in Argentina and Ecuador.”
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.
Here in Quito, I’ve been working with various collectives, including Association Pro-Defense of Women (ASPRODEMU), which consists of women who work in brothels and nightclubs, and three street sex workers’ organizations: Association For a Better Future, Association 1st of May, and Association of Trans Sex Workers of Quito (Aso TST UIO). I’ve also had the chance to travel to Guayas province and interview women from the Association of Women from Milagro Canton and the Association of Autonomous Female Workers 1st of August in Guayaquil.
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):
The video was also published in an article by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) here: http://www.nswp.org/news/coalition-sex-work-organisations-quito-ecaudor-resist-displacement-the-city
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.
Also read El Trabajo Sexual en el Centro Histórico de Quito by Sandra Álvarez and Mariana Sandoval, though unfortunately it is only available in Spanish.