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.

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Anhelo Rivas, Brigida Reyes (President of 22nd of June), Margarita Cayza (Vice President of Flor de Azalea), and Virmania Montaño (Legal Secretary of 22nd of June) in front of the PLAPERTS office

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.

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Brothel La Puente in Machala

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.

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Brothel El Nino

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.

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Many male sex workers meet clients at porn screenings at video cines like this one.

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.