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.