August 9, 2016

by Jessica Van Meir

My recent interviews reveal stark differences in the experiences of Ecuadoran sex workers based on economic level. Those differences appear to exert a powerful influence on the attitudes of sex workers toward their jobs and their perception of rights..

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 Fundación Quimera, which works on HIV prevention, sex workers’ rights, and anti-trafficking. The group 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.

Since, they’ve worked to reduce stigma by insisting on the term “sex workers” rather than “prostitutes” or putas (whores) and negotiated with brothel owners for improved conditions.

22nd of June worked primarily with sex workers in brothels and nightclubs, however. In 2002, member Karina Bravo created a daughter organization, Flor de Azalea, to work for street-based sex workers. Karina represents the Latin American Platform of Sex Workers (PLAPERTS). She recounted to me how in 2004, the members of Flor de Azalea were in the street working to plan an event when the police came to arrest them.

At that time, 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, the workers recorded with their phones. With that evidence, they report the police abuse and pressured the government to adopt new rules for police conduct with sex workers.

Photo by Jessica van Meir

from left: 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. Photo by Jessica van Meir

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 Fundación Quimera. We went to the largest brothel in Machala, called La Puente, where I interviewed four 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 workers 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. 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 a 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. Many of them work as prepagos, prepays, connecting to their clients via 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 business owners claimed to have little knowledge of sex work occurring there, but Anhelo assured me that these are meeting places.

My interviews with five men revealed a wide range in sex worker experiences, significantly different from the women I’ve interviewed. For one gay man, sex work was a “hobby,” a “whim,” that he enjoyed and did not do out of necessity, but to pay extra expenses. He doesn’t charge a fixed price, but rather has sex with people and appreciates if they compensate him afterwards. He reported being 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.”

photo by Jessica Van Meir

La Puente Brothel in Machala, Ecuador. Photo by Jessica Van Meir

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 given that the minimum wage in Ecuador is $354 per month). During five years selling sex, he became addicted to drugs and also suffered violence. He told me he was in the hospital with a coma for 11 months after being beaten by a client. 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 and helping him study.

These two men reveal a huge diversity within sex work. One man claims to exercise a great deal of agency and gets pleasure from his work. Another reports his sexual exploitation as a child with no alternatives and who should have been protected by the state. The trend I’ve seen in my interviews is that economic status is an important factor. Poorer sex workers can experience more violence and exploitation and can view sex work negatively and want a different job. The sex workers I interviewed 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.


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