Thursday, January 21, 2010

brothels vs. the street

Working conditions in both places vary tremendously depending on which brothel or street a woman works. (I study hetero-normative prostitution therefore my discussion is limited to female sex workers. Men and transgendered workers face very different work conditions). The women I study prefer working on the streets to brothels due to the freedom that comes with being their own bosses. These particular women do not have pimps. The women with pimps tend to be women who fall into sex work to support a drug habit and generally, they work at night. In contrast, the women I work with treat sex work as a regular 10-5 job, like any other. At the end of the day, they go home to look after their children. Some of them smoke weed and/or drink beer, but with the exception of one or two, none of the women I work with entered the sex industry to support a habit. Like many working mothers anywhere, women on street value having a flexible job where they can choose their hours, leave intermittently to run errands or pick up their children from school, etc.

In general however, women on the street earn less. Even though they would make double the money at night due to greater demand, many women don't view working after dark as an option because it's way too dangerous. Even during the day it's dangerous, but much less so. The standard rate is $5.00 an encounter, but sometimes a woman can negotiate a higher rate (If the client is a new-comer and not familiar with the rates, for example. There are also a few women who simply demand more, but obviously it’s a risk since most of the other women charge the standard). In addition to the sex worker’s wage, the client most also pay the hotel fee, which is almost as much as the actual services—the hotel charges on average $3-$4 for a bed. The “hotels” are hole-in-the-wall hostels that offer sparsely furnished rooms and shared bathrooms in the hall.

In contrast to the streets, the biggest advantage to working in brothels is the security. It is a much safer working environment. Each brothel has a “guardia” or security guard and there is always an (armed) manager on the premises looking out for the women. Women make more in brothels, usually $7-$8 an encounter. The client must also pay a separate fee to the brothel of about $3, in addition to any beer or alcohol he may buy during the visit. Some women claim that work is steadier in the brothels but that is debatable. When business is slow, it’s slow everywhere—likewise, when it picks up, everyone benefits. Some of the major disadvantages to working in brothels: the women are more strictly regulated meaning that they must have regular health exams and carry an identity card at all times. They answer to a boss who, depending on the brothel, can be abusive and corrupt. They are required to work long shifts, from about 11:00am to 9:00pm. They clearly have much less freedom on the job than street workers. However, if a woman can land a job at one of the very upscale “clubs”/brothels that serve an elite clientele, she can make significantly more money than in a “regular” brothel. Unfortunately, these places tend to have the most exclusive hiring policies as well—only young and “muy guapa” women work there. They hire a lot of Colombian women, who are perceived as more attractive than Ecuadorian women. Brothels tend to attract a slightly more upwardly mobile demographic, in terms of both its workers and clients.

Clearly anyone can work on the streets, while all brothels have a hiring process, even if it’s not very exclusive. On the street, one can find a wider range of sex workers to choose from according to age, body type, skin color, etc. Among the group of women I work with for example, one woman is in her 60s, another is Afro-Ecuadorian from the coast, another is overweight, etc. But not all the women on the streets are simply rejects from brothels--there are also plenty of “conventionally-beautiful” women, who prefer to be on the street, rather than in brothels.

A common issue that women in both environments share is the boredom that comes while waiting for clients. When I’m on the streets, this is one of the most frequent complaints I hear. If the day is dragging many women just go home, the monotony is too much to bear. At times, the street provides some lively entertainment as we are often witnesses to games of chase between cops and robbers. When the streets are quiet, the women spend much of their time joking and playing around with each other. They stand in small groups telling stories and reminiscing about good earning days. They talk about their children and their hopes and dreams for the future. These women support one another through the day just like the members of any other kin network.


  1. Anna - thanks for answering my question. Of course you left the paper at my house with the other questions. I need to send to you. Do I have your address in Quito?


  2. well, I'm also coming home for a week in March--or you could email me what I wrote? IT seems like too much trouble for you to snail mail my notes! please keep your questions coming, they help stimulate/provoke more of my own research questions!

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