Sunday, February 7, 2010

strategies of resistance

C. always carries her bag of cosmetics with her to work. She has a side-business selling lipsticks, eyeliner, mascara, jewelry, and perfume to the other sex workers on Espejo and Montufar Streets. C. is in her mid-40s, which already makes her less vulnerable to the police. Most people (including the police) notice the younger sex workers who show more skin, while the older women slip easily into the background—perhaps an advantage while trying to avoid the police, but obviously a disadvantage when it comes attracting clients. Since they are working on the streets in broad day-light, none of the women, except those who are prostituting for drugs, wear very skimpy clothes. Many wear tight jeans, high-heels, a top with lots of cleavage, and heavy make-up. Some of the younger ones wear mini-skirts and heels. Many wear everyday clothes on the public bus to work and change and put on their make-up at the hotel once they arrive. Older women like C. dress more conservatively, wearing long skirts with tight blouses. The older women get stopped less by the police since no one can be 100% sure that they are working. I think it would be mortifying for the police to falsely accuse as prostitutes women the age of their mothers, especially in a society where mothers are venerated as saints (which is ironic considering all the sex workers I work with are mothers—they seem to be the exception to such mother-worship, except perhaps by their own children).

As such, C. is less vulnerable to police harassment because of her age but also because she uses her side-business as a cover. She never runs from the police like the other women. Instead, she rearranges her big bag and starts to take out the complete catalog of products she carries and display them to the closest female stander-by. In fact, when I first met C. last fall I wasn't sure she was a sex worker. She always had her cosmetics bag and was constantly showing people her products. However, after I repeatedly saw her on the corner, my suspicions were confirmed. Perhaps C. also maintains her side business to present a “decent” front to mainstream society. Within the immediate vicinity of their work neighborhood the sex workers rarely receive insulting or degrading comments, but society-at-large still judges them harshly. Perhaps they are more respected on Espejo and Montufar streets because they know everyone in the area and many of their acquaintances whether they be hustling drug addicts, pick-pockets, robbers, etc. are equally marginalized.
The younger women without “side-businesses” are much more vulnerable to police harassment and abuse. For this reason, they are extremely conscientious about warning each other of “chapas” (“police”) sightings. Usually a couple sex workers hang out at the top of both Espejo and Montufar streets and they call down to the others at the bottom of the hill. With a single yell of “CHAPAS,” the women instantly clear the streets, running into the phone center, the hotel lobby, the hole-in-the-wall cafeterias, or the offices of the near-by sex worker collective, Association of the Defense of Women. The National Police are in charge of patrolling the historic center for sex workers, rather than the municipal police (not sure why, yet). Dressed in their fancy uniforms, they patrol the area on motorcycles, trucks, or SUV jeeps (#207 patrols the San Marcos area). At times they walk through with vicious looking dogs.

The sides seem evenly matched in this game of cat-mouse between the police and women. For example, although the women are long hidden away by the time the cops actually pass by, recently, the police have been standing on the corner for extended periods of time to ensure that none of the women will work. The women have no choice but to wait it out which means missing precious work time. They sit huddled together in the hotel lobby and complain about the police, their boyfriends or husbands and their financial woes. The second the cops leave they flood the streets once again. I have arrived at the corner during one of these police raids and in these moments the streets are empty and lifeless. Many of the local men hide during these raids as well because they are known to the police as thieves or drug addicts.

So although sex work is “not illegal” in Ecuador (much more on this later), the police are pressured to remove sex workers from the public sphere. Their presence in the historic center is considered inappropriate as the area gentrifies to become a top international tourist destination. The municipality is working hard to remove them although due to the advantages of working in the streets over brothel work (see previous post), the women have no plans of leaving. Since what they are doing is not technically illegal, the police resort to threats and arrests for arbitrary offenses like loitering (although the women fire back that they are not loitering since they have a purpose—they are in fact working on the streets, not loitering at all!) Obviously, the police are the ultimate victors of the game of cat and mouse since they are the ones with institutional power. And indeed they use it. They are corrupt and bring certain “problematic” women to jail illegally for a week at a time. They target women like S. (see previous post) who are often rude and confrontational to the police.

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