There is a new ordinance in Quito. A group of sex worker activists, government officials and the head of the police have reached a compromise about the sex workers’ presence on the streets of El Centro. As of two weeks ago, the women must retreat from public between 12:30pm to 2:00pm, which is when elementary schools are let out for the day and the streets become flooded with children. This seems like an arbitrary tactic to place the women under more strict control of the neoliberal state. It is bizarre because many of the women are mothers and indeed, go to collect their children at school during this time. Should they be allowed to show their presence at their children’s school? What is the exact behavior the state is trying to protect school children from? On any given day, the sex workers stand alone or in groups on the streets, but because they stand in public, they are careful not to dress in revealing outfits. Perhaps their heavy make-up gives them away, but how is viewing women with heavy make-up offensive to children? Is it offensive to children to see groups of women standing together or by themselves? It is not clear if the children even notice the sex workers; more often, they know the sex workers and run up to greet them. These women are friends and family members of many of the kids in the neighborhood, not social pariahs that need to “hide” the moment school lets out.
The women are angry because now they lose two precious hours of their work day. They tell me they are baffled by the new rules, especially because they also have to pick up their children from school. Further, they explain, it’s not like they have sex on the street; everything they do in public is decent and discreet, nothing that would negatively impact a child. Despite the grumbling and complaints about the new rule, the women wholeheartedly obey it. They are very respectful of the school children and agree that they would feel terrible if a child did feel “traumatized” by seeing them. Anyway, today during the mandatory lunch break we hung out in the small lobby of Hotel Arizona, “the perfect place to rest” where the women work. Eight women piled onto the big faux-leather couch, while others crouched on the floor and stairs near-by.
This hour and a half of free time turned into a beauty parlor session for the women. M., an Afro-Colombian woman with a head of braids asked the women to help fix a few of her straggly loose bunches in the back. Immediately, four women went to work, braiding, twisting and knotting her hair at the ends. Another woman called she’d be right back. When L. returned, with hair dye, S. squealed, and shouted, “You’re the best!” L. pulled S.’s hair back and after returning from the bathroom with water to mix the dye, she picked up the plastic brush that came with the kit, and began applying the blond dye to S.’s hair. Another woman, N. helped L. apply the dye, and tied a plastic bag around S.’s neck to protect her skin and clothes from loose drops of blond. The other women gossiped and laughed. Someone took out blue nail polish with sparkles in it and started passing it around. One by one, the women took turns painting their nails until all the women on the coach shared the glittering, blue tint. They insisted on doing my nails too. K. took out the latest cosmetics she had received from the company and showed the women a series of lip glosses. They looked at the colors and smoothed a few of them onto the top of their hands to see how the color would look next to their skin. No one bought anything, but it was fun to see how each color looked.
Added entertainment came from D. an older man in his 60s, a client who is drunk most of the time. He sat wobbling on the floor next to the women and made inappropriate comments every so often, keeping everyone laughing hysterically. He kept asking M., the Afro-Colombian woman with dreads to marry him, or to at least share a whiskey, (but only if she went to buy it). All the women treated him affectionately, pulling on his hat and hair—pulling him down to sit on their laps on the coach and slapping him on the ass. D. is a petite man: many of the women tower over him and are twice as thick. He does not work or do much of anything except drink and hang out with the sex workers. Once in a while he can actually pay to bring one of them upstairs, but mostly he just jokes and begs for a free session. We were laughing hard on this particular day because D. wouldn’t stop dancing. Everyone kept singing different popular salsa songs and he moved around the lobby, grabbing different women as partners, as if he were the Ecuadorian Fred Astaire. Finally, S. and L. sat D. down and dyed his hair too. They kept insisting that it was black, not blond. D. squirmed to get away but too late....they managed to wrestle him down and saturate his hair with the blond dye (I haven't seen him yet, but I know I'll laugh when I do!) The time passed quickly with all the entertainment. Before we knew it, it was 2:00 and the women moved back out onto the corner.