When V. opened the door, I didn’t recognize her for a moment. She smiled widely and ushered me inside. “Come in Anita, come in.” I stepped inside her house. Her two youngest daughters aged five and seven came running into the room. They were suddenly shy, their smiles disappearing when they came to greet me. V.’s older daughter, aged 15, brought me a chair, the only one in the house, so I could sit at the kitchen counter while they cooked. V. was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, her hair was tied back and she had some cream under her eyes. This was the first time I had visited V. at home with her children. She looked like any other mother, recently awake, making breakfast for her children. Her daughters had returned the day before from a visit to her aunt’s farm on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, a city two hours south of Quito. They brought fresh cow’s milk and eggs with them. V. gave me a frothy banana milkshake and handed me a plate with a toasted croissant with melted cheese and ham. Even though I had already eaten breakfast, I couldn’t resist eating another. Her oldest daughter swung herself up onto the countertop to eat while V.’s other daughters ran into her bedroom to watch the morning cartoons.
V.’s husband, D. works ten hour days at a factory every day except Sunday. V. and D. split their expenses so that D. pays the $150 monthly rent while V. pays the utility bills including light ($20), the landline phone ($10), water ($30), and their monthly food consumption. D. earns $400 monthly but has three children with his ex-girlfriend so he must send a portion of his salary to them as well. V. must also pay her cell phone expenses which she keeps low by buying pre-paid phone cards rather than subscribing to a monthly plan. V. must also pay expenses for her daughters’ education including a monthly pension and school materials. Her 15 year old attends a beauty academy in a neighborhood close to their house in South Quito. V. tells me that D. helps pay her daughters’ educational costs when he can, even though they are not his biological children. Each month is a struggle for V. and D. to split even. At the end of the month they eat basics like eggs, rice, yucca, and plantains, in all its forms. Luckily, they have a cheap market near their house. I have never asked, but V. must also spend a significant amount of money on condoms because she usually uses two for each encounter.
V. tells me she is a lucky woman because she has a good, kind, and hardworking “husband.” They have been living together for 8 years, although they are not married. (Many women here call their long-term boyfriends “husbands” since only financially stable couples get married, as just the license is prohibitively expensive). Although V. keeps her work hidden from her children (she tells her daughters she sells cell phones in El Centro) her husband knows she works in the sex industry; that is how they originally met, he is an ex-client. I have not asked V. about her husband’s attitude towards her work but in general, when I ask the women, they say their partners have neutral feelings about it. Most of them are ex-clients, so it's usually not a secret they must keep from their partners. In rare cases a “Pretty Woman” scenario happens in which the loyal client whisks his love interest away from the sex industry. In the worst cases, women’s husbands turn into pimps and expect them to support the household.
When I spent the day at V.’s house, I was struck by the conventionality of her home-life. After breakfast she gave her younger daughters “homework” in which she instructed them to copy different words in their school notebooks. The youngest is still learning the alphabet so V. spent a lot of time writing and singing it out with her. V. is dedicated to her children’s education--more than anything, wants them to have more chances in life than she did. V. had her first child at the age of 12 after being raped by an older man. She left home soon after and began working as a domestic servant. Eventually, she entered the sex industry because she was sick of being people’s maids; she tells me, “they treated me so badly, I won’t ever work for anyone again.” For V. being a sex worker is the best job option available to her. She chooses this work because it offers her independence and a chance to make quadruple the amount of money she would earn in any other unskilled position. I am also struck by V.'s stability and confidence. She has never expressed any doubts or distress to me about being a sex worker, perhaps because she has worked in this industry for 15 years or so.
I think I've had a more difficult time reconciling the different aspects of her life, although after studying prostitution for so many years, I've come to understand these women's identities in a much more complex, nuanced way. It is much more complex than people realize. They are not merely victims. I feel committed to supporting V’s views of herself as a sex worker. I won’t dismiss her feelings as a case of “false consciousness” as Marxist theorists would say. If these women do not see themselves as victims, why should I?