Thursday, March 11, 2010

Taken off guard

When I haven’t hung out on the streets for a few days sometimes my first visit back catches me off guard and I get completely overwhelmed by the pain of these women’s lives. Over these past months of field work, I’ve developed a coping mechanism in which, for the most part, I’m able to leave my day behind as soon as I step on the trolley-bus to take me back to North Quito. But on certain days the emotional baggage of the day accompanies me home. I arrive at my apartment feeling raw. Before I know it, I’m crying. In that moment I make the connection that I’m having a reaction to my field work. It’s funny because whenever people ask me, “Oh how do you work with prostitutes? That must be so hard,” I’m always quick to deny any difficulties and answer with shrug, “Well, I’ve been studying this for almost ten years, it doesn’t really affect me anymore.” My answer doesn’t do their question justice and it isn’t even true: usually I don’t feel like discussing it because I’ve gone through so many different emotional stages of this work. But fair enough, I think it’s worth exploring here.

I first started studying prostitution in 2001 as a Fulbright scholar in Madrid, where I studied newly arrived Ecuadorian women who had transitioned from working in domestic service to the sex industry. At that time, prostitution itself was still shocking to me. I was still on the fence about my attitude toward sex work: Was it oppressive to women? Should it be legalized or remain illegal? All the classic debates swirled in my head: the fault lines drawn between 2nd wave feminists of the 1960s-70s, who along with their anti-pornography stances, felt prostitution was an act of violence against women, versus the next generation of feminists, the majority of whom felt that prostitution is not inherently oppressive to women. I remember feeling overwhelmed in these early days of field work by the very fact that these women *sold* their bodies for money. It seemed so risqué, transgressive and “bad.” I found it thrilling and horrifying at the same time. It was something that as a woman, you were simply not “supposed to do.” But the “why” of that question has continued to haunt me through the years. Why aren’t we supposed to sell our bodies?

Literally hundreds of sex workers have now shared with me their life stories. I have realized that the “why” of the question can be answered very simply: the moral norms of Western society tell us that it is not “appropriate” for women to use their bodies as an object of labor. I’ve spent the past few years in my academic program reading different theoretical perspectives to understand the moral underpinnings of this gender propriety. Regardless of the reasons, based firmly in our Judeo-Christian traditions, what has stood out to me is the disjuncture between society’s position on prostitution and the opinions of hundreds of sex workers. Indeed, it is this inconsistency that has nudged me towards a more radical position on the topic. At this point, I feel strongly that prostitution should be legalized. Women should have the legal right to do whatever they want with their bodies. “Society” should not be able to make decisions for women based on a patriarchal, hetero-normative, Judeo-Christian framework. I feel strongly that prostitution should be recognized as work, like any other, and as such, these women should have the same rights as other workers. I only support sex work in cases where the worker feels like she has chosen the employment herself (perhaps from a very limited number of choices, but nonetheless, exercised free choice in the matter). I do not believe prostitution is inherently oppressive to women. I am opposed to all cases of exploitation, pimps, human trafficking, rape, sexual slavery, and the prostitution of minors.

Despite my progressive position, it doesn’t mean that some days I’m not caught off guard by these women’s stories. I’m tough, but not that tough. Although I have been de-sensitized to many aspects of the sex industry, like the act of prostitution itself, I’m still exposed to some heartbreaking situations. For instance, S. got in a knife fight the day before and therefore, has added a fresh cut to her face. I cried yesterday, thinking of S.’s scarred face: she has many scars, representing the dozens of acts of violence people have committed against her through the years. Yesterday I cried because Don Roberto, my friend who sells incense recounted the recent police abuse he experienced. He was smart enough to get photos taken directly after he was released. He gave me copies of the photos, in hopes that I might be able to help him. His back was covered with welts, one eye was swollen shut and a gash on his chest had blood trickling from it. It made me cry thinking of him, as he looked at me, asking for my help. An image of V. broke my heart as she sat yesterday on the hotel coach, head in her hands, saying to me, “Anita, we are fucked, we are fucked” referring to the new ordinance in place which bans the women working from 12-2 on weekdays, to avoid schoolchildren traveling home. Every day I see or hear something that breaks my heart. Usually I feel emotionally equipped to deal with it, but at times, especially when my own mood is low and I feel vulnerable, I cannot help but weep.

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