Monday, May 31, 2010


I’m always surprised by the lack of competition among the women. I thought there would be more jealousies over who could pull in more clients. That doesn’t seem to be the case at all. The women seem to understand on a gut level that clients are fickle and always want different things. I remember sitting with a group of women when they were talking about clients’ tastes. They all started joking and decided that they can never please these men. They said to me, “Anita, if you have big tits, they want small ones, a big ass, they want a small one” “Yeah, if you’re skinny, they want hips, if you’re flat they want tits.” “If you have curly hair they want it straight, if you have straight hair they want it curly.” The women seem to accept that clients won’t always pick them. They don’t get offended because they know a different man will choose them soon enough. Furthermore, the man who picked their friend this time might pick them next time.

However, without a doubt, some women pull in more clients than others. For example, M., a Colombian woman with fair skin, works consistently all day. The other women attribute her success not to her good looks, but because she “knows how to work it.” The women see it as their own fault if they don’t get clients. The women must sell themselves like any other product which means they must transform random men on the street into potential clients. They hiss, hoot, make gestures and whisper to them as they pass by. M. is talented at convincing men to go to bed with her. She always stands slightly apart from the rest of us in order not to get distracted. She doesn’t have time to sit around and hang out—she’s on constant patrol. I watch M. disappear up and down the stairs of the hotel in 15 minute intervals all day. I’ve never even seen her take a break for lunch, she’s always the first to arrive and the last woman to leave. She’s always smoking and wears a serious expression on her face. Although she lives with an Ecuadorian man in Quito, her children are in Colombia. Perhaps she works so hard because she has a more desperate situation than the others and/or has more free time.

Perhaps the other women envy M.’s success but they don’t talk poorly about her or seem jealous in a mean-spirited way. In fact, they talk about her with admiration, saying things like she’s a “buen trabajadora” (a good-worker) and super disciplinada (very disciplined). They respect her work ethic and again, don’t mention a connection between her looks and relatively stable earnings. V. my closest informant, spends much of her time with me sitting on the steps. Sometimes I feel guilty because I know I’m distracting her from her job, but at the same time I know she enjoys my company. Sometimes she’ll turn to me and say, “Okay Anita, I have to try to work for a while” and she’ll get up from the step and walk off by herself. The women definitely have more success when they stand alone, rather than stand in their customary groups. They tend to bunch up and start talking, laughing, and gossiping together. Sometimes one of their regulars will approach and with the soft whisper of a name, one of the women will disappear down the street. Many times V. and I will be talking and a regular will beckon her from the corner. She gets up and goes to meet him so quickly, I won’t have time to process what happened. She’ll be mid-sentence and suddenly disappear. Obviously it only takes a second for me to realize where she went…

I enjoy the camaraderie the women have on the streets. Of course it’s not always smooth sailing—I know that rivalries and feuds exist, but for the most part, the women who stand together on Espejo and Montufar Streets are friendly. Perhaps they aren’t super competitive and treat each other well is because they all belong to the same turf. If bad blood develops between two women one of them usually ends up moving to another area of the historic center. A certain amount of respect must exist between everyone because it was difficult for each one to break into this particular turf. For instance, there are women who work in a nearby plaza who tell me they’d love to work on my corner but they don’t know anyone over there. The women are territorial and I have yet to witness the process of a newcomer become part of our group. It is intimidating, as I know from personal experience. But once you’re in, you’re in.


One of the classic anthropological theories I observe in action every day among the sex workers is mid-20th century anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s theory of gift-giving in the moral economy. He posits that communities are bound by reciprocal, obligatory “gift-giving” whereby individuals give one another services or goods with the expectation that these favors will be returned at a future date. Without a doubt, the group of sex workers with whom I work, subscribe to this reciprocal moral economy. As the sun sinks behind the panecillo (a small hill), a landmark of Quito’s colonial center (where a massive statue of the virgin stands guarding over the city), the women start to get nervous if they haven’t made enough money for the day. They only earn $5 an encounter, so most have a goal to land three or four “puntos,” as they call it, before heading home. On slow days the women only land one punto, while on the very worst days, they won’t successfully solicit any clients at all. They might stay for a few hours after dark to see if they can earn at least one punto, but as all of them are mothers, the majority have to head home by 6:00 to care for their children.

Last week M. and I were sitting on the step of a building next to the corner, our usual hang-out. She was wearing her customary plastic sandals, the ones she wears every day. Suddenly she pointed to my sneakers and asked how much they cost. Embarrassed to tell her, I lowered the price by about $20 and explained that I was willing to pay a lot for them because they have lasted three years. She asked my size and when I said a 38 she broke out into a grin and said, “Me too!” She then gingerly asked me if once I was done with the shoes, would I mind passing them on to her. I agreed and realized that she might not have any other shoes aside from her flimsy white sandals. Once she confirmed this, I thought about heading over to the used clothes market in Plaza Arenas and poke around for some sneakers for her.

Anyway, as we sat on the step M. grabbed my arm and said, “Anita, there’s only a couple hours left, I need at least one punto.” Some of the women arrive at 10am; to stand on the street for 8-9 hours without even scoring one punto is anxiety-provoking. It is also unbelievably boring which is why the women are so willing to chat and joke with me. I asked if she would stay late until she got one. She said she didn’t have a choice, although she never stays past 9:00pm because it’s too dangerous and she can’t risk leaving her children for that long. I nodded empathetically. Then she said, “If I don’t get that punto, I’ll have to go around and get a dollar from each woman.”

That’s the way it works on the corner. When one woman is down on her luck, the others pitch in to help. Of course days exist which are slow for everyone, like when it’s gray, cold and raining. In that case most of the women go home empty handed, although there’s always one who still makes a teeny bit more than the others. It’s up to her to decide whether she wants to help her friends or not—this decision seems to be based on who has helped her in the past. It’s a clear display of Mauss’s theory working in front of me. Obviously she’ll be more likely to help women who have helped her--that’s the moral guideline of gift-giving in all communities. The women have alliances among one another based on their gift-giving behavior. Like in all groups, some women are closer to certain people over others. Me too. I’m definitely closer to some women over others, I don’t feel badly or guilty--that’s just the way human relationships work. But a big part of gift-giving is based on how one has treated you in the past. In fact, that seems to determine all future gift-giving arrangements among the women, exactly as Mauss points out.

One woman, A. complained to me about the lack of reciprocity of one of her dearest friends. She said to me that this woman didn’t have any money for lunch so A. treated her for a few days. A. said she was happy to help out but was expecting the favor to be returned one day, fairly promptly. She complained to me that more than a month had passed and this friend still hadn’t treated her to lunch yet. A. pointed out, “You know, Anita…you think these people are your closest friends but then they don’t have your back when you need it.” The lack of reciprocity was clearing causing a strain on their friendship. A. noted that she was no longer going to help this friend out. These women develop alliances and reciprocal relationships with people they can count on, otherwise it’s just too much of a risk to help someone, as all of these women live in abject poverty.

There are some women who are more willing to help others, which is perhaps simply an expression of their naturally generous nature. Or perhaps they simply have more money, I’m not sure, I’ve never asked. There also seems to be a system of exchange in which all the women take turns taking care of R.’s children. R. is an addict and can no longer provide for them. She stays in the hotel smoking base all day with her children and the other women take turns bringing them lunch. Not all the women provide R. assistance. Some of them don’t want anything to do with her because she neglects her children. They see R.’s addiction as her own fault and that since she created the situation, she needs to get herself out of it. But of the women who do offer help, there seems to be a system in place where they take turns. In this case, Mauss’s gift-giving principle based on reciprocity is not in place since they are simply providing charity and are motivated by the children’s neglect. They do not expect anything in return, but they do seem conscientious to take turns among themselves to help R. Not only do they engage in reciprocal obligation among one another, but in addition, a sense of shared responsibility has developed to take care of the neediest within the community.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Anthropologist or social worker?

This is a continuation of an entry I wrote on April 30, called “Friends or Informants?” These themes about my relationship as an anthropologist with my informants are, without a doubt, my greatest challenges in the field. I wrestle with these issues all day, every day. Do these women see me as their friend or as a social scientist? Are these roles mutually exclusive? Do I view them as friends or informants? How does my increased intimacy with these women affect my supposedly “objective” scientific data? In what moments can I put my anthropologist cap aside and share their company as friends—after all, I spend more time with this group of sex workers than with many other people in Quito.

As these relationships have deepened over time new challenges have arisen. On the one hand, as I already pointed out on 4/30/10, with our increased intimacy, I receive “better” information for my research because they confide in me—they now share the most intimate details of their life with me, allowing me to (hopefully) write an incredibly rich ethnographic account of sex workers’ lives in Quito one day. However, it becomes difficult to negotiate the boundaries of our relationships as I increasingly find myself in the role of therapist or social worker for these women. Although they do not ask me for money, most of the women on the street view me as a potential ally who can help solve their personal problems. Most of the time I simply lend my ear, give advice when asked, and offer sympathetic words--they seem to value this emotional support and I’m very happy to give it.

Recently more and more of the women approach me with much bigger problems to solve. They don’t just want emotional support, but also my help as a gringa who might be able to wield a lot of power for them. For instance, one woman confided in me that her son had just discovered he was HIV positive. She wanted to know what she should do—what kind of care could he receive, which hospital should he go to, etc. etc. She asked if I could find him free treatment somewhere. I’m not sure why she thought I would be able to navigate the health care system better than herself as a native Ecuadorian but in this case, I happened to have information to help her—I had attended a conference on HIV in Ecuador a few months ago and had been in touch with several NGOs dedicated to helping people living with HIV and AIDS. I was able to give her the phone numbers of several NGOs and health hotlines she could call to look for further care.

Another woman recently asked if I could help her find an NGO that would fund an operation to fix her “dead arm,” as she calls it, resulting from a beating when she was about 16. She had been living on the streets and two men robbed, raped, and beat her, leaving her to die. Miraculously, she survived, after spending many months in the hospital, but due to her economic circumstances she never had the proper operations she needed to fully recuperate. Now 15 years later, her arm still hangs limply by her side. She keeps it tucked behind her purse so people won’t notice it. As she asked me for this help, she had started to tear up and I felt so badly. I did not know any NGOs, international or otherwise, who might be able to help her. I lamely told her, “yes, I’ll see what I can do,” but I knew that chances were slim that I’d be able to assist her.

As the women ask be for advice, or for direct requests I try to keep in mind my boundaries. As an anthropologist I am not here to save anyone, despite the temptation. I keep reminding myself that I’m not a social worker or a therapist. I’m simply an observer. It’s extremely difficult not to get emotionally entangled in my informants’ personal lives. I find myself about to offer advice, but then I catch myself and hold back. I try not to give my opinion about their problems unless they are adamant on receiving it. If they are insistent, I offer my viewpoint but I always feel uncomfortable when I “play therapist” because I want to avoid the role of “white savior.” How do I deal with this? I’ve had to learn how to say no. It’s terrifying to tell an informant that I can’t help her, but I’m forced to take the chance that she’ll never talk to me again (or hate me forever). I’ve only tried it out a few times (saying No) so far, but I know I’m at a critical point where I need to become comfortable with the practice.

Recently, when I’ve worked up the nerve to say no to requests, (I always make up a very diplomatic answer), I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results. It turns out that my informants don’t seem to hate me forever when I’m not able to come through for them—they seem to understand that I have my limitations as a person too. That perhaps I have a difficult life as well or don’t have the necessary resources (despite the fact that I’m gringa) to help them with certain things, as they once thought. Indeed I believe that it makes our relationship more “equal” (although I recognize that it will never be equal) or at least more “authentic.” I want them to see me as a person with flaws and problems, just like anyone else. I don’t want them to depend on me for help in critical moments. I’m happy to offer my sympathetic words, but I have to be vigilant to remain an anthropologist, and not a therapist or social worker, despite the close relationships I’ve formed with these women(and despite their insistence that I play these roles for them).

Monday, May 24, 2010

24 de Mayo

It seems appropriate to write about “24 de Mayo,” a central pedestrian boulevard in Quito’s historic center, since today is May 24th, a national holiday celebrating one of the most important battles of Ecuador’s independence. It has always been an important, historical street, decorated with statues honoring the famous battle that occurred just outside of Quito. As the historic center fell into disrepair over the 20th century, “24 de Mayo” became the location of the red-light district from the 1950s until 2001, when Mayor Paco Moncayo shut down all the brothels in order to “gentrify” the area. 24 de Mayo was not only home to the city’s brothels, but was also a bustling thoroughfare with numerous stores, an open air street market where you could literally buy any service or good under the sun (sex, drugs, arms, stolen electronics, used clothes, kitchen supplies, religious icons). It also served as a prime “hang out” place in El Centro, especially for those individuals who exist on the fringes of society. It provided a collective public space where everyone and anyone felt welcome. All types of illicit activities occurred in broad daylight on Boulevard 24 de Mayo because the police couldn’t be bothered to enforce the law there (perhaps they saw it as a lost-cause?) 24 de Mayo was also a residential area with many families and young children. Although it had a dangerous reputation, it had a true neighborhood feeling, where everyone knew one another.

Unfortunately, 24 de Mayo changed dramatically due to the draconian measures implemented by the government for the sake of “gentrification.” First in the mid-1990s, the open air market was shut down. In fact, all the markets of the historic center were pushed into indoor spaces in order to “sanitize” the streets and to create a more tourist-friendly ambiance. In 2001, the city closed down the brothels, which not only employed hundreds of women but also generated significant income for many business owners. In fact, when the brothels and bars closed, many small businesses folded since they depended on 24 de Mayo’s thriving nightlife for their survival. As the prostitutes and their clients moved out, 24 de Mayo became a ghost town at night, in stark contrast to its 30-year history as Quito’s prime destination for night-life. Ironically, although the municipal government removed the brothels in order to cut down on its associated delinquency (this assumed connection between prostitution and delinquency is a topic I will elaborate on in another entry), they actually created more opportunities for illicit drug traffic to flourish. At least when the brothels existed and crowds of people came to the neighborhood on weekend nights, certain informal security measures were in place.

In addition to these changes, urban plans included the redesign of the boulevard itself-- the city made the unfortunate decision to remove all of its shrubbery and trees to cover the area with slabs of concrete. Although the idea was to create a larger space more conducive to social gatherings, they did not include benches for people to sit and congregate (perhaps in reality the city wanted to discourage people from hanging out). This once bustling thoroughfare turned into a freakishly empty concrete slab. No one hangs out on 24 de Mayo anymore. Despite the attempts to make it “tourist-friendly” I have yet to meet a tourist who actually wants to visit 24 de Mayo. There are statues of independence and a gorgeous view of Quito’s southern outskirts, but little more to attract tourists. Perhaps it is “cleaner” and more gentrified because the “sketchy” people and the brothels have vanished, but the city made a mistake in its new design. It hadn’t anticipated the failure of business or the disappearance of all social life--to avoid these pitfalls, it should have included the residents’ and business owners’ needs in its plans.

I’m not the only one to view the redesign and gentrification of 24 de Mayo as a complete failure. In today’s paper, El Comercial (5/23/2010), there was an interesting article about the abandonment of 24 de Mayo by business owners and residents alike. The article also discussed the “new” 24 de Mayo as a place that has lost its soul. It once had a thriving radio station based on the lively anecdotes and daily narratives of the boulevard, but that has long since shut down. Even though the city’s goal was to attract tourists and Ecuadorians of a higher social class to the area, either as new residents or simply as visitors, the few people one sees on 24 de Mayo are still individuals on society’s margins: addicts, lone prostitutes, beggars, and drunks. They stand out even more now because so few people hang out in the area. The arrival of a police station on the boulevard pushed the still thriving drug trade further underground. Obviously the city had not anticipated transformation of 24 de Mayo into a ghost town--I can’t imagine that they are pleased with the results. Instead of improving conditions, the municipal government eliminated an egalitarian public space used by the city’s poor and marginalized citizens. As also seen by the ongoing battle to get rid of El Centro’s street prostitution, public spaces are becoming increasingly exclusive places, reserved for “decent” people (not for prostitutes or any other “fallen” characters).

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mother's Day

We had the most amazing Mother’s Day celebration with the sex workers. We each pitched in $5 and bought lots of snacks, two cakes with “Happy Mother’s Day” written across them in looping cursive, and most importantly, lots of alcohol. The women had been discussing the party for weeks beforehand and we finally settled on a date. It would be on the Friday afternoon before Mother’s Day since many of the women travel back to their families on the coast to be with their children (for those who haven’t brought their kids to Quito yet). The party was a women-only affair, with men strictly banned. They enlisted my help to document the event with my camera.

It was one of the best parties I have ever attended here. They turned the upstairs lobby of the hotel into their party spot. There was a true sense of camaraderie and friendship among the women, despite the petty disputes that sometimes exist on the street. They even ordered a Mexican style mariachi band to play soulful songs about motherhood. Many of the women started to cry and turned to one another with hugs and kisses. I also welled up and couldn’t help but share their sorrow. Many of them, especially the Colombian women, live far from their children and as such, do not see them often. I sensed another (unspoken) source of sadness in the fact that all of them have decided to work in the sex industry because they are mothers. Indeed, I am told this repeatedly, that these women work as prostitutes to support their children. It shows that they will go to any extreme to support them. However, I don’t get the sense that they resent their children for “making” them work as prostitutes. It was more a feeling of wistfulness and an acceptance of their situation. I sensed sadness but also a collective strength as the women drank and danced together. Their ability to have fun together, without men, seemed to speak to a greater independence they feel as strong women who can survive anything, even their work as prostitutes. It was incredibly empowering as each of them made riveting speeches about their roles as mothers and why it doesn’t matter that they are “putas” (whores) in this life. Many spoke about religion and their faith in God, and took comfort in His vigilance over them. They agreed that God forgives them for their work, that He sees them for who they really are: as devoted mothers who sacrifice themselves for their children.

After the mariachi band left, the women presented a banner to F., the oldest sex worker of them all. She is in her 70s and is still working strong on the streets. They placed the red banner around her chest like a beauty pageant queen. In silver glittering letters it stated, “Symbolic Mother.” Not only is she a mother with many of her own children, but she is also the symbolic mother of all the sex workers. It was a complete surprise to her and upon receiving the banner, F. started to cry, as did many of the women. For her to honored by the younger women must have been incredibly powerful since the rest of society looks upon them as diseased, fallen women. Sex workers are stigmatized and viewed as social lepers. The fact that the younger women view F., who has worked in the industry for the longest time and therefore has coped with years upon years of discrimination and abuse, as a hero inverts wider society’s power structure. It turns patriarchal hierarchies on its head, which is why this celebration of motherhood among the sex workers was so moving. They were celebrating each other’s simultaneous roles as mothers and putas, as each lifted her glass to a new toast. The women engaged in the traditional drinking practice in which everyone drinks from one glass. It is passed around and refilled at every turn and you are expected to drain the glass each time it comes around. It reminds me of taking communion in church where we all drink “Christ’s blood” from the same goblet.

Even the owner of the hostel joined in. The women made a toast to her and to her support. She made an equally moving speech about how although they are sex workers, these women should be honored and recognized like any other mother. Again, I believe it is incredibly important for these women to receive such validation from someone outside of the sex industry, although one could argue that she is truly an insider since she runs the hotel/brothel where they work. She earns her money through their work as each client pays her $3 for a bed. Perhaps she is a “Madam” in some respects. Anyway, she didn’t need to make a speech or join in the celebration. She seemed to identify with the women as she shed a few tears as well. After all, she’s a mother too. I’d imagine that all mothers must share a certain bond. The other owner is a man, perhaps a family member of the woman. He showed his support of the women by bringing more and more cases of beer.

Our celebration was not just a drunken reverie. It was a profound expression of both the joy and sorrow these women experience in their daily lives. This party solidified the bond these women, not just as mothers, but as prostitutes who face similar stigmatization and discrimination from wider society. Their feelings of shame, that each one has expressed to me privately, had the chance to evaporate in this collective space where they celebrated each other. They could feel good about being sex workers and about being mothers who are willing to go to extremes to support their children. I’m thankful that we spent a day honoring these women and acknowledging their hard work—work so difficult and emotionally taxing that most of us could never do it. These women are true heroes, despite wider society’s dismissal of them.

Subjectivities of fear

My very first blog entry written last September was about the dangers of living in Quito. I wrote about my third night here when someone was shot in front of my apartment building. I also told of the tragic murder of a French woman in the nearby neighborhood of Guapalo. I dedicated this first entry to the fear I felt living here. Everyone kept warning me that Quito has become an “incredibly dangerous” city and it felt like they were right. However, when I lived here ten years ago people said the exact same thing so I keep wondering if it’s really that much more dangerous than before. Unfortunately, events in the news and my friends’ anecdotes remind me that indeed Quito’s violent crimes are at an all time high.

Despite the steady crime rate, I have undergone a remarkable transformation. I have learned that I cannot live with a heightened sense of fear all the time. It’s just not sustainable. In my first month, I used to walk down the hill to catch the trolley bus with a pounding heart. I would glance behind, in front of, and to the sides of me every few minutes. I would practically run down the stairs that have been built into the steep hill. Once on the trolleybus I would hug my bag tightly to my chest, peering into the faces around me with suspicion. Everyone was a potential mugger. I walked swiftly to my research site in the historic center from La Marin, the bus depot, terrified that someone would assault me on my way. I never flagged down taxis from the street, instead always calling for them. I never walked alone after dark, ever. I certainly did not stay at my field site after dark either. Known to be dangerous during the day, at night it gets even tougher.

So what happened? Quite frankly, I became tired. I got lazy. A bit sloppy. Perhaps it’s human nature. It’s exhausting to be on high alert. Sometimes I don’t feel like going though the effort of calling a taxi when I see a free one on the street. Or perhaps I don’t have any minutes left on my cell phone to call a cab. Whatever the excuse, I don’t always take the same precautions. Nor do I want to. I recognize the danger in my current position—i.e. the danger in no longer feeling danger. My guard is down and that’s exactly when I am most vulnerable, but what’s the other option? To live in constant fear? That’s not much fun. When I first arrived, I carried terrible anxiety with me every time I left my apartment. It is natural to let go of my fear, after all, I have created a home for myself here. I don’t think I could live anywhere where I feel constant danger.

However, I must constantly remind myself that this is an illusion of safety. My “feelings” are simply not accurate. The crime rate hasn’t changed. It’s as high as ever. The stories of muggings, druggings, kidnappings, murders, etc. continue to dominate the press. Quito is no safer than the day I arrived, but I have changed. I truly believe that I am safer. I walk with confidence. I don’t look like your average tourist, despite my gringo appearance. I speak Spanish fluently. I know the dangers around me. Perhaps my newly found confidence is a deterrent to potential robbers. I know what I’m doing, where I’m going and walk as if I live here. More than anything, I’ve decided that I can’t live in fear. I have decided that if and when “it” happens, there’s nothing I can do to prevent “it.” It will happen. Despite occasional slipups, I still try to avoid walking alone after dark. However, recently I walked home five blocks in the pitch dark. Did I feel scared? Yes. At the end I broke into a trot, but I arrived at home safely. It simply wasn’t my time (yet).

Perhaps part of my heightened feelings of safety comes from the comfort I feel at my field site, one of the most dangerous areas of the city. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, in my “turf” people have got my back. Not just any people, but the very persons that under other circumstances might be my perpetrators. However, I receive daily reminders that nothing will happen to me under their watch. Even today, walking back to the corner from lunch, two of the women and one of their boyfriends (a very tough guy), joked with me and said, “Not to worry Anita, as long as you’re around here, we’re your bodyguards.” I feel safer with them in this part of town than I do in my own neighborhood where no one watches out for me. Indeed, I live in one of the most elite areas of Quito, known for muggings. When I’m doing my neighborhood errands I feel completely alone. There are no groups of unemployed men (employed by illicit activities) always hanging around, keeping an eye out for their gringa friend.

The subjectivity of fear fascinates me. It depends on time and space as my constantly shifting feelings show. It is bizarre that I feel most comfortable in the supposedly most dangerous part of the city, but I’ve learned that once you become part of a community, the place where that group hangs out becomes a safe haven, regardless how “objectively” dangerous it is. Again, I feel safer in El Centro than in my own neighborhood, which is supposedly much safer. My friends would never hang out on the streets where I work, nor should they because as unknowns in the area they would be targets. Unfortunately, my “bodyguards” only exist in a tiny fraction of the city and as they say, they can’t protect me if I drift even two blocks in any direction from them. It doesn’t give me much geographic room but at least I have a (small) patch of space in the city where I feel completely safe. In the meantime, I try not to let my guard down in any part of the city, especially in areas where I feel safe.


Chulo is the term used for pimp in Ecuador. The majority of the women I work with do not have chulos. Mostly they are single mothers working to support their children, treating their job in the sex industry like any other. This is partly because I work with women who only prostitute during the day. They arrive at 10am and are home by 6:00pm to cook dinner and put their children to bed. Many of the women with chulos are involved with drugs work mostly at night. They often work to support their own and their boyfriend’s drug habits. Some of the women with chulos don’t work for drugs, but to maintain the lifestyles of their partners. Often they admit that they are also helping maintain his other family with another woman. However, I’ve never met a sex worker who earns enough on the streets to provide anything but the basics for her partner (i.e. food and rent).

At first it was difficult for me to recognize certain men as chulos. My image of chulos comes from sensationalized Hollywood films that depict violent, abusive relationships: men who victimize younger, drug-addicted women. Without a doubt, these situations are also common in Ecuador. However, I’m more familiar with chulo-sex worker relationships that fall into a grey area. For example, one woman, H., tells me that she finds it empowering to be the bread-winner of her household. She takes pride in the fact that her partner doesn’t have to work and that she treats him like a king. She rushes to bring him lunch in bed and buy him new clothes during the day. He stays with their children in the hotel while she is on the street corner all day. The other women don’t respect H. and always refer to her partner as a “chulo.” But at the same time, they also admit that she seems to thoroughly enjoy her role of bread-winner. He does not work except to engage in the occasional petty crime. Perhaps she feels empowered by his economic dependence on her?

Over time, I have begun to view her partner as a chulo simply because H. seems scared of him. Although her chulo does not fit certain Hollywood stereotypes, as he is neither a drug addict or physically abusive (as far as I can tell), he does seem emotionally abusive and disrespectful. I notice a radical difference in H.’s behavior depending on whether or not he is around. When he’s away, H. brightens up and laughs easily, but as soon as he returns she becomes withdrawn and quiet. Typical of any abusive relationship, H. seems to have mixed feelings about him; when he’s gone she misses him, but when he’s around she complains and even seems fearful. For example, she won’t even accompany us to lunch because she’s worried he’ll need her during that time. H’s chulo is only in Quito for a couple days every week, to gather H.’s earnings, or at least that’s what they other women say. He openly maintains another relationship with another woman on the coast and so he divides his time between these two families. Everyone gossips about it, including H. She realizes that part of her earnings help support his other children, but again, it does not seem to bother her. Or perhaps it bothers her but she has no power to change the situation. Perhaps she accepts the circumstances because she is scared to leave him, which is another characteristic of an abusive relationship. H. is never straightforward with me when I ask about her partner. She’s always careful to maintain a positive attitude about him even when I have provocatively asked, “H. why do you stay with him? I never see you smile when he’s around. ” She always laughs such questions off and says things like, “Ah Anita, it’s not such a big deal. We understand each other.”

The other women are deeply dismissive of H.’s relationship. Some of them make scathing remarks behind her back, noting that she is a weak, submissive woman trapped in an abusive relationship. They view her partner, without a doubt, as one of the worst chulos around. For me, it was tough to spot at first because H. seems so adamant about enjoying her role as breadwinner. Perhaps both are true? That although she is emotionally dependent on her partner, she also takes some pride in her partner’s economic dependence on her. It is an exchange of some sorts. Furthermore, H.’s chulo did not force her into prostitution—she was already working on the streets when she met him, which also made me question his role as a traditional chulo. Like H., none of the women I work with claim to have a chulo, even though other women will tell me otherwise. I can’t imagine why a woman would admit to having a chulo because doing so would be admitting that she’s in an abusive relationship. Indeed, often part of such a relationship is not recognizing that you’re in it. Denial is a powerful coping mechanism.

I don’t believe these women with chulos are weak. Nor can they simply be dismissed as victims. Instead, they are making the most of their difficult life circumstances. Without a doubt, chulos provide a certain amount of protection due to the machismo that exists in Ecuador. To be a “true” man here, one must protect and defend his woman. If another man touches her, you must prove your manhood, which usually means punishing him with physical force. These protective instincts expected of men in Ecuadorian society are useful to sex workers who work under extremely dangerous circumstances. H.’s chulo keeps a close eye on her and would probably be the first to notice if she got into a sketchy situation with a client. I could understand why H.’s chulo’s overprotective tendencies might be comforting to H, given the serious dangers present in her work. I wish that more of the sex workers had supportive, kind partners rather than chulos, but survival often comes with a price.