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 When he’s away, H. brightens up and laughs easily, but as soon as he returns she becomes withdrawn and quiet.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.