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.