Perhaps when one thinks of sex workers, modesty is not the first thing that comes to mind but among the women, it is obsessed over. For example, the older sex workers are horrified by the how the younger sex workers dress with their short skirts and busting cleavage. The women often gossip about each other’s outfits and they tend to call skimpily dressed workers “putas” (whores). It’s a fascinating comment considering they’re all sex workers and therefore could all be called “putas.” Indeed, the terms they call one another are very important. “Prostitute” or “sex worker” are terms of respect, while the word “puta” is truly an insult reserved for women who occupy the lowest rung of the sex worker street hierarchy. Not only do they call women who are viewed as slutty “putas,” but they also call women who prostitute to support drug habits “putas.” “Decent” women who work the streets are called prostitutes or sex workers. They tend to be attentive mothers who live with their children, go home to make dinner, attend church on Sundays and have stable partners who work in the legal sector (not pimps). My friend V. is a perfect example of a sex worker the other women consider decent and honorable: she lives with and cares for her three children, her husband of nine years works in a factory, she goes to church, and runs her household efficiently (pays bills on time, etc, ). The other women would never refer to V. as a “puta.” To them, she does not fit that category because V. treats sex work as a “real” job, not as an act of desperation. It seems like “putas” are women who have been forced into prostitution either to support a drug habit or by a chulo (pimp).
These different terms used for prostitution indicate the hierarchy that exists among the women. The terms “prostitute” and “sex worker” seem to be used interchangeably as respectful references. The women accept their work in the sex industry, obviously, it’s not a secret (among each other) that they’re all sex workers. “Puta” is a derogatory term because it conjures up society’s worst images of what it means to be a prostitute: a social pariah who exists on the margins of society. “Putas” manifest biblical representations of prostitutes, which Latin America society interprets as “fallen women.” Indeed, according to traditional gender mores, the lowest a woman can fall is to sell her body. Such a woman, like Mary Magdalena in the Bible, is in desperate need of salvation since to prostitute oneself is one of the greatest sins a Catholic woman can commit. It challenges all the virtues of modesty and decency that must by definition, be part of any respectable woman’s character.
It’s fascinating that some sex workers still try to attain these values of respectability and decency despite the fact, that by definition, they will always be viewed as “putas” by the rest of society. Perhaps the rest of society doesn’t see a distinction between the various women working on the street, but in reality, among themselves the lines are sharply drawn. Most Latin American women, as in other places around the world, aspire to decency and respectability--most people don’t realize that sex workers do too. They want to be considered respectable, despite their identities as sex workers. Prostitutes and nuns are two professions in which the general population feels are all-encompassing, in which the women in these sectors do not have identities external to their occupational roles. Obviously, this is not true. The women I work with identify themselves as mothers first and foremost before identifying as sex workers. The rest of society would most likely identify them in the reverse order—as sex workers first and foremost, and then as mothers (if they would even recognize their maternal role). Indeed to be simultaneously a mother and prostitute in Latin America is inherently oppositional. As viewed in the Bible, mothers are revered as saints and in fact, to be viewed as a “complete” woman in this society one must become a mother. On the other hand, it would be a contradiction in terms for a prostitute to be a mother. If mothers are saintly and prostitutes are the lowest a woman can fall, how can such a dual, contradictory identity be reconciled?
I’ve had numerous conversations with the sex workers on this topic: how they are mothers who are truly revered in Latin American society, but at the same time, face stigmatization as the worst sinners possible. It’s a difficult balancing act and my hypothesis is that many of the women, like V., try to compensate for their stigmatized identity by obtaining respectability and decency to the highest extent possible in the other parts of their lives. They are good mothers, attend church regularly, generally follow the rules, and try to be outstanding citizens in every respect. They are good, decent, and respectable women who would never fit the Ecuadorian category of “puta.” In addition, they avoid becoming “putas” by wearing the most modest clothes possible (that will still signal them as sex workers) on the streets.