Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Cup Madness

Living in Ecuador, like living in any other Latin American country at the moment, means everything stops for the World Cup. Even though Ecuador did not qualify this year (they did four years ago and did fairly well), all Ecuadorians are obsessed with the tournament. During the day, I walk by bars and lunch cafeterias packed with people watching the games. I hear the buzz and commentary of the announcers on every corner, bus, taxi radio, friend’s television and store I enter. Even if I wanted to avoid the games, it would be impossible. Since football is an ingrained part of the culture here, the World Cup, as the most important football event in the world, creates a mild frenzy, to put it mildly.

World Cup mania means that the sex workers suffer. Their potential clients are glued to the television and radios, distracted by football, they forget about sex. All the women have told me that since the World Cup began their business has taken a significant hit. Groups of men are gathered inside and indeed, it is shocking to notice the difference in foot traffic on the streets. During a big game between two Latin American teams like Mexico vs. Argentina or Brazil vs. Chile, forget about it—Quito becomes a ghost town. It is socially acceptable to stay home from work if a big game is on. They women are taking a significant pay cut while the tournament is on. When I spoke to them yesterday, their major litanies were about the World Cup and why men are so obsessed with football. It’s a legitimate question. Many anthropologists have written about the connection between football fanaticism and masculinity in Latin America, as if being an ardent fan is a way to establish one’s manhood. But then again, so is being sexually active. The development of masculine identity and visiting prostitutes are also strongly linked, which is why many fathers or uncles bring their young male family members to sex workers at a young age as a rite of passage to “make them a man.” But I guess when it comes to the World Cup, this international tournament trumps sexual activity.

The women gathered in circles asking one another when the World Cup ends. Some of them have been following the tournament and participating in the fanfare. They have their favorite teams and arch enemies. Indeed, some of the women seem just as distracted by the games as their potential clients. Although, I haven’t seen any of them leave the street for an extended period to watch a game. They usually pop in and out of stores to check the scores. Many of the games seem to be during the day during men’s lunch breaks so instead of spending lunch with their preferred sex worker, they are spending it at their favorite bar. Many of the women are taking mini vacations during the tournament because business is so slow. They hope that once the tournament ends things will pick up. They will often stay home when an important game is screening because it’s just not worth standing on the corner, risking a full day without even one punto. They feel their time will be better spent taking care of their children, cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry at home.

It seems like on these slow days, the women spend most of their time socializing with one another. They are likely to spend the entire day in pairs or groups, sitting on steps, buying ice-cream and other treats, being silly and laughing together. However, I don’t want to idealize their friendships, on more than one occasion women have confided in me and said they have no “true” friends on the street, only work companions. Indeed, rivalries exist and the women hang out in segregated groups, mostly split between the women who are addicts, supporting their habits (who often have pimps), and those who don’t do drugs and treat their work as a 9-5 job. Even though I feel like a neutral presence, I feel more accepted and welcomed by certain groups over others, even though all women greet me warmly and are willing to make small talk. On these long, slow days, the women get incredibly bored. They sit and gossip, often about one another, behind each other’s backs. The women who do manage to land puntos on these slow days are envied. Many take extra long lunch breaks and find themselves watching the games as well, as these matches are impossible to avoid in any public venue.

The World Cup ends in a couple weeks, much to the women’s relief. Hopefully, their slump in business is indeed related to football mania and not to other factors. We’ll see when the tournament ends and more of their potential clients return to the streets as regular passer-bys. It has been an interesting study in the gendered division of public versus private spaces. Even though private spaces tend to be identified as “women’s spaces,” during the football tournaments, private spaces become dominated by men. It’s an interesting inversion of gender dynamics. The sex workers represent a powerful challenge to the traditionally masculine identity of public space since women and their sexuality are normally relegated to the private sphere. Interestingly, the World Cup has shed light on these inversions of gendered private versus public spaces.

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