Without a doubt I am in a transition period with my fieldwork. I was gently told by my advisors at NYU over the holidays that I was ready to start writing my dissertation. Daunting news, to say the least, I find myself confused and not sure where to begin. As my blog entries demonstrate, I have immersed myself in the world of sex workers in Quito’s historical center. I am in a privileged position, not really in a place to complain, but am overwhelmed by all the information I have gathered about these women’s lives. The proposal I came to the field with has changed significantly, as it is supposed to, as one becomes more familiar with the on-the-ground dynamics of one’s fieldsite. I came to the field with the idea of studying how street prostitution in Quito is regulated since it falls under a legal grey area of jurisdiction. Prostitution between consenting adults has always been legal in Ecuador, as in most of Latin America, but it should exist behind closed doors. Brothels are strictly regulated and must have a license, which is very expensive to renew (to be done annually). The written laws about brothels are crystal clear and the government prefers that prostitution exist only within these closed locations.
Where does that leave street prostitution? Technically it is not illegal. In reality, there are no written laws referring to street prostitution. In my opinion this is because it’s too difficult to put strict parameters on it and furthermore, it is impossible to enforce. There are dozens or more unregulated “hotels” in Quito’s historic center that serve as brothels but have avoided the expensive bureaucracy of becoming legal. They operate undercover, as “hotels” and although women stream in and out of these places all day with clients, police have a frustrating time trying to prove that they are actually brothels. I recently spoke with the owner of Hotel Aztec, where the women on my corner service their clients and he told me defiantly, “I have no control over what actually happens in my rooms—it’s none of my business and to deny entry to these women would violate their civil rights.” Obviously he knows exactly what happens in his hotel rooms because every time a woman enters with a client, the client’s bed fee of $3 includes a condom and a stack of paper towels.
Although there is no law stating that these women cannot work on the streets they are constantly harassed by police over other types of infringements, like loitering. The women claim they are not loitering because they are working. It becomes a vicious, ridiculous cycle—the police find any reason at all to clear the streets, but usually the women have been tipped off and take cover in near-by stores or in the hotel itself to hide until the police have left the area. The police view street prostitution as a nuisance more than anything else and don’t have the power to either shut down the hotel or herd the women to prison. That’s not exactly true because they often perform “operatives” where they stop each woman on the street and search her for drugs. In a radical new law to avoid placing drug addicts in jail, one is now allowed to carry a small amount of drugs (any type of drug) on one’s person for personal consumption. But these amounts also fall into grey areas and some police claim that the person is carrying more than the defined amount, solely to bring a woman to jail. Often during “operatives” when the police are determined to sweep the streets they illegally bring all the women to jail—at least the ones they can get their hands on. For the most part these women, even though they have the right to be on the streets, long disappear by the time police show up in their vans.
I am still interested in this messy situation of how street prostitution is regulated because it is so arbitrary and clear laws don’t exist to protect these women’s rights to work. The only reason why the police try to get these women off the streets is due to the complaints of the residents in the neighborhood. For instance, their presence is offensive to the schoolchildren in the area who must walk by them on the way to and fro from school. The residents complain, call the police and so then the police must act. It gets complicated because some of the police have developed personal relationships with the sex workers (some of them are loyal clients). I think the police are mostly apathetic towards street prostitution but because these women are viewed as a public menace, whose sexuality must be confined to private spaces, they are forced to take action.
Once in a while, the police do close down the hotel where the prostitutes work. They fine the owner for all sorts of obscure reasons, but it’s nearly impossible to catch the women in the act to prove that prostitution is happening there—even though everyone, the residents, store keepers and the police know that this hotel is a brothel. Yes, women and their clients enter and exit the hotel all day in increments of 15 minutes but as the owner says, who knows what’s happening in his rooms. A bit silly really—but the police must find other reasons to shut down the hotel—things that have to do with obscure red-tape about running a hotel.
My thesis was to prove that women’s sexuality must be confided to closed, private spaces and I think I have enough evidence to prove that. But aside from the regulation of prostitution, I’ve learned much about these women’s personal lives. It’s now the time to focus on one argument I can make about these women. I have been drawn into their lives and now find myself wanting to write about how sex workers’ identities are conceptualized. This is not so different from my “original” topic of how street prostitution is regulation but for example, I’ve learned so much about how different groups of society view these women. And most importantly, how they view themselves. They view themselves as hardworking mothers who have chosen this occupation over other low-paying jobs given their education level. They could work as domestic servants and earn $240 a month or work in the street and earn double that amount. Some groups view these women as social pariahs, especially the new business owners in the neighborhood who want to gentrify the area and attract more tourism. The old-time business owners, who have had stores in the neighborhood for generations view these women favorably—also as hard-working mothers. Most of them have developed friendships with the women since many have known each other for 10 or more years.
For me it’s a fascinating conflict of identity that these women must juggle. In Latin America mothers are venerated as saints—indeed, to be a “complete” woman here, one must be a mother (I have no children and therefore, have been told literally dozens of times that I’m not a woman yet). At the same time, prostitutes represent “fallen” women, partly due to biblical undertones referring to Mary Magdalene. It is inconceivable in this Catholic country that these sex workers could also be good mothers—or that mothers could be sex workers, when in fact, as I’ve said many times, I have yet to meet a sex worker who is not a mother. The reason why they’re on the street is to provide for their children. They are single mothers whose partners have deserted them and have turned to the streets to work. But these women are incredibly conflicted about what they do. They yearn for acceptance from greater society and feel incredibly guilty that they turn tricks for a living.
In my thesis I would like to focus on these struggles of identity and what it means to be a mother in Latin America. One observation that will serve for my thesis is that, in my opinion, many of these women hope to restore their “honor” through their children. Many of them bring their children to church on Sundays, are strict with them about their homework and do everything within their means to ensure their children’s success in life. They are fighting with all their means to prevent their children from ending up on the streets like themselves. Perhaps I will start there, with that premise….