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The sex industry is not only one of the most controversial in the world, and one of the most profitable, but also one of the most enigmatic in terms of the legal and ideological debates that surround it. Prostitution -whether considered legal or illegal, moral or immoral, legitimate or illegitimate (or any combination of these)- is present in virtually all countries and in all societies. It has existed as a political, social, and governmental issue, arguably, since the beginning of civilisation and continues to pose poignant questions.
The international community has adopted different approaches for addressing prostitution at the state level, influenced heavily by the ideologies of its respective cultures and related interpretations of gender issues, and of sex work in particular. Governments develop these postures -prohibition, abolition, regulation, or total decriminalisation- as formal benchmark ideologies so that corresponding legislation and implementation might follow accordingly.
Argentina is officially an ‘abolitionist’ country. Although prostitutes are not persecuted, under this heading, the driving factors that promote and sustain the sex industry should be addressed via public policy, so that one day they will be eradicated. The stance is based on the fundamental vision that prostitution should not have to exist as a means for survival, but those who work in the industry within the current cultural context should be free to work as they please.
Thus, individual prostitution is legal in Argentina, while any sort of prostitución ajena, or external prostitution is illegal, i.e. prostitution via pimping and/or in brothels. Ideally, legislation drafted by abolitionist countries should allow for investigation and oversight of the industry to ensure that only voluntary prostitution exists.
As a nationally dictated benchmark, the abolitionist stance leaves most technical interpretation (and subsequent legislation and application) to the discretion of the Argentine provinces, whose cultures and political stances vary.
Renowned activist Lohana Berkins explains that in the debate concerning prostitution in Argentina, “there are three stances: regulation, prohibition, and abolition,” with the most vehement arguments heard from the first two groups. Though they differ in response to the question of prostitution as a legitimate form of work and other ideological issues, all agree there is much to be done both socially and politically with respect to the matter and that practical implementation of legal measures must be improved.
The Regulation Position
Main idea: According to the regulation stance, individual and elected prostitution should be legal, regulated with state policies, and formally recognised as a legitimate form of work. Within the current abolitionist context, advocates of regulation call for an end to the discrimination and prejudices that leave sex workers vulnerable and without the state protection and rights allotted to all other workers (ie. healthcare, political acceptance, governmental recognition of unions, etc.). Though they recognise the sex industry’s link with forced prostitution and cooperate with efforts to abolish such networks, they assert that not all sex workers are victims of trafficking, and that prostitution is, in fact, a legitimate and acceptable choice for some individuals. They believe that chosen sex work can, and should, be extricated from forced prostitution and that the regulation and recognition of individual prostitution would facilitate that process.
Main public representative: Association of Women Sex Workers in Argentina in Action for Our Rights (AMMAR).
AMMAR was founded in 1994 and joined the Argentine Workers’ Union (CTA) organisation a year later, deciding that this would be the only logical way to gain the rights and responsibilities of all other workers in the country. According to their website, “AMMAR is a trade union formed by sex workers in Argentina to fight against the violations of our rights to health, work, education, documentation, and housing.”
More than anything, they “fight fundamentally for the freedom to work”. The group explains, “We believe that it is necessary to attain the dignified conditions needed to do our work and in this way to break out of clandestine (situations) that constantly endanger us. For this reason we organised ourselves into a union.”
As it sees sex work as a valid profession, AMMAR requests that the same treatment given to other workers be applied to prostitutes, including conceeding the right to retirement pensions. It campaigns for an end to social and legal discrimination against them and asserts that moralising about what is suitable or not for women to do is not acceptable grounds for denying them acknowledgement and acceptance.
The Abolition Side
Main idea: The abolitionist stance is the most widely accepted in regards to prostitution within Argentina and is aligned with the government’s official standpoint. This group, which is itself divided into micro-sectors, fundamentally differs from the regulatory one in that while it accepts that willing prostitutes should remain free from government persecution, it does not recognise prostitution as a legitimate form of work and opposes government recognition of it as a reasonable profession. At the same time, most abolitionists are in favour of the creation of public policies that allow sex workers to live and work in peace. However, abolitionists believe that the population of willing sex workers, one uninfluenced by any economic or personal factors is minuscule, and that recognising the activity as a job would be detrimental to trafficking victims and others obligated to work in the industry.
Public spokespeople: Among others, the transgendered community and anti-trafficking groups.
Berkins explains that as a trans activist, the official recognition of prostitution as work “is the one thing we oppose completely… this is an inflexible point.”
For her, the regulatory stance poses grave implications for the transgendered community that is often obligated to engage in sex work for lack of other job opportunities. “Because for transgendered people, (prostitution) is imposed on us by the state (…) For us it’s not a choice -we’re abolitionists. We want the government to recognise this, first with (the acknowledgement of) our own identities (within the industry) and also by generating clear public policies.”
The strong connection of prostitution with human trafficking also pushes forth the abolitionist cause. Proponents emphasise the abolitionist call for social and cultural changes to wipe out the sex industry entirely. They see forced prostitution as the main component of the sex industry that is only supplemented by willing sex workers.
Viviana Caminos, director of the National Network Against Human Trafficking (RATT Argentina) describes what she sees as an inextricable link between prostitution and sex slavery: the basic economics of the industry.
“I ask, ‘how can we divide human trafficking from prostitution?’ It’s practically impossible! (…) Human trafficking exists because there is demand for women’s bodies for prostitution (…) it has to do with capitalism, the more you have to offer and the less you spend, the more you make. So this is what happens, instead of keeping the 50, 60, or 70% of profits that pimps keep from prostitutes they rent out, they (traffickers) decide to go with 100% of the profit. So they enslave girls -they deceive them and they get those bodies for free, which they can use for the period of time that they want until they are no longer useful.”
Caminos believes there is a very small percentage of sex workers who join the industry by their own impartial decision, those called in Argentina ‘VIP’ or ‘la elite’. “That fantasy that people prostitute themselves to pay for their studies or something (…) it could actually happen, but it’s an extremely small statistic.”
As an abolitionist, Caminos furthered that her organisation does not consider prostitutes as having a real occupational choice, but rather a culturally dictated and available option.
Somewhere in Between
Main idea: A true mixture of abolitionism with hints of regulation and maybe even prohibition. This stance is based upon the idea that lawmakers are unequipped to draft legislation, or even form legitimate stances on these issues, without listening to sex workers themselves. They are strongly against the sexual exploitation of women, especially that of forced sex work, but hold that laws should reflect the reality of society and be suited for the people who live and work in situations of prostitution.
Public spokespeople: Among others, CTA.
According to Alejandra Angriman, Secretary of Gender for CTA, “We have different opinions within CTA… we’re not all in favour nor totally against prostitution -there’s no uniformity on the issue nor one united line of thought. What we oppose is the sexual exploitation of women, and what matters to us are the opinions of those people who work in (…) this industry.”
CTA officially accepts the federal stance as abolitionist and respects “the right of the provinces in deciding how to interpret and implement national rulings at the local level,” acknowledging the differences in cultures and positions that produce inconsistencies with respect to prostitution across the country.
Calls for Changes in the Future
The main arguments comprising the prostitution debate in Argentina call for changes in the country, specifically addressing public policy issues and the application of the law.
According to AMMA leader Jorgelina Sosa, although the country has eloquent legislation in place, “in reality there is no political willingness to fulfil it or see it carried out (…) we keep making laws and decrees but always pre-judge the worker.”
Berkins agrees that the ignorance of the opinions of different types of sex workers is a key point to overcome. She believes that it is time for a “serious and profound debate” by the “victims of prostitution” concerning “what is the process, what is the system really like” so that the workers themselves have a voice in the debate.
According to Caminos, there are two main tasks at hand: the implementation of public policies that accompany abolitionist laws and a reform of the justice system. She said, “We need public policies, for example, the creation of more jobs, but this is not just a national issue. The provinces have to start thinking about implementing public policies. I also support the reform of the justice system -we have a misogynistic and classist system. We have seen the sentencing after the trial of Marita Veron. There is impunity in this and other cases of violence (…) that have never come to justice.”
Although debates centre on the legitimacy of prostitution as a profession and how to oversee the sex industry within the abolitionist state of Argentina, all sides seem to agree on various key points regarding the politics of prostitution -especially on the call for more discussion. The debate is well and truly alive.