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“Prostitution is a relative of hunger… Being whores, sex workers, escorts, sexual servants or whatever you want to label it, we are inhabiting an identity imposed by the fact that we have lost everything.” Sonia Sánchez, founder of AMMAR-Capital, in an excerpt from ‘Ninguna mujer nace para puta’ (No Woman is Born to be a Whore)
I arrive at the Once headquarters of AMMAR-Capital, a human rights-based organisation of prostituted women in Buenos Aires, to find a meeting underway. Ten women between 20 and 60 are sitting around a table, immersed in animated chat. The atmosphere, made comfortable by these women’s shared experiences on the streets of Buenos Aires, changes perceptibly with my entrance. Eyes narrow and smiles freeze as I am shown to a sofa in the sparse adjoining room.
A bright-eyed child of about four plays with me as we wait, pulling toys and scraps, including a torn-up pamphlet about government food aid, from her miniature plastic shopping cart. Suddenly, acting on an unexplained impulse, she leaps to her feet, rushes into the meeting room and shrieks “MAMA, NO!”
Fifteen minutes later, Susana, 36, and Margarita, 56, are sitting before me. Susana’s cherry-red hair and voluptuous cleavage, exposed by a low-cut electric blue top, conform to society’s stereotype. Margarita, who has recently stopped working the streets, wears conservative clothing, no make-up, and the world-weary expression of a mother who has struggled to make ends meet. Both were born in Buenos Aires. Neither aspired to be a prostitute.
In fact, they do not wish to be known as ‘prostitutes’ at all. Along with AMMAR-Capital’s 400-plus members, Susana and Margarita prefer to be called “women in a situation of prostitution”. They did not freely decide to enter prostitution, nor do they see it as a career. For them, it is a means for survival and, ideally, one that’s temporary.
“Before, we were known as the whore. The whore who likes it, who makes a tonne of money, who is happy with what she’s doing. I think we’ve opened peoples’ eyes with all of our campaigns to the person, the human being, to the fact that women in the situation of prostitution [do not end up in that situation] by choice or because they like it,” says Margarita.
Many of the campaigns she is referring to revolved around the 2007 launch of ‘Ninguna mujer nace para puta’, a book co-written by AMMAR-Capital’s Sonia Sánchez and Bolivian activist María Galindo. On 6th June 2007, the two authors led a demonstration in Plaza Once, which they re-baptised “Prostitutes’ Plaza” when hundreds of so-called ‘putas’ gathered there to protest against the exploitation of women.
Though they have helped to spread awareness among the men and non-prostituted women of Buenos Aires, thus far campaigns such as these have failed to rouse the government into action.
Legislation and Corruption
“The government is absent. There are no resources for us … with the hand they sign and with the elbow they erase … Argentina makes promises, but doesn’t do anything to help women get out of the situation … There are no public policies that facilitate reinsertion or offer job training.” Susana and Margarita
To prostitute oneself has been legal in Argentina since 1875.
Today, the Penal Code classifies the promotion, facilitation or third-party exploitation of prostitution as criminal offences.
Though it is not illegal for a woman to sell sexual access to her body, various articles of the Códigos Contravencionales (Regional laws, or ‘Coexistence Codes’) make the act of offering sex a punishable offence.
Until the mid-1990s, these codes gave Buenos Aires police officers the power to arrest people on charges as subjective as ‘a suspicious attitude’ or ‘deviant behaviour’.
This changed when the Constitution of the City of Buenos Aires was written in 1996, thanks in part to the creation in 1995 of AMMAR Nacional, Argentina’s nation-wide union of female sex workers (from which AMMAR-Capital splintered due to ideological differences in 2002).
In other parts of the province of Buenos Aires and the rest of the country, however, these Códigos continue to allow sex workers to be detained by police on vague charges for up to 60 days.
“In the province a girl can be detained for 20, 30, 60 days, whatever the judge decides, or she’ll have to pay … the government doesn’t help them at all,” says Susana. “The man is never charged,” she adds.
According to two specialists in the field, University of Buenos Aires sociologist Santiago Morcillo and Carolina Justo von Lurzer, his doctoral research partner at CONICET (the National Council for Scientific and Natural Research): “What is clear is that these legislations neither offer any protection for people who carry out sexual work nor do they contribute to a safer environment. Instead it’s the opposite: they generate conditions of increased vulnerability.”
Furthermore: “…The police forces themselves often are complicit and active participants in the violence against people who carry out sexual work.”
When asked whether she has experienced violence on the streets, Margarita replies, “When I was working, I didn’t have any problems [from clients]. Only violence from the police.”
She continues: “We organised ourselves in ’94, ’95 because we had to pay 500 pesos each to the neighbourhood police every week, and to the central department of police another 500 pesos. Now the law has changed. Now they don’t demand money from the girls, but if they see you get into a car they say to the client, ‘give me the money or I’ll send a letter to your wife and kids.’ They threaten them, and the clients give them the money. It’s practically the same. The police are corrupt.”
When asked what the government is doing to protect the human rights of sex workers in Argentina, Morcillo and Justo respond: “In our opinion, nothing.”
Although the Government of the City of Buenos Aires website includes a Department of the Woman, which advertises programmes like ‘Assistance with Domestic and Sexual Violence’ and ‘Insertion of Women into the Economy’, this department did not respond to my inquiry.
What is it exactly that women in a situation of prostitution want from the government?
Without a moment’s hesitation, Margarita replies: “Job training, and access to jobs!”
“If you give any person the opportunity to improve their life by giving them a job, they’ll do it,” adds Susana.
Demand and Supply
“Poverty is not the cause for the existence of prostitution, it is merely a factor assuring a constant supply to meet the male demand for buying sexual access to women’s bodies, which is the primary reason that prostitution exists.” Annika Dalén in an exceprt from her essay, ‘Prostitution in Argentina in the Wake of the Economic Crisis’
Besides a high level of internal demand for prostitutes, Argentina’s prominence as a destination for sex tourism has increased since the economic collapse of 2001/2, causing the supply to swell and prices to plummet. Many of these tourists frequent Buenos Aires’ abundant illegal brothels, known as prostíbulos or puterias.
Ethan Salwen, 37, a writer and photographer from New York, is well acquainted with these establishments. “One reason I say, ‘I love whores!’ is because they have helped me to understand my sexuality,” he says.
According to Ethan: “Compared to the USA, the sex workers here are as readily accessible as cigarettes in a kiosko … The fact that almost every male will condone if not applaud one’s whoring makes it that much easier.
“I had sex with a sex worker in Buenos Aires within six hours of landing in this city for the first time. I can honestly say it was the first activity I did in the city,” he confides. “It was a great experience because the culture of massage parlours here is so much more relaxed, natural and fun than in the States.”
According to Susana and Margarita, however, there are some critical facts that potential brothel customers should take into consideration:
“A lot of [the girls in brothels] are minors, and they put them there to hide them from the police … They’re thirteen, fifteen … from all Latin American countries. [The pimps] bring them to Argentina, they send them a ticket saying we’ve got a job for you in domestic service … that kind of person is already compromised: they don’t have money, they don’t have documents; they are in the slave trade.”
When asked if she has anything to say to the men who frequent Argentina’s brothels, Susana replies: “Make sure they’re not minors. Make sure they’re not slaves.”
The bright-eyed girl gives me a mischievous smile as I bid her goodbye.