By Nadiyah Fisher
The legalization of sex work remains a controversial topic globally. Despite its controversy, sex work in Argentina is decriminalized. Sex work is the exchange of money and other resources for sexual acts between consenting adults (Open Society Foundation, 2019). Very often, sex work is confused with human trafficking. Human trafficking is the non-consensual exploitation of a person through sex, forced labor, or slavery (Open Society Foundation, 2019). Sex work is an opportunity for people to provide for themselves, escape poverty, or create a flexible work schedule. Even with the legalization of sex work, brothels have been prohibited in Argentina since 1936. The prohibition of brothels is contrary to Argentina's history of sex work. Buenos Aires used to serve as a hub for sex work from 1875 to 1936 due to the emigration of Jewish women to Argentina (Guy, 1999). The women came to Argentina due to poverty and marriage laws in Europe. The brothels in Argentina owned by Jewish men served as a safe space and allowed Jewish women to make money legally. Due to the fear of trafficking, and criminality creating negative views of the Jewish community, brothels were prohibited in 1936. Even with the legalization of sex work, sex workers in Argentina today still face violence (Meir, 2017). Could the absence of safe spaces, stigma, and lack of resources make sex work more dangerous in Argentina?
While sex work can provide opportunities for some, there are potential dangers. Sex workers have up to a 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence (SWP, 2020). Non-cisgender, BIPOC, and migrant sex workers are more vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence than their cisgender white counterparts (SWP, 2020). In countries where sex work is illegal, sex workers experience sexual violence more frequently. When sex workers try to make police reports, they are often ignored, arrested, or deported (Koster, 2017). Even in spaces intended to protect sex workers, they are still discriminated against due to capitalism. Younger women are seen as more desirable and worthy in society, thus needing more protection. Transgender sex workers face another layer of discrimination and homophobia by their peers, law enforcement, and clients. Transgender women are subject to more violence by clients who refuse to pay or are at risk of being “exposed." Because sex workers and transgender people are both seen as deviant members of society, clients who commit violence against them face few to no consequences (Meir, 2017).
There is a stigma around sex work. Many view it as unholy, disgusting, “not a real job,” and as an “easy way out of the typical 9-5 work schedule” (Stardust, 2017). Sex workers are refused healthcare, harassed by law enforcement, and often face discrimination when accessing resources (Stardust, 2017). Many sex workers are denied housing and access to credit cards once companies are knowledgeable about their profession. “PayPal, JPMorgan Chase, and Visa/MasterCard are only some companies closing down small business accounts linked to sex work for ‘unethical’ reasons, condemning them without proof” (Berthe, 2018). Those who work on the streets are often subject to violence. They are beaten in the streets and harassed if suspected of selling sex (Berthe, 2018). Typically, treatment for their injuries and healthcare are avoided by sex workers due to stigma. Many sex workers who disclose their profession at hospitals are subject to unsolicited STD testing (Berthe, 2018).
Due to increased difficulties in accessing basic needs, many sex workers prefer the security of brothels, which are “indoor sex businesses.” Research suggests that sex workers experience less victimization and violence in brothels (Meir, 2017). In the United States, many brothels have emergency precautions to protect sex workers from uncooperative clients, and sex workers are encouraged to call security or have access to emergency buttons (Meir, 2017). Although not 100% effective, this may serve as a safer option as opposed to calling law enforcement. Many sex workers prefer the safety of a brothel (Meir, 2017). Brothels typically enforce persistent clientele due to the lack of movement compared to street sex workers (Meir, 2017). Since the criminalization of brothels in Argentina, many sex workers have searched for clients in the street or bars (Meir, 2017).
According to Meir’s (2017) case study on sex work and the politics of space, many sex workers reported the dangers of illegal brothels. Many illegal brothels are called privados, or privates, in Argentina. Due to the lack of government regulation of privados, many take a vast majority of the earnings of sex workers. This also creates a space for children to be exploited due to the government’s ignorance of minors engaging in sex work. Without a safe space to engage in sex work, sex workers rely on papelitos, or little papers scattered around Buenos Aires, to search for new clientele, which increases their chances of experiencing violence. Even with the amenities of brothels, many close early and limit wages for workers. Workers are often subject to the streets after 8 pm. Frequently, brothels follow strict schedules and take away the autonomy of sex work (Meir, 2017). There has to be another way to provide a safe space for sex works.
We could look to Ecuador for a solution. Due to transgender sex workers being one of the most vulnerable populations, recently, in Quito, Ecuador, police formed Project Transgender. Project Transgender alerts trans sex workers of their rights and encourages relationships with law enforcement. Project Transgender wants sex workers to instill trust in law enforcement and feel comfortable reporting crimes against them. The project aims to create a safe space for sex workers and connect them with resources they systematically lack access to like housing and healthcare (Meir, 2017).
Even with the efforts in Ecuador to protect sex workers, there is still much more we can do. Along with creating safe spaces, the attitudes and perceptions of sex workers need to change. Sex work is one of the oldest professions, and strict laws against sex work only make the profession more dangerous and subject workers and children to trafficking. Many, while not all sex workers, work for survival and are victims of marginalization and poverty. Safe spaces used to protect sex workers and laws prohibiting the denial of healthcare, housing, and other resources can help decrease violence and human trafficking. Is Argentina’s pursuit of “respectable domesticity” or the preservation of their societal norms, worth the lives of their citizens?
Berthe, P (2018). The Stigmatization Behind Sex Work. Samuel Center of Social Connectedness. https://www.socialconnectedness.org/the-stigmatization-behind-sex-work/
Guy, Donna. "Argentina: Jewish White Slavery." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/argentina-jewish-white-slavery
Koster, K (2017). 17 Facts About Sexual Violence and Sex Work. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/16-facts-about-sexual-ass_b_8711720
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Open Society Foundations (2019). Understanding Sex Work in an Open Society. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/explainers/understanding-sex-work-open-society
Sex Workers Project (2020). SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGAINST SEX WORKERS. https://swp.urbanjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2020/08/Fact-Sheet-Sexual-Violence-Against-Sex-Workers-1-1-1.pdf
Stardust, Z (2017). The stigma of sex work comes with a high cost. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-stigma-of-sex-work-comes-with-a-high-cost-79657