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14) Hierarchies on the streets

The hierarchy that existed among the sex workers was incredibly complex and took me years to unpack. Where do I begin? First of all, the actual positions on the street that women occupied was fraught with politics. It was difficult to solicit clients near the central "brothel" (a cheap hotel, which rented rooms by the encounter). It was located on a busy corner, across from the Convent. The women wanted spots as close to the brothel as possible so they could work efficiently, but it was difficult to break into the standing spots near the brothel. These spots were generally occupied by longterm working women, all of whom had been in the neighborhood for years (up to a decade or more). To get a spot at the most coveted corner, right next to the brothel, on the steps where one could rest their feet while soliciting, was next to impossible, especially if one was a newcomer. The newcomers had to solicit in different areas, far away from the brothel. They might be a ten minute walk from the central brothel, which was problematic because the women always got scared that their clients would change their minds on their way there. The longer the walk, the greater the chance that they could back out of a session. The sex workers never walked with their clients to the brothel. They always walked behind their clients, up to a block or more between them. But I could always tell when a sex worker was on her way to the brothel, despite the client having disappeared into the crowds. She walked with purpose and determination, and generally, did not greet her friends or fellow coworkers on her way to the brothel. Again, efficiency, was the name of the game. Purse clutched firmly under her arm, high heels click-clacking along the pavement beneath her, eyes focused ahead, she would adopt a defensive stance, not letting anything or anyone come in between herself and her trick.

Difficulties arose when a newcomer arrived who was very pretty and became popular among the clients. I was always fascinated that there was not more jealousy on the streets. Obviously, some of the women had more clients than others, but it was difficult to predict who would be most popular. For instance, everyone thinks that sex workers have a limited range of working years, but the sex workers on the streets overturned every norm pertaining to the sex industry. That's why some of them were on the streets to begin with--some were too old to work in strip clubs or brothels, where 30 was considered the standard cutoff age. On the streets, most of the women were in their 30s or 40s, and worked steadily. Fatima (all names have been changed), who was in her early 70s, had been working on the San Marcos streets for over 50 years. When I first saw Fatima working, I could not believe my previously ageist eyes! And who were her clients? Young men! Yes, young men sought out Fatima and appreciated her years of experience and her maternal presence (more on that later). But the very young, new sex workers often showed up with a pimp and these pimps would try to muscle their way into spots closest to the brothel. They weren't allowed though. The longterm sex workers outranked even the most dangerous pimps. Most of the sex workers carried knives or other types of weapons and they weren't afraid to use them. They were tough women, without a doubt. Sometimes if a new, pretty woman was well-liked and was deferential to the longterm workers, she was able to move up in the ranks more quickly. But she had to show respect first. No one's spot on the street was guaranteed though. Carving out space along the Convent, claiming spots to solicit clients, was a game of constant negotiation and tenacity. It didn't happen overnight and women put in months, or even years, of showing up again and again to make a spot their own.

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