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4) Sex Work by Day...

I moved to Ecuador in September of 2009 to conduct my doctoral research on sex work in Quito's red-light district. I was studying at New York University's Department of Anthropology. I am a cultural anthropologist, specializing in gender, sex, and sexuality. I studied street prostitution in particular, interested in this practice taking place in the public sphere. Quito's red-light district is found in the historic district and the street prostitutes (I use the term "prostitutes," as this was the preferred term used by my interlocutors), I worked with solicited around a huge convent that took up an entire city block. The irony of this amazed me. Located in the beautiful neighborhood of San Marcos, the women (including several transwomen), would stand casually, leaning against the walls of the convent, dressed in regular street clothing, and motion to male passersby to join them in the nearby hotel for a session. The women worked regular working hours, from roughly 9am to 5 or 6pm in the evening. They would return to their homes before darkness descended to avoid the dangerous elements that emerged at night. When I first arrived at my field site, I was very surprised to find that these sex workers dressed in casual clothes, like any other Ecuadorian woman on her way to the grocery store. Perhaps some wore more makeup and at times high-heels or tight clothing/plunging necklines, but for the most part, these women looked like any "respectable" woman would. The greatest marker of their activity was their location and their lack of mobility. They would stand for hours at a time, sometimes in small groups, but mostly alone, to solicit the most clients possible. At first, I was baffled at their work hours--who would employ a sex worker at 9am?!? But actually, the early mornings, late afternoons, and lunchtime were the busiest times for these women to work. Yes, men sought out blowjobs (and more) on their way to and from work. Because they were located in the historic district, the sex workers often served municipal workers, civil servants, and individuals working in various NGOs. They were just a stone's throw from Ecuador's Presidential Palace, the Municipality, and other various government buildings in the Plaza Grande. They dressed respectfully because they knew that their public presence was controversial and people wanted them off the streets.


Why did these women choose to work on the streets over the safety of brothels??? It's an excellent question and I spent much time examining this query for my dissertation. First of all, I did not meet a single sex worker during my entire four years of fieldwork in Ecuador that was not a mother. These women were all mothers, soliciting clients to support their children. Many of them were single mothers--sex work actually gave them the opportunity to escape abusive relationships. They could earn what they needed and provide for their family, alone. As mothers, they needed the flexibility of being independent contractors who could make up their own hours and come and go as they pleased. They needed to work during the day to be at home with their children at night. Often throughout the day they would leave work to do things related to their children, shuttle them back and forth from school, take them to appointments, etc. Many of the sex workers also abhorred the environments of brothels where they were forced to drink alcoholic beverages and sometimes even do drugs with clients. Sex workers at brothels are expected to get their clients to drink as much as possible before taking them to bed, as many brothels depended heavily on their income from alcohol sales. The street prostitutes did not want to have bosses or follow the rules and regulations of brothels with set working times (usually at night), and having to drink and "party" with clients before servicing them. On the streets, the women could serve their clients quickly, without having to "hang out" with them first. It was very much a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am mindset. The women appreciated the efficiently of it all and most wanted to spend the least amount of time possible with their clients (obviously, they would construct a carefully executed performance of having fun and taking delight in their encounters--they had to build their client base after all). Lots of the women on the streets didn't even drink alcohol (or do drugs) and would never be caught in a bar. They didn't even smoke cigarettes. Some of these women came from small villages in rural provinces where they had led very sheltered lives. Their sheltered pasts disintegrated the moment they stepped into the world of sex work--one could always distinguish the recent arrivals from their scared faces and uncertainty. Certainly, there were those who did drink and smoke weed openly on the streets, and then there were the small percentage of women who engaged in sex work to support drug habits. But they were the minority. And the women with substance use disorders often worked at night. Most of the women were simply mothers, like any other, trying to support their children the best way they knew how. Without high school diplomas and low literacy rates, their job options were limited. Many had worked as domestic servants previously, but it was too much work for too little money. Some had worked in factories as well, but the same thing--they were not earning the money they needed to support 3-4-5- children.


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