“We don’t want to change the ideologies or opinions people have regarding sex work; we just want respect for ourselves and our personal decisions.”
The afternoon I meet Georgina, in the Constitución neighborhood in Buenos Aires, she is running late for a meeting with a client. Apologizing for not having more time, a colleague of hers is making last minute adjustments to her hair, using a pair of straighteners in the corner of the small office.
“When a person decides they wants to work in the sex industry, the government must respect it and must ensure that they carry out these activities in the safest conditions and with access to working rights,” Georgia explains. This emphasis is one of the core values at the heart of the decriminalization of sex work movement; an approach that is based on protection rather than prosecution.
In Argentina, state policy has left sex workers vulnerable, by implementing laws that groups victims of human trafficking together with sex workers who work independently. Subject to violence, corruption and humiliation at the hands of police; excluded from basic human rights, and often unable to access to housing and healthcare due to repeated social stigma; sex workers are denied the distinction between coercion and choice.
This failure to understand that the large majority of sex workers enter the industry for everyday economic reasons — to pay for their rent, afford childcare, finish a degree — means that the road to decriminalization will be always be long and convoluted. Gradually, however, the popular public perception that all sex workers are either helpless victims or morally corrupt individuals is being refuted.
The Women’s Sex Workers organization of Argentina (Ammar) was officially recognized as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in 2005, however Georgina and other sex workers had been meeting for just over a decade before that. Representing sex workers over the age of 18 — including transgendered individuals and migrants — who work independently on the streets, Ammar’s fundamental objective is for the state to recognize sex work as a legitimate, legal labor activity. This is not just to give workers access to basic human and labour rights but also to fight against abuse, exploitation and criminalization.
On May 1, to mark International Workers’ Day, Ammar published a receipt for a “complete service” at a cost of AR $600. Stamped across it were the words “We would invoice, if our work were recognized.” This creative form of protest was first initiated last year with the backing of the Argentine Workers’ Central Union (CTA) to highlight that the introduction of labor rights for sexworker’s is possible without changing the entire law, just by adding their category of work onto the Labor Department’s registry.
With the movement beginning to gain a louder voice, backed by Amnesty International, which last week published a report on sex workers’ rights in Buenos Aires, it seems a good time to reflect on the complications surrounding the sex work industry in Argentina.
Contextualizing Sex Work In Argentina
“The greatest error is to end up discussing whether we can carry out this work; whether it theoretically classifies as a legitimate job or not.”
In Argentina sex work is legal, however organizing prostitution and soliciting sex (offering sex in a public place) is not. This part-legalization model is adopted by other countries including Brazil and Chile, and is meant to reduce the risk of sex workers being arrested for selling their services.
However, sex workers argue that this has done little to improve safety. As Catherine Healy, a former sex worker and national coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) explains, partly legalizing sex work simply allows brothel owners and sex workers to create a facade, behind which they can continue to do business as usual. This policy of elected silence inevitably fails to provide any sort of protection for the worker inside, because businesses are not legally required to adhere to any sort of regulations.
The situation doesn’t benefit independent sex workers either, given that brothel-keeping is defined as two or more individuals working together. Many are subsequently forced to work alone, away from other workers and the police. If a client does turn abusive, women who are working together feel powerless to contact the police, knowing that they are the ones on the wrong side of the law. Moreover, the belief that a sex worker loses a right to consent to sex is still widespread. Sex workers repeatedly say that the police don’t take their accusations seriously because of what they do; rape is a violation of the victim’s human and civil rights regardless of whether their profession is considered legal or not, and should be responded to as a criminal offense.
Keeping all of this information in mind, why not fully legalize sex work? That way the state can regulate it and make sure that it is happening in a safe environment? It is important to realize that there is a difference between legalizing sex work and decriminalizing it. When sex work is legalized, as is the case in Germany and Colombia, there are regulations put in place regarding where, when and how it can take place. Whilst the intention behind this model is that it takes a more tolerant and practical approach, sex workers argue that many of them are unable to comply with the bureaucratic and often draconian regulations (such as carrying a health certificate or undertaking regular physical examinations). Moreover, legalization disproportionately marginalizes workers who fall outside of the law — drug users, or illegal immigrants — thereby retaining them within a criminalized existence.
Taking this into account, we are left wondering whether legalization or decriminalization is better suited to commercial sex work in Argentina? From a public health perspective it is easier to build a case for government interference, however it is difficult to strike a balance between this being implemented in a sensitive, empowering way without dehumanizing or humiliating the sex worker. From experience, overly active government involvement is generally disfavored by sex workers and NGOs, since, according to Catherine, sex workers themselves are highly motivated to make sure that they have regular health check-ups. The difficulty comes when the practice of “safe sex” is written into legislation; if a client fails to adhere to this, more often than not, it is the sex worker who gets penalized.
What is clear however, is that the 2003 Contraventional Code, currently in place across Argentina, which made offering or soliciting sex a misdemeanor, has actually led sex workers to operate in more precarious conditions. Ammar, backed by Amnesty International, wants to repeal it, believing that it systematically contradicts the code of human rights, because it exposes sex workers to a range of abuses, harassment and punitive state action. Decriminalizing prostitution should theoretically give sex workers back these basic human rights, but also give them access to labor rights — including retirement, healthcare benefits and social support. Moreover, as Catherine explains, adopting a decriminalization model means that the state can turn its attention to the real victims of the sex industry; trafficking victims and underage sex workers.
Distinguishing Between Trafficking And Sex Work
“Politicians put forced sex work and sex work like what we do in the same bag; they criminalize it all. This jeopardizes many women who then end up working in more dangerous, clandestine places.”
On 5 July 2011, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner passed a decree that banned sex workers from advertising their services in print. Seen as a major victory for “equality” and “feminism,” the decree forced many sex workers back onto the streets in order to find customers. An amendment to Argentina’s Anti-Trafficking Law a year later, broadened the legislation to punish traffickers but failed to clearly define the conditions of “exploitation,” thereby dragging independent sex work into its enforcement.
Georgina explains that these government attempts to clamp down on trafficking, simply put more power into the hands of the police who tend to respond with apathy and violence. Sex workers are then powerless to defend themselves against the authorities’ harsh treatment because, under the law, they are ‘victims’ and therefore hold no rights. Parochial attitudes, have continued to damage and offend Ammar’s rhetoric. For example, the head of La Casa del Encuentro, an anti-trafficking NGO, claims that all types of “prostitution” are forms of slavery, and that the self-employment of sex workers does not exist in Argentina. “It is one thing to have an ideological or theoretical stance about whether sex work should be carried out or not, but then going and saying that we don’t exist full stop is a whole other story,” says Georgina. This is as much a fight for empowerment as it is a pursuit for basic recognition.
Rather than adopting an all-encompassing policy of criminality, she says there needs to be a polarized approach when it comes to the treatment of “free workers” and trafficked sex workers. Firstly, there needs to be labour reinsertion to help those who want to get out of forced sexual labor. Secondly, with presence from the state, protection laws should be implemented to safely help those who do want to work in the sex industry. Until this legal structure, which is currently centered on the prosecution of “crimes,” is shifted to focus on protecting the poor and vulnerable, sex workers will continue to be considered either victims or criminals.
Relationship Between Sex Workers, The Police and Healthcare Services
“There is always a relationship. It is one of violence, tension and abuse of authority on behalf of the police.”
In Argentina, sex workers are routinely subjected to lengthy and often violent inspections and raids by the police, as well as bribes and blackmail. Georgina explains that it is common for police officers to pretend to be clients, first using a sex worker for their services, before coming back a few days later to shut the place down: “When the police want to shut down one of our work places, they do not ask us if we are in favor of sex work. They shut the place down anyway.”
In 19 provinces, the police have the power to arrest and detain sex workers for up to 30 days for carrying out sex work in public spaces; when I spoke to Georgina, she explained that a friend of the organization was currently being held in San Juan after being arrested for working on the streets. Ironically, this cycle of detainment and release was borne out of an initiative introduced by the authorities in 12 provinces and many more municipalities, to ban cabarets, bars and other establishments that employed sex workers. The idea behind the embargo was to clamp down on human trafficking but as Georgina explains, “it actually affected all of our friends who work out of their own will, because their work is criminalized too.”
Police raids on sex workers’ houses often end with verbal, sexual and physical abuse, or taking of the workers’ belongings. Given that many of these workers live in the places that they work, shutting them down forces many into homelessness. Now, when a woman is arrested, the CTA and Ammar are immediately alerted and they can put in a call to the woman in order to provide support. The police tend to be much more cooperative when they realize that an organization is behind them.
As well as encouraging sex workers to speak out about their current experiences, Ammar also tries to give a voice to those who tragically, can no longer tell their story. Between July 1996 and November 2015, the organization recorded the murder of 41 sex workers in Argentina. One of Ammar’s most active campaigners, Sandra Cabrera, was killed in Rosario in 2004. Her case, like all of the others, followed a familiar pattern of institutional violence: harassment, threats and abuse from the police, requests for bribery, torture and then an unexplained death. So far, only 3 of the 41 have been solved.
Sex workers also frequently say that they struggle accessing healthcare services, because of the stigma and discrimination they experience at hospitals. Dr Verity Sullivan, a Specialist Registrar in Sexual Health and HIV in Buenos Aires, says that, “discrimination within the healthcare system itself appears to be the principal reason transgender women avoid the public healthcare system, particularly young transgender women who have low levels of attendance.”
Although “the introduction of the Gender Identity Law in 2012 undoubtedly had positive effects — for example allowing transgender women to register with a hospital using their self-identified sex and chosen name — inexperience and poor knowledge about the trans community amongst healthcare professionals is still rife and is responsible for the low numbers of transgender people attending for care.”
Discrimination can “range from being called from the waiting room by the wrong name, tasteless jokes towards patients, right through to reported cases of sexual abuse by members of the healthcare team.” Sex workers then feel that they have no entitlement to make an official complaint if they experience this kind of verbal and physical abuse. A transgender former sex worker told Amnesty International that she didn’t have any real access to health care services because whenever she went to hospital she was “laughed at or the last one to be attended to by doctors.”
Moreover, numerous health experts and organizations, including the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, have recommended the decriminalization of sex work in order to lower the risk of HIV transmission. While sexual health is a primary concern for many sex workers, marginalization and stigma lead many to feel that they are denied the right to refuse a client who fails to practice safe sex or to the relevant healthcare. Shockingly, the life expectancy of a trans person in Argentina is less than half of that of the rest of the population.
What Next For Sex Work In Argentina?
“We are here. We are unionized.”
Finding a solution to helping sex workers will never be easy, however what is clear is that the current legal framework that criminalizes sex work in Argentina, fails to listen to what sex workers themselves want and has instead led to a range of human rights abuses.
For now, Ammar will continue to provide support to sex workers, making them aware of their rights and accompanying them legally if they are detained. Already, sex workers are becoming more informed of these rights; recently, when police raided a house in Neuquén they unable to shut the place down since the women inside were aware that nothing they were doing was illegal (despite this, the police only left after destroying furniture and other personal belongings).
In New Zealand, where sex work was decriminalized in 2003, there have been instances where the police have driven clients to an ATM after they had refused to pay for a sex worker’s services. This kind of approach has been widely praised by organizations like the NZPC, for protecting a sex worker’s right to be paid “like any other worker.” Although the system is by no means perfect and violence against sex workers still exists, 96 percent have said that they feel safer under the new laws, with more reports of crimes being handed into the police. Similarly, in Leeds in The United Kingdom, which established an area where the law on soliciting or curb crawling is not enforced under certain conditions and hours, a local NGO has seen a dramatic rise in the number of sex workers willing to hand over personal information when giving reports to the police. According to Basis Yorkshire, in 2013 and 14, the number of reports of assault that included personal details of the women was 17.4 percent — in 2015/16 the average is now at 54.7 percent. By allowing the police access to their details, sex workers can now take abusive clients to court; in the past year, Basis has supported 3 women in cases relating to serious attacks, resulting in two convictions.
Under the current legal framework in Argentina, which has coalesced trafficking victims with independent sex workers, this progressive model seems distant. Argentine sex workers have been disproportionately targeted by all-encompassing government legislation, that is enforced by a police force that takes matters into its own hands. While sex work exists, Ammar says that it will continue to fight for the rights of these workers, to free them from physical and economic coercion, so “that one day there are no women that exercise this work out of necessity.” And as Georgina leaves on that Thursday afternoon like any other worker heading out to a shift, I can’t help but think that this fight will be fought to the end.