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Mexico City grapples with the status of its sex workers

A bill to include their labor rights in the city’s new constitution has created a social rift

For the 32 years that she was a sex worker in La Merced, one of the toughest neighborhoods in downtown Mexico City, Mérida was beaten, threatened and humiliated. She clearly remembers the police raids, the rapes, the insults and the arrests, which could last as long as three days.

Trabajo sexual en México Ampliar foto
A woman enters an association to help Mexican sex workers.

“That was the way things worked. When they weren’t groping you, they were having sex with you, and if you had any money they took it from you. That’s what we needed to be able to feed our children,” she recalls angrily.

A 2014 court decision recognized Mérida’s status as a non-salaried sex worker. The proceedings took two years, although the battle for her working rights took nearly two decades.

A legislative bill seeking to recognize these guarantees in the Mexican capital’s new constitution has opened a fresh breach between those seeking to eradicate prostitution, which they view as denigrating, and those who defend its constitutional recognition as a way to take thousands of at-risk individuals out of the shadows.

I never figured out why they treated us that way, we are not criminals, we work on a corner to make a living

Mérica, Mexican sex worker

“I never figured out why they treated us that way, we are not criminals, we work on a corner to make a living,” says Mérida, 49.

She is one of nearly 200 beneficiaries of a decision by a federal judge forcing Mexico City to recognize sex workers, just like any other trade.

The decision said that, given the lack of better job alternatives, authorities are obliged to respect these workers’ decision to sell sex.

“This is the most valuable thing we have earned, because if a police officer does not respect my credentials, he is going straight to jail,” says Mérida.

Mexico City is getting its own constitution following an administrative change.
Mexico City is getting its own constitution following an administrative change.

“It is important for sex work to be recognized as a job because we all have rights, and the rights of some are not above the rights of others; there are no first-class and second-class citizens,” says Elvira Madrid, founder of the Elisa Martínez Street Brigade, a civil association that offers medical, psychological and legal advice to 5,000 sex workers across the country.

But Olivia Tena, a psychologist at Mexico’s Autonomous National University, does not feel that the 2014 decision is going to help these women.

“We don’t consider it a job because the people who benefit from this are the clients and the traffickers; job recognition does not automatically entail inclusion and rights,” she says.

The debate rages on. “There is a conflict between those who equate the sex trade with human trafficking, and those who support treating the voluntary exchange of sex as a labor relation, just like any other job,” says Regina Tamés, director of GIRE, a Mexican reproductive-rights association.

We don’t consider it a job because the people who benefit from this are the clients and the traffickers

Olivia Tena, psychologist

While one group rejects treating the female body like merchandise, another asks for action against trafficking, but not against those who voluntarily decide to work in the sex trade.

“Mexico does not have very puritanical laws, sex work is not illegal, but there is a long-standing conflict around sexuality,” says the anthropologist Marta Lamas. “A difference is drawn between easy women, those who have sexual relations for pleasure, and the ‘decent’ ones.”

Lamas laments that the government is not acting against the structural causes – social, economic and gender inequality – and is instead focusing on a battle that she calls “reactionary and sensationalist.”

Hundreds of thousands of Mexican women work in the sex trade, but no official figures are available. Some government estimates talk about 0.25% of the female population, or around 150,000 people. But Brigada Callejera says that the real figure is closer to 800,000.

“It’s a job like any other – you do your work, you get paid, and everyone’s happy, although you are always exposed in this line of work,” says Kenya Cuevas, who stopped sex work a few weeks ago after a friend was killed in September.

English version by Susana Urra.

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