New & Noteworthy

September 1, 2009

Lydia’s Open Door: Inside Mexico’s Most Modern Brothel by Patty Kelly, University of California Press (2008), 296 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

In 1991, the governor of Chiapas, Mexico, established the Zona Galáctica, a state-run brothel in the state’s capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The women who work there are the subject of this ethnography, which the author, Patty Kelly, describes as a study of “women’s sexual labor in neoliberal Mexico.” The brothel may at first seem anomalous: Even as the local government rolled back its participation in the economy, as one would expect under neoliberalism, it established a publicly run brothel. As Kelly puts it, “Neoliberalism is less about the withdrawal of the state from public life than about the shifting of arenas of state interest and intervention.”

The chapters cover a range of issues surrounding her subjects’ lives. The sex work at Zona Galáctica, Kelly maintains, is distinct from other class- and gender-based forms of labor exploitation (e.g., child care, housekeeping) in that the women are subject to “a stigmatization that is especially damaging to the human spirit” and that functions to inhibit “workers from demanding their rights and the remuneration they deserve.” State-run prostitution thus “controls and criminalizes” the women of Zona Galactica, even though the prostitution itself is legal; the health and social benefits of regulation are therefore questionable, Kelly concludes.

Sex Work and the City: The Social Geography of Health and Safety in Tijuana, Mexico by Yasmina Katsulis, University of Texas Press (2008), 190 pp., $50 (hardcover)

This study aims to understand the life experiences of Tijuana’s sex workers, broadly defined to include both strippers and prostitutes. Using a mixed methodology of participant observation, informal and formal interviews, and surveys, Yasmina Katsulis investigates how social status and geography affect the occupational health and safety of sex workers in the Zona Norte, the city’s red-light district. Katsulis describes a “bifurcated system” divided between the Tijuana’s some 1,000 registered and licensed sex workers, and the much larger population of those working illegally.

Legal age, documentation, and citizenship, together with racialized categories of physical appearance and conceptions of beauty, play a strong role in determining who gets licensed for legal sex work, thereby structuring the social hierarchy among sex workers. That hierarchy then largely determines what kind of work will be available, and where, to each sex worker. Given this hierarchy, Katsulis finds, the legalization and regulation of sex work in Tijuana is insufficient to guarantee health safety, at least “as currently conceived.” Most Tijuana sex workers still work illegally, but even those who do work legally still have a number of health and safety concerns, and not just around sexually transmitted infections (assault, depression, stigma).

Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic by Amalia L. Cabezas, Temple University Press (2009), 232 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

In both Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Amalia L. Cabezas finds evidence to suggest that the usual notion of “sex worker” is inadequate to describe many of those who participate in relationships, both sexual and pecuniary, with tourists. This is because the “elusive travel romances and intimate encounters” that she documents, in which “ambiguity and inconsistency” reign supreme, often involve women who create identities for themselves that cannot be summed up as “sex worker” and that “provide distance from stigma and criminality.” Moreover, locals negotiate “the contact zones between the first and third worlds” with what she calls “tactical sex”—meaning a broad spectrum of liaisons, both short- and long-term, formal and informal.

The object of study here is not so much a sex industry as a “sexual economy” in which not just sex but affect and passion are extracted and circulate. Cabezas argues that studies of the “sex sector” too often focus on the money-for-sex dimension while dismissing the feelings involved as inauthentic. Rejecting this view, the author presses ahead by considering a much more complex field where, for example, informal, freelance arrangements can occur, in which “the provider may be able to exercise control over his or her sexuality and minimize the possibilities for degradation.”


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