Silvia and I are standing on a bustling corner in San Marcos, a neighborhood in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador. She is busy soliciting clients while I lean against a building a few feet behind her. She interrupts our conversation every few minutes with calls to men passing by. “Hey, you! You looking for love, baby? What are you looking for? I’ll do anything you want.” She looks back at me every so often with a wink and smile and I can’t help but laugh with her. As she’s told me before, she loves the theater of solicitation, and her enthusiasm is contagious.
Suddenly, a police car comes to an abrupt stop in front of Silvia. I hear the gruff voice of an officer who directs a, “Hey, move on from here…keep walking” at Silvia. Always quick to challenge the police, she retorts, “Fuck off pig, I can stand here if I want.”
The officer leans out of his window with a small bottle in his hand, and next thing I know Silvia is screaming, clutching her face with her hands. The cop car pulls away. “My eyes! I can’t see! Those fuckers!” I take her arm and lead her around the corner. “Silvia, what happened?” I ask. “They sprayed tear gas in my eyes!”
Several sex workers standing nearby run over, and Silvia’s friend Marta rushes into a store to buy milk while Silvia continues to wail. Marta tears open the milk bag and commands Silvia to turn her head upwards. “Look up at me, Silvia!” she says. “I can’t clean out your eyes unless you look up.” Silvia manages to turn her head as Marta pours milk into each eye. “It’s the only way to get the tear gas out,” Marta tells me. I nod dumbly.
It is just as Silvia’s wails shift to whimpers that we hear a car pull up behind us. The police are back.
We all stand back—that is, everyone but Silvia. She shakes the milk from her eyes and marches up to the police, “You guys can’t attack me. I didn’t do anything. That’s abuse, you assholes!” Traffic stops and passersby come to a halt as Silvia continues to swear. Two policemen grab each of her arms. They lead her back to the car as she tries to break free, kicking and screaming.
“She didn’t do anything, let her go!” I shout. The policeman shuts the door on Silvia and turns to address me: “She’s a troublemaker—everyone knows that.”
Silvia ends up spending five days in jail, despite no official charges against her.
Unfortunately, this act of aggression against sex workers like Silvia, all of whom are referred to with pseudonyms in this article, was not an isolated incident. Over the course of my research from September 2009 to July 2013, among 40 female street prostitutes—a term I use interchangeably with “sex worker” and simply “worker” depending on how each women refers to herself—in the historic neighborhood of San Marcos, I bore witness to many violations of human rights by the Ecuadorian National Police. Although prostitution between consenting adults in enclosed regulated spaces is decriminalized in Ecuador, street prostitution falls within a gray area of jurisdiction with no legislation addressing it one way or the other. Such nebulous legality forces police to devise alternative methods of governance to manage sex workers.
Despite sex workers’ vulnerability to police harassment, they are not passive victims. Rather, they actively subvert police control through creative strategies, often coordinated with other sex workers, to defy police orders and maximize their solicitation via covert opportunism. As mainly single mothers working to support their children, they have no choice but to be resolute in their fight to work on the streets. Together, they have a steely determination that makes them a difficult force for police to manage despite their very real disparities in status and power.
As single mothers, most sex workers in San Marcos challenge Hollywood stereotypes of addicts who prostitute to support drug habits. These women, largely uneducated and from Ecuador’s coast, choose sex work over other jobs like domestic service, not only because they earn more money, but more importantly, because they can set their schedules around their children’s needs. Sex work also gives many of these women the economic independence they need to exert power in a society characterized by high rates of domestic abuse. One worker, Tatiana, told me, “Imagine, I used to sit around and accept [my ex-husband’s] abuse. I don’t love what I do, but I love the freedom it gives me.” Another worker, Elena, had a similar perspective: “This work is terrible, but at least I can live alone—just me and my children.”
But what freedom they reap from earnings, they often pay for in negative treatment from the state and private business. Tensions between police and sex workers have reached unprecedented levels as San Marcos has become the latest target for urban renewal in the historic center. In keeping with the wave of gentrification sweeping through Latin American historic centers since the 1990s, Quito has joined the “heritage tourism” movement in an attempt to establish itself as an international destination of the global elite. Primed for success due to its status as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978, and its international reputation as the largest and best-preserved historic center in Latin America, Quito has attracted unprecedented waves of capital, both local and global: the municipal government, international banks, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), multilateral agencies, international NGOs, philanthropic organizations, plus private investors, have invested millions of dollars into renovating Quito’s central plazas, churches, monuments, cobblestoned streets, and other colonial structures.
San Marcos is a particularly attractive area for investment due to its large number of unadulterated buildings from the republican and colonial eras. Many of the stately homes are in disrepair, but are still awe-inspiring in their architectural grandeur, with their iron balconies, interior patios, and large wooden doors. San Marcos’s colonial church and plaza are little known gems in the historic center. Private investors, the municipal government, cultural institutions, artisanal craftsmen, national corporations, and wealthy Quiteños and foreigners alike, are all desperate to purchase the remaining properties available in San Marcos as real-estate prices skyrocket.
The current boom has brought high-end art galleries, cafes and restaurants, a boutique hotel, a new art museum, and a dance company and performance space that cater to avant-garde theater, all within the past five years. However, the other side of gentrification, beyond the freshly painted facades and newly installed street lamps, reveals troubling social interventions in which lower income populations become targeted for displacement and marginalization. San Marcos residents are savvy to this reality and many stand staunchly opposed to the onslaught of outsiders.
As visions for the future of San Marcos become increasingly contentious, the status of sex workers has ended up at the core of these debates. Those in favor of urban renewal view them as the principal obstacle to “progress,” while those against it recognize them as best positioned to thwart gentrification. Katherine Romero, the manager of “Casa San Marcos,” a boutique hotel and art gallery that opened in 2009, told me that “the real issue with prostitution is that it brings delinquency...we can’t have a hotel here if tourists get robbed. They need to move the sex workers away.” But Sonia Rosales, an artist whose parents bought their colonial era house on Junin Street in the 1970s, has a different take: “They [the sex workers] are our guardian angels. As long as they’re still here, no one can change this neighborhood.”
Meanwhile, many sex workers express frustration at their exclusion in these debates. As Lina, who has lived and worked in San Marcos for almost twenty years, commented, “No one wants my opinion. They just want us out!”
The municipal government has yet to pass legislation to criminalize street prostitution. Instead, officials expect police to closely monitor sex workers, in turn putting mounting pressure on police to devise individual strategies to minimize sex worker activity. But to limited success. For instance, they call for sex workers to continuously circulate the streets rather than stand in one place as a means to prevent solicitation. But as Angela explained to me, “I get plenty of men, even if the cops keep us walking. All it takes is eye contact. Men who are looking, always know who is working.”
This unspoken code of winks, gestures, head nods, and body language works effectively to establish transactions, rendering sex workers’ movement irrelevant. In fact, women can negotiate their price and services while walking past an interested customer without saying a word. One day when accompanying Angela to lunch, she whispered to me that she would be “right back” just as we crossed the central thoroughfare in San Marcos. Within moments she had established a connection, out of the corner of her eye, while still maintaining her conversation with me. It is these deeply nuanced interactions that make it difficult for police to identify the scale of sex workers’ operations, further troubling the police’s ability to deter their work.
Sex workers have been willing to make certain concessions to police in order to remain on the streets, such as adhering to calls for modest clothing to avoid drawing attention to their work. Although they often wear fitted clothing and tops that emphasize their cleavage, they now rarely wear short skirts or other kinds of clothing that reveal much skin elsewhere on the body. Ironically, even though police envisioned such a dress code to decrease the popularity of the sex workers, the opposite has proven true. Lina explains: “It’s always best to show less skin because then you keep them guessing. You don’t want to show everything at once.” Another worker, Carolina, insists that she has attracted more clients when dressed modestly because they “want to be with a lady, not a whore. My clients always tell me I shouldn’t be working in the street.” When asked if she thought it seemed contradictory that her clients sought her out precisely because she was a sex worker, and therefore, by definition, not a “lady,” she quickly explained: “No, you can be dama, even if you work the streets.”
Police have also attempted to control sex workers’ schedules to minimize their exposure. For example, the women were told they had to clear the streets from 12:00 to 1:00pm, the hours that local schools let children out for the day. For that hour, all the sex workers had to enter the central brothel in San Marcos, Hotel Aztec, or take a lunch break. Sex workers complied with this rule because they agreed that children should not see them solicit. But the enforced lunch break only lasted a number of months, as one by one workers started sneaking back to the streets, and police as a result became apathetic about implementing it.
The police chief then proposed another time limit during their evening rush, but sex workers expressed reservations. “Those are our fullest work hours,” one worker, Lisa, explained to me. “When I come back at 8:00 everyone’s gone. There aren’t any clients.” Another worker, Valeria, agreed: “We are respecting [the police’s] schedule. We agree to go inside so kids won’t see us. But they can’t take away our most important work rush.” With many of Quito’s sex workers operating as a united, oppositional front against the curfew, police had difficulty, once again, enforcing it.
From time to time, Quito’s sex workers concertedly cooperate with police as a negotiation tactic. For example, police and sex workers have collaborated on preplanned operations to clear sex workers from the streets for segments of 24-48 hours—what without sex workers’ prior knowledge would be considered a raid. Though largely symbolic gestures designed by the police to demonstrate their power, sex workers were willing to sacrifice a couple days of work in order to ensure their greater longevity on the streets. Police generally informed sex workers of these raids at least a day or two in advance and word would spread like wildfire along the streets. For women who did not receive the message, police would immediately send them home or they could be subject to arrest.
None of these regulations have served as effective measures to stop prostitution in San Marcos. To do that, the municipal government would need to criminalize the practice entirely or provide extensive security to more completely govern these spaces. Inevitably, as private investors and the business elite continue to invest in San Marcos, the municipal government will gradually enforce stricter regulations to push these women out. With their future uncertain, sex workers’ survival on the streets will depend on their ability to stay one step ahead of police in this high stakes game of cat and mouse.
Anna Wilking is a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at New York University, writing her dissertation on sex work in Quito, Ecuador. She is also a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Her award winning feature, Let There Be Light (2013), based on her fieldwork, is currently on the festival circuit. She is also a NACLA contributing editor on gender and sexuality.
Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Fall Issue: Horizontalism & Autonomy