Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Profession Like Any Other?

Prostitutes wait for clients on a Bogotá plaza. 
A woman who worked as a prostitute in a Bogotá dance club became pregnant and was fired from her job. She sued, claiming that the firing was illegal and that the club owed her health benefits. And a court recently ruled in her favor, that prostitutes, like other employees, deserve job protection and benefits.

Even among femenists, there's debate about whether prostitution should be legal. Is it inevitably demeaning to women? Does it have to be dangerous? Can a person make a free, mature decision to become a prostitute, or are women and girls ultimately forced into it? Does legal adult prostitution serve as a cover for child prostitution and human trafficking?

In Colombia, as in much of Latin America, prostitution is legal, altho here it's supposed to be restricted to certain neighborhoods known as 'tolerance zones,' which are defined here and conditions for the sex industry here. In passing thru central Bogotá's tolerance zone, in the Santa Fe neighborhood, the women standing in the doorways and walking the sidewalks don't appear particularly oppressed to me. I see them chatting and joking to each other and waving to prospective customers cruising by on motorcycles or in taxis. 

But appearances may be one thing, reality another. And, who knows what goes on inside the buildings?

In my very limited contacts with prostitutes, as a journalist, I've heard about different kinds of cases. In Ecuador, where prostitution is also legal, I interviewed a young woman who as a teenager had been lured into a brothel and held there as a sex slave before managing to escape. With the help of an anti-human trafficking organization, she'd prosecuted the brothel owner, altho I don't recall how the case ended up in Ecuador's corrupt and disfunctional court system. When I interviewed her she was administering another brothel, where she said the women were treated well. The abuse she'd suffered still haunted her, but evidently she thot well enough of the profession as to have stayed in it.

I also accompanied the students to the shutting down of a legal brothel which had illegaly employed young girls. The adult prostitutes there were furious that their employer was being shuttered: "How will I feed my children?" one demanded  - but expressed no sympathy for the young girls forced into prostitution against their wills.

Prostitutes in Bogotá's Santa Fe neighborhood,
where prostitution is depenalized. 
In the recent ruling in Bogotá, the court pointed out that denying the legal rights of prostitutes would only favor the interests of the brothel owner, "with grave consequences for the prostitute," and "it also appears contrary to the principle of constitutional equality...and restricts fundamental rights, such as dignified treatment, the free development of the personality, right to earn a living and that to a just compensation for work."

The court said that not giving prostitutes benefits "also treats unfairly a minority social group that has been traditionally discriminated against."

Previous court rulings have also held that prostitution is a profession and that prostitutes have a right to work.

I also spoke to a young woman who works as a prostitute on a plaza in central Bogotá. It's outside of the designated tolerance zone, but the police seem oblivious of the many prostitutes. I met her thru one of the men renting cell on the plaza, whom I asked whether he knew a prostitute who would be willing to tell me her story.

"How about her?" he said, indicating the apparently healthy young woman seated beside him. I was surprised, both because of her appearance and her very normal dress. But she smiled cheerily at me, unashamed. For me, a person who believes that prostitution probably should be legal but has always seen prostitutes as stigmatized outsiders, I was taken aback by her openness about her profession.

This young woman, who is only 22, and is nicknamed Jeje, has been working as a prostitute for about three years. She had worked in a shop near the plaza, but didn't like having to fulfill a schedule or being supervised. While a shop employee, men propositioned her and so when she lost that job, she fell into 'the world's oldest profession.'

"You don't have to be at work at 7 a.m. You don't have a boss bossing you around. If you don't feel good, you don't have to work," she said. "And how else could I make this amount of money in so short a time?"

Most of the other prostitutes got there "for the easy money," Jeje says. In fact, in Colombia prostitutes are known as "women of the easy life."

Most of her clients are decent, Jeje says, altho there are exception "who treat you like garbage." Some resist using condoms, which she said she insists on, but none has ever forced her to have unprotected sex. Still, she acknowledged, condoms sometimes break or fall off.

That produces risks not only for the prostitute and client. A 2009 survey found that 41% of clients of prostitutes in Bogotá don't use condoms with their wives or girlfriends, potentially infecting them with diseases.

And there are other dangers - from the environment. While working the plaza, Jeje's sniffed glue, altho she hasn't become addicted, and smokes marijuana regularly.

"When you're amidst shit, some of its sticks to you," she says.

Jeje estimated that half the prostitutes on the plaza are drug addicts. The police sometimes harass the sex workers, she says - but not because they're prostitutes, but because of the drug use.

But Jeje can earn typically 40,000 pesos in twelve hours, altho that varies greatly. Yet, it's a decent income for a person with only a ninth grade education and no inclination for more studies.

But she knows she can't be a prostitute forever; "When I'm 50, who's going to ask for me?" So she says that, besides raising her son, who is three, she's saving money to open a business one day.

Jeje feels pity for the older women working the plaza - and for the many underage girls. She'd never want a young relative of her own to become a prostitute. For that matter, she doesn't let her family know her profession and hopes that her three-year-old son never finds out.

If his friends knew "they'd call him an hijo de puta (son of a whore)," a common insult in Colombia.

And, when evangelical Christians have accosted her and the other prostitutes, she says "I know it's wrong."

Men walk near the El Oasis brothel in the Santa Fe neighborhood. 
Yet, from this young woman's experience it's not clear to me why her profession is wrong - except from a religious perspective. Certainly, it has many particular dangers. But if prostitution were completely regulated and prostitutes given psychological and health support, then they might be more assertive about protecting themselves from disease and violence. As a prostitute, she's also been exposed to drugs. But is this because of prostitution's inherent nature or because, as a stigmatized profession, sex workers are pushed into such an environment?

Jeje acknowledged that if she could earn as much in a formal job, she'd prefer it. And if Jeje had more education, then she might be able to obtain such work. But Colombia is a long way from educating everybody.

And, if it did, I suspect that prostitution would continue - just more expensively.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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