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Street legal

1 August 2014

In the Federal District, selling goods and services in public is perfectly legal, but the government has the right to regulate goods and services, and those that offer them.  Non-credentialed “independent non-salaried vendors” are likely to be fined and their wares seized.  When the unlicensed vendor is selling candy, or C.D.s, or offering to unstop your drains or paint your living room there’s no real issue with vendors.  But the one service industry which has always operated on the street… commerial sex… was, until now, a different story.

Australia Broadcasting Company photo

Australia Broadcasting Company photo

Recent court decisions have upheld the legality of commercial sex work and a recent court ruling held that the administrative fines against prostitutes were illegal.  As a result, the Federal District has begun issuing credentials to street-walkers. The ruling also requires the District government to provide courses and training for sex workers on protecting their rights and providing access to specific programs designed to improve their living conditions.

In complying with the ruling, thirty-three women and 17 men (either transvestites or male-to-female trans* who have yet to be legally recognized as women) were recently issued to sex workers.  Whether that is a representational sample of the commercial sex workers in Mexico City is not something I want to speculate on.  But, while there are male street walkers (mostly catering to closeted gay men), that prostitution is overwelmingly “women’s work”, the credentialling program has become a polemical issue among feminists.

Since at least Revolution, prostitutes have been arguing that with the Constitution guaranteeing the right to take up any honest trade, and with no laws against consensual sex, they had every legal right to their profession. Katherine Elaine Bliss, in “Compromising Positions”  details of a long struggle often waged by the “daughters of the night” themselves, or by Madames, (who argued that bordellos would provide not just a safe environment, but better working conditions — including the legal benefits like vacation pay due any other honest worker) to take control of the trade away from both the heavy hand of the authorities (who used the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases, and 19th century assumptions about female sexuality to forcibly lock up prostitutes in “hospitals” that were, in reality, prisons) and pimps (whose business model, if it can be called that, was and is based on exploitation).  Sucessfully, the laws were changed to classify pimping among serious crimes, and one that can earn a prison sentence about on par with those for murder or kidnapping (the latter being what pimping often enough involves).  Public health concerns being very real, and the perceived nuisance factor caused by clients for street walkers, however, remained.

Most places in Mexico either have legal bordellos (there’s one down the street from my house in Mazatlán that one wouldn’t know was there… except for the door-man on the sidewalk, there’s no indication of what the place is) or “zonas de tolerencia” and require prostitutes to have regular medical examinations.  How strictly the latter is enforced is a question, but even for prostitutes working under these conditions there are still the problem with police shake-downs and harrassment (by both police and organized crime, which goes in for extortion), and … especially important to street walkers … violent clients.  In theory, the new credentialing system will provide some protection from the police.  And, again in theory, the street-walker has the legal right to set the terms of her employment, and to go to the law if she needs to.

Prostitutes’ rights organizations are hailing the new regulations, as a liberation, as do some feminist groups.   While the credentialling process takes up to 40 days to process, and is supposed to guarantee that the worker is engaging in the trade of her (or his) own free will, is not being pimped out, and is of legal age, concerns about sex trafficking  — especially in a country where counterfeit documents are easily obtained, and where sex trafficking is a major problem — other feminists are conflicted.  Although bribery is always a possibility, it’s not at all inconceivable that 14 year old girls would be given false IDs showing them to be 18 (the minimum age for credentialling) and/or for pimps to simply coach their victims into false information to investigators.

And, of course, there are those in the feminist community who see sex work as exploitation under any condition.  Given that the vast majority of street-walkers are women (or present themselves as female) and the clients are male; and that the client has the power in the business relationship;  there is a built-in sexist paradygm in legalized prostitution.  The experience in other countries suggests that legal prostitution does not lessen the sex trade, but I’m not convinced that prohibition is the answer to the latter, nor that it would somehow magically change the way men (or some anyway) treat women.

I think the credentialling is, however, at least a step in the right direction.

Bliss, Katherine Elaine.  Compromising Positions: Prostitution,Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City (Penn State University Press, 2001)

GarcíaTania Ortega.Credencialización de trabajador@s sexuales: ¿avance o retroceso en combate a la trata?“, Animal Politico, 31 Julio 2014

Grabman, Richard.  Life in the Fast Lane (Doesn’t Mean You Have to Lose Your Mind) eBook (2011).

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