Sex work in Argentina is legal, but since 2011 the anti-trafficking agenda has increasingly threatened that status. This has led to new alliances and strategies of resistance among sex workers there.
The Women’s Sex Workers organisation of Argentina AMMAR was born in 1995 as a consequence of the criminalisation of sex work in public spaces in Capital Federal, a subsidiary of Buenos Aires. We sex workers organised ourselves to fight for our rights after having been subjected to all kinds of abuse, including exclusion, discrimination, and being treated as outcasts. Months later we joined the Argentinean Workers’ Central Trade Union, where we remain active to this day, and in 1997 we became a part of the Network of Women Sex Workers from Latin America and the Caribbean (RedTraSex).
It is said that Argentina has officially adopted an abolitionist approach, meaning that in principle it does not criminalise the exercise of prostitution per se, but rather the third parties that exploit the prostitution of others. Brothels were prohibited in 1936 by law 12.331, and subsequent legislation has effectively criminalised those who exercise sex work in the street and private spaces in 19 provinces. This demonstrates the thin boundaries between the abolitionist and prohibitionist models.
In Argentina, sex work is exercised in private apartments, pubs and dance clubs, on the street, autonomously, and through third parties. In some cases we experience labour exploitation – the same can be said for many other workers – and the lack of regulation of our activity exposes us to persecution and police abuses. In order to fight for our rights, our organisation has adopted a series of strategies, including a law proposal; working on building political alliances; offering day to day assistance in legal and health matters; and handing out condoms. We also spread our initiatives, such as public protests or debates, through our own social networks and public media. One of our most recent initiatives has been the creation of the Observatory on Institutional Violence against Sex Work and the launch of a hotline through which sex workers can lodge complaints of institutional violence.
AMMAR also functions as a trade union although it cannot legally be one, given the lack of regulation of sex work. This way of self-organisation allows us and our 6000 affiliates to emphasise the fact that we are workers. It has also given us a structure in seven provinces, where our representatives are chosen by our comrades. To do this work we are supported by several international agencies, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Red Umbrella Fund, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, UNAIDS, and the Levi Strauss Foundation.
Fighting the regressive trend
It is important to highlight that, since 2011, a powerful lobby against trafficking has been installed in Argentina, together with new laws that do not differentiate human trafficking from sexual exploitation and sex work. These policies were aimed to tackle the sex market as a whole and we, the ‘vulnerable women’, didn’t know how to move against such a big monster that was coming to take away our voices and occupy our political spaces. On 5 July 2011, President Cristina Fernández Kirchner signed Decree 936, which prohibited the publishing of sexual services in advertisements.
With a stroke of her pen she restricted the freedom of speech of thousands of us in a full democracy. We were never invited to discuss this legislation. Afterwards, sex work venues started getting shut, province by province, through actions carried forward mainly by those female legislators and abolitionist organisations leading the charge against trafficking. In 2012, another policy designed so as to control human trafficking required people from the Dominican Republic to get a visa in order to have legal permission to enter the country.
The phones at AMMAR didn’t stop ringing, but it wasn’t the press who wanted to hear our opinion on these new policies – it was our comrades. We realised we were dealing with an unwavering political decision, and so we set to work organising our colleagues. Thanks to these new policies there are now many more organised sex workers in Argentina. What a paradox: we were prohibited from exercising sex work, but we became organised as sex workers.
New laws, new alliances, new tactics
Knowing that we had increasingly fewer spaces in which to work without being threatened by closures and legal sanctions, we accelerated the process to present our own law proposal. We finished in October 2013. It is based on the premise that the Argentinian state does not consider sex work an illegal activity. Following this, it proposes to regulate sex work in the country by providing legal age sex workers – including transgendered and migrant workers – with labour rights such as the access to retirement funds and health benefits. It also includes a way to licence locations for sex work that meet supervision, health, and hygiene requirements.
At first, we presented our proposal by ourselves – no other organisation or labour union supported our demands. On the contrary, the campaign against prostitution had become so strong that our own comrades, who had witnessed the organisation’s birth and growth, started questioning our demands. We went in search of new directions, but we stumbled upon such seasoned and academic feminism that we left frightened, believing that even feminism wanted to decide over our bodies.
For a long time we stayed away from those spaces. But one day, as the raids, closures, and anti-sex work propaganda continued unabated, two anthropologists shyly showed up to our organisation with a proposal. They wanted to help us keep record of the institutional outrage we were experiencing. At first, we hesitated, we distrusted, but then we agreed and were not mistaken: they brought us back to spaces we had abandoned, they showed us another feminism – one that supported us.
We proposed new alliances. We won the support of the LGBT community, amongst them many trans sex workers. They were followed by a queer group, which supported us as representatives of a fellow minority persecuted because of our sexuality, and by labour unions that recognised us as workers, some of which are members in the Argentinean Workers’ Central Trade Union. Together with these organisations we repeatedly campaigned for our labour rights in public places, persevering even though we often received reactions that felt like slaps in the face.
We didn’t give up and decided to carry on with a different kind of action: issuing bills for our services, as if sex work was a legal category. The bill is the symbol for formalised, legal work in our country and that is why we carried out a campaign on May Day 2015 – Worker’s Day – of billing our sex services to recognised politicians and journalists. We wanted to demonstrate that our access to labour rights was possible without changing the entire law, just by adding the category of sex work onto the Labour Department’s register.
The results were better than we could have expected: politicians who hadn’t listened to us before received us and the media covered our demands for labour rights as a relevant topic. The billing campaign won the EIKON 2015 communications award from the Imagen magazine (a Spanish-language public relations and communications magazine).
We have not yet succeeded in having sex work included on the Labour Department’s register, but, unsure of what the political context will look like in the future, we keep fighting. We also plan the presentation of a new national ‘law project’ to regulate autonomous sex work and battle against new local policies, such as fines for sex work clients in the capital of the province of Mendoza. There have been plenty of bad reactions to our activism, but we haven’t remained still and have actually become even stronger. Here we are, many more voices demanding access to labour rights.
Translated by Julieta Mendive