The first time Elena Eva Reynaga was arrested for being a sex worker was in 1976, amidst the military coup in Argentina. She was detained for almost 100 days. The cell, she recalls, was “two by two with a toilet, or rather, a pit – with cockroaches, rats”.
Facing what she describes as constant police harassment, brutality and arrest, Reynaga stopped working until the early 1980s, “when democracy returned to the country,'' she told me. “But”, she added, “democracy did not return for us”.
The criminalisation of sex work in Argentina meant that, if caught, sex workers faced “prison for 21 days, or paying around $700 a week so that the police wouldn’t take you”, she said.
It was in prison with fellow sex workers, in 1994, that Reynaga decided to start political organising. “We were tired of police violence and injustice, and saw that no human rights organisation was going to concern itself with us – because of all that the subject of sex work brought up… So, our organisation began to take shape in jail”.
This organisation became the first sex worker union in Argentina – the Association of Meretrices Women of Argentina (AMMAR), which became affiliated with the Argentine Workers' Central Union in 1995. Since then, it has become a powerful political force in the country – though Reynaga is upfront about the challenges they’ve faced.
“I didn’t know how to read or write, I didn’t know that you had to make appointments to meet with politicians”, says Reynaga of her early days of activism. So she went knocking on legislators’ doors. And when they didn’t want to answer? “I called more sex workers, and we would stand in front of the door until they opened it.”
Reynaga told me the activists wanted to ensure those in power knew about the repression and violence sex workers faced – “about police bribes, what would happen to us inside the cells – which a lot of the time was rape”.
“And just when we thought sticking together would protect us from the police, the repression became much worse”, she recalled, “because the police started to see the formation of a women’s group was going to go against their interests”.
“They arrested me frequently”, she said, “and they would tell me to stop fucking around with human rights because they would frame me with ten kilos of cocaine and put a bullet through my neck”.
“They would tell me to stop fucking around with human rights because they would frame me with ten kilos of cocaine and put a bullet through my neck”
I met Reynaga at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last year, where she spoke on a panel at the 2018 World Forum for Democracy (WFD). She opened her comments by saying: “I am a woman, I am a sex worker, and I am a feminist”.
This was a powerful statement in the context of the panel that Reynaga spoke at, where other panellists and audience members presented arguments opposed to sex work in principle and appeared dismissive of her experience.
Reynaga, who spent 35 years as a sex worker in Argentina and Spain, was the only person with direct experience of the industry on the panel, which was entitled ’Fighting trafficking in human beings’. She told the room clearly that in order to be effective in this fight “we need to differentiate between abuse, trafficking, and sex work”.
Despite this, throughout the discussion, people continued to conflate sex work with trafficking – inaccurately presenting sex workers as trafficking victims that need “rescue”, and all trafficked women and girls as forced to work in this industry specifically.
Other panellists were visibly looking at their phones as Reynaga spoke, and repeatedly referred to sex workers as “prostitutes” – signalling their clear positions on this issue as sex worker rights activists have long established why ‘sex worker’ is the preferred term.
One speaker even asserted that sex workers have “some sort of amnesia” related to trauma, and are therefore unable to be authoritative voices on their own experiences.
When I spoke to Reynaga after the panel, she referenced a similar comment from an audience member, that sex workers have “psychological trauma comparable to people who have survived war”.
Reflecting on this, she told me that, in fact, it’s the dehumanising experiences of incarceration and police abuse that are traumatising – not selling sex.
Reynaga she told me she’d almost turned down her invitation to speak at the WFD event. The veteran activist is well-acquainted with “people who are not willing to listen” to sex workers – and said she expected this space would be no different.
“It’s normal”, she said, referring to the panel’s anti-sex work tone – “so every time we see things like this, we strive to become even more organised, to educate people, so that there are many more sex workers that can show their faces, speak”.
“We strive to become even more organised, to educate people, so that there are many more sex workers that can show their faces, speak”
Now 65, Reynaga continues to educate people on the arguments for decriminalising sex work – and how criminalisation makes sex workers’ lives harder and more dangerous.
In 1997, the AMMAR sex workers’ union in Argentina became a member of the wider, regional Network of Women Sex Workers from Latin America and the Caribbean (RedTraSex), which Reynaga also co-founded. Today, RedTraSex has member groups in 15 countries.
“I always say that in order to do all that we’ve done in these 25 years, it’s because I fell in love with the cause – because when I fall in love, very rarely… I fall in love with a madness”, said the activist, describing some of their organising victories.
In the mid-1990s, the new local government of Buenos Aires invited AMMAR to feed into its new constitution. This is when the union began pushing for the eradication of criminal codes against sex work – succeeding in 1998, with their unanimous repeal.
Since then, no sex worker has been detained for selling sex in the capital city. “From there we began our strong militancy, and started to organise in all the provinces”, Reynaga added. AMMAR is now active in 14 of Argentina’s 23 provinces.
Another achievement, Reynaga told me, is AMMAR’s work on HIV and AIDS. She described organising with sex workers on prevention and treatment and “training with comrades and with doctors” that contributed to a dramatic decline in prevalence rates.
Key to the group’s strength is the diversity of the women involved in it – though building inclusivity within this movement has required work, Reynaga added.
She too “had to deconstruct my preconceptions”, and recalled the case of a fellow activist who came out as a lesbian, 10 years ago, and some of their peers did not react well. “From this moment, we set to work on the subject of sexuality and freedom”.
“A high-heels movement”
In 2007, RedTraSex network published a guide for sex workers and their allies on how to build fair and equitable movements. Reynaga described this resource, called ‘A high heels movement’, as “a beautiful manual, it’s like our Bible”.
One part of the guide looks at gender identity. Not all feminist movements in Argentina, or internationally, are trans-inclusive – but AMMAR is. “In the union, our transgender comrades are women – period”, Reynaga said. “That is not up for discussion”.
Looking back at her experiences as a sex worker, Reynaga told me that, for her, sex work “means opportunity, it means autonomy”.
After she was married at 15-years-old, as a single mother by 18, sex work allowed Reynaga to have a home – and the means to raise her two children and build her activism. “I owe it to sex work… That my granddaughter goes to university today, that she brings students over so they can interview me, for them to feel proud”.
“I owe it to sex work”
Of the global movement for the decriminalisation of sex work, Reynaga says the key demands are common across borders: for sex work to be recognised as work, for these workers to have rights – and, crucially, for them “to be listened to: we don’t want anyone speaking for us, we are capable of speaking, of thinking and dreaming for ourselves”.
Reynaga says that, too often, people in Latin America consider Europe to be more ‘open-minded’ – and progress on the issue of sex worker rights challenges this idea.
Sex workers in Argentina are “not messed around with anymore”, because they “go out to protest very quickly, [we] go to the media, [we] report immediately”, she said. Before, “I was called a ‘fucking whore’ – now, I’m called Señora Reina [Madame Queen]”.
Though she too is worried about how recent shifts in the global and regional political climate may negatively affect women’s rights.
“There are beautiful things happening [in Latin America],'' she said, “but democracies are going backwards in a very serious way with governments like that of Bolsonaro, Macri, Ortega” – naming the leaders of Brazil, Argentina and Nicaragua who she believes reflect the increased visibility and power of fascism worldwide.
She warned that people across these countries are now “losing rights that we won – especially women, women always end up paying for the crisis”.