"If I were born again, I would still be a sex worker"

Elena Reynaga, RedTraSex Executive Secretary and founder of AMMAR shares her story, the success of her organisations and the ongoing fight for sex worker rights in Latin America. Interview. Español

Natalia Umansky Piers Purdy
26 October 2016


Elena Reynaga speaking at the Foro de Organizaciones Feministas de la CEPAL in Montevideo, Uruguay. Photo: RedTraSex Archive. All Rights Reserved.

Democracia Abierta: Tell us a little about your history, how did you find yourself becoming an activist for the rights of sex workers in Argentina and across Latin America, and the President of RedTraSex?

Elena Reynaga: I started as a sex worker when I was 19, and at 25 or 27 I moved to Buenos Aires. I lived through the military regime, a time when no one had rights, and as part of that regime sex workers suffered a lot of institutional violence. We would go into prison cells and never know when we would be coming out. I would be in prison for 8 months of the year, without having committed a single crime, simply for being a sex worker. I would be put in a cell for 90 days, and then 2 or 3 days after being released I would be put back in again. With the military regime you never knew what was going to happen.

When the military regime ended, we thought that democracy was going to benefit us, but in reality the only change was the number of days we spent in a cell. The injustice was the same, and we continued to be held in cells. Perhaps not for the full 90 days, instead we were released 21 days after they had picked us up, and this would still go on multiple times throughout the year. So, I went to work in Europe for 5 years, in Spain, because the police harassment in Argentina was so widespread.

“Despite there being many human rights organisations in Argentina, no one cared for us, because we were a badly discriminated part of society.”

DA: You went back to Argentina in the 1990s. What was the environment for sex workers like when you returned?

ER: Honestly, we had to pay the police so that you could work and wouldn’t be put in a cell. Then there was an order from higher authorities not to take money from us anymore, because it was becoming too exposed publicly. Then, the same people that were taking money from us would now take us in and beat us. And so it was that some of us, sharing a cell, began to think that this had to end – how could the same people who were taking money from us, addressing us as Señora, later call us worthless whores when we weren’t paying them anymore. And we were beaten and raped in the cells and patrol cars.

This started the crazy idea that something had to be done. But we also knew no one else was going to do it, that no one was going to take responsibility for us, because we had already seen that despite there being many human rights organisations in Argentina, no one cared for us, because we were a badly discriminated part of society.

So back in ’94, we started an organisation. Two anthropologists were investigating prostitution in public places and told us the story of Uruguay, where the true origins of organisation lie. And, well, we thought, if the Uruguayans could organise themselves, why couldn’t we? And so, that was the start of our organisation.

DA: It can’t have been simple from there though. How did you first start your activism campaigning for better sex worker rights?

ER: The first few years were very hard, and I want to make it clear that we worked very hard to repeal a law that gave us 21 days imprisonment. It was lucky that we were part of the central Argentinian workers group, of which we became part of in 1995. I always said that it was thanks to us joining the working class movement that we were able to do so many things – without thinking about money, the money came from our own pockets. We worked very hard for 3 years around Buenos Aires’ legislative institutions, doing what today we call political lobbying, but back then we didn’t know what political influence was. But we knew that we had to tell legislators of the atrocities that we had experienced, and so, after 3 years we achieved the change in the law that we wanted, and several others that affected not only sex workers, but also the gay community, the poor or anyone who was in the street and who’s face the police did not like.

And here began my activism. I never expected to be the President of AMMAR, even less to have founded RedTraSex, the Latin American network. I was fortunate.

DA: How can we change the stigma surrounding sex work, if we want to defend the basic rights of sex workers?

ER: First, overcome your prejudices. Because I believe that the discrimination and society’s views of us is social prejudices. For this, it is essential to listen. So, we produce information that communicates our position, to show the world that without having been to school or university, without having the tools that some people do, we had to acquire them along the way on.

We decided to be sex workers. And sometimes people are like “if they had another chance”, starting with that sort of thing. Surely we can say that if the cleaning lady had another chance she wouldn’t clean, if the builder wasn’t a builder – but our decision takes precedence. It is a question of self-determination, the recognition of our work as work.

“If I were born again I would still be a sex worker, I don’t doubt it for a second.”

Separately, looking at our work with the organisation, we have managed to lower the HIV AIDS epidemic, we have succeeded in reducing violence, and we have empowered women who can now speak with their own voice and of their own experiences, perhaps without ever having gone to school. And I think that is very valuable.

The media never call us to ask how many people we have managed to rescue and educate, or what happens to the lives of people once they are part of our organisation. There are many wonderful things that made me fall in love with this cause, but it seems that it doesn’t matter, because the world doesn’t care.

The important thing is to overcome your prejudices, let us speak, and then listen. And stop thinking, “if they had another chance…” No, sorry, if I were born again I would still be a sex worker, I don’t doubt it for a second.

DA: The subject of sex worker rights is being debated across the world at the moment. What sort of debate is there in Latin America, as a region, at the moment?

ER: The good thing about the debate is that we are here, after a lot of persistence. Because a debate isn’t possible if only one voice is heard. The evolving feminist movement was having a debate for a long time without us, and we said “great lets debate”, but we want to be included. So today, we are participating in regional, national, even global events.

I’ve just come from Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWIC), which has a global feminist meeting every 4 years and the wonderful thing is that, for the first time, we were named in some of the plenary sessions – and this shows that we are gaining ground in a sense, starting to make ourselves visible. Because without a name, you are virtually non-existent.

“In the past the feminist movement was elitist and academic – and today it is in the slums, and that is the beauty of it."

Most of the opposition to sex work is abolitionist. Within this group there are some that will probably never be convinced otherwise, due to their position on the issue. But the fact that we no longer worry too much because there has already been a step forward for young feminists, pro-sex work, that is having huge success.

DA: And so do you now consider yourselves as part of the new movement of feminists?

ER: Yes, we are feminists. Of course we are. Since we organised ourselves we have been defending not only ourselves, but all women. Firstly, because we are women who make up the Latin American network. And then because of the problems that women face in general, for whom the feminist movement was first created - they are the same problems that we are facing.

What I think is new in recent years, not only with sex workers, is that in the past the feminist movement was elitist and academic – and today it is in the slums, and that is the beauty of it. To really lower, or eradicate the violence perpetrated against women – both institutionalised and domestic – we have to work together. So you have to work with normal, day-to-day women, not always in the academic institutions. I started going to women’s events 24 years ago, and today in comparison, I am seeing that increasingly they are becoming more for the ordinary woman.

In the past it was elitist, it’s important to clarify that. At first, I didn’t understand them, because it was as if I spoke another language – because the language they were speaking was more academic, and so you don’t understand. So I think today is much better because of the language being used, and so afro women, indigenous women, and trans-sexuals are participating in the debate. So I think we are on the right track, and I stress that the only way to achieve the demands of women, both politically and with regards to earnings, like everything else, is that we are all together.

DA: There have been those who argue that the term ‘sex worker’ legitimises sexual exploitation and suffering – is there a lack of consensus amongst those who are fighting for a similar cause on terminology?

ER: Firstly, this is a term that was agreed on at a conference in the United States in the 1986, that nobody imposed upon us. Some people say that it is United Nations terminology and that it was forced upon us. And this is an example of why I say we are continuously underestimated. It seems that there always has to be someone thinking for us, and I think that’s terrible.

Sometimes I think that those fighting against patriarchy end up doing exactly the same things as patriarchy, because if we lose the ability of thought, voice and self-determination, it is practically the same as patriarchy. So, you can say you agree with us or not, but you don’t have to think ‘those poor things’.

I think there is a lot of anger, but we’re not angry anymore – this anger comes from those who don’t like to see us organise ourselves, creating organisations with legal status. Now, we are competing for economic resources. Because years ago, before what we’re doing these days, people could make a lot of money from researching those poor prostitutes, saying that they were going to educate them etc. but we never saw the results. So, I think that since then, our organisation managing its own resources has generated anger.

Where we have got to is remarkable. Recently I was elected onto a UN Women advisory board, which twenty years ago would have been unheard of. I have just been invited, by the Colombian government, to a summit of world leaders to attend a plenary session. Again, that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. So I think there are a lot of people who do not like this.

DA: The lobbying and publicity efforts organised by the Association of Argentinian Female Prostitutes (AMMAR) seem to be well received by the media and politicians alike. Do you think it will have a long-lasting impact on policy? And how can other organisations in Latin American learn from AMMAR’s success?

ER: Everything that AMMAR does has an impact. I think what AMMAR does that other organisations in the RedTraSex network don’t is that we see communication as having such a far-reaching impact in our fight.

You can do great things, but if you don’t take communication seriously and see its wide impact, or look for resources to support your communication, then you cannot become what we are. For example, the tetaso in 2015 was a crazy idea some of us had – I say crazy because the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were considered crazy, so for us crazy is a positive term, because to do what they and other organisations like them do, you have to be a little bit crazy. At the tetaso, five of our colleagues made an impact in the world media – and that’s what we want to be doing.

“You can have the best laws in Latin America, but while the machista culture, and violence exist, one law will not change everything.”

We understand that organised events for sex workers in the streets will never achieve great mass – by mass I mean involve a huge amount of women – because we know that even though we are deeply proud of being sex workers, when you leave the house you are first a woman and a mother. So when you go onto the streets, you are fully exposing yourself. If you have young children, they are going to school, or already attend primary, secondary school, or even university, and sometimes they face very cruel discrimination. So for this reason, many of our colleagues choose not to go onto the streets for these events. And because of this, our organisation always has to think about strategy, culture and the media – other ways of having a big media impact – and I think the tetaso achieved this.

DA: What are the priorities of RedTraSex, as a regional movement, over the coming years?

ER: Today we are heavily focused on the issue of law. We have to work hard in raising awareness in the political legislature of each country for a law that that addresses sex worker autonomy. And we are also in the process of raising awareness amongst both politicians and the police, because you can have the best laws in Latin America, but while the culture of machista, and violence exist one law will not change everything.

Justice is only given to the rich, the poor have to fight for it.

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To the reader: Are there similar debates on sex worker rights in your country? Are they having a positive impact on society? Leave your thoughts below.

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