Lessons from a Mexican Brothel

by Patty Kelly on June 16, 2009

On a chilly March morning, my friend Abraham and I head out by car from Washington, D.C. to rural Virginia to do some exploring. Visiting from Mexico City, Abraham has been to New York City many times. But large cities can give a visitor the wrong idea about a nation and I’m taking Abraham to see another side of America. We drive the curving wooded roads, passing dilapidated junk stores and the occasional farm stand. There is honey, fireworks, giant hams, rusty old cast iron pans, T-shirts bearing images of howling wolves and Native Americans. But for Abraham, trying to get a grasp on this America, something is missing from the rural setting and he asks in all innocence, “Where are the brothels?”

Where are the brothels? Though the question initially makes me laugh out loud, put into proper context, it makes sense: Brothels (burdeles, puterías, centros nocturnos, casas de cita, zonas de tolerancia) are commonly found rural, and urban, Mexico. Having spent a year in a Mexican brothel myself, I’m somewhat knowledgeable about the subject of brothels and a good person to answer such a question. And though it is not legal in most of the United States, commercial sex is not uncommon here: A 2004 ABC News poll found that 15 percent of all American males have paid for sex at some point in their lives; this figure jumps to 30 percent for single men over age thirty.
Sex Work as Part of the Cultural Milieu

I first went to Mexico to study commercial sex in 1997. By 1998 I was living in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the bustling capital city of Chiapas, and spending most of my time working as a cultural anthropologist in its Zona Galáctica, a “tolerance zone” where prostitution is legal and regulated by municipal authorities. I quickly came to see how sex work was a normal and fairly transparent part of the cultural milieu in Tuxtla and indeed, in much of Mexico. This is not to say that sex workers in Mexico are not stigmatized (they are), that all men buy commercial sex (they don’t), or that some Mexican friends weren’t occasionally titillated or disturbed by the notoriety of my research site (some were). Rather, commercial sexualities occupied a recognized, though not always agreed upon, place in the public consciousness. In Tuxtla’s city hall one could find a file of citizens’ complaints about visible street prostitution—which is illegal when not practiced in a regulated tolerance zone; during my year in Tuxtla police held frequent operativos or raids against unregulated male and female street sex workers. Still, men may hide their paid encounters from wives and girlfriends, but discussions of prostitution generally do not elicit terribly passionate opinions or angry hyperbole. To borrow an overused phrase, for many folks, it is what it is.

One hundred and forty women work in the Zona Galáctica and one thousand men enter its gates each day. The place is not an aberration or isolated phenomenon, but a cultural institution. The brainchild of Patrocinio González Garrido, a governor best known for human rights abuses, the brothel was built in 1991 not to give sex workers a safe place in which to work but in order to clean up city streets and regulate and contain prostitutes. It would be a mistake to think the governor had anything liberatory in mind when he conceived of the Galáctica—he was no feminist; in a 2005 interview, he told the local press, “The wife of a president has no function other than in the bed, the kitchen or the DIF [a social welfare agency often headed by wives of political functionaries].”

But the tolerance zone did turn out to be safer than the streets, where prostitutes are more frequently subject to rape, assault, and even murder. Since its opening, two women have been killed within the confines of the zone. I spent many, many hours in the company of sex workers in an effort to understand the operations of this particular legal brothel, its benefits and its drawbacks. We’d sit in their small rooms, usually painted bright pink or yellow, or at Pepe’s food stand just inside the main gate, drinking black sugary Nescafe, waiting for clients to arrive.

For these women the tolerance zone was a complicated place. Sex workers could earn more than the underpaid municipal cops who guarded the zone’s entrance, but this money didn’t buy them social status or decrease the stigma associated with selling (but not buying) sex. Women generally kept their work a secret, lying to family members and children. For example, *Sonia told her family back in El Salvador (about half of the zone women are Central American) that she worked as a clothing vendor, moving from city to city selling inexpensive blouses and dresses. Lying is hard, but the truth is harder still; besides, as Sonia says of her lie, “After a while you start to believe it, until you think it is true.” I became complicit in their lies, fabricating tales of how we’d met before going to their homes and getting to know their children, trying hard to keep my stories straight.

Working in the zone, which was open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., gave women the illusion of having a typical job with “normal” working hours and also allowed them the freedom to make their own hours, accommodating children’s schedules, appointments, and the like. But this didn’t reduce the stigma of being a woman who crossed moral borders to sell sex in a culture highly marked by gender inequality and beliefs about female “purity.” Furthermore, despite freedoms of scheduling and choosing which clients to serve (workers were generally independent entrepreneurs and thus, were free to reject clients), the administration of the tolerance zone subjected workers to strict rules and mandatory medical testing. The testing for HIV and other STDs may at first glance seem a good idea, but rates of HIV in Mexican states and even other countries that have mandatory medical testing for sex workers are no less than in those that do not require it. Given the amount of time for seroconversion (up to six months) and the number of clients potentially served each month (hundreds for a busy worker), testing prostitutes can give both workers and clients a false sense of security while engaging in a potentially dangerous transaction.
Prostitution and Public Policy

When my year in the Galactic Zone came to an end, I was left with some answers and more questions. In thinking about prostitution and public policy, criminalization, as practiced in most of the United States, persecutes sex workers and, given the number of men who say they have purchased sex, appears ineffective as a method of stopping both consumers and providers of sexual services. Legalization, as it occurs in some parts of Mexico, does not criminalize prostitutes, but neither does it remove the great stigma and shame that many women who sell sex suffer. In fact, in some ways, it appears to heighten the stigma and reinforce gender inequality; women who work in the legal zone must register as prostitutes as a matter of public record. They are considered necessary but dangerous figures, who are scapegoated as transmitters of disease and symbols of vice, and whose movements and actions are highly regulated and controlled by government officials.

New Zealand’s 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (PRA), which decriminalized prostitution and does not require the mandatory medical testing or the strict confinement of legalization, has had some interesting outcomes thus far and provides some insights on rethinking prostitution policy in the United States. A recent report issued by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice concludes that in the five years since the act was put into effect, “the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalization of the sex industry have not been experienced.” The Prostitution Law Review Committee, which evaluates the PRA (and with its beautifully unlikely membership—including a nun, a city councilor, a former police officer, an academic, and sex workers—sounds more like the beginning of a bad joke), states that the act “has had a marked effect in safeguarding the rights of sex workers” and that despite the widespread belief that most prostitutes are forced into the sex industry by a third party, “only a very small number [3.9 percent] . . . reported being made to work by someone else at the time of entry and after . . . ” Finally, with respect to public health, the committee reported that while there is a very low rate of HIV/AIDS among sex workers, it is likely that this is less the result of the PRA than of the longstanding practice of safe sex among prostitutes.

In my own work I found most sex workers, even those who had completed very little formal education, were well informed about HIV, knew how to protect themselves, and did when they could. Like *Lorena once told me, “It’s like a secretary with her typewriter. I’ve got to keep my machine clean.”

I’ve spent a good portion of my life observing, thinking, and writing about prostitution. And still, my thoughts about the subject remain complicated and sometimes contradictory. Though it wasn’t the first choice of jobs for any woman with whom I worked, it was often the best job available to them and there were surely many worse jobs that paid less. But I am not entirely comfortable with the sex industry, especially as it is a part of a larger and rapidly growing global service economy in which workers (including nannies, maids, waitresses, and erotic service providers) must feign and manage their emotions while meeting the emotional needs and demanding desires of those they serve. Service work, in this era of global capitalism, is also often marked by all sorts of disquieting injustices and inequalities, including those associated with class, gender, and race.

But there is something missing in my country’s laws and beliefs about prostitution and it seems to be an unflinching and honest assessment about who we are and what we do. There are approximately eighty thousand prostitution-related arrests in the United States every year, and according to the National Task Force on Prostitution, 1 percent of women claim to have worked as erotic service providers at some point in their lives (and don’t forget those 30 percent of single men over thirty who have paid for sex!). Despite the Eliot Spitzers, the Heidi Fleisses, the Eddie Murphys, and, best of all, the pastor Ted Haggards, we deny, deny, deny that prostitution plays a role in our culture. Like Sonia lies to her family back in El Salvador about what she does for work, so too do we lie to ourselves as a culture, though on a far more massive scale. What I admire about Mexico is not the legalization of sex work in some states, but the widespread cultural honesty about the topic. What I admire even more is New Zealand’s effort to transform their own honest assessment of their situation into a public policy that benefits both sex workers and society. The final conclusion of the sex workers, the nun, the police officer, the criminologist, the public health specialists and others who formed the committee to evaluate New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act states that “traditions and attitudes [about prostitution] developed over many years and cannot be changed overnight.” This is true. But perhaps it is time we start trying.

*Names changed to protect identities.

Patty KellyPatty Kelly is an assistant professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of Lydia’s Open Door: Inside Mexico’s Most Modern Brothel (University of California Press, 2008). She can be reached at drpattykelly@gmail.com.

Original may be seen at NSRC


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