The Association of Women Sex Workers in Argentina in Action for Our Rights (AMMAR) has painted the walls of Buenos Aires with new ads demanding legal protection for female sex workers.
The ads, commissioned by AMMAR and designed by the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, are carefully positioned on various street corners, revealing a sexualized woman on one side wall while the other shows her pushing a stroller or holding hands with her young children. The campaign, aptly named, “Corner,” offers distinct images of women as both sex workers and mothers, challenging public perception and calling attention to the marginalization and dehumanization of those in the sex trade. On the side of the ad with the child are the words,
86 percent of sex workers are mothers. We need a law to regulate our work.
In 1994, Elena Reynaga founded AMMAR, an organization for sex workers advocating for their rights as both workers and women. The following year, AMMAR joined CTA, one of Argentina’s main trade unions, but the organization has yet to be officially recognized by the government in their association with CTA.
Prostitution is currently legal in Argentina, although organized sites of prostitution such as brothels remain illegal. However, it is the country’s official abolitionist stance on prostitution that complicates the discussion of how to best offer sex workers legal protection. In theory, abolitionists want to address the factors that lead women to sex work and end the sex trade without criminalizing the sex workers themselves. But in the meantime, the government’s reluctance to recognize sex work as a legitimate profession fails to protect women against the violence and discrimination of an unregulated industry.
At the heart of this controversy is the idea of “voluntary” sex work. Are these women acting of their own volition? Or is their involvement in sex work a means of survival and a way to feed their families?
As an organization, AMMAR makes a clear distinction between voluntary sex work and prostitution by framing the need for government oversight as a human rights issue rather than a political statement. AMMAR writes on its website,
We can talk about ‘sex work’ and not ‘prostitution’ as a result of a long ideological and political battle in the context of human rights and respect for the self-determination of women. And we believe it is necessary to get decent conditions for us to continue working.
But this very distinction is what caused an internal division within AMMAR in 2002. Graciela Collantes, leader of AMMAR-Capital, disagreed with this notion of a “voluntary” sex worker, instead choosing to refer to herself as a “prostitute.” She explains,
The prostitute is a victim of the system, of the absence of public policies that protect and incorporate the rights of women. Sex work, no.
Like the political controversy swirling around the issue of sex work, the battles between policies advocating for abolition versus regulation and the “sex worker” versus the “prostitute” prevent progress. With 93 percent of AMMAR’s members identifying as the sole providers of their families, the consequences of associating individual sex workers with prostitution and sex trafficking leaves these women without their fundamental rights. And failing to recognize the organization as an official trade union is an injustice that endangers these women and further perpetuates stigma and shame.
The street art campaign, “Corner,” is certainly clever. Although, it isn’t uncommon for art to carry some sort of politicized message, this street art imitates life by reminding us just how multidimensional and complicated these issues can be. But it’s time to turn the corner on this debate—to see the ad in its entirety: a sex worker striving to provide for her family in an unregulated and discriminatory environment. The staggering statistic “86 percent of sex workers are mothers” shouldn’t be the only reason to advocate for sex worker rights. It is a reason, but it is not the only reason. Yes, this woman is a sex worker, but she is also a mother, a woman, a human. And regardless of her profession, she deserves the right to work under safe conditions.
Photo of Buenos Aires Street Art courtesy of AMMAR’s Facebook page.