Claudia Torres: Sex Work, Law and Police in Mexico City

Claudia Torres obtained her law degree in Mexico City, where she is originally from. She is a Harvard SJD student committed to improve the living conditions of sex workers and change the way law is taught in Mexico. She has worked at the Mexican Supreme Court and CIDE.

Read Spanish version here.

Sex Work, Law and Police in Mexico City

By Claudia Torres

Sex work was officially decriminalized in Mexico City on May 21, 2019.  Before then, sex work on the streets was considered a minor offense carrying a fine or arrest. A group of neighbors could complain to the police to ask for the workers to be brought before a judge, taking them off the streets. Today, procuring and sex trafficking are the only aspects of sexual work punishable by law. The first crime punishes those who benefit from the prostitution of others, without taking into account whether the activity is voluntary or not. The second crime is different because, in theory, it refers only to forced prostitution (when the person has been tricked, forced, threatened, or manipulated through an abuse of power or taking advantage of vulnerability).  

Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by the sex trade. Both my academic training and feminism led me to this debate about sex work, perhaps because it permitted me to sublimate—to use the psychoanalytic term—my own experience of sexual abuse. In studying the sex trade, I found a space to think about the productive dimension of sexuality which, doubtlessly, has been bound up with structures of inequality—sexual inequality, for sure, but also the inequities of race and class.  

In 2015, my interest in the subject led me to Harvard Law School. While working on my Master’s degree, I interviewed sex workers in two of the most important spots for the sex trade in Mexico City: Puente de Alvarado Street and the La Merced neighborhood.

During the interviews, I noticed that the sex workers used legal norms in ways that, many times, deviated from the original intentions of the legislators. I also realized that police played a fundamental role in the lives of these women. They are the first point of contact between the sex workers, clients and neighbors, on one hand, and the state apparatus (including the justice system) on the other.

For my doctorate, I decided to delve deeper into the informal use of law by street sex workers and the police, as well as to examine the affective relations between these two groups. This summer, after two years of research in Cambridge, I arrived in Mexico City to undertake a year of important ethnographic work.  

When I begin my dissertation research, I will carry out interviews and conduct participatory observation in two spots: Puente de Alvarado and Calzada de Tlalpan, where the trans population (transgender, transsexual and travesties) make up most of the street sex workers. I am also going to interview police detectives, who investigate sex trafficking, and the preventative police: two institutions that have formal powers in regard to the sex trade. This research aims to deepen the exploration I started as a Master’s student. My prior research has led me to several findings, two of which I will describe here. 

The first finding is that the sex workers’ informal use of law goes beyond the crime of sex trafficking. By the term “informal use of law,” I refer to law in action, and specifically to incentives and strategies that, in the social world, generate legal norms, independently of their original intention or the law on the books. Feminists tend to discuss legal themes related to the sex trade from very polarized stances. Liberal feminists, on the one hand, advocate for the regulation of prostitution. On the other hand, radical or neo-abolitionist feminists favor decriminalization of prostitution, with criminal penalties for sex trafficking, procuring and the demand of sexual services by johns.

But, on the ground, I see that sex workers don’t want their work to be regulated and that the crime of sex trafficking plays a relatively small role on the streets. They contend that regulation brings along with it registration, medical inspection and tax payments (and at least in the Mexican case, they are right). In their experience, these types of measures unnecessarily expose them to discrimination by medical personnel and also deepen their poverty through added expenses and taxes. They want sex work to be legal, not for sex workers to come under regulation.

In respect to sex trafficking, it is certain that the crime is invoked by many sex workers to threaten their fellow workers or their leaders when they believe an abuse has been committed. For example, new girls may want to work a particular street, but more established sex workers won’t let them have a spot, so the newer ones accuse them of sex trafficking. Some prostitutes will accuse former lovers of sex trafficking to seek revenge. The accusations are also used as leverage against people who informally control the streets and beat sex workers up to demand money. That is, demanding money does not provoke the accusation of sex trafficking; rather, that is considered the way of the street. It is the use of violence that the women object to.  For example, Yesenia (the names in this article have been changed to protect the confidentiality of my interview subjects) had a relationship with a young man by the name of Carlos, who asked her to work as a prostitute so they could save money and get married. She decided to accuse him the day Carlos told her that she would be moved to New York.   Yesenia said she was tired of his infidelity and that she was not going any place; she wanted to keep on working in Mexico City. When Yesenia stood up to Carlos and said she would not go, Carlos beat her up. Yesenia then filed a complaint against him for sex trafficking.

But these stories emerge only when one asks specifically about them. In contrast, the crime of robbery spontaneously appears over and over again in anecdotes about the daily lives of the sex workers.  They recount johns’ various strategies to accuse them of theft. Some of the clients pay for sex and the hotel room by giving the prostitutes their cellphones or car keys. Then they call the police and accuse the sex worker of having robbed them.  Others pay for sexual services in cash but call the police when they are not satisfied with the sex provided to ask for a sort of “refund.” I was surprised to learn that some johns think that their inability to get an erection is a legitimate reason for them to ask for their money back. The sex workers, obviously, do not agree and this leads the johns to denounce theft. I was even more surprised that, when I asked sex workers if they were afraid of being accused of sex trafficking, they replied that they weren’t, but they were afraid of being accused of “a crime they didn’t commit” such as theft.  

Others I interviewed mentioned the crime of drug sales. In particular, Estela told me that she had been arrested and sentenced unjustly to three and a half years of probation for allegedly selling crack. She recounted that she was with a friend the morning she was arrested. Both were eating tacos at a street vendor near where they worked. Estela was eating standing up, which is not strange on Mexico City streets, but she was the only one standing. She saw a black van approaching. She saw several men getting out of the vehicle. Everything else was a blur. She felt someone grab her purse. Then the men surrounded her and shoved her into the van. At the police station, she remained silent. “As I’m not used to being in those types of places, I didn’t say anything.” Estela was charged. The evidence: her purse, which appeared full of drugs at the Public Ministry. The other young woman she was with, Anette, told me that there were at least two other prostitutes in the same situation as Estela. It seems to me that crimes not currently addressed by us feminists are a real crux for sex workers and we have not discussed the issue yet.

The second finding is that, although street prostitution was decriminalized, other relatively minor offenses still allow police to arrest sex workers.  For instance, the Civic Culture Law of Mexico City [LCCDMX]: “to use words with a sexual connotation on a public street” or “to touch oneself with lascivious intention [in public].”  Before being decriminalized, “to invite to prostitution or carry out prostitution” was considered an offense in terms of this law. The provisions that still remain on the books allow the police to get sex workers off the street.

I understand that being solicited on a public street can be bothersome for some and that, at least in this sense, it is worth keeping these offenses on the books in the LCCCDMX. However, the lesson I learned about the criminalization while it was on the books is that the offenses generated a large imbalance of power in favor of the police.   In general, in accordance with the LCCCDMX, a prior complaint is not necessary to make an arrest.  Nor does a police officer have to present an arrest warrant. The huge amount of discretion permitted by law means that the police can threaten sexual workers with arrest and obtain sexual favors in exchange for freedom.  Also, since sex workers tend to look for protection from third parties to avoid police abuse, the LCCCDMX strengthens the dependence of the sex workers on those who control several points of prostitution in Mexico City.

In my upcoming research, I will seek to deepen these stories and to find others. Although access has been difficult, I remain enthusiastic. And I am very grateful to the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, as well as to the Committee on General Scholarships, for having afforded me this opportunity. I have met brilliant and brave people in the streets. I hope that my investigation, once it is finished, can guide feminists and lawyers beyond the abstract principles of how things ought to be and towards the complexity and specific circumstances of the social dynamics informed by law. I believe that only then can we articulate legal reforms that correspond to the necessities of these historically marginalized groups.