Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from the book “Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business,” and reveals what life is like in the Galactic Zone — a state-run brothel in Mexico. We have reprinted the excerpt with the publisher’s permission.
Readers may not be aware that prostitution is legal and regulated in 13 of Mexico’s 31 states. A study by anthropologist Patty Kelly sheds light on one such system: the Galactic Zone outside Tuxtla in the state of Chiapas. Given the small scale of the Zone and Tuxtla’s population of half a million, there remains plenty of illegal prostitution in the area.
Moreover, some of the Galactic Zone’s regulations are obtrusive, such as the mandatory health card that includes the worker’s name, photo, and health status and must be renewed every three months (workers are routinely tested for syphilis and HIV).
Yet the Zone’s form of legal prostitution also has some benefits. First, the Zone appears to have broad popular support. In Tuxtla, “prostitution is generally accepted (and sometimes valued) as long as it is confined and invisible,” which is precisely what the Galactic Zone accomplishes.
Second, Zone workers have a “great deal of freedom and exercise control over their work.”
They alone decide when to work and for how long, who they will serve, and their rates; they come and go as they please; and many take extended leaves to visit family in other parts of Mexico. Almost all of the 140 women working in the Zone are independent, free of pimps.
Third, while prostitution is hardly lucrative for Zone workers, on a good day the women can earn as much as 10 times the daily minimum wage in Chiapas. It is not survival sex: the workers are able to buy consumer goods that they otherwise could not afford, such as nice clothing, mobile phones, jewelry, and items for their children.
Fourth, working in this arena helps to bolster the women’s sense of control over their lives and their self-esteem. Many began working in the Zone to support their children after escaping an unhappy, abusive, or violent relationship with a husband. The Zone allowed them to break free of dependency on their husbands and, more generally, to “find in prostitution a life better than the one they might have had.”
There are unpleasant aspects of this highly controlled type of prostitution, but the net effect of working in the Galactic Zone is positive for the women: control over working conditions, lack of coercion, economic advancement, and enhanced self-esteem.
One of the few comparative analyses of legal and illegal prostitution is anthropologist Yasmina Katsulis’s study of Tijuana, Mexico. Katsulis interviewed and observed workers in both spheres: those registered with the authorities, subjected to compulsory health exams, and holding a work card and those who had not registered. (Bars employing sex workers must be licensed and are subject to fines if their workers are not registered, but this does not apply to massage parlors, private brothels, dance halls, or escort services.)
Individuals and sexually oriented establishments in Tijuana are visited periodically by government inspectors. About a thousand prostitutes are working legally at any given time, along with a larger number of illegals.
Although the registration and mandatory health checks may seem burdensome, Katsulis documents positive outcomes for those who work legally, and these benefits are quite significant. A major finding is that legal status, in itself, has diffuse effects on the workers: providing social capital, empowerment, and a sense of professionalism.
The legal workers have better working conditions and job satisfaction, less fear about the nature of their work, and a higher degree of sophistication and confidence. . . . Registration and monthly checkups appear to encourage behaviours that are protective of health as well as provide a barrier against police harassment. Registration increases the sense of legitimacy and community and is correlated with much lower levels of depression and mental stress.
Moreover, the “social stigma attached to these [legal] work settings is also lessened.” And legal work is safer than illegal work, partly because of an improved relationship with the police, who are now more prepared to intervene in disputes between customers and workers: “for legal workers, the policing of customers offers protection against customer violence.”
Illegal workers, by contrast, experience police harassment, violence, fines, and incarceration; they have less stable social support networks; and they are about twice as likely as the legal workers to have been assaulted, robbed, or kidnapped.
Illegal prostitution thus remains problematic in Tijuana, and Katsulis’s study serves as a reminder that legalization may bypass many sex workers. The one unanswered question is why many Tijuana workers opt out of the legal system, but we know from research elsewhere that the reasons include fear of being formally labelled a prostitute and the increased risk of being discovered by friends and family members.
From “Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business” by Ronald Weitzer. Excerpted with permission from the New York University Press. Copyright 2012 by New York University.
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