They sit, waiting. The fluorescent light from the grubby hotel door lights up their faces. Their beady eyes alert, surveying every woman and girl who comes out of the hotel. Apparently, some are waiting to see their favourite. Others don’t have enough money to pay for sex, so they come to La Merced to be aroused by the mere sight of the women who work there. I watch from a distance as the younger girls lined up outside the hotel stand in one spot for hours. Amongst the Johns are the pimps, observing the girls and making sure they do not set foot from their soliciting spot. One woman tells us she was kidnapped and kept inside one of these hotels when she was first brought to La Merced, only ever allowed leave to solicit. She says that around twenty years later, nothing has changed. Inside the hotel are girls who have been trafficked to La Merced and remain captive under the strict control of their traffickers. Police pass us by on the street, surveying us and casting indiscrete glances up and down the bodies of the women working the night shift.
Most of the Johns are in their 40s and 50s and upwards. Two younger men around my own age catch my attention – they carry their bags in front of them, a tactic to avoid being robbed. Their nervous glances around them make it seem like it is their first time in La Merced, and they are here for one reason only. One walks up to a woman leaning against the cage separating the hotel from the street, asks her a question and they walk into the hotel. The other continues shopping and disappears from view. I reflect on the irony of these young men, who look they come from relatively privileged backgrounds, carrying their valuables in front of them to make sure nobody could steal from them as they come to a place where their intention is to devalue the lives of the women they pay for.
I am at my first Block Party, a monthly activity by El Pozo de Vida where they throw a party in the streets of either La Merced or Buenavista, two red-light districts in Mexico City. This one is in La Merced, where I spend my time working in the community centre Dunamis, set up to support the women who are in situations of prostitution. I have become used to La Merced during the day, and its daily assault on all my senses. The sights of the hundreds upon thousands of street vendors. The music blaring from speakers. The vendors whistling to each other, secret codes formed to alert each other of strangers or potential dangers. The smells coming from the food stands. People everywhere, and people staring. Being on constant alert.
At night, La Merced is a different place. The atmosphere is more ominous, the air seems heavier. The relative silence is eerie as the vendors take away their stalls, further exposing the hundreds of women who line the streets waiting for clients. Mountains of rubbish, and rotting food left on the street are heaven for the rats who dart across the streets. The idea behind the Block Parties is to bring light and life to the reality of La Merced at night, and we meet in the community centre before setting up our area. Everybody who works or volunteers with Pozo is invited, meaning the community centre was full to the brim with people praying and separating into groups before the party. Some teams took charge of giving manicures. Others were playing music. One team had the unenviable task of talking to the Johns, and offering them to share the free hot-dogs and churros we were handing out. I was on the team with my regular workmates, as we spoke to the women and girls individually, handing them a rose with a nice message and inviting them to come to the party. Because of the safety in numbers aspect, and the fact we were in the same place for a while, after our walk around to the women I had the chance to observe what was going on. It was the first chance I had to observe the behaviour of the men who come feeling entitled to buy the bodies of these women, and it made me reflect on the demand for prostitution that perpetuates the reality of human trafficking and sexual exploitation across the world: and that includes Ireland.
We live in a world where we are taught that women are subordinate to men. Where women are judged on their sexual allure and availability. Where the hyper-sexualisation of women has become the norm in every single medium we consume. At the same time, girls and women are taught to cover up, to feel shame for their sexuality. We must tread a fine line between covering up our sexuality and being sexually willing when required. In our cisnormative and heteronormative societies, girls and women are trained from a young age to cater to the needs of men. Boys and men learn that they accumulate respect by being hyper-masculine, by using women and by making money. All of this is tied into the reality of prostitution. Carol Pateman asked in 1999 “What’s wrong with prostitution?” She claims that not only is prostitution linked to female subordination in general, it is a direct result of patriarchal capitalism. In our capitalist societies, we expect to be able to buy and sell whatever goods and services we want. When people talk about prostitution as a career choice, and a free contract between consenting adults, the reality of who holds the power in this transaction is omitted. In a clear majority of cases, prostitution is not as simple as the exchange of a service for money on the labour market.
The people who hold the power in La Merced are the pimps, the madams, the falcons and the Johns; not the women who are essentially kept as outdoor prisoners on the streets of La Merced. Furthermore, the women and girls who are sexually exploited are vulnerable because of poverty, lack of education, history of sexual abuse, racism and classism. They are not in La Merced because they always dreamed of careers as sex workers. The body cannot be separated from the mind, and if your body and mind are being abused and manipulated through your labour, then this is not your average contract. Rather than only examining how women and girls end up in prostitution, it is worth looking at why exactly there is such a global demand for prostitution. Why are men motivated to buy sex? Why do they feel like they deserve sex? In macho societies like Mexico, it’s easy enough to see the link between the demand for buying sex and the general lack of respect for women from men in Mexican society.
In Ireland, however, things are not so different. We claim to be a country that respects gender equality. The next person (it’s generally cisgender men that come out with this drivel btw) that says to me “Sure look, wouldn’t it be worse if you lived in (insert the name of any Middle Eastern country here)? You wouldn’t be able to drive/ you’d have to cover your face/ you’d have to marry someone you didn’t want to blah blah etc” will be under no illusion as to how I feel about them. 10% of Irish men have bought sex. 10%. This means that if I know 100 men, 10 of them have bought sex. I’m pretty sure I know 100 men in Ireland, meaning that ten of them have directly contributed to the ongoing problem of sexually exploiting women for money and sexual pleasure. I am also sure that plenty of the remaining 90 – mostly the cisgender and heterosexual ones – have, in some way, indirectly contributed to this phenomenon by treating women as sexual objects. There are men I have met in my 25 years of life who I have respected academically, professionally and personally. Unfortunately, I have also seen how many of them treat both women they don’t know, and women they know, with the ultimate lack of respect. I have seen men I consider friends discuss women like they are cuts of meat in a butcher shop – breaking down every part of their bodies, weighing up whether it’s worth scoring them to gain respect from their peers. Will he get a slagging from the lads if she’s under a 7? It’s vital he feels out their response before he goes for it. I thought as I got older I would see more of my male peers value a woman and feel attraction for her for who she is, not just how she looks. I have yet to see things change.
If I get catcalled I feel nothing but disgust for the men who feel it is their right to verbally judge me on my appearance. In Ireland, for the most part, I feel safe and comfortable enough to call out this behaviour. To tell them to leave me alone. To demand respect. Here in Mexico, it is a different story. As a white woman in a very homogenous city, I feel massively exposed. People stare, which I can understand to an extent. But the problem is that it goes further. So far, I have been whistled at, grunted at, hissed at. Things like “guapaaaa”, “bonita” and “ay mama looking good” (that was in English as I walked to the shop in a tracksuit for a bottle of fizzy orange having been out the night before) have been shouted at me. I got an Uber last Saturday, and had a chat with my driver about Mexico. He asked what I thought of Mexican men: I told him there seems to be a massive lack of respect for women in Mexico City. He told me to take it as a compliment: “They wouldn’t say anything if they thought you were ugly – what’s the problem?” That’s the problem. That’s exactly the problem.
Two weeks ago, while taking a walk through a park alone on a Sunday afternoon, a man who was at least in his 40s felt comfortable enough to interrupt me as I was about to sit on a bench and enjoy the sunshine. At first, I thought he was trying to sell me something, but he told me straight out he had followed me from the other end of the park to tell me I was beautiful. Now, I am cautious and very much aware of my surroundings here in Mexico City, but I had not noticed him. What could I say to this? I did not feel safe enough to say how I really felt (“leave me alone you absolute creep”). I also did not want him to speak to me anymore. So, I did that thing that we women do when we are faced with an uncomfortable situation: I gave a vague, awkward smile so as not to provoke him and walked away. People have warned me here about being followed – if he followed me through the park, would he follow me home? I wasn’t going to stay any longer in the park, and I did not want to give him the chance to find out where I live. So, I went to a café and drank a coffee that I did not want in order to shake him off, all the while stewing in my own anger. No – you following me through a park and making me feel unsafe is not a compliment.
Last week I heard a story about a woman my friend knows who went for a run in a park here in Mexico City at around 7am. While she was out, she was attacked and raped by a man carrying a gun. He went out that morning looking for his prey, and he found it in this woman who now must deal with the aftermath of his actions because the chances are he will never be punished for his actions. This is Mexico – the same thing happens in Ireland.
All of this must be seen on a continuum – if women are devalued, and reduced to being sexual objects in the eyes of men, then women’s bodies will continue to be exploited for male gain, whether sexually and/ or financially. Women will continue to be tricked and trafficked into prostitution, and every ounce of self-worth will be squeezed out of them by the people who hold the power over their bodies. Women who work in prostitution are subject to incredible amounts of violence, and are continually demoralised. The pimps who control them and the Johns who buy them are at the upper end of the scale in terms of subjecting women to this.
However, make no mistake: anyone who treats women as sexual objects in any context should be seen on the same spectrum as the Johns who pay for sex, and perpetuate the cycle of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. This is true for Mexico, for Ireland, and for every society that validates the exchange of sex for money on the labour market.
My feeling unsafe, exposed and objectified does not even come close to how the women and who are forced to stand all day in one spot and must feel. But it is all connected. And we all must understand that, and take responsibility for treating girls and women as people instead of vessels.