Sexuality Policy Watch

Argentina uncategorized: Debates about human trafficking, prostitution and sex work

Carolina Justo von Lurzer and Santiago Morcillo*

On July 5th, 2011, Argentinean president Cristina Fernandez Kirchner announced, from the Women’s Room at the Government’s House, the enactment of the decree 936/11 which prohibits advertisements that promote sexual services in all media. In Argentina, many national and local newspapers and magazines used to dedicate specific space to sexual service offers, which various women’s organizations viewed as spaces that could be fostering sexual exploitation and human trafficking networks. In fact, before this enactment, some local media companies had decided not to publish these ads, and a number of bills were being processed in Congress with similar aims as this presidential decree.

The decision was based on two substantive issues: on the one hand, the fight against human trafficking for sexual exploitation – that finds its regulatory basis in the law nr. 26.364 – and on the other hand, the fight against the various kinds of violence against women – expressed through the law 26.485. As soon as the new law was promulgated, a series of debates about the supply, demand, and regulation of paid sex in which not only political actors and feminist organizations expressed their voices, but also organizations representing sex workers and women in prostitution themselves.

In this context, the Sexualities Studies Group (GES in Spanish) of the Gino Germani Research Institute of the University of Buenos Aires organized a discussion to open the debate about public policies related to prostitution, sexual exploitation and human trafficking for sexual exploitation and sex work. Panelists included Buenos Aires’ legislators Diana Maffía and Laura García Tuñón; Elena Reynaga, the president of the Prostitute Women Association of Argentina (AMMAR, in Spanish; belongs to the Argentinean Central Workers’ Union), whose activists define themselves as sex workers; and Graciela Collantes, representing the Argentinean Women’s Association for Human Rights, who frame the issue as women in prostitution and do not consider this activity to be work, but sexual exploitation instead.

The key questions for the discussion were oriented to ask about the political implications of the prohibition of publishing sexual service ads, and to debate the modalities of intervention that the State should implement in relation to the sexual market. From the intense debate – that took more than two hours – there are some illuminating issues we want to highlight as we consider them to be representative of what orients the situation in Argentina at present.

At first, a series of agreements were proposed such as criticism of the absence of public policies aimed at women in prostitution and sex workers along with the omission of a consultation or dialogue with sex workers or women in prostitution organizations.  These issues were brought up in relation to governmental actions linked to sex supply and demand – such as the decree that originated this same debate. Finally, the necessity arouse to distinguish the various modalities of insertion on sex market from one another: trafficking, sexual exploitation, sex work – including the need to design specific public policies for each of the three different sectors. At this particular point, participants acknowledged the difficulties caused by homogenization of the different modes of sex work supply under the tag of trafficking for sexual exploitation reasons.

For Elena Raynaga, two of the problems that complicate this situation are police corruption and the lack of sex work regulation, which both impede the fight against trafficking and expose sex workers to maltreatment. Graciela Collantes said that this vulnerability is mostly sustained thanks to the contraventions codes (that govern each province). Although in Argentina independent prostitution is not criminalized by national laws, local legislation can allow arbitrary arrest by security force agents, based on ambiguous wording such as “scandalous prostitution”, or impose strong restrictions to sex offers within the public space.

Moreover, Diana Maffía criticized the justification of some media outlets that intend to defend their interests in profit by strengthening the objectification of women, by using the excuse that their freedom of expression is being limited. Maffía spoke about the importance of fighting to prohibit images of women offering their bodies in sexual service ads, qualified by her as degrading and responsible for the increase of stigma.

For Laura García Tuñon, prohibitions are not effective solutions. She emphasized that the  State must legislate for all women and offer each of them appropriate policies, regardless of the way they want to be acknowledged (be it sex worker or women in prostitution).

Some of the issues that fed the debate were related to the effects of the prohibition of publishing sexual advertisements that could result in a wider clandestine market, consequently make it more complex to track human trafficking networks, and at the same time increase the risks for sex workers. In this direction, a question was presented about which tools the State is working with to effectively intervene in this issue without generating more harm to those who independently offer sex work.

The latter point provoked the reopening of the debate (not yet settled in feminist or academic environments) about the possibility of considering sex-commerce as a job. This is where conceptions of sexuality appear that underlie several approaches: is sex something possible to be transformed into a commodity or does this transformation imply – inevitably – degradation of those who sell sex? This discussion also provokes the reflection about what the role of the State is towards sexuality – and particularly towards women with non-normative sexualities? Should the State intervene as a tutor for these sexualities? Are the tools to combat against stigma effective, or do they finally have a paradoxical effect that sustains hegemonic divisions between the good and the bad sexuality?

Maybe the most important focus in this debate is not to find definitive answers – without detracting from the fundamental role of the consensus already achieved – but to feed reflection about these fundamental questions.


* From the Sexualities Studies Group of the Gino Germani Research Institute of the University of Buenos Aires (CONICET – UBA – IIIGG – GES in Spanish)

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