Amid Economic Ruin, Women Turn – or Return – to Sex Work

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women. Out of jobs and out of options, some have resorted to the streets.

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Amid Economic Ruin, Women Turn – or Return – to Sex Work


Paty, a retired sex worker who was compelled to return to Mexico City’s streets during the pandemic, carries bags of food and supplies provided by community organizations.

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — In 2018, Paty left sex work after nearly three decades. Part-time jobs and her son’s work as a trader were enough to support them both, and when she wasn’t working, she spent her days cooking and cleaning their house. She found a stability for which she had longed.

“I rather stay at home. It’s something I like to do,” says Paty, 56, who, like most sex workers interviewed for this story, asked not to be fully identified for fear of stigmatization. “We were covering our basic bills.”

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which arrived in March 2020, paralyzed the economy and forced Mexico to enact a series of protective orders. On top of that, Paty’s son, 23, fractured his leg and couldn’t work.

Paty returned to the streets. There she found a surprise: fewer clients but more women offering their services.

Paty’s plight is far from unusual in Mexico, where the pandemic has forced thousands of women to return to sex work, or start for the first time. Their journey provides stark evidence of the uneven impact of COVID-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – which has left millions of women in Mexico unemployed as they scramble to feed and shelter themselves and their families during this once-in-a-century public health crisis.

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Elvira Madrid, founder of Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer Elisa Martínez, A.C., a group that supports sex workers, rests after spending time with some of them in central Mexico City.

“It is a clear setback,” says Fátima Masse, director of inclusive society at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center. “The economic participation rate of women in 2020 fell to the same level we had in 2005.”

Like countries worldwide, after the pandemic erupted, Mexico laid down an array of directives to arrest the virus. Its economy all but shut down. Tourism, one of the country’s economic drivers, dried up. Mexico’s gross domestic product cratered.

This all had an outsized impact on women. According to government data, in February, the rate of women who worked part-time or were jobless stood at 15% – 6.7 percentage points higher than the same period last year.

The same rate for men rose to 13%, 4.3 percentage points higher.

Data collected by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness found that unemployment “affected women who are mainly in the informal economy and mainly with lower incomes, so the situation is dramatic,” Masse says.

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After distributing groceries to sex workers, members of Tejiendo Pueblos, Amigos Remendando Oficios, a local social assistance organization, urge the women to demand that the government recognize sex work as formal labor.

In February 2020, Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer Elisa Martínez, A.C., a nongovernmental organization that supports sex workers, conducted a census that counted 7,700 in central Mexico City, the capital. Six months later, it found that the number had nearly doubled.

Many had already retired from sex work, says Elvira Madrid, the organization’s founder.

Katia left two years ago. She was weary of seven-day workweeks and “wanted another life,” she says. She got a job as a waitress in a bar near her home in Chimalhuacán in the state of Mexico, 33 kilometers (about 20 miles) from Mexico City. Then the coronavirus forced the bar to close.

She had no savings and no job options.

“I had no money to sell anything. What could I do?” says Katia, 35. “So I went back to work there with my colleagues, to earn something while this was going on.”

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The pandemic also pushed some women into sex work for the first time. In its census, Brigada Callejera found that 40% of sex workers in central Mexico City were newcomers, which included, Madrid says, “housewives who didn’t even consider themselves sex workers, housewives who go, do a sexual service and leave, that is, to make enough money to buy food.” Others “had been waitresses, dancers in bars, employees in commercial stores.”

That was the case for Elsa, who appears to be in her mid-20s, and who says she toiled in a restaurant before she turned to sex work. As she spoke, she avoided eye contact and clutched her purse.

A friend does sex work, “and she took me to a client, and then I earned some money,” she says in a low voice.

Life on the streets is harder than before, sex workers say. The murky legal status of their labor in Mexico – sex work is legal in some places and outlawed in others – already made for a fraught relationship with police, but the pandemic left the women even more vulnerable. Add to that the heightened competition, and it’s tougher to earn a living.

Elena, 35, who abandoned sex work after 12 years in March 2020 and returned in January, says she used to charge 600 Mexican pesos ($30) per session, “but now clients want to pay you less and since there is more competition, you earn less.”

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A slogan hangs in the offices of Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer Elisa Martínez, A.C.: Trabajadoras Sexuales en Resistencia (Sex Workers in Resistance). The organization has assisted sex workers with free condoms, medical consultations and gynecological exams, as well as economic support.

Federal and local governments have offered incentives to companies that didn’t fire workers during the pandemic, and they created a program to assist single mothers. But in general, Masse says, government assistance has been “scarce and inefficient.”

The Mexico City government, which has offered some financial support to sex workers, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

For the first 10 months of the pandemic, Brigada Callejera, along with Tejiendo Pueblos, Amigos Remendando Oficios and other community-based assistance groups, distributed about 10,000 food packages to sex workers.

Paty never imagined returning to the streets. After she retired, she did office work and sales, but when the pandemic struck and her son was injured, she couldn’t pay her bills. She’s now several months behind on her rent.

Her son wasn’t happy about her coming out of retirement, but he accepted her decision, Paty says.

On a busy street in central Mexico City, Paty and other sex workers recently gathered to receive groceries from Tejiendo Pueblos. Poised and dressed discreetly in leggings and a black blouse adorned with a rose pattern, Paty carried two bags filled with pasta, crackers, canned sauces, sugar, salt, beans, rice, popcorn, toilet paper and laundry detergent.

She doesn’t plan to remain in sex work for long. “As soon as my son can go back to work,” she says, “I will leave this again.”

Aline Suárez del Real is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Tecámac, in the state of Mexico.


Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.