Elevate Difference

Sex Work and the City: The Social Geography of Health and Safety in Tijuana, Mexico

Most studies of prostitution still focus on the supply side: the women and girls, the boys and men, and the transgender and transsexual people who toil sexually to survive, meet temporary needs, and thrive. An increasing number of studies focus on the demand side: the direct consumers and the globalizing forces that bring them together. Carved down from what was probably a fine Ph.D. dissertation, and founded upon eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork that she conducted in Tijuana, Mexico, Yasmina Katsulis’s lively and accessible Sex Work and the City does one better. In only eight chapters and 174 pages, interspersed with field-note entries and arresting photos—for example, a family united in picnic but separated by a fence—she also explores the physicians who under- and over-diagnose STDs, the policemen who extort sexual favors, and the many agents who facilitate and profit from the sexual labor of others.

Ethnographic, archival, and other data show that Tijuana’s sex industry is fed by gringo and Mexican male migrant laborers who come and go—the causes and symptoms of staggering degrees of human migration and mobility. I appreciate her caveat about the necessity of squarely confronting centuries-old stigmas of prostitution. Throughout the book, she opposes an epidemiology and popular culture that systematically misrepresents by underestimating the HIV and STD transmissive risks of sex in, or on the way to, marriage. Katsulis demonstrates not just why, but literally how, prostitution’s labor forms and venues structure health and social risks.

She also explores the motivations for entering into, and the various outcomes of sexual labor by contrasting legal, registered sex work with that which is informal and illegal. Her analysis of the Tijuana Regulatory Model of policing and health inspection of The Body Prostitute highlights police extortion and the health and social hierarchies of strip clubs, brothels, alleyways, massage parlors, beaches, and forlorn places. The social and economic contradictions in Tijuana of skin color, gender identity, language, socioeconomic class, and ethnicity produce differing degrees of health, social, and legal hazard.

Apart from a few minor quibbles (her use of the illogical term “HIV/AIDS infection,” the sometimes interchangeable use of “sex workers” and “prostitutes”), Katsulis neglects to point out that pimping is the world’s oldest profession, not prostitution. Some of her claims—for example, regarding the general absence of pimping in Tijuana—are insufficiently grounded in historical, sociological, and ethnographic studies by Schifter, Wardlow, Kulick, Schoepf, Leonard, White, and me. I enjoyed her remarks about sexual praxis, but there was surprisingly little discussion of the tensions between sexual positionality and sexual and gender identity. Her take on “the prostitution debates” in feminism is only three pages in length. She devotes one sentence to what she takes to be one side of the ledger—“Some feminists argue that legalization of sex work serves to normalize and institutionalize the sexual exploitation of women”—which really irked me. The ensuing discussion morphs quickly into yet another Straw Woman argument about “western White feminists.” Katsulis offered her key informants free HIVab tests, but fails to mention IRB concerns and the availability of trained counselors, confirmatory assays, and antiretroviral or other therapies. Finally, the absence of a discussion of religion beyond cultural codes of macho and marianismo precludes her from analyzing a profoundly good example of a marriage:prostitution dialectic par excellence.

These criticisms aside, Katsulis has contributed a polished, well-written, vibrant, and much-needed book. I hope the university press issues a cheaper paperback edition (lower than the $50 hardcover price) so that it may be used in courses in anthropology, gender studies, and public health.

Written by: Lawrence James Hammar, Ph.D., May 31st 2009