I wanted to hide how I was earning my money
My name is Georgina Orellano. I’m 31 years old, and I started working as a sex worker at the age of 19. I first learned about AMMAR, the organisation in Buenos Aires supported by Mama Cash, because they would come down to the corner where I worked to distribute condoms and talk to us about our rights.
At that time I still felt very guilty and ashamed about what I was doing, so I didn't even want to take a leaflet. I had internalized so much of the stigma against sex work that I didn’t feel like getting involved. I didn’t see the need to be part of an organisation. In fact, I wanted exactly the opposite: to hide what kind of work I was doing.
When I became mother, I stopped doing this work for a while. When, at 25, I returned to the profession, I started interacting with my colleagues more. I realised that most of my problems—being a single mum, having to pay the rent, living a double life with my family—were things we all had in common.
So, working together we started creating self-care tools to support and protect ourselves: letting each other know what clients we were going out with, establishing a policy of not attending to clients who did not respect the conditions we had set, and never being alone on the corners.
Before long, we had a problem with an abusive client who wouldn’t accept our conditions. Since he was the president of the resident community, he tried to convince the board to expel us from the neighbourhood. That was his revenge.
He even contacted the chief of police in our zone. At that time, we often had to pay police officers in the zone a portion of what we earned from our work just so they would allow us to stay on the street. So, the idea of going to report this client to the police didn’t make much sense. Furthermore, none of us had told our families that we were earning our living as sex workers, and we were afraid they would blame us for the problems we were in.
The source of income we needed to support our children was under threat.
When our source of income came under threat, the only thing we could think of was AMMAR, that organisation that would come down to the street to distribute condoms and leaflets that we never wanted to accept.
AMMAR moved quickly denouncing both the discrimination on the part of the residents and the violence employed against us by the president of the community because we didn’t want to abide by his abusive conditions.
When the problem was resolved and we were able to continue working in the neighbourhood, we now also had the feeling that we were not alone. We had AMMAR. We never had to explain to them who we were or justify what we were doing. They were our friends, and we had a sense of belonging. There were really people who supported us.
From that time on, we started visiting AMMAR more often. We were surprised to learn that they weren’t the only organisation at their headquarters; it was inside a Workers’ Centre, with offices for a teachers’ union, a security workers’ union, and a medical caregivers’ union. When we came in, they would call us their friends and greet us, and they would never treat us as inferior. If only society were like that, we would think. We felt comforted by the idea that there were people out there who did not question, stigmatise, or reject us.
AMMAR explained to us that our work was not a crime, that we were within our rights to make responsible use of public space, and that no one could force us to pay them just to be allowed to do our work. This made us feel very angry; the police had abused our ignorance concerning our rights. The first thing we did was to go down to the neighbourhood and explain to our colleagues that there was no reason to pay the policemen anything, since what we were doing was not a crime.
Learning about our rights gave us a sense of class consciousness: we all go to work out of economic necessity, the capitalist system ends up objectifying a part of our body, and there are many women workers with some other part of their body objectified and with the same problems.
What was happening to us was not because we were sex workers, but because we had been born into a woman’s body in a male-dominated society. We were relieved of our sense of guilt, thinking: okay, I’m not the only one who this happens to, it happens to a whole sector of women.
Our first Women's Meeting
Motivated by this unionisation experience, we decided to go participate for the first time in the National Women’s Meetings to be held that year just six hours away from Buenos Aires!
I can’t explain the sense of belonging I had when I saw all those women with signs reading “stop insecure employment,” “we want our rights,” and “no gender-based violence.”
But when we went into the first workshop and I had the courage to say for the third time in my life that I was a sex worker, some women got up and said that what I did was not work and that I was a servant of the patriarchy.
At that time I didn’t even know the word “patriarchy”. We felt rejected and went back home disappointed with the intention of never returning to a women’s space.
Because of what happened in that meeting, for a long time we thought that feminists didn’t want us and that they were our enemies, just like the security forces.
But one day a group of young women came to AMMAR and asked if they could do research for their thesis about sex work.
Since we felt a lot of distrust out of fear that these students would steal our stories to use us as an object of study, we tried to avoid them. We didn’t want to open the doors to our lives for them just so they could use our experiences and not defend our cause. We didn’t want to be used yet again.
But after chatting with someone from another sector at the Worker’s Centre, we realised that in the future those students could become journalists, anthropologists or sociologists, with a different way of viewing our work that they would share in their own spaces.
We had long and heated debates among ourselves over this issue. We told those anthropology students, who happened to be feminists, that we were willing to tell them our story if they would educate us about the history and terminology of feminism in return.
Thanks to these young women, we came to see that there is no one single feminism, but rather that there were multiple feminisms. Unfortunately, the predominating strain of feminism here in Argentina is anti-sex work, but that doesn’t mean that no other feminism exists that supports our struggle. We learned about patriarchy, equality, and contradictions within feminism.
Then we decided to find the courage to go back to the Women’s Meetings now that we were able to speak the same language. One of the anthropologists went along with us.
Only a whisper here and there
We arrived at the Women’s Meeting ready to make our voice heard. This time we had something to talk about and the right words to make our voices heard.
When we talked for the first time in the conference room explaining our situation, adding that not all sex work is trafficking, that there is a diverse array of stories, and that the sexual market is quite extensive, everyone was quiet.
All one could hear was a whisper here and there.
We didn’t understand the reason for the resounding silence. Confused, we asked the anthropologist, who explained to us that they were surprised because all of the sudden the subject of so many of their presentations was speaking; it had a voice! Many participants believed that we were submissive, that we were victims, and that we needed others to speak on our behalf.
This made us angry because they were underestimating our abilities. Some of them started deploying violent mechanisms to make us leave again, but we put up resistance with our own arguments - while at the same time remaining level-headed, friendly, and patient we explained to them why we had chosen sex work.
Since then, we have not stopped bursting into those spaces where people talk about us in ways that create a greater stigma. We also raise our hand and tell our version of the story.
It is quite an experience to sit there for an hour listening to them say things about you that aren’t true. And then they neglect to mention institutional violence, pressure from the police, and the stigma created by discussions like the one they are engaged in. I tell them clearly: it’s precisely presentations like yours that keep many of us from being able to tell our family who we are, that make us come in secret and go to demonstrations with our faces covered.
Sometimes they don’t allow us into these presentations, but we take a megaphone with us and organise an activity outside. Most of the audience leave the presentation, because, logically, they find it more interesting to listen to our voice than the voice that represents our stories with charts and graphs in powerpoint without even asking us any questions.
And I believe that it is legitimate for there to be women who don’t want to engage in sex work and who want to ask the state for alternative work, but I also believe that our struggle is legitimate: the struggle of women like us who choose to engage in sex work and who want to have access to rights without punitive policies that banish us into hiding.
Georgina is now the General Secretary of AMMAR. She is the one who now goes into the street to distribute condoms and leaflets to her comrades to remind them that they are not alone and that if anything happens, AMMAR is there to help them.
In June we launched the campaign #MyBodyIsMine. In the face of continuing limitations on our safety, choices and self-expression, the #MyBodyIsMine campaign calls on girls, women, trans and intersex people from all walks of life to share their stories about what their autonomy, freedom and pleasure mean to them.
Inspiring activists from around the world like Georgina Orellano, Panmela Castro and Alok Vaid-Menon kicked off the campaign. Do you want to stand with them, and make your own statement?