Sex work in Costa Rica during the coronavirus: when the need is greater than the fear

They cannot telework and their job involves almost everything that should not be done to avoid getting COVID-19. They are out because their way of earning a living is not regulated and they cannot opt for aid like the one that many other workers affected by the pandemic have.

(QCOSTARICA) Daily we hear stories of people affected by the coronavirus pandemic. How jobs are lost due to the downfall in tourism, companies layoffs, teleworking, ‘bono proteger’ (government aid), wearing a mask, keeping a distance from others, and so on. However, there is a group that we rarely hear about, yet are just as vulnerable, if not more, than the rest of us, the sex worker.

Ana and María represent many sex workers in Costa Rica who have no alternative and even in times of pandemic must be out to try to earn money, spending their days between fear and need. Photo: F. Matarrita / La Nacion

They cannot telework, their work involves almost everything that should not be done to avoid getting COVID-19. They work, regardless, because their way of earning a living is not regulated and they cannot opt for aid like many other workers affected by the pandemic.

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La Nacion featured the lives of two women, Ana and Maria (not their real names), representative of many sex workers in Costa Rica, in between fear and need.

While there are some prostibulos (brothels) open during the pandemic, the majority are closed, leaving sex workers no alternative and even in times of pandemic, to hit the streets to earn money.

Ana wears a red dress that stands out and barely covers her rounded and feminine shapes. Her cinnamon skin glows even more in the light of day, when the sun hits her well-shaped legs. The afternoon has just started and, as in recent months, Ana has already started working.

At least she tries.

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An accessory that she uses for protection was added to her showy outfit, a mask that most of the time is below the jaw, on the neck. She needs to show her face. In their work, everything is in the visual.

The afternoon of July 29 begins and Ana is on a corner, near a park in downtown San José. A difficult time of day for customers, but we must not stop fighting: the last few months have been bad, perhaps due to fear of contagion, the contracted economy or vehicle restrictions.

The clientele of sex workers declined abruptly.

The coronavirus is in Costa Rica and sex work, like many others, has been affected. In Ana’s case, reinventing herself as many say it should be done, after working 38 years at this, is not easy.

This 50-year-old woman needs to survive. She is afraid, but you cannot allow yourself to go hungry too.

As Ana related in confidence, assured her identity would be protected, however, cautious due to her past experiences, decides to talk, but always looking all around, mainly for the police, who are being constantly asked to move along.

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It is not known if it is because of the coronavirus, or because her presence, in broad daylight, is uncomfortable.

Ana wears a mask because she knows that with it she can protect herself from contagion. Although her work is an absolutely intimate contact, the rules have changed, and if she gets a client, she says beforehand that during the encounter she will keep it on.

In Ana’s case, she will also keep her platform shoes on at all times. It’s her personal rule and is not one told in advance, feeling she doesn’t have to explain everything beforehand.

Some time ago, while she was with a client in a hotel, the man took drugs and after the effects of psychotropics his virality was affected and he wanted to take it out on Ana: he grabbed her by the neck and tried to suffocate her.

“I managed to kick his testicles and I was able to escape. Since then I have never taken my shoes off,” she explains.

In her 40 years of sex work, Ana has lived “terrible” moments, full of pain and fear. Now, in addition, she must face the coronavirus. The disease that everyone talks about and that has been in the country for almost six months.

“These days you take more risks than ever. I wear my mask, but there is still risk. If we stay at home, if we don’t go out we will starve,” he laments.

Image for illustrative purposes. Even in the desolate night, many sex workers have no choice but to leave their homes, although fear of the coronavirus breathes close to them. Most of the time it is difficult for customers to approach. Photo: Rafael Pacheco / La Nacion

The business is not like it used to be. In these days of coronavirus, though Ana tries, it is not like before. Her fixed cost of getting to and from downtown San Jose is ¢2,000 colones in bus fares. She lives in Heredia.

“The police bother us a lot. I tel them: ‘Excuse me, but you have the paycheck in hand. I do not’. What they tell me is to move along or they will put me in the perrera (paddy wagon),” she says.

Ana has no children. Nor vices “to maintain”, she highlights. She only has to look out for herself and that has been difficult and painful after “the family despised her for being born a woman.” She says that since she was 10 years old, she has had to get by on her own.

“They (the family) told me that a rat in the sewer is worth more,” she says. Ana is very eloquent and has great diction, innate qualities, as she had no chance to study.

She says that she is epileptic and reiterates that she has to go out to work.

Once again, she highlights that she feels fear, but since she has no way out of this labyrinth in life, she believes in God’s protection. She trusts that the black cloth mask she is wearing can take care of her even after being intimate with a man who comes to pay for sexual services.

“One is afraid, but since one has faith one says: God is more powerful than evil. One clings to Him. And that, I’m not a saint or an angel.”

Ana must work to eat and also to pay the ¢15,000 weekly that they charge her for a loan that she used to finish building her house after they gave her a housing bono (bond).

“Now more than ever I want to get out of this work. I wish I could get a good job. Maybe cleaning in a factory. If i have my fixed salary. I want to get off the street.

“They are 38 years of the street. I feel tired of this and am very afraid of the pandemic. There is nothing for us. We are not in any association. There is no help for any of the streets”.

María, also not her real name, who shares the same corner with few passers-by with Ana and other women, including several transsexuals.

The area these women work is not the best of downtown San Jose. On this day, a young woman under 20 years old arrives, who inhales the already evaporated smell of a bottle of glue. She offers Maria some blouses; affectionately, the lady tells the girl that there is no money, “that this is very bad.”

Maria is 65 years old and seems to be very angry. She speaks with annoyance and reluctance. She says that at her age her application for a pension has been rejected three times. She alleges to be a woman with kidney failure: only one of her kidneys works.

She says she has been a sex worker for a long time. Then, when she begins to speak more fluently about how disappointed she is with the government, she details that she had to return to this work because she was fired from the bar where she worked as a waitress.

Illustrative Image. While some women in sex work have found income through virtuality, that is not the reality for many others. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

Neither she nor Ana can follow the recommendations that the Ministry of Health has given. They cannot offer their services online for no one has a computer, and like many of her co-workers, they wouldn’t know how to use one either.

Offering their services by messages or calls is not an option for them or for their diminishing number of clients.

Maria also wears a mask. She carries a small bag in which she assures that she has alcohol gel to take care of herself, in addition to other safety devices that are essential in the exercise of her work.

“I am here because I need to. My children cannot give me anything. My daughters are unemployed and my son has his responsibility and also pays support.

“I have applied for aid, but they don’t want to give me a socio-economic aid. They give the Bono Proteger (subsidy that the Costa Rican government granted for several months to workers whose employment contract was suspended or reduced) to people who do not need it. That’s how it is.

“A person who has money in the bank is seen eating at the WObras del Espíritu Santo (an association that provides help to vulnerable populations) and to someone in need they close the doors,” she says.

María has been leaning against a wall for over an hour. Today there is nothing for her.

“I’ve been working this for a long time. I do it because they (the government institutions) do not want to help anything. They say there are no funds or liquidity,” she insists.

She acknowledges that for some time the Mixed Institute of Social Assistance (IMAS) has paid her ¢55,000 per month (almost $ 100), but she acknowledges that the money is not enough to survive, because in these times the cost for water services and electricity (a complaint that many Costa Ricans have expressed) increased: before he paid ¢7,000 for each one and now for both he must pay more than ¢40,000.

“I have my house, but what do I do? I’m not going to eat it,” she says bitterly.

Maria insists that she takes care of herself and does not stop wearing the mask for nothing. She emphasizes that she uses alcohol gel to take care of himself, although deep down, she is not afraid of the coronavirus, what this pandemic causes her is anger. She hasn’t earned anything for days and that, she says, she charges like ¢10,000.

“I take care of myself, above all, for my illnesses. I have to say that since the pandemic this (the business) is bad. I think the pandemic does not exist. I do not believe it. What I think is that the Government takes advantage of that so that international countries give them money, help them, and get money. Here those who have money and power have strength. One is nothing.

“In case there was a pandemic, this is not going to go away even if they put restrictions,” she says exasperatedly.

While playing with a plastic bag in which she keeps her sweater, Maria insists that what she wants is help with her pension. She doesn’t want to work this anymore, but she can’t find an alternative.

“I have to survive. I do not live on air. In my house, we eat for the charity of the schools (she lives with three grandchildren to whom the Ministry of Public Education provides food corresponding to what they would consume in the school cafeteria. The makes it clear that the food delivered is for children).

“I do this because I need to,” she emphasizes as she looks around as if looking for solutions to her reality.

“They don’t help us. They only criticize us: they criticize the women of the street. Those whores … it is inconceivable … t just makes me angry. I am very disappointed. I question this pandemic,” she says with resentment.

Is there support for sex workers?

Contrasting to what Ana and Maria say, Juan Luis Bermúdez Madriz, Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion told La Nacion’s Revista Dominical that the government has invested some ¢35.5 million colones for the care of 150 trans women whose sources of income were affected. “We also serve other women who are sex workers with family responsibilities throughout the country but we do not record specific statistics on their activity and numbers,” said the Minister.

Image for illustrative purposes. According to Ana and María, clients rarely approach seeking their services. When they arrive, they do not stop using their mask and turn to alcohol gel constantly. On the days they have “better luck” they earn ¢10,000. Photo: Rafael Pacheco / La Nacion

Regarding the possibility that sex workers may approach to request specific help, Bermúdez specified that they are not excluded from requesting the Bono Proteger, he indicated on August 5.

Nubia Ordóñez, 59, a sex worker and one of the founders of La Sala, an association created to ensure the rights of women sex workers, commented that her group has about 350 women engaged in prostitution. She says that indeed the vast majority are having a hard time to the point of not being able to bring home a livelihood.

The association has been created for more than 28 years and, according to Ordóñez, in all this time they never received government support; however, after a rapprochement with the president of the National Institute for Women (Inamu), Patricia Mora, they have held conversations and were sent them about 100 daily means “diarios” to distribute among the affiliates of La Sala, which are mostly women over 40 years old.

Regarding the access that sex workers have had to economic aid such as the Bono Proteger, Nubia says that she only knows of one woman who was granted it saying that she was engaged in sex work. A few others received half a bonus; they said they were selling catalogs or food, specified Nubia.

As sex work is not regulated in Costa Rica, Nubia says that just as it is difficult to access a bank to request a loan to buy a lot or a house, in times of pandemic it is difficult to request and obtain help.

“With the IMAS and other state institutions, it has cost a lot, because our work is not regulated. It is not recognized as work,” she added.

Regarding the alternative proposed by the Ministry of Health to offer sexual services through virtuality or telephone calls, Nubia says that this would be the ideal world, even she has a couple of clients (who she rather considers friends) under this modality: they hire her services through the apps.

“There are many ways (to provide the service), how good it would be only to have clients online, but not the entire population wants the service that way. There are men who don’t like it like that.

“I think it would be great. It is safer sex. I wish life was that easy. Do not sleep with men we do not know. Sex work is not easy, although they call us women of the easy life. I have four clients per camera. I feel really well. But not everyone has the possibility of selling sex work like this. It would be great if everyone had it,” explained Nubia.

The defender of women’s rights said that as an organization they do not have their own funds to help their peers. For now, they are waiting to receive more support from Inamu and to learn about the project that the Ministry of Health has to get closer to women who continue to work the streets.

“My colleagues have had to be working. We gave a “diario” to one of them who had nothing to eat. I asked her and she said there are no customers. Sometimes someone passes and gives them ¢2,000, that is it for the day. In the Red Zone with that amount, you can have lunch.

The ones we serve are quite large women who go to a room with a client for ¢3,000. If they manage to get three clients they barely earn ¢10,000,” she lamented.

Campaigns for sex workers

Alejandra Acuña, Deputy Minister of Health, commented that part of the support that sex workers have been given from the entity has been the circulation of campaigns, working together with ‘Hivos’, in which they are informed about safe practices and the option of offering their service through phone calls or virtuality. Also, they are informed about new techniques of sexual practice directed to female workers.

Ana and María await, from very early, the arrival of clients. On the wall, Ana finds a way rest her legs from her shoes, shoes that she never takes off to ensure that she can defend herself in case someone tries to hurt her. Photo: F. Matarrita / La Nacion

Regarding the little access that some of these women may have to technology, Acuña mentioned that “the difficult thing has been (to reach them) because they are not grouped together. Nubia and the group from La Sala go on rounds. The approach is done through pairs. It is not the same that I get to tell them to get involved and join La Sala, to get together and communicate with peers,”.

The Ministry of Health handles unofficial data that indicate that only in the greater metropolitan area it is projected that some 6,000 women and transsexual women offer sexual services.

The Deputy Minister added that another of the aid that Health has managed has to do with the delivery of groceries: at the beginning of August, daily meals had been granted, through other institutions such as Inamu, to about 50 women.

This article was translated and adapted from the La Nacion article “Trabajo sexual en Costa Rica durante el coronavirus: cuando la necesidad es más grande que el miedo”. Click here for the original (in Spanish).

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