As a visual anthropologist, I went to the field with the intent of making a documentary film about one of my informants, while also conducting ethnographic research with sex workers who worked on the streets of the historic district of Quito, Ecuador. Over the three years I ended up staying in the field, I spent time with 40 women. I examined how they negotiated their multifaceted identities as mothers who were also sex workers—subjectivities frequently viewed as mutually exclusive in Latin America, where religiously inflected gender norms often position mothers as saint-like figures in the social imaginary and sex workers as fallen women, sinners in the eyes of the Catholic Church. I planned to make a film that would use one woman’s story to represent the lives I saw around me—a narrative based on a single mother who had turned to sex work to support her children. Instead, I made a film about an exception. This case is about this (mis)representation.
In Ecuador and throughout Latin America, where sex work is decriminalized, prostitution is a viable work option for women who lack formal education. Although they typically earn roughly the same amount as the other jobs they qualify for in the domestic service industry or manufacturing sector, these women chose sex work, and in particular, street prostitution, because as freelance workers they could set their schedules around the needs of their children. Indeed, the women who solicited clients on the streets of Quito’s historic center worked regular 9:00 to 5:00 hours, coming and going as they pleased in the middle of the day to shuttle their children between school and daycare.
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