Mexico Takes First Step Towards Regulating Sex Work

In the hopes of reducing sex trafficking in the country, Mexico has given the green light to the decriminalization of sex work in its capital. The legislators obtained a result of 38-0 with eight abstentions in a vote in Congress on Friday, which favoured a bill to remove a line from the civic culture law that argued for fining prostitutes and their clients as well as for their arrest.

Temístocles Villanueva, a local representative of the centre-left ruling party Morena, said that essentially the new law recognizes that individuals now have the right to engage in sex work. In a written statement, he explains that the new law is ”a first step towards giving guidelines to the regulation of sex work and human trafficking.” Sex work is allowed in most cities in Mexico, but each state has its own regulations. These are often unclear, meaning that sex workers can find themselves in legal loopholes that may leave them vulnerable to exploitation by criminal groups.

Mexico has been classified a ‘level 2’ nation in the Human Trafficking Report of the United States. The report indicates findings of a link between the disappearances and murders of women and the trafficking carried out by organized criminal groups. This means that the country does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is nevertheless striving to make significant efforts. Elvira Madrid founder of Brigada Callejera, a group protecting sex workers’ rights, reinforced the need for a legal framework to protect workers. 

The debate is polarizing in many circles. Villanueva shared a written statement in which he laments that ”the exercise of sexuality in our country remains a taboo subject few dare to speak about.” On one hand, some anti-slavery groups believe that decriminalization could help ‘cover up’ human trafficking. Conversely, groups of sex workers and other human rights groups claim that the reform would help better access to regular STD checks. Eduardo Santillán, another Morena legislator from Mexico City, said that now that sex work has been decriminalized, public policy around human trafficking should hopefully be reinforced. 

Mexico is a hub through which many men, women and children regularly transit. According to the United States’ Department of State, young children and women are those most at risk. Child prostitution is problematic in the country, as Mexico is a prime destination for pedophiles engaging in child sex tourism.

Mexico is one of the leading hot spots of child sexual exploitation, along with Thailand, Cambodia, Colombia, India, and Brazil. The figures are horrifying. A study by UNICEF Mexico and the DIF/National System for Integral Family Development estimated that out of Mexico City‘s 13 000 street children, 95% have had at least one sexual encounter with an adult (many of them through prostitution). According to the Federal Preventive Police, it takes a pedophile an average of 15 days to have sexual relations with a minor after “meeting” the adolescent or child over the Internet. Poverty forces many rural children to migrate to urban cities in order to seek out employment, with or without their families. Many of these children are lured into the sex industry or abducted by child trafficking gangs. According to human right groups, children in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas are sold for $100 to $200. The city is considered one of the worst places in the world in terms of child prostitution, together with Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, which attract countless tourists. To make matters worse, some NGOs alleged that some corrupt local officials routinely allowed commercial sexual exploitation of children to occur. Exemplifying just this, the accusers in a heavily mediated 2007 case had failed to hand over to the courts 10 video recordings and 70 photos showing the accused in compromising circumstances with minors. Merely because they had friends in high places.

The main arguments held by backers of the reform boil down to the resulting health benefits for workers within the industry. Naturally, owners of brothels and strip clubs worry over the fidelity of their clients…they need them to come back, regularly. But new measures now in place in Tijuana require hotel owners catering to prostitutes to cover furniture with plastic, disinfect rooms and change sheets everyday. Subsequently, the city has closed at least 18 ”massage” parlours and brothels for violations since the regulations took effect in August.

A report recently written by Reuters follows mid-20s Olga, one of many sex workers in Tijuana. She explains how the key aspect of decriminalization takes the form of a small pink book with her picture stapled inside. The dates of her examinations for venereal diseases are stamped in inks of various colours, like a passport. As do thousands of other women in Tijuana, Olga works as a prostitute, recruiting clients at a topless bar. Today, unless she is regularly tested at a government clinic, Olga will be arrested by the police. ”You cannot work without it,” she said, running her finger down the list of dates and notations saying, ”H.I.V. negativo. If you don’t have it, the police will take you away and you have to pay a fine.” The new licenses that have been issued look like a credit card with a photo and are also equipped with a magnetic strip. ”If a person is infected at the time when they read the credential, a red light will appear: this means she she is unfit to work,” said Mayor Manuel Noriega who runs the city health clinic for prostitutes.

Clearly, the benefits of the democratization of what Jessica Ramos, a Democrat from Queens, deems to be ‘the oldest profession’ cannot be overlooked. This is precisely why places like New York, where Democrats now control the State Legislature, may be next. Legislators should keep in mind the horrid implications that come with a sex industry kept underground. While the underlying issues with corruption are extremely hard to untangle, an intermediate step could be the implementation of the ‘End Demand’ approach, which emphasizes the prosecution of people who buy sex but not of those who are selling their bodies. It offers prostitutes social services instead. Such policies have high-profile supporters like Gloria Steinem, who offered her endorsement of the Nordic model at a recent demonstration at City Hall in New York City. ”It is crucial to decriminalize prostituted women, men and children, and equally crucial not to decriminalize the pimps and traffickers who exploit them,” she said.

Additionally, Jessica Ramos stated that ”There are always going to be people that want sex. It’s a basic human drive. All you can do is make it safer.”

UNAIDS estimated the number of prostitutes in the country at 236 930 in 2016.

Anne-Sophie Neyra


The Organization for World Peace