Sex Work and
The City

The Social Geography of
Health and Safety in
Tijuana, Mexico

Yasmina Katsulis
(University of Texas)
Katsulis spent eighteen months in Tijuana researching sex workers, studying "the impact of one's location in the social hierarchy on occupational health and safety." She tells us that there are about a thousand such workers currently working legally in Tijuana, but "based on my empirical observations of those whom I saw coming into the clinic ... I estimate that the number of those working illegally is much, much higher than those who work legally."

As part of her study, the author conducted 251 interviews. She reports, routinely, that she did not work "as either a client or a sex worker," but

    I did ... participate in the social life of people involved in the industry and in that of some of their customers.

"Most of those who engage in informal kinds of sexual exchange don't identify themselves as sex workers, nor would they ever be arrested and counted in a national report."

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The main focus of Katsulis' study comes down to the division between "registered and unregistered sex workers." (As in some Nevada counties, prostitution is legal in Tijuana, and subject to safety procedures). Both with the legal and illegal, her charts include facts of drug use, violence, places of solicitation (mostly massage parlors and bar/discos), along with "Place of Sexual Transaction" and "Nonmonterary Sexual Exchange" e.g., food, shelter, clothes, and luxury goods.

The report includes some unexpected conclusions. "The prevalence of romantic attachments between customers and sex workers in this study was surprising,"

    especially considering that the narratives describe the stressful psychological nature of commercial sex.

She also sees a valid Saskia Sassen's perception that cross-border prostitution is a "form of migrant work." She also states, finally, and without comment, that "some activists in the area of sex work maintain that marriage itself is a form of sex work."

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Katsulis' conclusions include advocating "a system in which health card registration is encouraged and rewarded as part of the development of professional identity, something which surely has market value, rather than enforced through the threat of jail, fines, and (unofficially) police violence."

    Because of the authorities' tendency to view prostitutes as vectors of disease rather than as workers facing a variety of occupation hazards, fears about STI have been exaggerated and have led to a regulation policy that doesn't make much sense from the perspective of sex workers themselves.

--- Leslie Ward, MSW
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