Sex Work, Sex Wars, and the Intimacies of the US/Mexico Relationship

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I first saw the films of Don Anahí in 2021, projected on the rooftop of Casa Gomorra, a queer living space that also hosts parties and workshops while conducting anthropological fieldwork about pleasure activism among LGBTQI+ people in Mexico City. During the pandemic, Casa Gomorra residents started selling pizza one day a week on their rooftop, and this particular event also included an art sale to benefit a retirement home for sex workers called Casa Xochiquetzal. Don Anahí, born in Puebla but now lives in Mexico City, is a lesbian and a sex worker, activist, and filmmaker. Some of her films are experimental, and others are post-pornographic—adding a feminist lens to pornographic content that is meant to not only or not necessarily turn on the viewer but to provoke other kinds of thoughts and feelings. In one of her films, “For Us,” which she uploaded on Pornhub, she engages in acts perhaps intended to sexually excite her intended viewers while simultaneously, through text in English and Spanish on the screen, giving them a lesson about the intimacies of the US/Mexico relationship, especially as it pertains to the politics of sex work.

The relationship between the United States and Mexico can be seen in many embodied and commodified intimacies, including and extending beyond prostitution. My first book tracked the kinds of intimacies (both violent and tender) on the US/Mexico border in a prostitution zone in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, including intimacies between and among sex workers, their children (whom they were often working to support), missionaries (who were involved in attempts to “rescue” them but also sometimes established deep friendships), drug organizations, and God. Mexican border cities have historically seen economic booms during times of prohibition on the United States side by providing services or goods (drugs, sex, alcohol) that were illicit and illegal in the US (Luna 2020). During the Prohibition era in the United States, Mexican border cities expanded and profited from selling alcohol, as well as prostitution, to American visitors. United States intervention in drug organizations, demand for drugs, and illegal export of guns have strengthened Mexican drug cartels.

While Don Anahí does not live or work in the borderlands, her work both exposes and creates US-Mexican intimacies across borders. In “For Us,” we first see the front of her (Don Anahí 2022). She looks at the camera with chin-length dark hair, a little tousled, red lipstick, wearing a latex bodysuit with a harness top, playing with her breasts and pursing her lips while educating her viewer about the difference between sex work and sex trafficking. She squeezes her breasts together and brings them closer to the camera while the text notes that most people see sex workers as either victims or criminals but never workers. While she caresses her body, the text in her film says that in Mexico, prostitution is not illegal, but US law limits people from all over the world because most online platforms are based in the US. In 2018, Donald Trump signed into law two bills: FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act). These laws, supposedly created to fight trafficking in practice, have made work more dangerous for many sex workers. This legislation makes it possible for online platforms (like Craigslist or Backpage) to be held responsible if their users post ads related to prostitution on their platforms. While FOSTA/SESTA were supposedly meant to curb sex trafficking rings rather than to limit consensual sex work, many platforms, in order to protect themselves, have shut down parts of their websites where sex workers advertised for clients or vetted them with other sex workers. Sex workers have reported losing a great deal of business due to FOSTA/SESTA, and many have had to take on riskier forms of work (such as meeting with unvetted clients or finding clients on the street). Don Anahí’s video reminds us that US prohibitionist laws like FOSTA and SESTA affect Mexican sex workers, as well as sex workers, throughout the world, and she is currently working on a longer documentary about the topic.

Mexican feminist anthropologist and professor Marta Lamas, like Don Anahí, takes what among academic feminists in Mexico City is a controversial position that sex work is work. The prolific and politically active Lamas, called the Mother of Mexican Feminism, founded Debate Feminista, a feminist academic journal in Mexico City, and was a major force in Mexico City’s decriminalization of abortion. Lamas told me that the majority of Mexican academics and feminists label themselves as abolitionists, committed to ending the practice of prostitution. Lamas and her students are heavily criticized, and she mentioned to me that she is even called the madrota (female pimp) of the group of scholars she mentors.

Lamas observes that the United States’ sex wars about prostitution have framed the debate worldwide (Lamas 2016). In the Sex Wars in the 1970s and 1980s, feminists fought about sex. On one end, feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon argued that prostitution, pornography, and BDSM were always violent against women. On the other hand, feminist and queer activists and scholars like Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia pointed out the dangers of censorship (of pornography) and criminalization (of prostitution and BDSM). Lamas notes that in Mexico, the sex wars have not received as much publicity as the ones in the United States, especially to outside audiences, in part because prostitution is not illegal in Mexico and in part because the culture is less puritanical in Mexico than in the United States. Lamas explained to me, in 2019, that puritanism in Mexico was affecting both the sexual harassment and #metoo debate as well as ideas about prostitution. In an interview with El Financiero Bloomberg in 2018, Lamas suggested that sharing a border with the puritanical United States, where pleasure is a sin, and its strain of anti-sex feminism, has had a negative impact on Mexico.

Perhaps US Puritanism has influenced Mexican feminists, but both Lamas and Don Anahí are important counter-examples of Mexican activists fighting Puritan ideas and laws that affect sex workers. And they are not alone. In Mexico City, where Don Anahí lives and works, she helped to found a sex worker’s rights organization (which she is no longer a part of) which has advocated locally for sex workers’ rights as well as has engaged in mutual aid work, provisioning resources to more vulnerable sex workers during the COVID pandemic. Another sex worker-run organization, Brigada Callejera, has existed for 30 years in Mexico City and has created a community center to serve sex workers. A retirement home for sex workers exists in Mexico City because former sex workers, along with Marta Lamas and others, pushed a proposal to the mayor. In 2016, a transgender sex worker, Kenya Cuevas, carried the corpse of Paola Buenrostro, her murdered friend and colleague, through the streets of Mexico City. Cuevas has since founded an activist organization, Casa de las Muñecas Tiresas, which advocates for the human rights of trans people.

Alongside critical work to support the basic and human rights of sex workers, Don Anahí’s work, including her participation in post-pornography, is part of a larger surge of pleasure activism in Mexico City, especially among lenchas, a term for lesbian that explicitly includes trans and nonbinary people. During my fieldwork, I attended multiple workshops about “female” ejaculation, queer and trans-inclusive masturbation, and Lucha Lub, a Lucha Libre-style wrestling match by genderqueer people wearing intergalactic dildos in a vat of flaxseed lubricant. Many of the activists and artists who fought in Lucha Lub, manufacture dildos, and/or give sex-related workshops met in queer/trans/feminist spaces in Mexico City or at post-pornography festivals in Mexico, Spain, and/or other parts of Latin America (For more about Mexico City lesbians see Russo Garrido 2020 and Tyburczy 2021). Some of these key players are from Mexico, and others have migrated there from other Spanish-speaking countries. Several of these activists cited the work of Annie Sprinkle, an American feminist pornstar, as a source of inspiration, and she was influential in the post-pornography movement.

As “For Us” unfolds, Anahí gets on all fours and slowly makes her ass the center of the frame while introducing the concept of analectics, which she explains comes from Latin American philosophy (coined by the Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel 1973). While caressing her anus through her partially sheer bodysuit, ass to camera, looking back at the viewer, through text on the screen, she describes that while dialectics are about games of dominance, analectics instead resolve conflict through finding commonalities. While Anahí touches herself, we see poetic texts. “Because I am an analectic, I resign myself to my addictions: I look at your breast and confirm the existence of God.” Unfastening the bottom of her bodysuit and spreading her ass cheeks to expose her anus, the text reads, “I desire you, neocolonial enemy, but I don’t declare war against you—I declare my desire that you come to discover me here, in my bed.”  Her text then becomes tragic and romantic, saying things like, “I want to be the prisoner of your love”, and expressing that she trembles with desire.

Don Anahí’s “For Us” is didactic, poetic, and pornographic. Her viewer, perhaps jerking off while Anahí masturbates, might also learn something about philosophy, the difference between sex work and sex trafficking, the importance of seeing sex workers not merely as victims or criminals, and about the way the US laws like FOSTA and SESTA affect sex workers not only in the United States but throughout the world. Her video puts the anal in analectics, using her body as a conductor of cross-border intimacies of pedagogy, desire, and perhaps, orgasm.

 

 

References

Don Anahí, dir. 2022. For Us. Mexico City: Mexico.

Dussel Mendoza, Enrique. 1973. Nuevo Mundo, el método analéctica y la filosofía latinoamericana. Provincia de Mendoz, Argentina.

Lamas, Marta. 2016. “Feminismo y prostitución: la persistencia de una amarga disputa.” Debate Feminista 51 (June).

Luna, Sarah. 2020. Love in the Drug War: Selling Sex and Finding Jesus on the Mexico-US Border. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Russo Garrido, Anahí. 2020. Tortilleras Negotiating Intimacy: Love, Friendship, and Sex in Queer Mexico City. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Tyburczy, Jennifer. 2021. La Gozadera: Lesbian Transfeminist Worldmaking in Mexico City. In Queer Nightlife. Adeyemi, Kemi, Kareem Khubchandani, and Ramon Rivera-Servera, editors. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

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