Experiences of stigma and inequality
At age 9, “Miguel”,1
32 years of age at the time of his interview, left his family home and became, in his words, “a street kid”: “I was raised in the street. Mainly I was raised with the tourists. I worked with them. Some were gays and I stayed with them, and that’s how my life went. I raised myself alone.” Two years after leaving home, he relocated from his home town of La Romana to Santo Domingo to try his luck in the city:
Well, when I came to Santo Domingo the first time, I began working with a triciclo [tricycle, used to pick up recyclable material] in the street…looking for bottles, looking for cardboard in the street. And I always stopped there in El Conde [a popular tourist area] around a hotel that was called the —, and they [the tourists] always waved to me, and they started to give me things, and they said ‘come,’ and from there I continued. I went every day, I passed by every day, since then I knew that they gave me— that they gave me a sandwich, they gave me ten dollars, they gave me five pesos…And I got a person, a guy, an American friend, and from the age of twelve I stayed almost– almost four or five years working with him in the hotel. I was the one who—who did it to him. And there I stayed.
Like Miguel, many of the sex workers in this study had become street children at an early age, often working as limpiabotas (shoe-shiners) or chiriperos (street vendors) –occupations which resulted in periods of extreme deprivation. Among study participants who became street children at a young age, stories of initiation into sex work often began by describing a period of vulnerability or homelessness resulting from abuse, alcoholism, neglect, or poverty in the natal home. Leonardo, an 18 year old in Santo Domingo, for example, told a story of his first transaction with a Puerto Rican tourist at the age of 10, after being offered money, food, and clothing while shining the man’s shoes. After going to a short-term motel and enduring a “disgusting” experience, he gained knowledge of the trade from experienced sex workers and now considers the work, along with many other participants, the best way to get “dinero facil” (easy money).
While a minority of participants did express satisfaction with the benefits of sex work, the phrase “easy money,” which emerged as a theme in men’s descriptions of their motivations for engaging in sex work, must be understood in the context of the poverty and underemployment in which most of these men live. As the Dominican economy has moved from male-dominated industries such as agriculture to the service industry of tourism, informal exchanges with tourists have become a popular coping strategy among underemployed male adolescents and young men (Padilla, 2007
). Money is, therefore, only “easy” in a relative sense, since the meanings of this term must be understood within the highly constrained opportunities available to poor men such as Miguel and Leonardo. German, 24, described as follows this tension between the ‘ease’ of sex work and the larger economic context:
Sometimes when you want to see things as easy, you accept them. Because that’s also our error – the so-called ‘bugarrones’ [a local term for male sex workers] – because the majority of us don’t like to work. I include myself. Because it’s not that I don’t like to work – I’ve always worked – but the thing is that the kind of work we can do is so hard, and so poorly paid. Working like a ‘normal’ person, I mean. And it’s always like that. Nothing. So here we are. And this is our life.
German’s reference to “normal people” reflects another theme in the interviews: sex workers’ feeling that they are, in the words of one participant, “fuera de la socie-dad” (outside of society). “Mainly the society catalogues us as unequal, like a dead person,” Eduardo, 19, commented in one interview. References to the desire to be “normal” among participants were related to the belief that they were falling short of social expectations regarding appropriate modes of work and masculine behavior. Even among participants who expressed satisfaction with their occupation, sex work – particularly sex work with male clients – was almost universally believed to be harmful and potentially result in mental, physical, or moral damage. For instance, Estevan, 27, observed:
I tell a lot of people, mainly young men, not to have sex with other men, because it’s a bad thing, a sin with God, and that their families should help them to not get to that point…It’s a big sin, but with help you won’t do it. Without help, you get pushed to do it, because there are many foreigners who come here to have fun.
Sex workers’ narratives often made reference to the tension between social proscriptions against homosexual behavior and the danger of “getting pushed into” sexual exchanges with male tourists. As suggested in Estevan’s comment above, moral and religious condemnations against homosexuality loomed large in most participants’ experience, and often provoked unsolicited explanations during interviews by men who sought to justify participation in stigmatizing sexual behaviors by referencing their dire economic circumstances. When asked about their sexual attraction toward men, for example, most participants denied any such attraction, sought to clarify their identity as “normal men,” and commented that they only have sex with men “out of necessity.”
Stigma management techniques
The tension between economic dependence on sex work and the dual stigmas of prostitution and homosexual behavior resulted in men’s frequent use of what Goffman has described as “stigma management techniques” –modes of interaction that reduce the negative effects of stigma on one’s social status (Goffman, 1963
). In this section, we summarize the most common stigma management techniques used with family members and stable female partners. We use three cases to illustrate some of the complex ways that sex workers manage stigma in a range of social contexts and situations. summarizes a range of specific stigma management techniques described by sex workers in the interviews.
Examples of sex workers’ stigma management techniques.
Case 1. Hernán, 18, lived with several family members and shared expenses. He explained in an interview that nobody in his household knew about his involvement in sex work, and believed that they would reprimand him severely and perhaps force him to live on the street. He observed that it would be particularly damaging if his mother found out, because she would be disappointed in him and it would bring the family vergüenza (shame). He attempted to keep his engagement in sex work concealed from the community. He did not like to be seen in public with gay clients, especially if they were “obvious”, because he did not want people to think that he was homosexual or a sex worker. He commented that if people began telling stories about him, he would be ridiculed and would be too ashamed to live in his neighborhood.
The desire to preserve family honor was a significant theme, and created feelings of acute shame when participants discussed real or potential moments of disclosure. Indeed, open communication with family was often viewed as impossible, since it would represent a great shame on the household. Like Hernán, a number of participants described the need to avoid public association with openly gay men, since this could fuel suspicion among family, friends, and neighbors, damaging one’s masculine reputation. “Here, maricones (fags) are very low people,” explained 26-year-old Samuel, who preferred to go to “normal places” and to avoid gay bars and discos in the course of his work. Daniel, 18, described how he was forced to abandon a well-paying regular client because he expected openness about their relationship and was excessively “obvious” in his mannerisms.
Case 2. Orlando, 27, joked in his interview about the problems that had developed as a result of his involvement with two women, as well as his attempts to prevent his sister, with whom he was then living, from learning about his sexual exchanges with men. He felt he had to frequently tell “little lies” to his family and girlfriends in order to keep them from suspecting he was a sex worker. To “kill the bad thoughts” of the neighbors, he occasionally came by the house with his girlfriends, a technique he believed would dispel any doubts about his homosexual behavior. When he had to be away from home to see clients, he would tell his primary girlfriend that he was out of town painting houses, a story he felt she believed.
Orlando’s case illustrates two common stigma management techniques, one associated with concealing participation in sex work and the other with avoiding suspicion about engagement in homosexual behavior. First, as suggested by his need to invent a painting job, the income provided by sex work created dilemmas for men as they negotiated the suspicion of family members and partners. The inexplicable appearance of cash in the context of a pervasive informal tourism economy and the general commonality of sex work tended to raise suspicion in the eyes of co-resident family and partners. Ironically, this even made some participants reticent to contribute financially to the household, due to the potential interrogation this could entail. Since most of the participants resided with family members and/or spouses (see ), they faced the regular imperative to conceal their sex work income or provide a reasonable explanation for the money they earned, often producing elaborate stories about invented jobs.
Another theme reflected in Orlando’s narrative is reflected in his desire to maintain an image of normative masculine sexuality. A number of participants produced real or invented girlfriends when families or neighbors became suspicious, in an effort to provide a convincing show of heterosexual normalcy.
Case 3. Jaime, 32, did not speak directly with his family about his work or sex with men, but believed they suspected. While his mother had often interrogated him about the source of his money and threatened to throw him out of the house for being a “delinquent,” he had managed to provide reasonable explanations for his income. More recently, still in the absence of an explicit conversation, his mother had begun to make comments that he should “take care of himself,” and she had even told him, “Look, you need to use a condom.” Jaime had not acknowledged the implication of these comments, and continued to invent excuses for his absences from home.
Like Jaime, a significant proportion of participants described using a range of more subtle or indirect forms of communication with family members and partners, an approach that allowed them to tacitly acknowledge a certain shared understanding without disrupting the relationship with frank sexual disclosures. While almost no men in this study described openly disclosing either their participation in sex work or homosexual activity, veiled comments such as “take care of yourself” were ways that some family members communicated a level of understanding and concern, or perhaps offered the opportunity for more direct communication. These dynamics allowed both sex workers and their families to maintain a comfortable ambiguity about the stigma itself, since the elaborate techniques that these men used to manage stigma permitted alternative explanations for suspicious activities or associations.
Contextualizing sexual risk disclosure
As with other studies on HIV-related risk behavior in the context of marriage (Hirsch, 2003
; Hirsch, Higgins, Bentley, & Nathanson, 2002
), the men in this study expressed a strong resistance to using condoms with their steady female partners whom they considered de confianza
(trustworthy). While self-reported condom use with male clients was quite high on the structured survey for this study, with 82% reporting they had “always” used condoms with their male clients, 14% of men with regular male clients indicated they had never
used condoms with these partners. Further, the in-depth interviews strongly suggested that actual condom use with clients was more inconsistent than reflected in the structured survey, creating significant dilemmas for many participants regarding the possibility of becoming infected with HIV and/or placing their female partners at risk. The cases of Mauricio and Samuel are illustrative of these patterns.
Case 1: Mauricio, 30, reported using condoms with all of his male clients. He strongly believed in the need to use condoms to protect both himself and his two steady girl-friends, neither of whom was aware about the nature of his work. He did not use condoms with either of these women. He had had a recent incident with a male client in which the condom broke, causing him much anxiety about infecting himself and his two girlfriends, anxiety that escalated when he later developed a persistent cough. None of his family and friends knew about his involvement in sex work, and he felt he could never tell them. While he indicated that condom use usually occurs in the beginning of his relationships with women, he stopped using condoms as soon as he trusted his partners.
Case 2: Samuel, 26, said he firmly believed in using condoms always with male clients, although he did not use condoms with either of his two girlfriends because he trusted them, nor did he use condoms with the one regular male client with whom he had also developed trust and affection. When asked about other casual sex partners, he said that he did not use condoms with women he trusted and always used condoms with women he did not trust. He had not had an HIV test out of fear, and because he believed that he would die sooner of anxiety if he received a positive result.
Similar to Samuel and Mauricio, many sex workers articulated a model of selective condom use in which condoms were to be consistently used in all transactions with male clients in order to protect themselves and their trusted female partners from HIV. Nevertheless, in cases when protection was foregone with male clients due to developing trust, pressure from regular clients, temporary errors of judgment, alcohol or drug use, or broken condoms, these men often experienced intense fear about HIV infection and the potential for infecting their wives and girlfriends. Oscar, 37, for example, had had unprotected sex with a tourist a few days before the interview, and commented that while “the fear kills me,” he could not tell anyone about his anxieties, which were exacerbated by the recent AIDS-related death of a close friend.
While many sex workers expressed great fear about HIV infection and the health of their wives and girlfriends, they very rarely disclosed moments of sexual risk behavior to their partners, nor was condom use typically initiated as an interim protective strategy. The latter was partly related to the importance of unprotected sex as a symbol of relational trust, as illustrated by Lorenzo, 26, who when asked why he did not begin using condoms with his steady girlfriend to avoid his expressed anxiety about infecting her, commented, “Can you imagine after four years me telling her we’re going to use condoms! What would she think?” As with most of the participants in this study, Lorenzo’s fears about HIV infection and the desire to protect his girlfriend were overshadowed by anxieties about the potential consequences of disclosure.
Despite these constraints on disclosure, a few participants had established more open communication with their families and partners. Alejandro, 27, for example, observed that he did nothing to conceal his involvement in sex work, which he had discussed openly with his parents and primary partner, and stressed that he always used condoms to keep himself and his family safe. Further, it should be emphasized that a number of participants who had not disclosed their involvement in sex work or homosexual behavior, nevertheless, articulated a strong sense of familial responsibility. For example, 83% of fathers in the survey portion of the study indicated that they helped support their children with their sex work income, and the cost of raising children was often cited as a primary reason for participation in sex work. The latter is illustrated by Martín, 33, who when asked whether his income from sex work covered all his expenses, responded, “No, it doesn’t cover all of my expenses, but it helps me to take care of my children, which is the most important thing.” Thus, while direct sexual disclosure was rare among participants, it cannot be concluded that these men possess no sense of responsibility toward their partners and families. However, this responsibility rarely translated into direct disclosures or consistent condom use.