“I’m a sex worker and a feminist”: Fighting for sex worker rights in Argentina

The first time Elena Eva Reynaga was arrested for being a sex worker was in 1976, amidst the military coup in Argentina. She was detained for almost 100 days. The cell, she recalls, was “two by two with a toilet, or rather, a pit – with cockroaches, rats”.

Facing what she describes as constant police harassment, brutality and arrest, Reynaga stopped working until the early 1980s, “when democracy returned to the country,” she told me. “But”, she added, “democracy did not return for us”.

The criminalisation of sex work in Argentina meant that, if caught, sex workers faced “prison for 21 days, or paying around $700 a week so that the police wouldn’t take you”, she said.

It was in prison with fellow sex workers, in 1994, that Reynaga decided to start political organising. “We were tired of police violence and injustice, and saw that no human rights organisation was going to concern itself with us – because of all that the subject of sex work brought up… So, our organisation began to take shape in jail”.

This organisation became the first sex worker union in Argentina – the Association of Meretrices Women of Argentina (AMMAR), which became affiliated with the Argentine Workers’ Central Union in 1995. Since then, it has become a powerful political force in the country – though Reynaga is upfront about the challenges they’ve faced.

“I didn’t know how to read or write, I didn’t know that you had to make appointments to meet with politicians”, says Reynaga of her early days of activism. So she went knocking on legislators’ doors. And when they didn’t want to answer? “I called more sex workers, and we would stand in front of the door until they opened it.”

Reynaga told me the activists wanted to ensure those in power knew about the repression and violence sex workers faced – “about police bribes, what would happen to us inside the cells – which a lot of the time was rape”.

“And just when we thought sticking together would protect us from the police, the repression became much worse”, she recalled, “because the police started to see the formation of a women’s group was going to go against their interests”.

“They arrested me frequently”, she said, “and they would tell me to stop fucking around with human rights because they would frame me with ten kilos of cocaine and put a bullet through my neck”.