The limits of democracy: transgender sex work and citizenship

Sabsay, Leticia (2011). The limits of democracy: transgender sex work and citizenship. Cultural Studies, 25(2) pp. 213–229.



During 1998 Buenos Aires witnessed a singular event: in the context of a broad legal renewal, street sex work was decriminalized. This decision proved to be highly problematic though, and led to a series of juridical reformulations that culminated in the delimitation of an official red light district in 2004. Nonetheless, although it might be thought that the legalization of this area as a site for street sex work (de facto aimed at trans sex workers) would stabilize the conflict, the regulation of sex work continues to be the object of an intense political struggle and the current situation is still far from achieving a fair agreement for sex workers. Certainly, although these debates might seem focused on the legal status of sex work, they have been addressing much broader issues that appeal to profound moral beliefs that are in turn intersected by the social organization of gender and sexuality. Thus, departing from this broader scope, in this essay I will analyse the history of this legal norm for taking up the question of the performativity of sex work configured as a social practice. In this context, I will try to show the modes in which the regulation of sexual desire implied several consequences for the definition of the public space itself and, at the same time, it implied the stabilization of the parameters through which citizenry and its rights to use urban space could be determined. It is from this point of departure that I will point to the link between the definition of sex work and the configuration of a ‘legitimate sexuality’, and from here, I will show the role of sex work in the configuration of the imaginary of citizenship and the public space.

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