Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

¿Mi Cuerpo? ¡Mi Vida!: Voicing Latin American Transgenders in Antwerp's Sex Industry

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

¿Mi Cuerpo? ¡Mi Vida!: Voicing Latin American Transgenders in Antwerp's Sex Industry

Article excerpt


According to the annual report of Ghapro (2014), Latin American sex workers constitute a significant proportion of immigrants working in Antwerp's sex industry2. Remarkably, it primarily consists of transgenders3. Although this group is largely present in and beyond Antwerp's Red Light District, few is known about their lives as they live in the margins of society, caught in a 3-fold stigma: being migrant, being sex worker, and being transgendered4.

The purpose of this anthropological and phenomenological research project is to find out who the Latin American transgender sex workers in Antwerp are, why they work in the sex industry, which journey brought them to Europe, how they experience life, how they feel about their bodies, identities and sexuality, and how art is used as a creative coping strategy to escape their remarkable reality. In this paper, I will thus answer these questions. By acknowledging the agency of these sex workers, we cannot only understand the Latin-American migration process, but also the motives that lead those people towards sex work. Only by voicing these sex workers and narrating their personal life histories, dominant dynamics of stigmatization can be successfully challenged and more understanding of this (sexual) minority can be gained.

In this paper, I emphasize that economic, political, religious as well as gender specific emancipatory motives can lead to an innovate anthropological perspective on this matter, so that our understanding of this social reality increases by developing personal testimonies and life histories of this phenomenon. It therefore builds further on the work "Sex Workers on the Move. Latin American Women in the European Sex Industry" of anthropologist Marie-Louise Janssen (2007). However, she did not focus on transgender as a specific target group. Her book was therefore a useful and inspiring starting point for my research, but demanded further ethnographic fieldwork amongst Latin American transgender sex workers. Thereby, I focused on the city of Antwerp as a sheer availability of this group can be found here in Antwerp's Red Light District. The qualitative research report 'Schone schijn bedriegt, over opbloeiende prostitutie in de rafelrand' ('Clean appearances are deceiving, about thriving prostitution in the fringe') by the Dutch sociologist Marion Van San (2007) was thereby a useful starting point to explore the social landscape of sex workers in Antwerp. It allowed me to gain deepened knowledge on the functioning of sex work in Antwerp and brought me to ideas on how to start my ethnographic fieldwork.

Moreover, the willingness of Ghapro's social workers (a non-profit association specialized in health care and assistance to prostitutes) to introduce me to the workings of Antwerp's Schipperskwartier as well as their 2014 annual report served as valuable tools to inform my research with official data and essential professionalism (Ghapro, 2016). In addition, the explorative interview with the social workers of Boysproject (a governmental organization for male and transgendered sex workers in Antwerp) provided me helpful information about how to approach transgendered sex workers online as this organization is specialized in online social aid via websites and chat boxes (Boysproject, 2016).

Nevertheless, there was not much scientific literature on this topic available at the time I conducted research. The main research question therefore remained open during this explorative fieldwork as I gradually gained more understanding through the main themes that will be discussed in next chapters: bodies, journeys, (sex) work, people, and art.

Research methods

This fieldwork was carried out among 8 sex workers, originating from Ecuador (3), Brazil (2), Puerto Rico (1), Peru (1) and Venezuela (1). The age of my interviewees ranged from 39 to 52 years old, which coincides with available statistics provided by Ghapro (2014) that the average age group of transsexual sex workers is 39 years, compared to 32 years for female/male sex workers. …

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