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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sex Worker Political Development in Costa Rica: from Informal Solidarities to Formal Organizing

  • Author(s): Koné, Mzilikazi
  • Advisor(s): Sawyer, Mark Q.
  • et al.

While many accounts of sex workers presume they lack agency, this project studies how people framed as powerless assert positions of power through social interactions, friendships, and organizing. I examine sex workers' politics and power from the perspective of a subset of female Costa Rican sex workers. I engage specifically with sex workers who organize, in order to theorize everyday experiences of politics, including solidarity building and acts of accommodation or resistance vis-à-vis state interventions, health policies, and the police. Central theoretical bases for the project include Michael Hanchard and James Scott on "politics from below." I also draw on the work of Michele Berger in order to advance Political Science literature and frameworks in regarding everyday and labor-related interactions, challenging and extending the field's understanding of the politics of work-related interactions. I position sex-work as a form of labor and analyze the role that informal interactions play in organizing. The project also engages a multi-disciplinary set of literatures, including key texts from feminist and gender studies as well as theoretical and empirical approaches to studies of race, ethnicity, discrimination, and social movements. I discuss the political valences of stigma against sex work by extending concepts of discrimination from African-American studies.

This study examines micro and macro aspects of sex worker activism through resistance politics, empowerment strategies, and organizing. It also provides practical and theoretical insights on sex worker politics that can apply to other communities. The project's central questions are: 1) what kinds of political actions characterize sex workers' engagement in Costa Rica? and 2) how are informal and formal strategies used to organize sex workers? Unique among studies of sex work, I present a multi-level analysis of these perspectives in a Latin American context. As a case, Costa Rica highlights the diverse ways sex workers organize to resist the status quo. The dissertation examines three distinct but interconnected contexts: individual sex workers working in San José's zona roja (red zone); female sex workers who organize with the twenty-year-old sex worker project La Sala (The Living Room); and the international network of Latin American sex worker organizations, RedTraSex.

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