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Keywords:

  • Consumption;
  • motherhood;
  • economic mobility;
  • sex work;
  • Costa Rica;
  • Latin America;
  • neo-liberalism

Abstract

Although sex work remains highly stigmatized around the world, its relatively high value (when compared to other kinds of work available for low-income women) allows sex workers to attain some level of economic, if not social, mobility. This article challenges the idea that sex work in ‘third world’ settings is always about mere subsistence. Instead, it suggests that sex workers in Costa Rica's tourism sector work to survive, but they also demonstrate significant personal ambition and aim not only to increase their own consumption levels, but crucially to get ahead. Women are clear about what sex work enables for their families and themselves: not the maintenance of the status quo, but rather a level of consumption otherwise unavailable to them as low-income and poor women. Sex work offers an opportunity to consume and to get ahead that these women have been unable to attain in other kinds of employment, primarily domestic and factory work. Furthermore, sex work allows women to think of themselves as particularly good mothers, able to provide for and spend important quality time with their kids. The article argues that survival, consumption, and motherhood are discursively deployed, in often contradictory and conflicting ways, in order to counteract the effects that stigma has on sex workers. It also suggests that sex workers may very well be the quintessential subjects of neo-liberalism in Latin America, in their embrace of entrepreneurial work and consumption.