Prostitution is legal in Panama.
Did you know that? I didn’t, at least not until shortly before our trip.
When I think of legal prostitution, Amsterdam comes to mind, then some weird brothel in Nevada. I wasn’t sure what I would see in Panama City, but I kept an open mind.
So what does the legality of prostitution in Panama entail?
While there are brothels, establishments only offering sexual services from a variety of women to choose from, girls also work outside of them. This doesn’t mean street walking. Not once in Panama City did we see a street walker, that we knew of. To be fair, we didn’t even see a tenth of the city’s streets, and certainly not seedier areas where street walkers might work.
Instead, in our area of town, the financial district, prostitutes frequent certain bars and clubs as a place to meet potential customers. Nikita attested to this as he went with a friend to a local bar, one known for being a place to meet prostitutes, to see what Panama’s legal prostitution industry looked like.[pullquote type=”left, right”]Making eye contact for even a few seconds was an unspoken invitation for the girl to approach, try to start a conversation, and flirt. [/pullquote]
All a John had to do was basically show up to the bar, and he would be approached by a girl sooner rather than later. Making eye contact for even a few seconds was an unspoken invitation for the girl to approach, try to start a conversation, and flirt. Nikita likened it to what he imagined was a woman’s typical experience at a bar. “You’re at a bar, and a drunk guy comes up to you, starts talking to you and gets handsy- whether you asked for it or not.”
Only a tiny sliver of our experience in Panama City was of the sex industry- thankfully! After the fight, we hit the area around our hotel, Riu Plaza Panama, to have some fun and blow off steam from the hectic lead up to the fights. We hit up some bars, and unbeknownst to me, we ventured back to that same bar. I was apprehensive, but also curious, so I went along with it.
It was late, so the crowd was slowly thinning out, but there were still enough people there to get an idea of the patronage. About 75% were girls, and the remaining 25% were johns.
The establishment was unquestionably a place for girls to meet johns and vise versa, and I doubt that any of the girls there were not prostitutes.
[pullquote type=”right, left”]I felt a conflicting sense of shame for being there. …I was compromising my values in a way.[/pullquote]Let me just mention that I am a feminist, and my views tend to be on the more progressive side of the feminist spectrum. I don’t broadcast this because feminism is still regarded as being anti-mainstream and I hate to argue with people… and revealing my highly unpopular feminist opinions tends to lead to that.
As a woman, as a feminist, I felt a conflicting sense of shame for being there. I felt that although it was legal, I was compromising my values in a way.
Besides a couple of late night sightings in Atlanta, I’d never actually seen sex workers at work, and questions raced through my mind. I wanted to see, but was it wrong to look? Was I detracting from their business somehow? I’m sure I was, as no one approached our table while I was there. I feebly questioned my role as a normal girl, with my boyfriend no less, among working girls. I also questioned my looks- I was a 2 in a sea of 10s and 11s.
Nikita didn’t lie to me when he told me about his previous experience; the girls were hot. They were stunningly beautiful, actually, and easily much more attractive than the ring girls from the fight. If anything, he’d understated how attractive they were, probably out of respect for me.
While make-up was in no short supply, and perhaps some of the girls had undergone plastic surgery, they were each gorgeous in a way that seemed natural, but conventionally beautiful at the same time. There were a few over the top outfits of straps and extreme cleavage, but nothing lurid or revealing like the famous street walking outfit Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman.
After a few drinks, a friend of ours went to talk to a girl, and came back a few minutes later. “She wanted $200,” he said, incredulous.
Again, I felt conflicted. Should I feel better that he didn’t agree to pay for sex? Or worse that he didn’t think she was worth $200?
[pullquote type=”left, right”]Should I feel better that he didn’t agree to pay for sex? Or worse that he didn’t think she was worth $200?[/pullquote]Even as I experienced superficial insecurities among so many beautiful women, I knew their circumstances were by no means enviable. From what I already knew about the sex trade, I was sure that many of these girls had to have come from less fortunate circumstances, and figured they were also perhaps from other countries in Latin America, coming to Panama to work.
It was easy to see how sex tourism has shaped the sex trade and nightlife in Panama City: the only Panamanian man at the bar was working behind it.
[pullquote type=”right, left”]The only Panamanian man at the bar was working behind it.[/pullquote]All of the johns were foreigners. And next to us, a table of older and off-beat average Joes relaxed, each with a girl sitting next to them or on their lap. Some girls were flirtatious and sensual, others were quiet. All of them wore smiles.
This was part of the business; this seduction of sorts. In addition to impossibly beautiful girls, their flirtations, their interest in men they would most likely never consider otherwise, was a cultivated fantasy, and clearly an important part of the transaction.
A lot of questions went through my mind. Were these men passing through Panama City or on vacation? How did they know to come to this bar? Did they come to Panama City specifically for sex tourism?
An easy Google search revealed this Yahoo! Answers page, where an alleged older white male (much like the patrons in the bar) asks how to find and acquire a prostitute.
It’s disgusting, but unsurprising to me, that most of the replies acknowledge that many of the girls are not from Panama, but the poorer countries of the region, like the neighboring Columbia and the Dominican Republic, yet they still recommend specific establishments to visit. Are the users on Yahoo! Answers unaware of the reasons why there are so few Panamanian sex workers? Or do they simply not care?
[pullquote type=”right, left”]Legal prostitution is a trap.[/pullquote]Legalalized prostitution can seem appealing- a guilty pleasure, without the guilt. If a john is enlightened enough to worry about the background of the girl, he can perhaps worry less knowing that she’s part of a legal business and being regulated in some way. Or maybe he’s just worried about getting caught, or catching something. Either way, the legal sex trade offers a form of security for the johns.
But legal prostitution is a trap.
Even when legalized, prostitution blurs the lines of sex trafficking. The US State Department’s Human Rights Report for Panama states of the country’s sex trade,
“Although prostitution is legal and regulated, with prostitutes required to register and carry identification cards, the majority of prostitutes were not registered. Although 2,650 sex workers were registered with the government, [highlight]there was no accurate information regarding the number of persons practicing prostitution in the country. Trafficking in women was a problem.”[/highlight]
The second sentence of this recent US Embassy Report states that, “Most Panamanian trafficking victims are exploited in sex trafficking in the country.” It continues,
[highlight]”The majority of foreign trafficking victims found in Panama are adult women from Colombia[/highlight] and, to a lesser extent, from neighboring Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. [highlight]Most of these women migrate voluntarily to Panama to work, but are subsequently exploited in sex trafficking[/highlight] or in domestic servitude. In recent years, authorities have identified several East European women working in nightclubs as potential sex trafficking victims.”
Women all around the world resort to prostitution in situations where other forms of income are scarce or unavailable, resulting in disproportionate numbers of poor and disenfranchised women in the sex trade.
There’s a reason wealthy and middle class women don’t become sex workers, and why so few Panamanian women were reported to be working in their country’s prostitution industry. Unfortunately, this class bias represents the less brutal part of the reality of the sex trade:
Every day, sex workers face extreme violence, and frequently, death. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at the long term mortality rate among a local prostitute population in the United States and found that prostitutes were 13 times more likely than the general population to be murdered.
We can only imagine at how these odds might increase in less developed industries. And as we have seen, even Panama’s industry, which is legalized, has problems with regulation and trafficking.
I’m sure that there are people in the world who wouldn’t mind, or would even enjoy being a sex worker. These are not the majority of people, nor the majority of prostitutes.
It may seem that because it’s legal and regulated, the patrons- and the girls- are safe. But even where it is regulated, the sex trade traffics in women and frequently coerces or forces them into working as prostitutes. It is modern day slavery. Paying for prostitution in Panama increases the demand for human trafficking, and human suffering.[x_blockquote type=”left”]Even where it is regulated, the sex trade traffics in women and frequently coerces or forces them into working as prostitutes.[/x_blockquote]
If you’re not looking to pay for sex but will be traveling to Panama City and looking to experience the nightlife, consider the words in the guestbook at our hostel, “If a really hot girl is talking to you, and it seems to good to be true, it probably is.”
After finishing my beer, I rallied us to head out and find something different. I knew none of us would be hooking up with a prostitute, and regardless of how I felt about it, the girls were there to work. Hanging out to gawk was just hurting their chances.
We moved on to Panama’s next form of morally questionable business, a small casino. After playing a couple of slots and losing some money we crawled back to our hotel. It was the first time I’d ever been in a casino, but Panama City was showing me a lot of firsts.