Prostitution in Panama: Tragic Beauty

In Culture, Essays by Sally16 Comments

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.

Panama City, international finance hub and home to a legal prostitution industry.

Panama City, international finance hub and home to a legal prostitution industry.

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.

Making eye contact for even a few seconds was an unspoken invitation for the girl to approach, try to start a conversation, and flirt.

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.

I felt a conflicting sense of shame for being there. …I was compromising my values in a way.
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 sitings in Atlanta, I’d never actually seen prostitutes 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.

Ring girls from Muay Thai Nights 7- NOT prostitutes.

Ring girls from Muay Thai Nights 7- NOT prostitutes.

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 a prostitute? Or worse that he didn’t think she was worth $200?

Should I feel better that he didn’t agree to pay for a prostitute? Or worse that he didn’t think she was worth $200?
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.

The only Panamanian man at the bar was working behind it.
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 had to have been a 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?

A user takes to Yahoo! Answers to ask about locating and paying for a prostitute in Panama City. 10 users replied and seemed to speak from experience.

A user takes to Yahoo! Answers to ask about locating and paying for a prostitute in Panama City. 10 users replied and seemed to speak from experience.

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 prostitutes? Or do they simply not care?

Legal prostitution is a trap.
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, there was no accurate information regarding the number of persons practicing prostitution in the country. Trafficking in women was a problem.”

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,

“The majority of foreign trafficking victims found in Panama are adult women from Colombia and, to a lesser extent, from neighboring Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. Most of these women migrate voluntarily to Panama to work, but are subsequently exploited in sex trafficking 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. 

13 times.

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.

Even where it is regulated, the sex trade traffics in women and frequently coerces or forces them into working as prostitutes.

 

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.

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Comments

  1. Pingback: Drugs, Prostitution & the American Dream - Twomey Travel

  2. Thank you for your perfect summary of the state of prostitution in the world.

    Gender inequality in the world is the root of prostitution.

    1. Author

      Thanks. While I don’t claim to summarize the state of prostitution in the world, this is certainly what I’ve found through research about the state of it in Panama.

  3. Hello Sally,
    you point out often, prostitution is legal in Panama…
    is it important for you, or does it make a different?
    Here in Germany prostitution is also legal, and bcs of this the working woman live more save as in the USA, where you must stay in illegality if you do this job. This is probably the reason the murdered rate is 13x higher as for other people.

    By the way… you went to Laos? The linkis not active.

    1. Author

      You’ve outed yourself as a troll to begin with, so I won’t bother having to prove that my researched, sources-cited “opinion” is actually relevant.

    2. Author

      I think it’s pretty clear that the illegality of the trade does not always provide safety or put a stop to human trafficking.

  4. I would say you are rather unattractive … Prostitution is business in Panama and the ladies here work to get money due to lack of opportunities in their home countries, problems you do not encounter, you reap the benefits of white privileges and feminism whilst other women cannot and do not… Keep your irrelevant opinion to yourself

    1. Author

      You’ve outed yourself as a troll to begin with, so I won’t bother having to prove that my researched, sources-cited “opinion” is actually relevant.

  5. The reason why you only see foreigners in the brothels is because Panamanian Nationals are verbotten to work in The brothels and legal sex industry. Hence the heavy Dominican and Colombian representation.. If you go to the seedier side of town you will see “Street Walkers” who are defintely locals..

  6. mike is correct about your spelling, it’s colombia, not columbia, even though he goofed his own comment. i’m glad that you kept an open-eye and understand the economy prostitution provides, and also understand that you, of course, have the fortune of not being born in a tin shack with young siblings to take care of. billions of dollars are poured into 3rd world countries from sex tourism each year. absolutely some of it goes to criminal activity including underage sex and trafficking (no system is perfect). but i hope the majority ends up going to feed people and raise their standard of living. a women can easily make in a few hours what a normal citizen is paid in a month of hard labor.

    1. Author

      Hi dexter,

      Appreciate your comment. Yes, I am relatively privileged. Yes, these women are almost 100% likely to be born into and experience far worse life conditions than me. No, I don’t think this makes my opinion irrelevant.
      There is the point that sex tourism is a sizable industry capable of supporting people. Along those same lines, it’s also an industry fueled by unskilled labor that gives workers little chance of economic mobility, one of many industries like it in our world. By giving these people more access to education and opportunity, we increase the chances of them having a better life.

  7. Thumbs up to the author. Sex tourism is no excuse when there are other venues possible. Govys, NGOs, civic groups and people in general can do much to stamp out sex tourism. I am sure we don’t want our sisters, mothers or brothers to be on it and one can go on happy or taking it with a heavy heart that a family member is brutalized ( mentally or physically, voluntsrily or involuntarily) every time so that others can go on living. Well done Sally.

    Jude

  8. very nice write up, this is just kind of how it is when you travel to poorer countries, some people don’t like it but its very common

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