The Limits of Regulation: Politicians, Businesspeople, and Sex Workers in Ciudad Juárez, 1910–40

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:50 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon D (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
B. Marlene Medrano , Southern Methodist University
The Limits of Regulation: Politicians, Businesspeople, and Sex Workers in Ciudad Juárez, 1910-1940

This paper will examine local and federal policies regarding prostitution in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez from 1910 to 1940 and the competing municipal interests and center-periphery tensions that they reveal.  Municipal and federal officials incessantly fought over who had the authority to regulate prostitution. Though politicians claimed to be acting in the interests of public health and morality, ultimately, debates about prostitution were about enforcing their authority in the chaotic border region. Juárez residents, for their part, condemned federal officials for undermining local autonomy. Different agencies wanted control over sex workers’ bodies in order to enforce varying municipal and federal ideas about morality and to ensure access to revenues from sexual commerce. Public health agents and police officers squabbled over who had the power to detain women that violated the Sanitary Code, which outlined laws regarding prostitution. Furthermore, doctors representing the municipal and federal branches of government argued over who could perform the medical examination of sex workers.

Sex workers and brothel proprietors asserted their own agendas. They sought to shape the regulation of prostitution in ways that would maximize their profits while reducing the restrictions placed on them. Sex workers evoked their roles as citizens and patriots but also called to mind gender-specific roles such as mothers and caregivers. For instance, they asked for reductions in licensing and registration fees when business was unprofitable and they needed to purchase essential items for their families. They also filed complaints about greedy or disreputable doctors. This paper will also highlight debates surrounding the location of the zone of tolerance in the 1920s in order to demonstrate the ways in which businessmen, politicians, and sex workers all negotiated the regulation of prostitution to serve their interests.