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Prostitution in Argentina

Prostitution in Argentina in the Early 20th Century

Prostitution in Argentina in the early 20th century was a result of a number of social problems that often resulted in other more complicated problems. Guy (1991, p.105) illustrates that perhaps it was the First World War that led to the increase of prostitution as the high number of men and women killed left men and women with no partners, and they had to make ends meet in all social dimension through any way possible. Guy (1991) also suggests that prostitution was on the rise because “in 1914, more women than men migrated from inland provinces to Buenos Aires in search of work” (p.105). When women did not find work, which was supposed to be reserved for women, they had to turn to prostitution as a means to feed and provide cloth for themselves. The same case was applicable for men; however, male prostitutes were compelled into the activity by sexual fulfillment needs more than the material needs. Competition in the prostitution business was extremely high, often dominated by pimps, who controlled the activities of prostitutes. Due to the high competition, different forms and examples of prostitution emerged in order to evade police arrests and attract more customers.

Both female and male prostitution gave rise to a number of political, social and health problems. All the problems arising from the prostitution were involved into moral and financial situations of the country. For example, the political elite were keen on the activities of prostitution both legal and illegal, in the scope of gender, religion and cultural backgrounds of prostitutes. The health sector was concerned about the rise and cost of sexually transmitted disease; luckily, AIDS was not in the picture at the time. Social problems that emerged were in the scope of activities involved in control for prostitution dominance such as bribery, fights, recruitment of naive and innocent citizens, increasing number of broken homes and so on.

Examples of Prostitution in Argentina in the Early 20th Century

The most common form of prostitution in the early 19th century was women “who abandoned their men, families or homeland for a life of sexual commerce” (Guy, 1991, p.3). Such women were met by a harsh regulation of the civic bodies and government to stamp out prostitution in Argentine. The government considered that the high number of prostitutes was not healthy for the nation as women would give birth to unhealthy babies or not give birth at all. The government wanted to secure the future of the country, and, therefore, was made to subject women to scrutiny, especially female prostitutes to confirm on their health status. This only drove prostitutes to conduct their activities in hiding as they were in this for business sake. Majority of women involved in this form of prostitution voluntarily engaged in the business. However, due to scrutiny by the government, the women were forced to conduct business in hiding, and this only gave rise to opportunities of emergence of other social evils such as human trafficking.

In Argentina, in the early 20th century, human trafficking was done for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation and abuse of women. Human trafficking was made possible by the loophole created when authorities in Argentina condemned the open prostitution. Guy (1991) illustrates “Buenos Aires had a terrible international reputation as the port of missing women, where kidnapped European virgins unwillingly sold their bodies and danced the tango” (p. 5). The reputation only encouraged the growth of prostitution in Argentina. This is because the perception that Buenos Aires was in a position to supply sexual objects for abuse or exploitation increased the demand for these objects in Argentina. Perhaps, unknowingly, the bad reputation only advertised Buenos Aires as a sexual exploitation destination. Women involved in this type of business offered themselves for sexual exploitation due to threat or bondage that was placed on them; moreover, they had no other choice. Human traffickers and pimps, who could easily buy women, often controlled this type of business. Sexual exploitation is almost similar to slavery in the scope of threat of physical harm, restriction of movement and confinement to the workplace or to a limited area, retention of migration and identity documents and threat of denunciation to the authorities, where the worker is of illegal status (in the case of illegal migrants). For example, Guy (1991) illustrates the hot state of events in 1889, where “two hundred women from German or Austria were held against their will in Buenos Aires by polish Jewish pimps” (p. 5). The condemnation of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women gave rise to another ‘better’ way to conduct the prostitution, namely, the emergence of brothels.

Those who operated in brothels had engaged in the prostitution business in other places. For example, foreigners who traveled to Buenos Aires in desperation already knew what was awaiting them in the other end. The brothel activities were subject to medical and cleanliness inspection by the madam in charge of the brothel. Close family members, due to desperate desire to end poverty, recruited into brothel. Fiancées and lovers also recruited their girlfriends in to the business, as brothels seemed a safer place for prostitutes to conduct their business. The perception of brothels as a safe place made prostitution “typically a self-conscious response to poverty than the result of trickery by an evil procurer” (Guy, 1991, p.7). However, despite the regard given to brothels, there was another approach that the brothels were used to conduct ‘white-slavery’, which was against the exploitation of migrating women. The protest was backed from racial, nationalism and religious backing, especially the Jewish community.

The Jewish community, both men and women were largely involved in prostitution, either as buyers or as sellers. The Jewish men and women engaged in prostitution due to collapse of the social institution that hosted them in foreign countries, and they were at the brink of death from starvation. Prostitution was the smartest way to stay alive. This is because those that were sold or volunteered in the brothels would at least get something to eat. The situation was dreadful for women considering the strict Jewish laws that prohibited a woman from being remarried after she was left by her husband for any reason. The strict laws prohibiting remarrying of women only presented an opportunity for the Jewish woman to engage in prostitution. Furthermore, the law considered the abandoned women as an outcast;  therefore, women entered into prostitution with little or no coaxing. Women were cast into a situation that forced them to “voluntarily opt for the life of vice. In fact, questions of violation were irrelevant. The choice was survival or death” (Guy, 1991, p.8). On the other hand, there were those Jewish girls who involuntarily engaged into prostitution. This happened after the girls’ parents were duped by foreigners with immense dowry and rushed to marry their daughters. The “easily arranged fraudulent religious marriages” presented an opportunity for the prostitution rings to recruit and force the innocent girls into prostitution (Guy, 1991, p.8). The pimp husbands that girls were married to forced these girls to engage into prostitution for their own exploitive benefits. However, due to the pressure and abuse for their pimp husbands, girls later willingly got into the system. It was difficult to apprehend the pimp husbands as they had legal certificates to prove that they were married to the girls engaged in prostitution.

Due to naive nature and desperation of the Jewish community, they were at the greatest risk of being duped or willingly submitting into prostitution. However, other communities also got involved in prostitution in Argentina at the early 20th century. For example, French pimps were more organized in the manner they conducted the prostitution business. The information in regard to the French operation as pimps was limited, since the French community did not have much objection to prostitution and human trafficking as opposed to the “easy to dupe’ Jewish community. Another form of prostitution included male prostitution which was not talked about because the law at that time had little definition and recognition of male prostitution. Male prostitution was seen as something new in society, and the law had minimal means to deal with the vice. Most of these men involved into the male prostitution rings hid in places like salon, but often conflicted with the law, when they tried to dress like women.


Prostitution in the early 20h century indeed was a lucrative business for exploiters and offered a chance for survival for those who had no other means to survive. The business was conducted with little worry of health issue, as prostitution was more rampant in hidden places, where there was no subjection to medical checkup. Most of the forms of prostitution were subject to desperation and bondage. The prostitution rings had only two faces, the wiling and the unwilling.

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