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Sex Work and the City: The Social Geography of Health and Safety in Tijuana, Mexico

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Sex Work and the City: The Social Geography of Health and Safety in Tijuana, Mexico. By Yasmina Katsulis. (University of Texas Press, Austin: 2008. Pg. 196. 16 B&W Photos.) ISBN: 978-0-292-71886-9.


Reviewed by Simone Bonim - March 2, 2009

What is life like for sex workers? Why do they enter this profession, and what motivates them to stay in it? Does legalized prostitution eliminate illegal prostitution? Does legalization improve the working conditions and health of the prostitutes? What risks do both legal and illegal sex workers face? What are, if any, the differences between female and male sex workers? How is sex work commercialized, and how does this commercialization contribute to sex tourism? These, and many more timely questions are addressed in Yasmina Katsulis's insightful study, Sex Work and the City: The Social Geography of Health and Safety in Tijuana, Mexico.

As the title suggestions, the focus of this study is limited to Tijuana, Mexico, where prostitution has a quasi-legal status, and where sex tourism flourishes. The sex industry in Tijuana primarily caters to American and European men, who come to Tijuana as sex tourist, as well as male migrants from South and Central America. Katsulis examines who these sex workers are and the socioeconomic factors that led them to engage in sex work. Unlike many such studies, this one does not focus exclusively on women. Data on heterosexual and homosexual sex workers, of both genders, has been included in this study. Katsulis also examines the economic factors and governmental policies that lead many sex workers to work illegally - even when they can work legally. Perhaps most significantly, Katsulis chronicles the occupational health risks associated with the trade, as well as the risk of physical violence faced by sex workers. In this regard she examines not only sexual health issues, but also quality of life issues, mental health, substance abuse, and social stigmas. She also examines how these health and safety risks, as well as working conditions, differ between legal and illegal sex workers. Within the course of this study Katsulis also details the originals of the commercial sex trade in Tijuana, as well as cross-border issues and how US policies contributed to the development of this industry in Tijuana. She also explains in detail, the methodologies she used to gather her data during her research for this book.

The data used in this book was gathered by Katsulis during an eighteen-month anthropological field work she conducted in Tijuana in 2000-2001. As Katsulis states in the book's introduction: "In presenting my case, I provide narrative and survey data from both legal and illegal workers, a detailed analysis of the current social organization of the sex industry in Tijuana, the relationship between the sex industry and the political economy of the border region, and the occupational risks that are navigated by sex workers at each level of this stratified hierarchy." (Pg. 7). The result of this study is an informative, and eye-opening account of an often overlooked area of study of a field with significant social and economic implications. This study will prove enlightening to academics in a variety of fields including history, anthropology, women's studies, public health, and urban studies. It can also be profitably read by those with an interest in humanitarian rights, class, gender, and women's issues, as well as by policy makers, health professionals, and social activist.


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