My night in a Mexican whorehouse started innocently enough over a couple of delicious carnitas with my friend Jen at a local taquería in Pescadero, Mexico. Pescadero, population 1,500, is located 65 km north of Cabo San Lucas, situated between the Pacific to the west and the Sierra mountains to the east. It’s a small stretch of sparse desert polka-dotted with squat cement homes and a small one-road town just off the highway. To the west are farmlands (la huerta) irrigated in part by a natural aquifer that feeds lush vegetation and palm trees. Most of the “gringo homes” are on the west side, and low real estate and living costs have led to a robust community of American and Canadian expats, retirees and snowbirds.
As we ordered our lunch Jen ran into her friend Eric, who joined us at our table. Eric, a native of southern California, has lived in Pescadero for 20 years and is a wealth of local information and gossip. Somewhere in the conversation of what had changed in the four months since I’d last been here the subject of El Mirabuena, the new gentlemen’s club/whorehouse, came up. In the midst of his description I blurted “I want to go!” “Really?” he asked incredulously.
For all I’ve experienced in life, there are certain areas where I am embarrassingly naïve – for example, I can count my strip club experiences on exactly one finger. Yet the sex trade is fascinating to me with its seedy underside and feminist controversy. I convinced him I was serious, and Jen is always up for anything. By late afternoon our group had grown to include Jen’s husband Greg and another couple. Safety in numbers, I thought. Unfortunately both of the ladies overdid the margaritas at the beach and were fast asleep when Eric came to pick us up, so our group looked a little different than planned. Three gringos and a redhead walk into a Mexican whorehouse…it sounds like the start of a joke, but that’s my life.
“Errr-EEEK,” the girls shriek as we enter the still-empty club. Clearly they know and love him. When a golden-haired surfer boy turns fifty, everything gets a little less chiseled and a lot more grizzled, but Eric is kind, gentle and not afraid to turn on his boyish charm. By the end of the night I realize he is more than just a novelty for them, he is also somewhat of a safe haven in a sea of sharks. I am grateful for his warm relationship with the girls, which makes it easier for me to talk with them.
Concrete walls and ceilings painted bright red support a dance pole backed by mirrors. Blue, red and white lights flash against the interior walls and throw long shadows on the outdoor patio that opens to the stars. White plastic Corona chairs and tables are the only decoration. This is a far cry from the posh clubs of Cabo, and I make an instant (and accurate) guess that ours will be the only white faces seen here tonight. Absent of guests, the club seems more like a high school gym before kids arrive at the dance. To kill time until the crowd arrives we play pool to the three-quarter time oom-pa-pa of mariachi jukebox music punctuated by a strange Paul Anka version of Eye of the Tiger. Not for the first time in my life I look around and wonder, “How did this get to be my life?”
Around 11:30 the crowd picks up and the first dancer takes the stage to Livin’ on a Prayer. I’m not sure I will ever hear that song the same way again. One of my three chaperones takes this as his cue to head home to his wife. Greg, with a free pass from Jen to have fun and get as many lap dances as he wants, is deep in garbled Spanglish conversation with a waif of a girl. Xiomara claims to be 22, but her entire body weighs approximately the same as my left leg. Between my turns at the pool table I take the opportunity to chat up the owners and the girls, known as sexoservidoras.
Prostitution is legal in Mexico and is on the rise due to economic hardship and the influx of tourists. Laws vary by state. In Baja California Sur, prostitution in bars is regulated, and both pimping and street solicitation are illegal. The government provides weekly health checks, including HIV testing for sexoservidoras, but one government report estimates that only 5 percent of sex workers are registered with the government.
El Mirabuena serves as both a social club and brothel. Girls spend time with patrons, who buy them beers for 80 pesos (US$5). The girls are served smaller bottles than the guests to keep them sober, and they get to keep 40 pesos for each drink. They also offer lap dances in small private rooms for 200 pesos (US$13) for ten minutes, but that’s negotiable if the girl likes you. Greg negotiates a half-hour for 400 pesos (US$26). Getting laid costs 1200 pesos (US$80) plus 200 pesos to rent the room. An all-nighter will run you 2000 pesos (US$130).
The club is owned by three partners, one of whom has a long history of prostitution in the area and whose mother was known as a famous madrota, or Madame. The partners chose Pescadero because of her deep ties and even deeper client list in the region. Pescadero also marks an approximate halfway point between the two closest large cities, Cabo San Lucas 65 km to the south and La Paz, 85 km north. Another partner is an attorney in San Jose del Cabo and manages the club’s relationship with local police. In fact, the police show up around 1:00 AM to make sure all is well – and it is the same three cops I’d been playing pool with at Greg and Jen’s house several hours earlier. Let me tell you, they get a real kick out of seeing this white lady in a whorehouse. Oh, the joys of living in a small town.
I look around to find we’re still the only gringos in the place (and I’m the only non-working female). Greg has gone off for his lap dance and Eric is deep in conversation with a beauty. I spend an awkward moment staring down at a cement floor that’s speckled with strobe-light and disturbed by the occasional scurrying cockroach. I decide to go chat with one of the girls who’s not with a client. I buy her a beer out of respect for her time and attempt a conversation in the blaring music. She’s 26, she tells me, and lives with her family in La Paz. She has a seven-year-old daughter her mother cares for while she’s working. Her family is conservative, so she tells them she works as a waitress. The girls are all friends and live at the club from opening time Thursday night until closing time at midnight Sunday so they won’t have to make the 90-minute drive home every night.
I wander back toward our table and Eric introduces me to his friend. She is 23 and has two children, ages four and six. She moved to La Paz from Mexico City with her husband, but he beats her and she wants to leave him. She has taken this job because they need the income and it allows her to squirrel away money without him knowing about it so she can save up for her future. She doesn’t like sex, but without this opportunity she would be economically stuck in an abusive relationship. She feels fortunate for the opportunity and says the owners treat the sexoservidoras like family.
I look around at the crowd. Groups of short, brown laborers freshly showered for a Saturday night out with the boys cluster around individual girls. The girls range from downright beautiful to utterly homely but all ooze a businesslike sensuality and friendly charm. One man sits alone in the corner and I can’t help thinking his name is Rico and he wears a diamond – but I am also quite certain he has never seen a diamond in his life. I get up to use the bathroom and I’m greeted by an onslaught of howls and whistles. Uh-oh, I think. This could get uncomfortable.
Another dancer takes the stage, this one much older than the others. In her 5-inch platform shoes she dances to a raunchy upbeat Mexican tune. Part of me feels sorry for the exploitation of women but another part of me screams, you go girl. These women are empowered to use the assets at their disposal to better their lives. It’s easy to sit in our ivory towers of urban wealth and judge their choices, but it’s another to hear their stories and learn to empathize with them – especially since they tell me there’s very little actual sex involved because the vast majority of their patrons simply can’t afford it. The club serves as an important outlet for the men’s need to get away for a night from family and responsibility, and the location cuts down on drunk driving deaths on the unlit highway between Pescadero and Cabo or La Paz. To the women the club is a lifeline to a better future.
Around 3:00 AM Jen revives herself and joins us at the club, dressed to kill and with a gleam in her eye that tells me she hit the tequila bottle at home while she was getting ready. Poor Xiaomara nearly has a heart attack at her arrival, but we all assure her that that Jen truly is happy to see a whore sitting on her drunk husband’s lap. “Nunca en mi vida!” Xiomara says to me, shocked. “Never in my life has a wife shown up and there’s not a huge fight,” is what she is saying. Jen, with her slinky dress, platinum blonde hair and buxom bosom, (did I mention she is also wearing a dog collar?) is attracting the eye of every man in the place as she wanders around like a kid in a candy store, but the working girls keep an eye on her and mitigate any danger. Security staff roaming the place lend an air of discipline, but the crowd is thickening and there’s a new alcohol-tinged electricity in the air. Eric and I exchange a wordless look that says this would be a really good time to leave, before we caught up in a situation out of our control. We had planned to leave long before things got to this point, but as with all of life, not everything goes according to plan. Somehow we manage to wrangle the car key from Greg and make our escape.
Years ago I would have been right there in the thick of things with Jen, stirring up trouble everywhere I turned, but these days I find myself happier to observe from the sidelines – unless of course I am the one instigating the trouble and controlling the circumstances. It’s now close to 4:00 AM but somehow I am still wide awake, still charged by the stories of the girls and the excitement of a new adventure. As Eric drops me off I look up and see a shooting star streak across the vast Mexican sky, and it strikes me as an exclamation point on my life.
The sex trade is a controversial subject for many people, touching on aspects of violence, sexual abuse and even morality. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.