Yasmina Katsulis

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008

Reviewed by Sharla Blank

Yasmina Katsulis’ book, Sex Work and the City: The Social Geography of Health and Safety in Tijuana, Mexico describes and analyzes sex work and sex workers in the Zona Norte district of Tijuana, Mexico. Katsulis conducted 18 months of fieldwork in 2000-2001 to document the experience of female, male, and male-to-female transgendered sex workers and to understand how their location in the sex work hierarchy affects their occupational health and safety. The book focuses on workplace violence, mental health concerns, drug use and addiction, and the social stigma and human rights abuses faced by legal and illegal sex workers.  Katsulis describes her book as a call to policy makers to understand the context of risk for sex workers. At end of the work, she calls for community-based health programs to provide comprehensive services for sex workers including social support and legal assistance as well as for the expansion of economic and social mobility opportunities for women.


Katsulis’ methods include informal and semi-structured interviews conducted in both English and Spanish, participant observation, surveys, and speaking with customers, researchers, policymakers, and the workers. Her data consist of personal narratives, numerical data, interview material, tables, and numerous photographs.  Her varied research strategies allow for a deep understanding of the lives of sex workers in Tijuana. The use of such a variety of methods provides richness to the material.


One key attribute of the book is its holistic focus. Katsulis goes beyond simply looking at the physical health complaints, specifically concerns about sexually transmitted infections, discussed by many sex workers.  Instead, she describes and categorizes symptoms of mental health problems faced by workers including depression, drug use and abuse, as well as concerns about sexual violence.  In providing this nuanced picture, she systematically divides up which workers grapple most with which issues according to their status as legal or illegal workers and according to their gender.


The author makes a number of interesting comparisons across the female, male, and transgender sex workers in areas such as their different motivations for entering the field, the various types of stressors and stigma they face in their work, and the different types of establishments workers frequent depending on their class and status. This layered perspective adds a resonance to the material.  Katsulis also does a fine job of providing a thick and detailed description of the Zona Norte where the study is focused and includes helpful maps for the reader. Overall, she illustrates the context very well.


Furthermore, the title of the book is catchy as it plays off of the popular television show “Sex and the City.” She does an integrated, holistic comparison of male, female, and transgender sex workers taking the research beyond other anthropological studies, which focus solely on female prostitutes. The text could easily be used in a variety of university courses including public health, human sexuality, sociology, anthropology, and gender studies. The conciseness of the book and the straightforward writing will appeal to early-stage university students. The writing is not bogged down with heavy, obtuse theory; instead, it is easy to read and understand.


I would now like to turn to some drawbacks of the book.  Perhaps due to the author’s holistic approach, the book has a great amount of breadth, but has a tendency to lack depth.  Katsulis covers a lot of topics briefly, rather than particular topics deeply.  She does not clearly articulate her argument throughout the book, so even though ethnographically the material is strong, the details of each chapter overshadow her larger argument. The work would benefit from a stronger theoretical perspective.  Another area for improvement would be greater analysis of the quotes.  Katsulis often includes a great number of quotes in a row – sometimes up to seven – and offers very little examination of them, thereby leaving too much interpretation of their meaning up to the reader.


Sections of the book are disorganized and sometimes repetitive. In chapters five and six, she repeatedly mentions that further studies need to be done on a great number of points she touches upon including the role of support staff in networks of sex workers, investigating alcohol and drug use among illegal sex workers, and so on, which tends to make the work feel rather unfinished.  The author takes her time getting to the main topic at hand – the lives of the sex workers – instead spending an excessive amount of space introducing the reader to Tijuana.  At times she switches formats and has long bullet point lists within the text, which gets distracting. Finally, the chapters often end abruptly and could benefit from a bridging paragraph between chapters to guide the reader from one into the next.


Overall, this book provides a multi-layered perspective on the lives of female, male and transgender legal and illegal sex workers in Tijuana, Mexico. It is accessible to first year university students and provides a multitude of data including pictures, interview material, and numerical tables to paint a multifaceted portrait of the lives of these workers.  Katsulis has added to the literature on sex work by shining a light on the different stressors that female, male, and transgender workers face as well as expanding the focus beyond simply some of the physical risks faced by these workers to the mental health occupational risks many also have to contend with.


Sharla Blank is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Washburn University specializing in Caribbean Studies, gender, and single mothers.


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