Photo by Emily Wright/VICE News
Activist and sex worker Angela Villón has never had much respect for Peru's legislators. That, she says, is why she is hoping to be elected to the nation's congress in this Sunday's elections."Vote for Angela Villón," runs her slogan, "A decent whore who will make the congress a respectable brothel."Dressed in patent leather high heels that catch the morning sun, Villón explained the metaphor during a morning campaigning around the Peruvian capital, Lima. "We live in a country where politicians are businessmen, and in that business they only favor themselves and their inner circle," she said. "That is why we, sex workers, say that the true brothel is congress: a place where hope, truth, promises, and principles are sold to the highest bidder."
According to an Ipsos Apoyo poll in September 2015, 84 percent of Peruvians don't trust the country's parliament."Some people will vote for me because they truly believe in my policies," Villón claimed while getting ready in her house in the poor barrio of San Juan de Lurigancho, which she shares with her husband and four children. "Others will vote for me as a protest against the status quo."The legislative elections are being held at the same time as the first round presidential poll that is expected to be won by Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori.
Although the spotlight has inevitably focused on the presidential race, Villón is one of the 2,600 congressional candidates who has received most attention from the national media. She is the first sex worker to ever seek one of the 130 seats in the single-chamber national congress."Even if we don't win, we've opened up the debate," she said. "There has never before been a representative of a vulnerable population like mine in congress. And let's not forget, we are a big minority"Jonathan Castro, a Lima-based graphic designer, said he was attracted by her no-nonsense approach. "I would vote for her," he said. "But many people still cling to conservative ideals and probably see her candidacy as an insult to the country, a joke, or part of the political circus we currently live in."
For Paolo Sosa, a researcher at the Institute of Peruvian Studies, Villón's campaign has been "important and unprecedented" in a conservative country where the Catholic Church and growing Evangelical sects exert considerable influence over policy."Every time there is a major advance with feminist activist groups, the strength and presence of conservative groups is reaffirmed," he told VICE News "These groups have been key in blocking any advances in women's rights."Villón says she started sex work at 16. She was already working as a street vendor and cleaner but she needed extra money to buy medication for her sick son. Her transition to activism was inspired, she adds, by the strength of the women around her. "They took to heart their right to make decisions about their own bodies and be financially independent," she recalled. "In my eyes, that was truly empowering."Thirty years later Villón accepts that the fight for the rights of sex workers still has a long way to go. Prostitution is theoretically legal in Peru but soliciting is banned. Most sex work is done in legal limbo, vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.
"Some people say I can't be a politician because of the nature of my policies, because I'm a prostitute and I fight for other prostitutes' rights," she says, while getting on a bus to El Botecito, a large brothel located in Lima's port district. "Nonsense, I am also a women that has suffered the same violence and discrimination that all women experience in Peru."
Villón insists that sex work is not inherently exploitative, but often becomes so because of the lack of legal protection, allied to Peruvian society's pervasive negative attitudes towards prostitution."Sex work is synonymous to freedom," she said while changing into her workwear. A nearby sign read "Angela Villón: Sex Professional."
Inside the brothel, red fluorescent lights illuminate three floors of corridors lined with women awaiting customers. One hundred prostitutes provide sex as a service to anywhere between 200 and 300 men a night.The brothel supports Villon's political career, hanging up campaign posters and offering her discounted rates on the room she rents for 20 Peruvian soles (about $6) a night. Customers stop and congratulate her on the campaign.'Running for congress, my proposal is revolutionary. Not revolutionary in the violent sense, but revolutionary as in rupture and change," Villón said. "I want to change this conservative and sexist society, and I think now is as good a time as any."
Follow Emily Wright on Twitter: @emely_wright