Politics, like sex work, makes for strange bedfellows. And Angela Villon has had more than her fair share.
The 51-year-old mother of four has worked for more than three decades as a sex worker in Peru. But now she’s looking to make a slight career change to politics—as the campaign poster hanging above her brothel bed indicates.
Villon is running for congress, and hopes to be the first (official) sex worker elected to the legislature in the South American country. She's not hiding her background on the campaign trail, and says her previous work experience more than qualifies her for a job as a lawmaker.
“We sex workers say that Congress is the country’s biggest brothel,” Villon told me in a phone interview from Lima.
Villon is unabashedly open about her sex work experience, and pledges to use her position in congress to combat sex trafficking and violence against women—something she says Peru's political elite has failed to do.
Other Peruvians seem to agree that their political leaders are lying down on the job. Opinion polls show consistently rank Peru's congress as one of the most discredited institutions in the country.
Villon says if elected next April, she’ll work to expand the rights for sex workers in a country where there are an estimated 250,000 women who work in the skin trade, according to a 2012 health ministry report.
“We are not recognized as real workers,” Villon said. “We don’t have any benefits; it’s difficult for us to get loans. That needs to change. We are, at the end of the day, workers too.”
Across Latin America, sex workers largely operate in the shadows of the economy. Uruguay, widely considered South America’s most progressive nation, is the only country in the region with legalized and regulated prostitution, granting social security and retirement benefits to sex workers. In all the other countries, the sex trade falls in a gray area somewhere between legal and illegal.
Villon has long been an activist pushing for increased rights for sexual workers. In 2004, she formed a sex workers advocacy group called Miluska, vida y dignidad, named after a colleague who was killed by a client.
She says her life experience will help her raise awareness in the halls of political power about issues like HIV and homosexual rights.
“I want to work with other groups that have constantly felt excluded from the political system in our country, which is very conservative and machista,” she said. “I may not have political experience, but I have street experience. And that’s where you learn a lot about life.”
Villon is running on the ticket of a leftist coalition known as Frente Amplio. She’s competing with more than 2,500 other candidates for one of 130 congressional seats.
She’s not the first worker to seek political office in Latin America, but she hopes to be the first to win. Brazilian sex worker activist Gabriella Leite ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010.
“I feel prepared to be in congress,” she says. “Now I need people to open their minds.”